‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ – ‘Uncivil Genius’

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‘War is wonderful, until someone is killed.’ Such is the beauty- harrowing, hilarious- of Louis de Bernières’ ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’. This epigram is typical of the writer’s uncivil genius. Another stroke of it: ‘Honour and common sense; in the light of the other, both of them are ridiculous. 

The novel follows happenings on the Greek island of Cephallonia, during World War II. As Pelagia says of her eccentric father, Dr Iannis, Bernières ‘made my feet grow into the earth by telling me its stories’.This idyll and its citizens are devastated by invasion and we are taken through every stage with sympathy and delicious skill. Bernières juggles comedy and tragedy artfully- amidst the chirping lyrics of town life there are staccato beats and refrains warning of catastrophe that reaches an agonising crescendo. Through him, time travel is possible- he leads the reader behind the ‘moss and honeysuckle’ to a paradise of the past, turning the world into an amphitheatre, regaling a happiness now on par with myth.

Myth, allegorically, is the starting point: an Elysium the setting- which is raped and ruined- and villagers strong as Hercules; likened to Apollo; evocative of Persephone. The weather, too, is made magic: ‘We were enveloped in snow, and an accursed Arctic wind sprang up from the north that flung itself upon us like the bunched fist of a Titan.’ All this seems part of Bernières’ effort to keep the Giants of the past alive, thus spotlighting the existing Earthly Gods: Churchill, Hitler, Mussolini etc. What Bernières seems to be asking is, what is wrong with fantasy? Or even, is there such a thing? He fluctuates from romanticism to reality throughout. When Socrates, sufferer of neurasthenia, is healed by a Saint’s Day parade he ‘performed the most athletic and spectacular tsalimia that any of them had ever seen’– do you readers disbelieve, he asks? Yet you can conceive a war of pandemonic proportions?

Bernières augments the poignancy of it by zeroing in on individual’s tragedies. As a storyteller, he shows himself to be a master of the polyphonic. In the first eight pages we have sympathy and can laugh with Dr Iannis. The second chapter, purely using the speech of one man to illustrate a scene, is so starkly different from the former narrator but recognisably Bernières in the deft use of vocabulary. It is the defiling of a fisherman, Madras, who swims with befriended dolphins, ‘A man who jumbled marriage together with whitebait and war […], with dolphins‘ that in some ways eclipses, defines, epitomises, if even for a moment, all the horrors of war. Such specifics make WWII- an intangible fantasy to many- raw and real. Metaxas, a ‘poodle amongst wolves‘; ‘A formidable widow who sometimes dreamed in Turkish but had forgotten how to speak it.‘- the cast is as formidable and intricate as Isabel Allende’s in ‘House of Spirits’. 

Almost sacrilegiously (for a war novel), the story is jubilantly weaved with long syntax buoyed by effervescent vocabulary. This creates a highly comical voice rich with hyperbole and bathos. Visconti Prasca is, for example, ‘A meteor who turned out to be an incandescent fart’. Bernières sophisticates simplicity, as is seen in the passages below:

“You have an exorbitant auditory impediment,” replied the doctor, ever conscious of the necessity for maintaining a certain iatric mystique, and fully aware that ‘a pea in the ear’ was unlikely to earn him any kudos. ‘I can remove it with a fishhook and a small hammer; it’s the ideal way of overcoming un embarrass de petit pois.’ He spoke the French words in a mincingly Parisian accent, even though the irony was apparent only to himself.’

‘He took the old man over to the window, threw open the shutters, and an explosion of midday heat and light instantaneously threw the room into an effulgent dazzle, as though some importunate and unduly luminous angel had misguidedly picked that place for an epiphany.’

‘It had been a good day for payments; he had also earned two very large and fine crayfish, a pot of whitebait, a basil plant, and an offer of sexual intercourse (to be redeemed at his convenience).

The prose is generally poetry:

It exposes colours in their original prelapsarian state, as though straight from the imagination of God in His youngest days, when He still believed that all was good.’

‘[…] the Morse code of virgin light glancing after the perpetual motion of the waters, conspired together and unknotted the dry bones in his heart.

Its pupil began to transfix her like an awl.‘, not- one can note- ‘she was hooked’.

Bernières mocks the human race for its arrogance whilst simultaneously lionising them, making clowns of the ringmasters and star acts of commoners. Personification and anthropomorphism are prevalent techniques for this, in themselves symbolic of humans’ attempted domination of all, and the animation of the inanimate provides tension in the surprise of what will affect the story next. There is mastery in characterising a mine as ‘forlorn-looking’.; ‘With a metallic crash the gun leapt backwards, its base hopping on its bed like an excited dog jumping for a tidbit.‘; ‘martens […] gathered together in groups […] waiting like opera-lovers before the overture begins.‘ This raconteur knows the imagination and entertains it as a gifted host.

What is further evinced by the above is Bernières’ exciting ear for language. ‘Insufficiency of fish in the ocean‘- this gorgeous rush of sounds echoes the ocean itself. A character ‘spoke as if it had a pebble in its throat and a bee up its nose’, ‘talks Greek like a Spanish cow.‘ The title of the book proves prudent as this theme of sound, of musicality, is cardinal. Corelli is a name that sounds like the sweet strum of a mandolin, and the man is one with ‘nightingales in his fingers.‘ His love story with Pelagia- a resplendently intelligent and liberated woman- is lovely but was not the focal thread for me, so wrapped was I in the whole tapestry. Bells are struck by bullets and ‘she listened to the ominous silence of the morning, and realised that it was more consoling to listen to the barrages and thunderbolts of war.‘ Such attention to the aural is perfect given the traditional nature of the setting and the inhabitants affection for the inherited past, as when stories were oral events.

It is a book that is as enlightening as it is reproachful, contemptuous and sensuous, centering on the heartbreaking truth of the fallibility of humanity. I loved this book for what it taught me and finish this laud with a final quote:

I have always tried to show you the affection that I have felt, without taking anything from you and without giving you anything that you did not want.

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‘North And South’ – ‘Fears and Fancies’

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With such a succinct title, one might fairly deduce this to be a tale of opposites attract. However, it would be unfair to judge it as simple, predictable or trite. Do not underestimate the complexity of polarity here present. Atop a broiling of social strife, politics and poverty is a love story that is heart-warming and heart-wrenching.

The story follows Margaret Hale, an innocent who basked in Southern comfort in her youth. She is treated to a tempering of morality by rougher Northern ways when she is uprooted from her home by her father and his faltering faith. Once in the North-  a land crowned with a capitalist conscience (there’s an oxy-moron if ever there was one)- Margaret encounters a variety of Hogarthian creatures. Amongst them she finds a few friends and an alien prince. 

Sound familiar? It is- with a punch of industrial politics- that tale as old as time: Beauty and the Beast. It was the romance that kept me turning the pages, a relationship forever fraught with injured pride. A Workers’ Union strike during The Industrial Revolution, the family drama and trauma- all powerful plot-points. But it was the love story that I most cherished upon completion of the novel. It is hard-won, fragile, full of nuance, articulated without overpowering.

He knew it was the first time their hands had met, though she was perfectly unconscious of the fact.

It is certainly not love at first sight for Margaret, but for Thornton, it is all-consuming.

He saw her in every dress, in every mood, and did not know which became her best.

And it is frustrating- He said to himself, that he hated Margaret, but a wild, sharp sensation of love cleft his dull, thunderous feeling like lightning, even as he shaped the words expressive of hatred. Gaskell effectively takes pathetic fallacy to another level by casting weather within a character to show the turmoil.

There is humour in their dance too, as they both resist the attraction. Margaret discloses her ignorance: He is my first olive: let me make a face while I swallow it. Thornton’s offended ego elicits some highly comical obstinacy. He is so easily lashed into jealousy, so self-deprecating, it’s sorely endearing.

Many will be reminded of Pride & Prejudice. There is a strikingly similar proposal scene. Still, Margaret and John are a unique pairing despite adherence to romantic trope (i.e. an ahead-of-her-time miss and a misunderstood knight). All the relationships in the novel question whether love is a heavenly steadfastness in earthly monotony, whether it is a luxury or prerequisite no matter situation.

The title might have particular resonance currently with the HS2 railway developments, potentially bridging the gap between the North and South of England (almost two separate nations in their own right). Within the novel the countering cultures are excellently evinced. In the North, the ‘violent and desperate crowd’ of protesting proletariats is not shown with pity but with admirable pith. It is Southern society that is more often mocked, those who are ‘killed with my finery’. Our heroine Margaret frequently withers in silence with the folly of the society she has been cultivated in; of the parody of pomp.

What will strike you straight away is Gaskell’s predominantly prosaic style, which took some getting used to. But the carry-on sentences do suit the advent of Stream of Consciousness. Gaskell does prove to be a fantastic pacer with this. She animates a scene, either breathing ease into it or flicking on tension, by varying syntax to excellent effect. Eventually.

Along the way is some truly poetic work:

‘[…] who envied the power of the wild bird, that can feed her young with her very heart’s blood.

Nature felt no change, and was ever young.

‘[…] the gathering shades of night, which harmonised well with her pensive thought.

‘ […] all the thoughts and fancies and fears that had been frost-bound in his brain till now.

Gaskell’s craft with language is very impressive. She rounds her characters by developing a distinct speech for each one. The innocuous letters from Margaret’s snobbish cousin, Edith, are an example. Or, look to the accents Gaskell creates, which are sometimes off-putting and hard to interpret, as if the speaker is chewing a towel. Undeniably, however, they colour the characters for the reader’s imagination.

I’m not one who think truth can be shaped out in words, all neat and clean, as th’ men at th’ foundry cut out sheet-iron.

The distinct idiolects work to distinguish not only characters but readers also. It is a clever trick of Gaskell’s to illuminate what we find foreign and why; our biases and discriminations. Outlooks on status, for example, differ now from the 19th century, which may induce some winces.

The narrative is led by Margaret Hale in the third person, whose fabulously independent spirit- ‘no one can please me but myself’- is at odds with her naivety- ‘I don’t analyse my feelings’. Margaret is at once a strong-minded and narrow-minded woman.

If I saved one blow, one cruel, angry action that might otherwise have been committed, I did a woman’s work.

The novel as a whole is very seasonal in organisation. Once a climax calms, quite a spring-like air arrives, after a mean winter of death, deception and despair. All the while an acutely-tuned tension in the shape of Mr Thornton endures.

Mr Thornton’s character was the most fascinating for me, so rich with inner-conflict and opposing personas. A pragmatic, unsentimental master on one page, a devoted mummy’s boy the next.

‘Well, John?’
He knew what that little speech meant. But he had steeled himself
. He longed to reply with a jest; the bitterness of his heart could have uttered one, but his mother deserved better of him. He came round behind her, so that she could not see his looks, and, bending back her gray, stony face, he kissed it, murmuring:
‘No one loves me, – no one cares for me, but you, mother.’

His relationship with his mother is as fine and intricate as lace. Mrs Thornton is a most impressive character, of such zeal.

‘Don’t you find such close neighbourhood to the mill rather unpleasant at times?’
She drew herself up:
‘Never. I am not become so fine as to desire to forget the source of my son’s wealth and power […] I have heard noise that was called music far more deafening.’

There is an entertaining theme of gentlemanliness weaved throughout, common in love literature of this era. The various dialogues of a man’s worth in Emma by Jane Austen provide a good compare. I’ll leave you a taster of this theme in lieu of a conclusion.

A man is to me a higher and a completer being than a gentleman.

What do you mean? We must understand the words differently.

I take it that ‘gentleman’ is a term that only describes a person in his relation to others; but when we speak of him as ‘a man,’ we consider him not merely with regard to his fellow-men, but in relation to himself,–to life–to time–to eternity. […] I am rather weary of this word “gentlemanly,” which seems to me to be often inappropriately used, and often, too, with such exaggerated distortion of meaning, while the full simplicity of the noun ‘man’ and the adjective ‘manly’ are unacknowledged–that I am induced to class it with the cant of the day.

 

 

‘The Hunchback of Notre-Dame’ by Victor Hugo – A Cathedral of the Imagination

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The prospect of reviewing this novel is intimidating. J’adore The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, the romance of deeds epic and Love in legion.

Why? Trying to form an answer to that results in the slow, sentimental surrender of a headshake that translates as: it cannot be explained. Where does one start on such an opus, from which precipice, from what garret? At its core is the observation of a most dysfunctional love square. This core is then wrapped and ribboned in prose unparalleled- with such purpose (and wholly purposeful prose is precious).

An historical novel by nature, it has been nurtured into a tradition, a classic, because of the universalisms Hugo handles so adroitly, as with Les Misérables: love, lust, hate; gender, class, change. Hugo has a sympathy similar to Shakespeare’s in his treatment: all of society is at the mercy of his quill. Mothers, brothers, lovers, the rich, the poor, the alone- all. Interestingly, there is no actual father present in the cast, which is perhaps a nod to the calamity of authority in France in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Published in 1831, the novel at one point discusses- through character Archdeacon Claude Frollo- the change in society brought by the printing press (‘the printing press will destroy the Church’; ‘the book will kill the edifice’; ‘one art would dethrone another art’; ‘printing will destroy architecture’). The discourse essentially states that such a liberal proliferation of ideas will inevitably make a ruin of those quite literally set in stone.

Hugo was part of a radical new era that sought to defeat doctrine and convention and liberate the abstract and the individual- The Democratic Idea. With this motive, he erected a landmark, not of bricks- of words. He created a Cathedral. The novel is a spectacle not of any earthly skyline but of the imagination.

Victor Hugo

The story is run by the characters, a key arc that of Quasimodo, the eponymous hunchback, turning from abductor to saviour. Some may be reminded of Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera in the set-up of the story. There is similarity in that  both protagonists love women but are inhibited by their ugliness (the first on this vine of literature is, of course, Beauty and the Beast). The difference is that whilst Erik evolves into something truly evil, Quasimodo is truly endearing.

Quasimodo is not as prominent a figure as the title suggests, though. But, his role is integral to the message of the story as a whole. He is a symbol of the deformity present in us all; the beautiful beast, crudely perceived as inhumane for the supposed vice of appearance, who is yet the most humane in his virtues, his valour.

His foil is Phoebus who represents the illusion of beauty, introduced as ‘handsome’ and actually an almighty cad.

Then there is Frollo- foreboding letch; suffering, loving brother to capital brat, Jehan; surrogate father to Quasimodo; the intellectual, one who abstains from earthly beauty until it inevitably ensnares him. He carries the majority of the plot.

Third in command of the plot (after Hugo and Frollo) is goat-loving writer, Gringoire, who is… ineffable- ‘“I am a Parisian by my birthplace, and a Parrhisian by my speech, for parrhisia in Greek means freedom of speech”.’

In the centre of this male maelstrom dances Esmeralda: ‘a salamander – a nymph – a goddess – a bacchante of Mount Maenalus!’ She is the purity of beauty, naïve and virtuous. Despite the misogynistic handling of her- by characters and writer alike- Hugo does give her depth. She shows kindness in the story, yet also has exceedingly shallow moments that are to Hugo’s credit in terms of character development.

Quasimodo is the realisation of all such contrasts as both child and representative of the hybrid cathedral- ‘his egg, his nest, his house, his country, his universe’, which is itself a victim of ‘time’ and ‘revolution’, ‘residue of successive evaporations of human society’; ‘Each face, each stone […] is […] a page of the history of the country’.

Throughout, this is Hugo’s habit and mission: to describe transformation, Light vs. Dark- old and young, beautiful and ugly, licit and illicit- without deifying or demonising either. Thus, The Whole may be understood. In pairing every black and white Hugo shows that the spectrum is never so narrow. Perfection be damned.

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There is such colour. The city’s silhouette, seen from Notre-Dame’s balustrades, is ‘more jagged than a shark’s jaw against the copper-coloured sky of the setting sun.’ ‘The sun, which Dubartes, that classic ancestor of periphrasis, had not yet styled “the grand-duke of candles,” shone forth brightly and cheerily’. You are escorted through every extreme- the pit is the deepest pit, in a prison cell, and the highest pitch is swinging with Quasimodo and his beloved bells.

The true main character is Quasimodo’s ‘maternal edifice’ herself: Notre-Dame. ‘The cathedral was not only his society; it was his universe. It was all of nature to him. He dreamed of no other garden but the stained-glass window ever in flower; of no other shade but that cast by the stone foliage full of birds that spread itself from the leafy capitals […] no other mountains but the colossal towers […] no ocean but Paris, which roared against their base.’

She is a majestic monument of a metaphor for respecting the timelessly wondrous.

The immense church seemed, with her two towers, her flanks of stone and her monstrous haunches darkly silhouetted against a starry sky, an enormous, two-headed sphynx seated in the midst of the city’.

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On the face of this old queen of French cathedrals, beside each wrinkle you always find a scar. Tempus edox, homo edacior(*), which I would translate: Time is blind, but man is stupid.

The novel testifies to Hugo’s genius, an eloquent scholar and affectionate artist with a mordant humour. It’s quite a Dickensian humour at that (look to the deaf judge, for one example) and there is a sprawling of Dickensian twists and turns too. Combined, this makes for a vivifying voice that guides the reader through a romance chiefly between the author and Paris.

Admittedly, Hugo does have a habit of sermonising at length on every aspect, his research being immense and his enthusiasm ever evident. I would urge any reader to endure- it makes for a marvellous experience at the close as the climax erupts and we are thrown through Paris as a monster rate. Such elaboration animates the story, though may feel a tad like a lecture in parts. Submit. He is wise-‘Every civilisation begins as a theocracy and ends as a democracy’; he is poetic- ‘For love is like a tree; it grows of itself; it send its roots deep into our being, and often continues to grow green over a heart in ruins’. You’ll be enlightened (apropos of the time it was written in).

You laugh and cry with the characters for they are not created purely for the purposes of narrative, are not puppets for plot. The kernel of the novel’s power is Hugo’s treatment of nature as a multifaceted phenomenon. Language and character conflate to show this.

No match can burn this book, it is built in the immortal architecture of literature and will survive through memory and thrive through record (perhaps even this modest review will do).

As I’ve reached the end of this exultation, here’s a taster from near the ending of the novel, which shows Hugo as a sterling master of imagery:

‘[…] the hideous mob, jumping about like a mass of frogs, half seen in the darkness, the croaking of this hoarse crowd, the few red torches running around and criss-crossing each other in the darkness like so many meteors that streak over the misty surface of a marsh-all this scene seemed to her like a mysterious battle being waged between the phantoms of a witches’ sabbath and the stone monsters of Notre-Dame.’

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*Translation: Time gnaws, man gnaws more.

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‘The Thorn and The Blossom’ by Theodora Goss – For Cynic And Romantic Alike

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This is the book you want perched on your knees as you lounge in a window-seat, buried in hot-water-bottles, with the autumn sun shining through as golden as the tea steaming next to you. Dubbed ‘A Two-Sided Love Story’, The Thorn and The Blossom is a modern-day fairytale romance we’ve all been subconsciously waiting for. I am so very glad it has been unearthed from a tangled flowerbed infested with humbugs.

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It has been published by Quirk, aptly-named as it boasts a unique accordion-fold binding that realises the idea of ‘star-crossed lovers’, to whom Goss dedicates this story. The lovers’ stories run parallel, literally. Harry Potter fans, it ‘opens at the close’, for as soon as you reach the end you can begin again anew. It’s boy-meets-girl or girl-meets-boy. Your choice.

Some may be apprehensive about essentially reading the same story twice- be not afeard. Precious revelations- such as how others perceive us and we perceive ourselves- are subtly accumulated upon reading both sides of the story, which did not prove wearisome in the least.

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At its premise, it recounts the meeting of two university students, one from a fishing town in Cornwall, the other from America, which effectively serve as the ‘faraway lands’ for the protagonists. Simmering and glimmering beneath the surface of this is the Arthurian legend of the sorceress Queen Elowen and the gallant Sir Gawan, who are separated for one thousand years by a curse from a jealous giantess.

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Illustrations by Scott McKowen

Goss achieves the simplistic, sing-song style characteristic of fairytales, serving up all the salient, interesting stuff with swiftness and economy. An impression is conjured that indulges the reader with freedom and faith to emboss to their heart’s content. Goss must be highly commended for extracting her ego from the prose almost entirely, which does not make the writing plain. Adjectives are sown in delicately and pertinently. In reinventing some Grimm classics, Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials) noted that he felt a ‘refreshing change’ in bypassing ‘complicated, profound descriptions of feelings’ for ‘celerity’, which consequently liberates the reader’s imagination. This can be seen in the following extract, which glows with a sylvan charm resonant of any familiar fable. Some may note also a similarity to Nicholas Sparks’ nostalgic and sweet, The Notebook.

Fishing kept him occupied, gave him an income. When he wasn’t out in the boat, he worked on his father’s house, patching the holes he found in the roof, clearing the brush that had grown up around it. It was some ways out of town, at the edge of the forest, and he grew to like the silence. He could hear birds, squirrels. And sometimes, if he sat still long enough, a fox would come out of the forest and stare at him, its red fur vivid against the tree trunks.

The Thorn and The Blossom should not, however, be dispelled as cliché. I would wholeheartedly recommend this to cynic and romantic alike. There is no force-feeding of pathos. Thanks to Goss’ ingenuity in not haranguing the mantra of ‘meant-to-be’, the reader rules in her realm, deciding amongst other things how or even whether Queen Elowen and Sir Gawan are correlated with Brendan and Evelyn. By playing with commonly-held anxieties and ambitions, Goss invites the reader into a safe space where we can confess our true selves.

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Illustrations by Scott McKowen

Transience is marked by a structure which skips significant periods of time in a blink, a canny metaphor for life. At times, admittedly, this may dilute the impact of emotions necessary for some readers to truly immerse themselves. But this is, I feel, balanced by the reader’s ability to project their own preferences at will, to react vicariously, almost for the characters.

The story journeys through settings harking back to fairytales- Evelyn’s heart is at one point ‘beating with the forest itself’, which is a ‘great, green cathedral’. But we are markedly moved away from this to, for example, a dubiously pink-painted hospital. In this way, Goss- a consummate craftswoman- has conceived both a homage and an antithesis. Her writing evokes the question of whether life can be a fairytale. Either way, reading this was a dream.