If you've been visiting here lately, you may remember that I had started reading Dostoevsky's The Idiot on my ipod. After what seems like weeks I have finally finished it, and what a remarkable book it turned out to be.The "idiot" of the title is Prince Myshkin. Severely epileptic as a child, he has been raised, and more or less cured, in Switzerland, by a wise and humane doctor. The severity of his illness was such that he missed out on most of his early education, though he has made up some of the lack by a great deal of reading. This perhaps accounts for the unusual way in which he views the world. For Myshkin is that strange and exceptional character, a truly good man. To those who meet him for the first time he appears childlike, almost simple-minded, but in fact he is intelligent, thoughtful, honest, loving, and constantly engaged in a struggle to do the right thing in a corrupt and materialistic world. When the novel begins he is just returning to Russia, curious to see again the country of his birth. Although he is initially scorned by many of the people he meets, this soon changes when he is discovered to be the heir to a sizeable inheritance, though of course he becomes a prey to fortune hunters. However those who take the trouble to get to know him quickly come to love him, though some find his naivety sometimes embarrassing or irritating. His final downfall -- because ultimately this book is a tragedy -- is the love of two women. Nastasia Filipovna, who he encounters early in the novel, is a fallen woman. A great beauty, pursued by many men, she develops a powerful attraction towards Myshkin and some kind of short-lived relationship evidently takes place between them, though Myshkin describes his love for her as arising from pity. Later he meets a young girl, Aglaya, and falls in love with her. But Aglaya, though evidently reciprocating his feelings, is awkward, skittish, moody, and constantly testing Myshkin in ways that he, in his innocence, is unable to understand. You will have to read the novel if you want to know how things finally work out, but I can tell you that it is all very sad.
The novel is full of the most wonderful characters, and is a fascinating picture of Russia in the late nineteenth century. But above all it is a deeply serious and thought-provoking examination of the nature of goodness, and the apparent impossibility of sustaining it in a world which misunderstands and often despises it. Wonderful.
Some years ago I read, and very much enjoyed, Julian Rathbone's The Last English King. I had no idea he had branched into crime fiction but here is his first go at the genre, which I picked up last week after someone had left it in my French house. Clever stuff, and very enjoyable. The hero/narrator is Chris Shovelin, an English private eye. Described in the blurb as "reformed alcoholic, ageing hippy, victim of a dysfunctional marriage", Chris, as the novel begins, has flown to San Diego in response to an appeal from his old friend Jefferson, also a private detective, who seems to need help on a case. But when Chris arrives at the apartment, he finds Jefferson dead, a bullet hole in his temple. Shortly afterwards he is contacted by Jefferson's erstwhile employer, the glamorous and wealthy China Heart, who wants his help in finding her missing brother Jerry Lennox, and is prepared to pay handsomely. Soon Chris is racing between San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco, with a short and educational trip to Tijuana thrown in for good measure. A gorgeous girl flings herself at him -- a plane explodes in mid-air -- various people try hard to murder him -- terrifying plots involving illegal weapons are uncovered -- and all Chris's deductive powers are strained to the very limit. Nobody is what they seem, and no one tells the truth. All the ingredients for a really exciting thriller, in other words. Julian Rathbone has brilliantly adopted the style of a hard-boiled American noir detective fiction, though he plays it with a nice touch of tongue in cheek. The title says it all, I suppose -- Homage is both the name of the ranch where some of the main protagonists hang out and an acknowlegment of Rathbone's practice in writing in this way. Chris is an appealing character -- over 50, off the booze, he swings wildly between genuine excitement at being in California for the first time, the misery of jet lag, the incredible elation of being seduced by a beautiful twenty-year-old, and sheer terror of all that the case throws at him. But ticking away underneath is a sharp deductive mind that stands him in good stead in the end. Great stuff.
“Don’t take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you’ve read that
will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more
than 15 minutes.”
OK. Here goes.
Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden Enid Blyon, The Castle of Adventure E Nesbit, The House of Arden Noel Streatfeild, White Boots Charles Dickens, Bleak House Samuel Richardson, Clarissa Emile Zola, Nana Willa Cather, My Antonia Michael Innes, The Journeying Boy John Buchan, The Thirty Nine Steps Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials (cheating really as this is three books) Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South Daphne Du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel Kate Atkinson, When Will There Be Good News Sarah Waters, The Night Watch
An interesting exercise -- as Simon Savidge says, you don't necessarily come up with your "best books of all time". Try it and see what happens.
...is owing to the fact that I have been out of the country (in France) and then in London and then in Oxford. I am selling my house in Lancashire and moving to Oxford, hopefully in August. Why? Because I feel like a change, and Oxford is where I lived for about 10 years before I came up here nearly 20 years ago. I have been, and still am, ridiculously busy and have hardly had time to read, which is most unusual for me. I'm still slowly making my way through The Idiot on my ipod -- a fascinating book but a rather strange one. When I've finally got to the end of that I am going to download The Brothers Karamazov as I will certainly need more Dostoevsky and more of 19th century Russia. Meanwhile I did finish A Death In Tuscany, a novel by an Italian policeman about an Italian policeman. It describes itself on the cover as 'The International Bestseller' but whether that is true or not I cannot say. I had never heard of it but picked it up as part of a '3 for a fiver' deal. It was OK, a bit Wallander-ish but not nearly as good -- it passed the time, anyway. I'm now reading a rather better novel, Julian Rathbone's Homage. I will not say anything about that until I have finished it, which might be quite soon if I can manage to stay awake at night long enough to read more than a few pages.