Sunday 23 February 2014

Dune by Frank Herbert

I'm continuing my series on rediscovering great books of my childhood. After Watership Down and The Hobbit, we now have Frank Herbert's Dune. 

Herbert's writing wasn't as instantly engaging as Tolkien's or Richard Adams'. Dune is full of odd names and terminology — come to think of it, so were The Hobbit and Watership Down — yet in Herbert's case, the prose is somewhat dense and awkward, difficult to get into.

But as soon as we reach Chapter 2, which introduces the evil Baron Harkonnen and his plans to destroy our heroes, the Atreides clan, the story achieves escape velocity. Herbert does something brilliant here. He immediately tells the reader the identity of the traitor in the Atreides' midst. 

So we spend the next 160 pages in a state of agonising suspense watching the characters we care about sleepwalk towards their doom, before the betrayal is finally (and bloodily) enacted and the trap is sprung.
As soon as we arrive on the planet Arrakis (Dune to you) Frank Herbert's prose really takes flight. His descriptions of the desert world bring it to vivid life: "chasms of tortured rock, patches of yellow-brown crossed by black lines of fault shattering. It was as though someone had dropped this ground from space and left it where it smashed." And "the cliff lifting golden tan in the morning light." It's obvious that, as with Edward Abbey, here we have a writer who loves the harsh beauty of his desert landscapes.

Herbert is also adept at evoking the futuristic machinery and technology, making it seem real through the use of small, telling detail. Like the personal force fields that act as shields to protect the wearer as Paul and his trainer fence with rapiers: "The air within their shield bubbles grew stale... With each new shield contact the smell of ozone grew stronger." 

Or his depiction of the ornithopters they use to fly over the barren deserts of Arrakis. Herbert makes them seem real through small, subtle detail ("the craft creaked as the others clambered aboard") and then he deploys them in the great sequence where they have to evacuate a massive Sand Crawler vehicle because of the approach of a giant worm, bent on their destruction. The personnel pour into the Duke's squad of small ornithopters and take to the skies: "Aircraft began lifting off the sand around them. It reminded the Duke of... carrion birds lifting away from the carcass of a wild ox." 

And the wonderful portrayal of the gargantuan worms themselves, their "uncaring majesty" as they go sliding through the sand.

However, what really keeps the reader entranced is the intoxicating combination of action and suspense as Paul Atreides and his mother Jessica are plunged into peril after peril while they discover this strange new world.

Add this beautifully conjured world to an irresistible adventure story and a fascinating array of concepts and you begin to see the elements which make Dune such a classic.

I'm delighted that another beloved book of my childhood has withstood the years so well.

(Image credits: As usual, I have taken a selection of the covers from Good Reads. And, as usual, many of my favourites were either missing or inadequate images. So the cover of the copy I'm actually reading, with the big gold lettering by Howard J. Shaw and the Gerry Grace art featuring the guys riding the worms — spoiler alert! You shouldn't put stuff like that on the covers, you silly publishers — is from a mysterious Russian site. Beware pop-ups if you go to it. The lovely Illustrated Dune cover, with art by the great John Schoenherr, is from the blog of Schoenherr's son Ian. Just as Pauline Bayne was the finest illustrator for the works of Tolkien and for Richard Adams' Watership Down, Schoenherr was the perfect Dune artist. The magnificent John Schoenherr cover for the original Analog magazine serialization (entitled Dune World) is from the excellent Ski-Ffy. The handsome Gollancz 'yellow jacket' 50th anniversary hardcover image is taken from eBay.)

Sunday 16 February 2014

Watership Down by Richard Adams

Having just enjoyed re-reading The Hobbit, the next great novel to revive from my childhood is Richard Adams's Watership Down. I was partly prompted to do this by hearing an excellent radio dramatisation.

But Watership Down proved to be a felicitous choice, not just because it is an immensely pleasurable read, but because of the pronounced similarity to Tolkien.

I'd never considered this before, but it really struck me now: both Adams and Tolkien write in a cosy, very English voice — the rabbits say things like "I'm sorry, old chap." Both writers have a deep love of nature and offer intoxicating descriptions of the countryside: "June was moving towards July and high summer. Hedgerows and verges were at their rankest and thickest. The rabbits sheltered in dim-green, sun-flecked caves of grass, flowering marjoram and cow-parsley."

And, like Tolkien, Adams has created a coherent, self-contained fantasy world complete with history, folklore, mythology, a language of its own — and maps.

(And, by an odd coincidence, both writers had Pauline Baynes as their definitive illustrator. She did the beautiful book cover at the beginning of this post, just as she did with The Hobbit last week.)

Best of all, both these writers can tell a thunderingly good story which utterly immerses the reader in their created worlds. This is not least because they both understand that a great adventure story requires a great villain. Where The Hobbit had Smaug, Watership Down has General Woundwort, the iron-willed tyrant who rules the totalitarian warren Efrafa. He's a truly formidable bad guy.

But he isn't two-dimensional. Adams clearly admires Woundwort and the readers ends up, grudgingly, feeling the same. Indeed, Woundwort is tempted at one point to become a good guy: "At that moment, in the sunset on Watership Down, there was offered to General Woundwort the opportunity to show whether he was the leader of vision and genius which he believed himself to be, or whether he was no more than a tyrant with the courage and cunning of a pirate."

(Luckily for the adventure story, Woundwort plumps for the latter.)

This sort of nuanced, shaded characterisation is a feature of the book: Hazel is uncertain that he's worthy of leadership and only gradually grows into the role, while Bigwig starts off as a heavy and only gradually becomes sympathetic — indeed, heroic. He's magnificent as the final battle approaches, unafraid of Woundwort and spoiling for a fight

In fact Bigwig's line of dialogue when he confronts Woundwort has stayed in my mind ever since I read it as a kid: "Silflay hraka u embleer rah." Which roughly translates as "Eat shit you stinking boss."

The book is an addictive, engrossing read, packed with magnificent set-pieces. Notably the immensely suspenseful escape from Efrafa in a gorgeously described storm: "a long roll of thunder sounded  from the valley beyond. A few great, warm drops of rain were falling. Along the western horizon the lower clouds formed a single purple mass, against which distant trees stood out minute and sharp."

And of course there is the unforgettable final battle when Woundwort and his legions attack our heroes' burrow.

The suspense and action are brilliantly evoked, but there's much more to the book than that. Adams shows the rabbits struggling with abstract concepts, such as the boat they encounter, or the mosaic made by some very strange rabbits — only a few exceptional individuals among our heroes, like Blackberry and Fiver can grasp these things. This gives Watership Down an edge of intelligence and profound insight which most books of any kind lack. Let alone a thriller about rabbits ostensibly written for children.

This was a tremendously rewarding novel to re-read. It gave me as much pleasure as it did the first time around, decades ago.

Next on my pile of books: Richard Adams's second novel Shardik.

(Image credits: As usual, most of the covers are from the useful Good Reads, including the rather terrific art for the audio book version; I tried to identify the artist, but haven't been able to yet. But, bizarrely (yet typically) the best cover and the edition I actually re-read, the lovely Pauline Baynes original 1973 Puffin edition, is almost impossible to find on the internet. So for the main image at the beginning of this post I had to resort to a slightly tilted postcard of the cover I found for sale on eBay. And the Italian cover was sourced from the Italian site Fantasy Magazine.)

Sunday 9 February 2014

The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

Pete Jackson's recent film adaptation of The Hobbit — I'm not going to provide a link to it; it's all over the internet — which has now reached its second part, spurred me to take the novel down off my shelf and re-read it. (Actually I borrowed my young nephew's more expendable non-vintage paperback to read on buses and trains.)

I initially had some niggles about the book. Well, one niggle. Tolkien used anachronistic analogies which seemed to jar the reader (or this reader) out of the ancient fantasy world of the story. Similes including a sound "like the whistle of an engine", knowing a route "as well as you do to the nearest post office" and a "smell like gunpowder" in a pre-gunpowder world.

But then I realised this was utterly deliberate. Tolkien here is what we call an omniscient narrator. He address the reader directly, in an informal and colloquial voice — and was after all aiming at a young audience. Which also explains and forgives the cosy tea-and-crumpets-at-the-fireside tone the book often has

Now that's over, let's get to the goodies, of which there are many. There's amusing, authentic sounding dialogue (notably from the trolls), fine violent fights, rhapsodic portrayal of the countryside and wildlife —  "the patches of rabbit-cropped turf, the thyme and the sage and the marjoram, and the yellow rockroses all vanished" — and wonderful moody descriptions, like the "enormous uncanny darkness" of Mirkwood, or "furtive shadows that fled from the approach of their torches" or the moment when "it seemed as if darkness flowed out like a vapour from the hole in the mountain-side."
I also really liked this sketch of Thorin, after he's been floated down a river in a barrel and left overnight: "out crept a most unhappy dwarf... He had a famished and a savage look like a dog that has been chained and forgotten in a kennel for a week."

And Tolkien's characterisation is often marvellous, especially when he's discussing Smaug, the terrifying, gold-besotted dragon snoozing on his horde of treasure. Smaug's name may today suggest an item of furniture from Ikea, but Tolkien brings him unforgettably to life. As Bilbo approaches with trepidation the dragon's lair he hears "a rumble as of a gigantic tom-cat purring."

Smaug is genuinely fearsome, especially when he realises he's been robbed. "Up he soared blazing into into the air and settled on the mountain-top in a spout of green and scarlet flame." (And our heroes' poor old ponies don't fare too well, between Smaug and the goblins...)

I also particularly enjoyed the implicit class-war edge when Tolkien says of Smaug, "His rage passes all description — the sort of rage that is only seen when rich folk that have more than they can enjoy suddenly lose something that they have long had but have never before used or wanted."

What's more, Tolkien has a surprisingly line of wit and understatement. "Smaug had rather an overwhelming personality," he remarks at one point. And Bilbo calls him "Smaug the unassessably wealthy." And, in a priceless moment, Smaug goes flapping off towards the lake-town Esgaroth whose people are expecting the fulfilment of prophecies promising untold wealth coming back to them from the dragon's mountain. Instead what they get is an apocalyptic inferno and the fiery wrath of Smaug.

"The prophecies had gone rather wrong," remarks Tolkien.
But even better than Smaug is Thorin, leader of the dwarfs. For the entire book he has been likable enough and sympathetic — one of the good guys. But at the end he turns into an impressive bad guy and gives the plot a sudden new burst of energy.

Maddened by gold and corrupted in a manner worthy of worthy of B. Traven's characters in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Thorin refuses to share the hard-won treasure wrested from the dragon and goes to war against those who should be his allies and friends. 

In many ways it's the best part of the book and gives depth and complexity and sophistication to what was regarded as a children's novel.

(Image credits: all the book covers are from Good Reads including the one at left ('International Children's Bestseller') with the cover art by Max Meinzold, which I borrowed from my nephew. Thank you, Simon. But the main illustration is by the woman I consider the greatest of all Tolkien artists, Pauline Bayne. It was taken from the wonderful Bayne's own website. And there's an article about her Tolkien art here.)

Sunday 2 February 2014

Black Cargoes by Daniel P. Mannix

Ridley Scott's film Gladiator was conceived by screenwriter David Franzoni, and Franzoni got the idea from a book called Those About to Die by Daniel P. Mannix. He describes Mannix's book as "sort of a tawdry slash semi-serious novel about the Colosseum." 

Well, for a start it's not a novel, but a very compelling historical over-view. And "tawdry"? If he means in the sense "cheap, showy, of poor quality" then absolutely not. But arguably it is somewhat sensational. Mannix had a gift for choosing utterly compelling, and often gruesome, subjects and writing books about them which you can't put down. 

Besides the Roman games he also wrote historical accounts of torture, the Hellfire Club, Aleister Crowley... and the slave trade. Which brings us to the book at hand. Following on rather neatly from last week's post about that slavery malarkey (it's a pure coincidence, I swear guv) Black Cargoes is subtitled 'A History of the Atlantic Slave Trade.' It is co-written with Malcolm Cowley, but I'm not really doing him a disservice by discussing it as Mannix's book. In the introduction Cowley says "This is Daniel Mannix's book, based on his researches in London and East Africa. My own contribution was chiefly editorial." Cowley also wrote  three of the book's twelve chapters.

In common with many of Mannix's other works, Black Cargoes is an intelligent and informative catalogue of horrors. If you want to learn about the slave trade I doubt there's a better or more readable book on the subject (despite it being published half a century ago). 

Among the fascinating facts that I gleaned from it: the guinea coin, which was worth slightly more than the pound, got its name because it was made from exceptionally high quality gold from Guinea on the slave coast of Africa. The term "piccaninny" for a black child comes from the Spanish word "pequeño", meaning small. 

The infamous "middle passage" which referred to the hellish sea journey from Africa to the West Indies, on which so many slaves died, is so called because it was the mid-stage of a triangular trade which ran from Europe to Africa (you buy the slaves, swindling the seller as much as you can), Africa to the New World (you trade your surviving slaves for goods like sugar), and then from the New World back to Europe (you cash in and buy a big house in Liverpool). 

And, lastly, Wall Street is named after the wall which was put up to keep the slaves captive. The shrewd early American settlers soon discovered that the native American 'Indians' made lousy slaves — "either they proved intractable or they simply died." Indeed the Massachusetts Legislature complained that they were "of a malicious, surly and revengeful spirit; rude and insolent in their behaviour and very ungovernable." Good for the Indians.

The solution found by the canny Yankee traders? Sell off their ungovernable Indians in the West Indies before the word got out, and exchange them for more useful African slaves. Ah, business... Isn't it wonderful?

Daniel Mannix is rather frowned upon in serious circles because, I suspect, he writes highly readable ("enjoyable" isn't quite the right word) studies of the darker side of human nature, and explores some of the most disturbing episodes in our history. Such subject matter shouldn't be fun to read about. But Mannix comes close to making it so. Which makes for guilty readers... who can't put his books down.

Incidentally, I can't help wondering if David Franzoni wasn't also acquainted with this book by Mannix. After all, Chapter 10 of Black Cargoes contains a detailed discussion of the Amistad slave mutiny of 1839. And what was Franzoni's breakthrough script? You guessed it, Amistad for Steven Spielberg.

Perhaps we shouldn't throw words like "tawdry" around when discussing such a valuable and rewarding writer as Daniel P. Mannix.

(Image credits: Most of the covers are taken from Amazon UK, except for this one from Amazon USA. Click on the links and buy a copy.)