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Archive for December, 2014

The QuarryThe Quarry is Iain Banks’s last ever novel. He died shortly before it was published in June 2013. The book is about Kit, the narrator, a young man whose father, Guy, is dying of cancer. Banks apparently didn’t know that he, too, was dying of cancer until he’d nearly finished the first draft.

“If I’d known it was going to be my last book, I’d have been quite disappointed that I’m going out with a relatively minor piece.”

And yet how apposite a final book The Quarry is, despite it being neither really finished nor one of his best.

Kit and Guy live in an old house that is pretty much literally falling apart – like Guy’s body – and which is located very near the edge of a quarry, whose expansion is due to cause the demolition of the house – like Guy’s cancer. A bunch of Guy’s university friends – apparently the only friends Guy ever made – come to the house for a long weekend, to have a kind of living wake for Guy and to look for a certain tape.

The tape is a video tape – the friends were all film students and they made their own amateur productions – that none of them want to see the light of day. The plot – inasmuch as the book has a plot – concerns the search for this, as well as the slow revelation of old tensions and jealousies.

Guy is an embittered, prematurely aged, grumpy old man. He affects an attitude of despite towards everything. The unfairness, pain and grottiness of a slow death by cancer is never far from the page. One of the most moving parts of the book is towards the beginning when Kit is helping his father wipe himself in the bathroom.

‘Is there blood?’

‘There is a little blood.’

‘Well, what does that mean? What does “a little” mean?’

‘It means there is a little blood.’

‘Don’t be fucking smart, Kit; just tell me how much blood there is. And what colour? Red? Brown? Black?’

‘Are you sure you can’t turn around and take a look?’

‘Not without going out into the fucking hall, waddling, with my trousers round my ankles and my cock hanging out, so, no.’

‘If I had a smartphone I could take a photo and show you.’

‘I’m not buying you a fucking smarthpone. Will you shut up about the fucking smartphone? You don’t need one. And you’ll just post the photos on Facebook. Or find a way to sell them in your stupid game.’

‘Course I wouldn’t,’ I tell him. ‘Though you could have Faecesbook, I suppose,’ I add. Well, you have to try to lighten the mood.

‘Oh, Christ.’

‘There’s only a smear,’ I tell him. ‘And it’s red.’

‘Good, fine. Look, just, just, you know, wipe me off and … Christ, this is … Just, would you? Okay?’

This doesn’t happen all the time but, sometimes, I have to wipe my dad clean after he’s moved his bowels. He can’t stretch round or underneath any more to do it himself; even on the opiates the pain is too much now that the cancer has moved into his spine. Often Mrs Gunn will do this. She is paid to be a carer now, though I’m not sure this whole arse-cleaning thing is really within her remit. Guy cried following the first time she performed this service for him. He doesn’t know that I know this; I heard him through his bedroom door, afterwards.

The book doesn’t really go very far after this gut punch. The friends hang out, drink, take drugs, look for the McGuffin and argue. It feels like a first draft. The arguments are repetitive and nothing really different from what Banks had done before. Apart from Guy and Kit, the characters are rather two-dimensional; Haze, for instance, is a cardboard cut-out middle-aged stoner without an ounce of self-discipline or common sense; his main function in the story is to shoot party poppers out of his nose – and maybe to exemplify an extreme of the fucked-upness that afflicts all the older characters.

Kit is supposed to be a high-functioning autism sufferer, and this makes him suitably dry, analytical and naïve as a narrator – but it doesn’t really ring true. Kit is more of a surrogate Banks – as is Guy, actually, with all his verbal abuse against religion and capitalism and popular culture. Kit is far too knowing, too similar to the other characters, too unphased by their middle-aged licentiousness. He even makes a pass at one of them in quite an accomplished and briefly, initially successful way – even though he’s supposedly never so much as kissed a girl.

The book’s conclusion is deliberately bathetic. The search for and discovery of the tape is underwhelming – in much the same way that Guy’s life has been underwhelming – in much the same way that all our lives are underwhelming. All the characters are disappointments to themselves – apart from Kit, who spends half his time (when he’s not putting up with his father and surrogate aunts and uncles) playing an MMORPG. Kit seems to have the best life, is the only one is solvent, hasn’t sold out and has no skeletons in his closet; and yet he’s partly disengaged from reality and doesn’t know how to cope with it. Will he end up being a forty-year-old-fuck-up like the others?

Use of WeaponsI’ve been reading Iain Banks’s books since the early nineties (at a guess); I own all his novels and the whiskey/travel book he wrote. The first one I read was Use of Weapons, which I picked up from the library because I liked the cover. It’s one of his best books and the ending forced me to do an immediate re-read of the novel – the only time I’ve ever done that. I’d been holding off on reading The Quarry – for no good reason, really; well, reading Le Morte d’Arthur recently took a lot of time and willpower. The Quarry is a good enough book – as eminently readable as anything he wrote, but not really classic Banks.

And there will be no more Banks novels – no more Culture books (except, I’ve just discovered, a volume of his poetry will be published next year). It’s hard to say how I feel about this. It seems like his fiction novels as a group and his science fiction novels as a group didn’t really go anywhere much. If you’d read one of either group, you would have had a strong idea of what the others were like (apart from a couple of oddballs like The Bridge and A Song of Stone). I’m very sorry he’s dead (let’s not mess around with namby-pamby euphemisms – he wouldn’t), but I don’t have a sense of work unfinished like in the case of Robert Jordan.

But there are still nearly thirty novels ripe for re-reading. Sometime.

Iain Banks

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Fortress of EaglesI read the first book in this series a few years ago – I picked up my copy of Fortress in the Eye of Time at a street-side secondhand bookshop in Bombay (or Mumbai, if you prefer) and enjoyed it a lot. Although I think I knew there were successor books to it, I don’t think I thought of them as direct sequels. It was only fairly recently that I got Fortress of Eagles from What the Book? in Seoul.

The story follows on directly from what happens in the first volume – and as it’s a while since I read it, and my memory for story details isn’t that good anyway, so I was a little bit lost at first. In Fortress in the Eye of Time, Tristen is called into being – Shaped – by an old wizard called Mauryl. He apparently has lots of knowledge, and even memories of a previous life, locked away inside him, but he is pretty much a naïve tabula rasa. He befriends the crown prince, Cefwyn; there’s a big fight with a dark wizard called Hasufin Haltain; Mauryl dies (apparently), and Cefwyn becomes king.

Fortress of Eagles concerns the aftermath of these events. There’s lots of contemplation of intrigue; the courtiers of Ylesuin have varying levels of support for Cefwyn’s choices – his betrothed, Ninévrisë, is due to become the ruler of the neighbouring enemy nation, and Tristen is widely seen as an abomination, a product of sorcery who doesn’t follow the established religion.

The book is very contemplative and very talky. Until the last third or quarter, it moves at a very sedate pace with not much happening. This is a flaw, but it was a also a nice change of pace. It was never boring to read, as the two viewpoint characters – Tristen and Cefwyn – are both well realised and engaging, Tristen especially. Tristen has lots on his mind, not least of which is the nature of his own existence, and there were plenty of clues that much more would be revealed about this in future installments of the story. Cefwyn has a fractious court to balance, which is interesting enough, and one of the best characters is his adviser and military chief, Idrys (whom, naturally, I kept visualising as Idris Elba), but Tristen was always the more interesting.

Cherryh’s writing is very readable and she can write very good dialogue – which is good, because the characters have long conversations full of long paragraphs. It’s not necessarily realistic dialogue – the characters talk about things that are going on in the world and that are relevant to the story in a way that is basically infodump, but feels pretty natural – it’s the kind of thing a king would talk about, for instance.

She has also developed a particular style of writing and dialogue that somewhat mimics pre-modern writing without being heavy-handed or unreadably dense. Take this bit of banter between Ninévrisë (speaking first) and Cefwyn at a ball:

“Am I the prey tonight or is it Tristen? Policy must attend this festive mood. You are stalking someone.”

“Good lady!” He laid a hand on his breast, above the Marhanen Dragon, worked in gold. “I am suspect?”

“Today since dawn you have held close converse with the captain of your guard, the Patriarch of the Quinalt.” One finger and the next marked the tally. “Your brother the duke of Guelessar, and your brother’s priest, besides a converse again with Idrys, with Captain Gwywyn, and with Captain Kerdin – I discount your tailor -”

“Your spies are everywhere!”

“You ensconce me in this nest of women all with ambitions, all wishing to persuade me to confide in them, and wonder that I know exactly the object of your inquiry, who was riding to Drysham today -”

“Cressitbrook. You don’t know everything.”

“- with his guard. It is he, is it not? Has Tristen done something amiss?”

“Tonight,” he said with a glance at the women in the distance, and with his voice lowered.

“I hear it all, you know. The Warden of Ynefel [Tristen] is out spying on the land. He converses with the horses, quite dire and lengthy discourses, and likely with the sheep. His birds fly over the land and bring him news from every quarter …”

The writing style may not be to everyone’s taste, but I think this is almost exactly how fantasy novels should be written. There is absolutely no reason for characters in a fantasy world based on Earth cultures of centuries past to talk like people from the 21st century, still less for characters in a fantasy world based on Earth cultures from before the colonisation of the Americas to talk like 21st century Americans.

C J CherryhIn the last section of the book, a lot happens – and although it’s very clear how this fits into the overall scheme of things in Ylesuin, it also comes as a bit of a surprise, given the slow pacing of the earlier part of the story. For 450 pages, I did feel that more could have happened; as a result the book feels very much like an episode rather than a self-contained story. You get the feeling that the arc story is just getting started.

Despite this, Fortress of Eagles was a great pleasure to read, and I hope it won’t be long before I secure a copy of Fortress of Owls.

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Le Morte d'Arthur, Volume 1It took me about six months to read this book. I’m not happy about that fact – but I was also reading it during quite a stressful time in my life when I was feeling distinctly under-energied. But that’s all done with now. I also haven’t written anything for my blog in a long time; hopefully this might be the start of a re-ignition of my interest in it, but I also have lots of things on the go. Anyway; the book.

The version I read is based on a 1485 edition – but, thankfully, with modern spellings of words. My Penguin edition comes in two volumes, each of about 450 – 500 pages (I picked them up a few years ago at a secondhand English language bookshop in the little underground shopping precinct near Seoul City Hall). The novel is presented in 21 books, each book consisting of anything from six to 86 chapters, each chapter being generally only two to four pages long. Each chapter begins with a short synopsis; the books don’t – which is quite annoying when you want to find out which characters feature in which books.

One of the first things I noticed about Le Morte d’Arthur is that, on a word by word or sentence by sentence basis, it’s actually not that difficult to read. There is quite a number of archaic words employed, most of which are footnoted when they first crop up in addition to being listed in a glossary, and sometimes the syntax can be tricky to figure out, but it’s nowhere near as dense or complex as Shakespeare, for instance.

NOW leave we there [the matter of the previous chapter] and speak of Sir Launcelot that rode a great while in a deep forest, where he saw a black brachet [hound], seeking in manner as it had been in the feute [track] of an hurt deer. And therewith he rode after the brachet, and he saw lie on the ground a large feute of blood. And then Sir Launcelot rode after. And ever the brachet looked behind her, and so she went through a great marsh, and ever Sir Launcelot followed.

Compare this paragraph (there were no paragraphs, originally) from Book VI with the original:

Now leue we there & ſpeke of ſyr Launcelot that rode a grete whyle in a depe foreſt where he ſaw a black brachet / ſekyng in maner as it had ben in the feaute of an hurt dere / And ther with he rode after the brachet and he ſawe lye on the ground a large feaute of blood / And thenne ſyre launcelot rode after / And euer the Brachet loked behynd her / and ſoo ſhe wente thorou a grete mareyſe / and euer ſyre launcelot folowed /

That would not be fun to read.

Mind you, the updated version was also not that much fun – and yet it was still strangely fascinating. For a modern reader like me, there were several things that got in the way of enjoying the stories presented in Le Morte. It’s quite repetitive in places – especially when it comes to fighting, of which there is a fair amount. Battles are generally a series of knights or kings getting knocked off their horses and being re-horsed. Contests between knights almost always have them jousting with their spears (the word ‘lance’ is not used once in the book), one or both of them getting unhorsed and then fighting with swords; the two basic variations are the number of hours the fight takes and how much blood is shed on the ground.

Then they hurtled together as two wild bulls, rashing [rushing] and lashing with their shields and swords that sometimes they fell both over their noses. Thus they fought still two hours and more, and never would have rest, and Sir Turquine gave Sir Launcelot many wounds that all the ground there as they fought was all bespeckled with blood.

The text is also strangely pedantic – often every single king and knight taking part in a war or tourney will be listed individually, like so:

Then there swore King Lot, a passing [exceptionally] good knight, and Sir Gawain’s father, that he would bring five thousand men of arms on horseback. Also there swore King Uriens, that was Sir Uwain’s father, of the land of Gore, and he would bring six thousand men of arms on horseback. Also there swore King Idres of Cornwall, that he would bring five thousand men of arms on horseback. Also there swore King Cradelment to bring five thousand men on horseback.

That’s about a quarter of the swearing.

Le Morte d'Arthur, Volume 2Another problem – which was exacerbated for me by the length of time it took me to read the thing – was the number of characters and stories contained within the whole book. The presence of Arthur, Merlin, Lancelot (Launcelot, in my text), Gawain, Gallahad, Mordred and others was a given, but you also have the whole story of Tristan (Tristram, according to my edition) which takes up two long books right in the middle and feels very shoehorned in (which it was). There are also a range of much lesser known knights like Lamorak and Palomides (who, along with Lancelot and Tristan, comprise the top four knights in Britain (and therefore the world; actually, Sir Palomides is an unchristened Saracen and one of the more interesting characters)) and the cowardly Breunis Saunce Pité. King Arthur is barely in the most of the stories – excepting the very first and last books.

Sometimes the text treats characters in a bizarre way – Sir Lamorak and Sir Tristan both die off-page, for instance, despite being major characters. To be fair, many of the other protagonists refer back to Lamorak’s treacherous murder by Mordred and his brothers, as this simmering conflict contributes to Arthur’s ultimate downfall. But Tristan’s demise is greeted with little more than, ‘Oh, right – that guy.’ Merlin – having been instrumental in hiding the young Arthur’s identity and then revealing his identity as heir and telling the young king exactly what to do in the early days – gets imprisoned by Nimue at the start of the fourth book and therefore takes no part in the remaining seventeen books.

Time passes strangely in the course of Le Morte d’Arthur. As it’s really a collection of stories about different characters, sometimes an older version of a knight will appear earlier in someone else’s story, before his younger days are recounted later in the book. I didn’t really notice that happening too much, as I tended to forget a lot of those details. There’s an episode, though, where Lancelot has been tricked in to believing the maiden Elaine of Corbenic (not to be confused with Elaine of Astolat, who also falls in love with Lancelot, but who doesn’t have such sorcerously helpful relatives) is Guinevere and he begets a child on her – Galahad. In the morning, when he realises what he’s done, Lancelot jumps out of a window and runs off to spend two years roaming the wilderness. When he comes back, Galahad is a strapping young man of fifteen years old.

Despite its many quirks and flaws, I still enjoyed reading Le Morte – despite the fact that it was a huge slog. You get used to the idiosyncracies of the writing, learn a slew of new (ie, very old) words and get a fuller picture of the Matter of Britain than is presented in modern portrayals. There is quite a lot of good, or at least entertaining, characterisation – like the fact that many knights turn a blind eye to Lancelot’s affair with Queen Guinevere and support him against the psychotically angry Gawain; or like the Dame Lynet’s continual verbal abuse of Gareth as he defeats a series of colourful knights.

So it was certainly worth the read and I don’t regret it, but it wasn’t easy and I regret the fact that it took me so long to trudge through it. Now I’m interested in reading more up to date interpretations of the story of king Arthur and his knights – probably also in writing something inspired by it (but when I’ll find the time the time for that, I don’t know).

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