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Paul Bowes (Wales, United Kingdom)
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A Regicide (Alma Classics)
A Regicide (Alma Classics)
by Alain Robbe-Grillet
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

2.0 out of 5 stars Robbe-Grillet's first novel, 6 Dec. 2015
'A Regicide' is an oddity in Robbe-Grillet's oeuvre. Rejected for publication in 1949, when the author was unknown, it was made public in 1978, by which time Robbe-Grillet had become the celebrated co-creator of the French 'nouveau roman', and a considerable figure in French film.

Readers who know Robbe-Grillet from the books that made his name, or the later, less admired novels of abstract eroticism, are likely to find 'A Regicide' a puzzle and perhaps a disappointment. It is fairly obviously a young man's book, mixing strenuous avant-garde structural gestures with sketchy politics and autobiographical elements. The story – actually two intertwined stories with a complex - or perhaps simply unclear – relationship thrashes around in all directions without really getting anywhere.

One has the sense of a writer who has not settled his relation to his own material. In particular, there is a romantic and symbolist strain in 'A Regicide' that has been expunged in the later books, but would not have been out of place in something by the young Gide. The gestures in the direction of the political seem strained and bloodless: Robbe-Grillet's heart doesn't appear to be in the Kafka-and-water tale of young Boris and his under-motivated impulse to kill the king of his country. The parallel tale of another young man, a member of a lonely island community, has more interest, but its more detailed realism - which would reach full flower in 'The Voyeur' - is undercut by the portentous symbolism and overcooked dream imagery. Is Boris dreaming this other, or is the other dreaming Boris? It's hard to care.

One can see why 'A Regicide' was rejected, and had it remained unknown I feel that little would have been lost. Recommended for Robbe-Grillet completists, and perhaps for students of French literature in the immediate post-war period.


Metropole
Metropole
by Ferenc Karinthy
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A dystopic fantasy of language and identity, 14 Oct. 2015
This review is from: Metropole (Paperback)
'Metropole' appeared in Hungarian in 1970, but had to wait forty years to be translated into English. By repute, it is Ferenc Karinthy's best novel. The most common comparison is with Kafka, particularly the Kafka of 'The Trial' and 'The Castle'. As with most such comparisons, it is neither particularly helpful nor as much of a compliment to the author as is intended. Fortunately, Karinthy is his own man. Whether he possesses the uncanny power of Kafka is another matter.

The book might be placed as a late example of European existentialist fiction, with surreal flourishes. The central character, Budai, is a peripatetic academic who, by virtue of a series of events that may or may not be purely coincidental, finds himself deplaning in a mysterious country that is not his intended destination, and whose language he cannot understand. This is all the more alarming since Budai is a linguistician by profession. Taken to a hotel in the city nearby, he sets out to correct the mistake that has marooned him. The bulk of the book concerns his ever more desperate attempts to liberate himself, and the corrosive effects of his circumstances on his character and sense of identity.

Karinthy possessed a PhD in linguistics, and 'Metropole' is at some level a linguistician's perverse fantasy: the panic fear of mutual unintelligibility that dates back at least to the myth of the tower of Babel. The language of the strange and unnamed country is impossible to parse and ever-shifting. Budai finds himself in a sort of secular hell in which his best intentions are incommunicable and his professional skills useless. Karinthy observes how much of what we take to be our identity is given to us by others, and tied up in our ability to communicate. Without it, we are at the mercy of brute fact: unrecognised, and perhaps unrecognisable even to ourselves.

'Metropole' does not set out to create a completely logical, plausible dystopia. The non-language of the country is reminiscent of the enigmatic speech of dreams, stalled on the edge of meaning, which renders ideas of intelligible structure moot: and the book is probably best considered as a dream- or vision-narrative. It is certainly not merely an allegory of Communist society at the time of writing, which would be the most obvious interpretation: there is plenty here that is an implicit criticism of rationality itself.

Karinthy is not Kafka, and claims that 'Metropole' is a classic on the level of 'The Castle', or even 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' are exaggerated. Fortunately, the novel is worth reading in its own right, and George Szirtes' characteristically fluent translation makes this a pleasure. It is a pity that the original title – 'Epepe' – could not have been retained: in its very lack of meaning it is a pointer to the spirit of the book. Perhaps the demands of marketing to an English-speaking readership made that impossible.


Pop Art: A Colourful History
Pop Art: A Colourful History
Price: £7.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Mildly interesting but underachieving take on Pop, with a biographical emphasis, 28 Sept. 2015
The key to Alastair Sooke's book is that word 'colourful' in the title. Sooke has written a brief overview of the Pop moment structured around interviews with four living artists – Rosalyne Drexler, Peter Blake, James Rosenquist and Ed Ruscha – who were directly involved. The result is 'colourful' in the sense that it leans towards anecdote, though Sooke provides plenty of context to justify the notion that this is also a 'history'.

The principal shortcoming of the book is that it seems to have no very clear view of its potential reader. Somebody coming to Pop for the first time will want something more wide-ranging (and more heavily illustrated: the few illustrations included are necessarily small and selective). A reader already familiar with the art is likely to find this thin stuff in a different sense: light on analysis, and with an oddly skewed and underdeveloped perspective.

Sooke has valid points to make. He notes that the female artists associated with the movement have tended to be unsuccessful and undervalued by comparison with their male counterparts; and that the British originators of the style still receive less than their due. These are, however, rather obvious, even fashionable points, and I would have welcomed a more forceful discussion even of these issues.

Beyond this, Sooke has little of distinction to add. His chosen form – interview leavened with digression – works against a clear sense of structure, so that the book reads as a series of extended magazine articles linked only by a common theme. It is surprisingly difficult to decide what Sooke thinks of Pop, in the end: and he isn't the man to press his interviewees too hard (Rosenquist and Ruscha speak, but they are hardly interrogated – the price of interviewing celebrity artists towards the end of their careers).

There is some interesting material here, but on the whole the impression is of a book concocted to appeal to the Christmas gift-giving market: not too demanding, small format, low price – for a hardback – and colourful Peter Blake cover. It is always perfectly readable, but given that there is no shortage of books on the subject, the reader – and Sooke – can probably do better.


Glow
Glow
by Ned Beauman
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

2.0 out of 5 stars Beauman's third novel disappoints, 17 July 2015
This review is from: Glow (Paperback)
'Glow' is Ned Beauman's third novel. Since the second, 'The Teleportation Accident', was clear improvement on the first, 'Boxer, Beetle', which itself seemed to announce a new young talent, my hopes for 'Glow' were considerable. Sadly, it represents a step backward.

The story is as contrived as one might expect, but to no real purpose. Beauman has written a flashy, ultra-contemporary take on the thriller, all smart drugs and big data and mixed ethnicities: but now there is only cleverness, and no real heart or substance. There are only flashes of the command of language that permeated the earlier books. The plot itself is an unbelievable concoction that suggests an overdose of research, and the ending is so melodramatically awful that I had to read it twice to be certain that it was seriously intended.

At its best, 'Glow' reads like a book written in search of a young urban audience for which the better, earlier books were too intelligent and too literary. At its worst, it reads like a book written to get out of a contract.


Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?
Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?
by Dave Eggers
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars An unconvincing prophecy of generational apocalypse, 31 May 2015
This is an odd book. Written entirely in dialogue, and so resembling a playscript or screenplay rather than a novel, it presents in highly dramatised and artificial form what Eggers evidently takes to be the besetting problem of his generation: the absence of a great and noble goal to give direction and purpose to the young. Whether the reader agrees with this diagnosis is likely to determine how seriously he or she can take the book.

The protagonist, Thomas, is a deeply troubled man, who has been driven by a personal crisis – the death of a friend – to demand explanations and justifications directly from a variety of authority figures. This terroristic behaviour – kidnapping, threats of violence – has obvious parallels with Islamicist terrorism. The reader is invited, by implication, to see Thomas's behaviour as having roots in a kindred disgust with the corruption and compromises of an existing system - the system in this case being American capitalist democracy.

So far so promising, if rather schematic. Eggers writes convincing dialogue, and is able to create believable characters: he knows how to move a plot along. The book is never less than readable.

Nonetheless, for me it was overwhelmed by its structural faults and the shallowness of the underlying ideas. The scenario – that a half-deranged individual with no special abilities, and without assistance, would be able to improvise the kidnapping of a series of people, including a US congressman, and hold them against their will – was never convincing to me. Such melodrama is sustainable in comedy: but as the title of the book, (taken from Zachariah 1:5) implies, this is not a comedy, but an anticipation of a coming apocalypse.

It was here that I parted company definitively with the author. Eggers' attempt to yoke together all sorts of ills, including the perceived failures of individual parents, to suggest the betrayal and abandonment of an entire generation is deeply unconvincing. If a reckoning is coming for the American way, it will not be because it abandoned the dubious promise of its early space program: it will be because people like Eggers persist in seeing deep-rooted, long-lived social ills through a generational filter and an individualist lens.


Freedom Regained: The Possibility of Free Will
Freedom Regained: The Possibility of Free Will
by Julian Baggini
Edition: Paperback
Price: £13.48

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An exploration of the meaning of 'free will' in the light of contemporary neuroscience, 25 April 2015
In 'Freedom Regained', the philosopher Julian Baggini takes on the popular belief that recent science has demonstrated that 'free will' is a chimera. Baggini's position is a form of compatibilism: the belief that free will and determinism are not, as some insist, mutually exclusive. The essence of this position is that free will, commonly understood as an absolute, is actually an extreme concept that is not necessary and may even be self-contradictory. Lesser degrees of free will suffice for us to retain such notions as moral responsibility for actions.

Baggini takes a slightly unusual line through the subject. Rather than simply argue his case from the outset, he considers real-life instances of competing ways of understanding the idea of freedom of the will: that of the artist, the political activist, the neuroscientist and so on. Occasionally this is a little misleading. The chapter on 'The Psychopath' proves to contain very little about psychopathy as such, but nonetheless is an intelligent and relevant discussion of the way in which the popular mind distinguishes between degrees of responsibility. In general this approach pays dividends: Baggini's conversation with the artist Grayson Perry, for example, leaves little doubt that what we think of as 'free will' - usually conceived as a single, monolithic thing - is a complex and stratified faculty that blends elements of freedom and constraint, consciousness and unconsciousness. The book combines anecdote, conversation and substantial thinking in a fruitful way.

Baggini has his bugbears - the neuroscientist Sam Harris comes in for some rough handling, and the author isn't slow to describe scientific commentators on the issue as "philosophically naÔve" - but his treatment of the issue is serious and fair, and his proposed solution has the advantage of not requiring the reader to nail his colours to the mast of some absolute. The result is a useful correction of what the author terms the 'myths' of free will: commonly-held beliefs that are more the product of the tortured and protracted history of the discussion than of any useful understanding. Baggini creates a space in which it is necessary neither to believe that we have complete freedom, nor that we are mechanisms void of responsibility and deprived of the capacity for meaningful self-directed action. This is a humane and valuable book.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 28, 2015 8:58 AM BST


A for Andromeda (Story-Tellers)
A for Andromeda (Story-Tellers)
by Fred Hoyle
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Classic science fiction of the John Wyndham generation, 21 April 2015
'A For Andromeda' was originally conceived as a television serial for the BBC, and was broadcast as such in 1961. The screenplays were written by the astronomer Fred Hoyle and then revised and extended for production by the author/producer John Eliot. This novelisation was commissioned directly from John Eliot and published early in 1962. The BBC had followed its normal practice at that time and junked the recordings of the television series, of which only one full episode and some fragments now survive: so although "A For Andromeda" was not originally conceived as a book, it now survives as such.

Over time the book has come to be seen as a classic of British postwar science fiction, alongside the books of Nigel Kneale and John Wyndham. The central idea is compelling, and at the time represented cutting-edge thinking concerning the promise and danger of first contact with a nonhuman intelligence. Anyone who has seen the film 'Species' (1995) will have a strong sense of déjà vu: the first half of that film effectively recapitulates the central plot device of 'A for Andromeda'.

Hoyle's book is set in an imagined Britain of the late 1960s and early 1970s. This differs from Hoyle's own time only in details: the same Cold War tensions are in play, and the UK is even more firmly under the thumb of the USA in political and defence matters than would actually be the case. Hoyle summons up an authentic atmosphere of tension in which the excitement of scientific discovery is clouded by the machinations of various powers that vie for control of the new knowledge: the military, the politicians, the private sector (in the form of a nefarious company unfortunately named Intel), and ambitious scientific managers.

Hoyle was better on the science than on dialogue and the portrayal of character, where he tended to fall back on cliché: the headstrong young scientist, the young woman torn between love and duty, the politician obsessed with power and blind to the risks being run. There is also a fair amount of period sexism: a lot of hugging, bottom-patting and pinching that is accepted as the norm by all.

But these are at worst distractions. The central idea is so strong that it could survive rougher handling than this. Only at the very end of the book does Hoyle's handling of the plot falter, and improbabilities start to multiply. Some readers may feel that the ending itself was contrived to allow for the possibility of a sequel to the original television series.

Nonetheless, 'A For Andromeda', like Fred Hoyle's other novels, is essential reading for anyone who wants to know what British science fiction was like before the 'New Worlds' writers rose to fame (and before the 'Star Wars' generation infantilised the genre): a time when SF could be both intelligent and popular with a wide audience.


The Man without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin
The Man without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin
by Masha Gessen
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

4.0 out of 5 stars A chilling portrait, 11 April 2015
Published in 2012, Masha Gessen's biography of Vladimir Putin covers events to 2011. Nothing that has happened since invalidates her narrative and the conclusions she drew from events to that point: if anything, later events confirm the accuracy of her instincts and the broad truth of the story she tells.

In 'The Man Without a Face' Putin is the man who - with help, witting and unwitting - snuffed out the Russian Federation's nascent democracy and returned the country to Soviet ways of doing business. An authoritarian with the instincts of a secret policeman and a deep loyalty to the worldview of the institution in which he was trained - the KGB - Putin emerges here as a violent, calculating and vindictive man who has consistently outmanoeuvred those who believed that he was under their control. Gessen never uses the word 'sociopath': but that judgement is implicit in every paragraph.

There is nothing particularly new here, and Gessen is far from being the only commentator to have drawn the obvious conclusions from events in Russia since 1989. But she has drawn a coherent picture of Vladimir Putin from childhood to the Presidency that makes clear the bases of his character and the continuity of his actions from his experiences with the KGB in East Germany in the 80s through his involvement in St. Petersburg politics to his ascent to the pinnacle of a restored authoritarian system. Gessen makes no bones about believing that Putin has used the Russian military, the police, the FSB and a suborned legal system to procure the death, exile or imprisonment of many of his opponents, to steal the wealth of others and to neuter all potentially democratic institutions. She implicates his government in 'terrorist' actions, responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Russian citizens, that were used to justify increasingly authoritarian rule.

Apart from a slightly disconcerting habit of jumping backwards and forwards in time, Gessen writes well and manages the balance between facts and interpretation without too many problems, always making clear what is documented and what is informed speculation. Obviously, this is not a book intended for fans of Putin: Gessen's view of the man is clear. Neither would I recommend that anyone depend solely on this book for an account of contemporary Russia. But Gessen's portrait is a grim corrective to the belief, still occasionally encountered, that Vladimir Putin is a necessary evil.


The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom
The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom
Price: £9.99

24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An interesting discussion of what we mean by 'freedom', 3 April 2015
John Gray continues to be an oddity among contemporary intellectuals: a poor fit in a world dominated by materialists and mechanists on the one hand, and true believers in technological progress and human self-improvement on the other. In 'The Soul of the Marionette' he has found evidence in imaginative literature and elsewhere of a continuing struggle between a conception of humanity as the puppet of its materiality and a counter-conception of the human as disembodied – and, with the aid of technology, rehousable – spirit: the endlessly perfectible cyborg, which at the extreme recognises no constraints.

The larger argument is part of Gray's ongoing war against the overconfident rationalism that has replaced religious belief for so many. For Gray, to be human is to be permanently divided and flawed: to be a creature that is palpably at the mercy of its biology and environment and yet is constrained to behave as though it believes itself to be free, to the point of acting perversely if there is no other method of asserting that freedom. Gray believes that all schemes, religious or rational, that aim either at expelling the soul – or spirit, or whatever term you prefer - or at freeing the soul from its materiality, perceived as a trap, purely by the exercise of reason must fail, because each path involves throwing away part of what it is to be human. 'Perfected' man is not human: as Kleist notes in the passage take as epigraph to the book, he must be either a marionette or a god. Gray argues that we must forsake these fantasies and accept our limitations as the price of being what we are.

Gray has assembled in this short text an impressive number of references to this dichotomy in other writings. The result is a heady brew that encompasses thinkers from the Gnostics to Stephen Pinker. As a spur to thinking about what we mean when we talk about 'freedom' it succeeds in being both readable and provocative. Readers of Gray will already know that he has an unusually approachable style. He is also prepared to take instruction where appropriate from sources that have been ignored by others, such as the science fictional writings of Philip K. Dick and the Strugatsky brothers, which lends his argument a pleasing balance and breadth. This is an 'essay' in the best sense.

The book has been presented with notes, but no bibliography or index, which is cause for minor regret.


Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One is (Penguin Classics)
Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One is (Penguin Classics)
by Friedrich Nietzsche
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A late text by Nietzsche in a good translation with limited critical additions, 3 April 2015
In 'Ecce Homo', one of the short works of his last productive year, Nietzsche gave the reader a compressed overview of his philosophical journey to date. Since his mental collapse was less than a year away at the time of composition, it has often been read as evidence of the growing unsoundness of his mind. In fact, if one bears with the author through his most dramatic statements, much of the apparent grandiosity makes sense. I see it partly as Nietzsche amusing himself at the expense of his more conventional critics, and partly as a logical termination of the intellectual path that he traces through his books. It was important to Nietzsche that he be seen as a dancing thinker, a man of speed and lightness: this is never more obvious than here.

'Ecce Homo' is neither the place to start with Nietzsche, nor the most important of his works, though it contains characteristic brilliancies. Nonetheless, it is well worth reading after the reader has formed some idea of his central ideas. This Penguin edition, with its deliberately minimal notes and introduction, offers relatively little help to the neophyte, who is likely to need more contextualisation. At the time of writing of this review, the Kindle edition is far better value than the print edition.


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