Oh, Agatha

Oh dear, have I really not blogged since last Wednesday? I’m sorry, I’m being very negligent – and I can’t even think of a reason why, as it hasn’t been an especially busy week. Perhaps it’s my general reading slump at the moment – and, if you’ve been around for any of my previous reading slumps, you’ll probably know what my solution has been. Dame Agatha Christie. If you hate spoilers of any variety (and I’ll only talking about the death which happens in the first few pages) then skim read this post…

Yes, that’s right, I’ve ignored the hundreds of unread books in my house – and the few that I’m reading at the moment – and taken myself to Oxford Central Library to borrow some Agathas. Almost all of mine are at home, and the ones I have here don’t fall into blank years in A Century of Books – and, if I’m reading Agatha, I may as well kill two birds with one stone.  Still, with the criteria of being (a) not read read, (b) filling blank years, and (c) currently in library stock, I managed to come away with two books – Hallowe’en Party and The Seven Dials Mystery, and whipped through the first in a couple of days.

I’d always steered clear of it, because of my distaste for Hallowe’en, but it’s pretty incidental to the plot. And, as plot is so important in Christie novels, I’m not going to tell you much beyond the initial murder – which is of a young girl at a Hallowe’en party, who is drowned in an apple bobbing bucket. Shortly before this, she has begun to tell people that she once witnessed a murder, only she didn’t realise it was a murder until much later. They won’t listen – but it seems that perhaps someone present has taken her comment seriously… Hercule Poirot, naturally, comes to sort things out, called there by Ariadne Oliver. I have five main things I want to say about this novel:

1.) I love Christie plots about misinterpretation – where a witness sees someone looking shocked that something is there, when in fact they’re shocked that something isn’t there; when a look of horror is about a memory rather than a current event – all those sorts of things, for some reason, are wonderful to me. So I loved that element of Hallowe’en Party.

2.) I’ve never read an Ariadne Oliver novel before, and I love her. And Agatha Christie obviously had a lot of fun creating her (she is a detective novelist, with a Finnish detective hero, and Christie uses her as a bit of a mouthpiece…)

3.) This is Christie’s child-killing novel… it’s interesting for the number of times (and this isn’t a spoiler) she talks about leniency for mentally imbalanced killers or those who’ve been through care, or whatever extenuating circumstances, and how Poirot doesn’t think justice should be considered less important than mercy.

4.) It was published in 1969 – so nearly 50 years after Poirot’s first case and Christie’s first novel. Amazing that she could still be on such good form after all that time.

5.) And it is a very good novel. I found the conclusion a little unsatisfying, mostly because I’d already guessed the solution, or at least most of it, and I much prefer being surprised by the end of a detective novel.

So, there you go. Onto The Seven Dials Mystery

Two Entirely Unrelated Reviews

Normally, if I feature two reviews together, there tends to be a reason.  I try to find some links between them, and so forth.  Well, the only reasons that these books are combined is that I’ve finished them, and need to get all my Century of Books reviews out before the end of 2012.  Maybe unexpected connections will arise by the time I’ve finished writing about them?  At the moment the only thing I can think is that I didn’t really think either of them were great.

Sunlight on Cold Water (1969) is the second novel I’ve read by Francoise Sagan, after really liking her most famous novel, Bonjour Tristesse, last year.  That short novel focused on a young girl’s self-discovery, first love, and developing relationship with her stepmother.  It was all very introspective, but that was totally forgivable in the mindset of a teenager.  In Sunlight on Cold Water (title from a poem by Paul Eluard), this introspection is transferred to a middle-aged man…

Gilles Lantier is depressed.  Depression is such a difficult thing to convey, since it involves such listlessness and the deadening of emotions.  I was impressed that Sagan was going to give it a go and, if it didn’t make for very compulsive reading, at least it was sensitive and thought-provoking.  But… then it wasn’t.  He meets a woman.  He starts having an affair with her (she’s married).  He worries about his mistress back in Paris; he worries about being good enough for his new mistress.  And so on, and so on.  This sort of writing filled the book:

“That’s not it at all,” he said, “I’ve left out the main thing.  I haven’t told you the main thing.”The main thing was Nathalie’s warmth, the hollow of her neck when he was falling asleep, her unfailing tenderness, her utter loyalty, the overwhelming confidence he felt in her.  Everything that this semi-whore of a kept woman with her cockneyed perversions couldn’t even begin to understand.  But in that case, what was he doing here?
Lovely, isn’t it?  (Er, no.)  I’m afraid I am not remotely interested in the elaborate musings of a man who may or may not be in love, talking about the sight, sounds, and smells of his various love exploits.  It’s not Fifty Shades graphic or anything like that, but, boy, is it tedious.  This is the only excerpt I jotted down which I thought a bit clever:

“Could you love a man who was so rotten?””You don’t choose the people you love.””For an intellectual, you’re not afraid of platitudes.””I’m only too afraid of them,” she murmured, “they’re nearly always true.”
But, still.  Total dud for me, I’m afraid.  Only about 140 pages long, and dragged for ages.  Perhaps it’s my own lack of tolerance for this sort of novel, but I found it meandering, self-indulgent, whiney, and dull.  If I can find a Francoise Sagan that has nothing to do with introspective love affairs, then I’ll give her another go – because I so admired Bonjour Tristesse.

*  *  *

And onto the other novel.  I’m still not seeing any connections.  It’s The Simmons Paper (1995) by Philipp Blom.  I bought it in a charity shop, because the cover struck me as delightfully eccentric, and the topic appealed.

After his death, Simmons is discovered to have left behind a manuscript detailing his work in compiling the section P in a Definitive Dictionary.  Blom’s conceit is that the manuscript has become a famous, much-discussed piece of work – and this novella is framed as though it were an edition of the essay, footnotes and all.

Simmons is totally besotted with his work.  Most of The Simmons Papers concerns his daily life of researching words, philosophising about the role of dictionaries, and raging against neologisms.  He believes P to be ‘the most human letter in the alphabet’, and manoeuvres through various interesting facets of the letter and its history.  I love anything to do with linguistics, and it’s a rare novel that assumes you know all about Saussure.  I’m also rather drawn to novels where the main character gets obsessive and increasingly unbalanced (c.f. also Wish Her Safe At Home.)  Simmons certainly doesn’t disappoint in this regard – quite genuinely obsessed with the letter P (every section opens with a word beginning with P, and Simmons takes to eating mostly peas):

I must confess that in a sense even I am a victim of this daunting work.  Invariably the study of words, their history, meaning and evolution, etymology, connotations and formation, must impress on any mind its seal, especially since some words will resound for a certain person more than others and come to exercise a considerable influence of their own on any mind connected with them.  The long-winded proem which I am now engaging in now seems necessary before I can tell what I hardly dare admit: that I am subject to daydreams, voices and visions.  Words, p-words, emit and emanate images, stories, pictures and fantasies, which ultimately are impossible to keep at bay.
So, The Simmons Paper had all the ingredients of a novel I’d really like – and is packaged in a really attractive edition, incidentally.  So why didn’t it really work for me?  Well, it’s rather too close to what it is pretending to be.  The faux-introduction is amusing, some of the footnotes are really enjoyably silly if you spend a lot of time reading literary criticism – (cue interrupting my sentence for a long example of a footnote)

The pseudonym ‘P’ has been the cause of much controversy.  In the interpretation of Mandelbrodt and his followers, P designates ‘paradigm’, a notion which, in this reading, the text sets out to deconstruct by showing its inherent limitations and contradictions.  ‘The indefensible stronghold of the face of the dying Kronos falters from the owl, its death-ode on the phallus and His contemporaneous demise.  The giant turns back in agony and the very power against himself is the very powerlessness against this power’ (Mandelbrodt, The Question of Femininity, pp.345-6).  According to this reading, the destruction of the paradigm of male hierarchical order is what the text ‘which is by no means fiction, but an emanation of the act of writing in its existential peril itself’ (ibid.) sets out to prove.  While A. Rover takes P as quite simply Simmons’ own initial, Richard Silk suggests that it stands for ‘pater’.  ‘Simmons addressed his father with this name, traditionally used by public boys for “father”, throughout his life until “pater” died in 1946’ (The Dramatic Personae).
– but parody has to go further than imitation.  Examples like the quotation above do seem to work in this way, but, as a whole, the novel didn’t feel all that much like a novel.  It got a love interest towards the end (but not in the traditional sense) – but a lot of it read like critical theory.  And I read plenty of that for my day job!  There wasn’t enough novel in the novel.  I thought The Simmons Paper had real potential to be a little-known much-loved novella for me – have I ever told you about my fascination with dictionaries?  I wrote a thesis on them once – but I found the style a little clogging, and the thread of spoof rather one-note.  Good, but still disappointing.  Yet I will say this for it – it was much better than Sunlight on Cold Water.