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Trollope: “He Knew He Was Right”. A masterpiece of dry comedy

Trollope is, perhaps, my favourite novelist (although PG Wodehouse is up there).

I have described before 11 life-changing reasons you should read Trollope, including his views on religion, sexual politics, and the media (links in bold italics are to other posts on this site).

But not everyone is convinced.

So I thought I would give an example of the brilliance of Trollope by quoting an entire chapter from his 1869 novel He Knew He Was Right.  

He Knew He Was Right deals with the breakdown of the marriage between Louis Trevelyan, a wealthy young Englishman, and his wife Emily.  As a description of how jealousy and stubbornness can destroy a relationship, it could have been written yesterday.

My Trollope Society edition of “He Knew He Was Right” has 823 pages

Emily’s father is Sir Marmaduke Rowley, Governor of the fictional Mandarin Islands, a distant British colony.  An old friend, Colonel Osborne, who is also Emily’s godfather, arranges for Sir Marmaduke to be summoned back to London, ostensibly to appear before a parliamentary committee, but in fact in order that he can return to London at the taxpayer’s expense to see Emily.  Sir Marmaduke acquiesces in this subterfuge; yet is dismayed when he is summoned before the committee of Members of Parliament, which is chaired by one Major Magruder: “a certain ancient pundit of the constitution, who had been for many years a member, and who had been known as a stern critic of our colonial modes of government”.

I have reproduced here Chapter 68 of He Knew He Was Right, giving an account of Sir Marmaduke’s appearance before the Major Magruder’s committee.  I often counsel people who want to understand politics, and British parliamentary procedure, to read Trollope.  Chapter 68 (out of 99 in the book) illustrates why.  The procedures described; the emotions of the elderly Sir Marmaduke as he is questioned; the chairmanship and motivation of Major Magruder; and the outcome of the hearing, including the way Sir Marmaduke is treated compared with the incomparably more competent “Governor from one of the greater colonies” who has also been questioned  by the committee, could describe the proceedings of a British parliamentary committee in 2019.

Read, and relish.  I hope you enjoy it.

Chapter 68

Major Magruder’s Committee

Sir Marmaduke could not go out to Willesden on the morning after Lady Rowley’s return from River’s Cottage, because on that day he was summoned to attend at twelve o’clock before a Committee of the House of Commons, to give his evidence and, the fruit of his experience as to the government of British colonies generally; and as he went down to the House in a cab from Manchester Street he thoroughly wished that his friend Colonel Osborne had not been so efficacious in bringing him home. The task before him was one which he thoroughly disliked, and of which he was afraid. (more…)

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Great Vienna cafes – Cafe Malipop turns 40!

Is kissing allowed in the Cafe Malipop?

How about smoking?

How about being cool and hanging out?

Clue: only one of these activities is allowed in the Cafe Malipop.

Here are eight reasons the Cafe Malipop is a great Vienna cafe (links in bold italics are to posts on this site):

(i) Viennese cafes, like London pubs, occasionally get “renovated” and, sometimes, ruined.  You can feel safe at the Malipop.  No renovation has taken place there since time began;

The Malipop: how a late-night cafe should be

(ii) the 10 Ungargasse address in Vienna’s Third District is far from the tourist trail, indeed far from trails of any kind unless you study at the nearby Music University;

(iii) like the Hard Rock Cafe, the Malipop has a song about it.  Malipopwritten and sung by legendary singer, activist and comedian Willi Resetarits (also known as Dr Kurt Ostbahn) is crooned in impenetrable Viennese dialect, opening with the lines:

Heid noch im Malipop, drink i an feanet, iss i an schbedsialdosd und rauch a smaat…

This means roughly: (more…)

James Bond and salad dressing? Nein danke!

Ian Fleming’s James Bond, created in a series of novels and short stories from 1953 to 1966, is unforgettable.  But his attitudes often now feel dated (links in bold italics are to other posts on this site).

Can one dislike Bond’s views, for example on women, yet still admire, or enjoy, his single-mindedness and style?  I think so.  If you cannot discount dated attitudes in cultural artefacts, you risk missing out on countless historical treats.

For writers, a character like James Bond is gold dust.  Like him or loath him, he is well written: he thinks about his actions, has values and opinions, behaves within a clearly defined framework, yet is full of ambiguity.  No wonder movie-makers want to exploit him.

Mention of movie-makers raises a key question: can you, or should you, attempt to update or adapt a character such as Bond?  That is what movie makers do, drawing on the original material in Fleming’s novels to create stories set in the present day which seek to update Bond selectively.  Results are mixed, although as I say in the piece at the link, many of us keep going back to cinemas in the hope Bond’s next outing will be better than the last.

Debate swirls around a black or female Bond: my view is that this would be perfectly permissible, so long as the character retained key characteristics such as sophistication, humour, gadgets, great grooming, and a merciless streak.

The cover of my Folio Society “Casino Royale” is suitably dated both in style and content – get a whiff of that cigarette smoke

Some adaptation and updating is essential.  A modern movie which used Bond’s line about a key – and formerly much-loved – female (more…)

East West Street: genocide? Or crimes against humanity?

I recently read East West Street by British law professor and international human rights expert Philippe Sands.

If you have any interest in the cataclysm which overtook eastern and central Europe between 1933 and 1945, I recommend East West Street.  It explains the development of the concepts of “crimes against humanity” and “genocide” against the background of the Second World War and the appalling crimes which took place in the run up to, and during, that conflict.

It also considers the relevance of what happened in 1933-45 today.

My copy of ‘East West Street’.  The endorsements ring true

Sands humanises and illustrates his account by focusing on four individuals.  Hersch Lauterpacht was a professor of International Law who developed the concept of crimes against humanity.  Rafael Lemkin was a prosecutor and lawyer who developed the concept of Genocide.  Hans Frank was Hitler’s lawyer and later governor-general of German-occupied Poland from 1940-45.  Leon Buchholz was Sands’s grandfather, who died in Paris in 1997 (‘He took Lemberg to the grave, along with a scarf given to him by his mother in January 1939. It was a parting gift from Vienna, my mother told me as we bade him adieu.’) (more…)

Much Obliged, Jeeves – 24 quotations

For all you ardent Wodehouse fans, I have fine news.

Much Obliged, Jeeves is one of the funniest Wodehouse books I have read.

The cover of my Folio Society edition of “Much Obliged, Jeeves”

Why is Much Obliged, Jeeves so hilarious?  I put it down to a consistency and richness of comic language from start to finish.  In between laughing out loud and wiping the tears from my eyes, I noted so many fine lines that I had to cut the total down radically for this blog.

Here is my selection of quotations from Much Obliged, Jeeves: 

  • I am always glad… to renew my acquaintance with the unbeatable eatables dished up by her superb French chef Anatole, God’s gift to the gastric juices.  I have often regretted that I have but one stomach to put at his disposal.
  • [Of Aunt Dahlia’s stentorious voice] ‘I wonder whether she ever sang lullabies to me in my cradle.  If so, it must have scared me cross-eyed, giving me the illusion that the boiler had exploded.’
  • ‘My fiancée wanted me to,’ he said, and as his lips framed the word ‘fiancée’ his voice took on a sort of tremolo like that of a male turtle dove cooing to a female turtle dove. (more…)

Why “I am Pilgrim” is the best thriller I’ve read for ages

I crave good thrillers.  But they are vanishingly rare.

So when I find a book with a compelling plot, rich characters, horrifying jeopardy and seat-edge cliff-hangers, I fall on it like a starving man on a feast.

I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes is such a thriller – an epic, breathtaking romp from New York to Afghanistan to Bahrain to Gaza to Bodrum to Bulgaria and back.  I really enjoyed it.

Here (no spoilers) are some reasons it works well:

  1. characterisation: the outstanding feature of the novel.  Both the bad guy (“The Saracen”) and the protagonist, the US-trained superspy codenamed “Pilgrim” (both Saracen and Pilgrim can also mean “Nomad”), are richly drawn, with enough back story to fill several novels.  This can be irritating: the book is so long that some threads of detail disappear (Pilgrim’s drug habit) or reappear without having been described in the first place (the Saracen’s dead wife).   But on the whole the characters, including a host of minor players, gleam like diamonds.  This makes you care about them;
  2. action: the action scenes are thrilling.  A firefight in an Afghan village, the ghastly deaths of three hostages, the theft of some medical supplies from a heavily-guarded facility – all will have you on the edge of your seat;
  3. evil: the consequences with which the world – and specifically the US – will threatened if Pilgrim does not succeed in his mission are both credible and horrific.  The potential horror is illustrated early on in the book in microcosm, leaving you praying it will not come about on a bigger scale;
  4. good: Pilgrim has an unerring moral compass which draws sympathy – a bit like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher (links in bold italics are to other posts on this blog).  Other characters also have clear moral values.  Even “The Saracen” plans his act of evil for reasons which he believes are pure and noble;
  5. richness: Hayes reaches deep into characters to create insights which enrich and illuminate the book.  For example, he creates a Jewish character who has survived the Holocaust and hangs around the Bebelplatz – a memorial to the 1933 book-burning by Nazis in Berlin – to highlight a point: when millions of people, a whole political system, countless numbers of citizens who believed in God, said they were going to kill you – just listen to them.  Later, Pilgrim inspires a cynical musician who has lost his mojo to resume his musical career – just in passing.  The book is full of warm, fascinating detail;
  6. I am Pilgrim contains some fine epigrams.  I liked Evidence is the name we give to what we have, but what about the things we haven’t found? and If you want to be free, all you have to do is let go;  
  7. The structure of the book is outstanding.  Hints from opening chapters flower into relevance hundreds of pages later.  For example Pilgrim’s early hatred of the practice of torture by “waterboarding” sets the scene for it to be used later.  The early love of an anonymous Geneva banker for his family becomes a key to the resolution;
  8. The book is rich in cliff-hangers, especially from the mid-way on.  You really, really want to know what will happen next.

Another fast-moving thriller – described by Edmund de Waal as “utterly gripping” (more…)

Smoking in cafes: a Viennese speciality

How long will Austria retain its unusually permissive attitude to smoking in bars and cafes?

Back in the 1970s I used to ride on the top deck of a double-decker red Routemaster bus to school in Manchester, an hour each way.  On winter mornings the air was thick with cigarette smoke, and the windows would mist up with condensation on which we would draw pictures and scrawl messages.

No-one thought twice about the health hazards to children sitting in a smoky bus for two hours a day.

What changed?

Campaigners are trying to introduce a smoking ban in cafes in Austria

In 2003, New York introduced a ban on smoking in all enclosed workplaces, including bars and restaurants.  Ireland followed in 2004, becoming the first country in the world to do so.  In 2006 Scotland followed suit, followed by Wales, Northern Ireland and on 1 July 2007, England, including bars, restaurants, and buses.

I remember entering a pub for the first time after 1 July 2007 and finding that the removal of the permanent haze of smoke made it possible (more…)

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