Full Moon – P G Wodehouse

If I mention two words – pigs & imposters – that’s really all you need to know about Full Moon, one of the Blandings novels of P G Wodehouse. I love Wodehouse & I’m very grateful to Simon & Karen for choosing 1947 for the latest instalment of their Club as it meant I had a chance to read one of his funniest novels.

As usual, there are several romantic couples facing opposition from the formidable women of Lord Emsworth’s family. His sister, Lady Hermione Wedge, has a beautiful but dim daughter, Veronica, who needs a rich husband. Lord Emsworth’s son, Freddie, now a super salesman for his American father-in-law’s dog biscuit business, is bringing his friend, supermarket millionaire, Tipton Plimsoll, down to Blandings in the hope of convincing him to stock Donaldson’s Dog-Joy in his chain of supermarkets. Lady Hermione thinks Tipton would be perfect for Vee. Tipton falls madly in love at first sight but is misled by Lord Emsworth into thinking that Vee is in love with Freddie. Tipton is also unnerved by a doctor’s diagnosis of the spots on his chest as a sign of alcoholic poisoning & warns him of hallucinations & other dire symptoms unless he stops drinking immediately. The fact that Tipton has started seeing a grotesque face appearing & disappearing at frequent intervals is enough to put him off the drink for life.

The face in question belongs to artist Bill Lister (known to Freddie, of course, as Blister) who has no idea that he has become the stuff of Tipton’s nightmares. Bill is in love with Prudence Garland, daughter of Lord Emsworth’s sister, Dora. Even though Bill has just inherited a pub which Prudence thinks could be very successful with a little work, her mother forbids her daughter to marry an artist & sends Prue down to Blandings Castle to be guarded by her Aunt Hermione. Bill’s godfather happens to be Lord Emsworth’s brother, the Hon Galahad Threepwood. Gally decides that Bill should follow Prue to Blandings disguised as a gardener & wearing a false beard that makes him look like an Assyrian king. This bid fails miserably when Bill mistakes Lady Hermione for the cook & tries to bribe her with half a crown to take a letter to Prue, but Gally’s next idea is even better. He introduces Bill (without the beard) to his brother as Edwin Landseer, the perfect man to paint a portrait of the Empress of Blandings, Lord Emsworth’s prize-winning pig. Complications ensue as you might imagine.

It’s all quite mad but a lot of fun. It was even more fun as I listened to the audio book of Full Moon read by Jeremy Sinden, which was wonderful. Jeremy Sinden is one of my favourite narrators of Wodehouse & I’m sure he narrated quite a few titles but there are only a few available on Audible. It amazes me that the plot components of all the Blandings novels consist of a selection of the following – imposters, thwarted love, the threat of the Empress being stolen or not eating, terrifying aunts, Gally’s schemes & Lord Emsworth’s dottiness – but they are all so funny. Wodehouse’s wordplay is sublime & his way with names can be compared with Dickens.  My favourite in this book was E Jimpson Murgatroyd, Tipton’s doctor. No matter how complicated the plot becomes, all will come right in the end.

Hand-Grenade Practice in Peking – Frances Wood

I had mixed feelings about this book. It’s the story of an English student studying Chinese language & history in Peking in the 1970s, during the final days of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. What disconcerted me at first was the tome of humorous incomprehension. I was tempted to pick this up because I’d been reading articles about the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. Everything I read emphasized the horror & the tragedy of this period of Chinese history, when the Communist leadership, led by a resurgent Mao Zedong, incited students to form the Red Guard. The Red Guard violently suppressed intellectuals, exalted the role of the peasants & forced so-called class enemies to work in the fields. In the process this new policy ruined the economy & led to millions of deaths from famine as well as the many people imprisoned by the regime. China was almost an unknown land to most people in the West at that time & Frances Wood didn’t know about the atrocities until her return from Peking. The book was based on her letters home & emphasize the absurdities of a regime that she compares to Sellers & Yeatman’s 1066 and All That rather than Orwell’s 1984.

I can’t imagine how Wood kept her sense of humour in the circumstances of her life in Peking. She was one of a group of foreign students studying at a Language Institute & then, she was permitted to study history at Peking University. Living conditions were primitive, no heating in the winter, very little hot water (& that was usually monopolised by the aggressive North Korean students). Washing sheets in the winter & trying to keep the sleeves of a thick padded coat free from soy sauce are only two of the challenges Frances faces. Her Chinese tutors & fellow students lived in a state of fear that their words would be misinterpreted & so real friendships were impossible. Some of the foreign students deliberately tried to question the official version, which changed depending on who was in or out of favour with the leadership of the Party. Teaching materials were bland & uninteresting because so much history was being rewritten & so many books stamped Negative Teaching Material & only available from the library with written permission from a tutor.

Then, there were the compulsory games & the periods spent working in the country, trying to plant rice or bind enormous cabbages with inferior rice straw that broke. Every aspect of life was dictated by the Party & foreigners were restricted in their movements, forced to get permits to travel &, like other Chinese, having to take all their food with them for the journey. There are some beautiful moments, seeing the dawn at the Great Wall, for instance, but most journeys, whether by train or bicycle, were frustrating. The British Embassy staff provided respite for the British students, providing transport for them to get into Peking & inviting them to social events & outings. Wood always feels an outsider & the horrified reaction of most Chinese to Westerners gives her insight into racism at a very basic level,

An immensely tall and lanky Swedish student with a great clump of fair hair got tired of walking along city streets and having the entire population call out Waiguo ren (Foreigner) as if he didn’t know. … The same thing happened to the rest of us, all the time, although we weren’t quite so visible from a distance. Wherever we went, whatever we did, there was always the insistent whisper, Waiguo ren. If you just slipped out of the Institute gates to post a letter, people staggered back, arms flailing, or flattened themselves against walls and stared. I remember one little old lady in her thick black cotton padded suit, hobbling along on bound feet, who had to clutch at a tree when I passed as she muttered Waiguo ren to herself.

After a year in Peking, Frances returns home after a long journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway & through Eastern Europe. She regrets her failure to really become a part of China, unrealistic though such an aim might have been. On her return home, she was paralysed by the choice of cereals at breakfast (even though she’d dreamed of such choice in Peking) & felt paranoid when she was ignored by her fellow travellers on the bus. Frances Wood & her fellow students were witnesses to the essential absurdity of all totalitarian regimes. She was fortunate in being an outsider, able to observe & be amused by the ridiculousness without becoming a victim of the arbitrary whims of the leadership. I enjoyed Hand-Grenade Practice in Peking with reservations. Having just read Christabel Bielenberg’s memoir, The Past is Myself, I had similar questions about writing & reading memoirs. Although written many years after the event, both authors take us back to the people they were at the time with the knowledge they had then. I can only respect their honesty & their ability to strip away the knowledge they gained after the fact & take their stories at face value, for the fascinating slices of life they are.

Sandlands – Rosy Thornton

It can be difficult to write about short stories. It’s not easy to discuss plot without giving too much information. In this case, however, it’s easier because Rosy Thornton’s impressive new volume of stories, Sandlands, share many common elements. Place is the most obvious as all the stories are set in the Suffolk fenlands & often share the same locations – the Ship Inn, Willett’s Farm, a WWII airfield now turned into a museum, the village of Blaxhall. There are also common themes – nature, remembrance, the past reaching into the present. I enjoyed the literary echoes too, of Dorothy L Sayers’ The Nine Tailors in Ringing Night, a story featuring bell ringers & of Edward Thomas’s poem As the Team’s Head Brass in Stone the Crows, where a WWII Spitfire pilot looks back on his war service from his nursing home to a scene that became as familiar during WWII as it had been thirty years before.

Nothing in that evening landscape moved to give it life and substance – until suddenly, beyond my left wingtip, a miniature figure swung into view, straddling the midline of a field where it changed from the dull grey-brown of stubble, to a deeper richer russet, ridged in black. At first I had no sense that the figure was in motion, so slowly did it creep along the line of the last furrow, edging forward no faster than a sluggish beetle, dazed by the sun. I took another turn, dropping my height a little, to gaze down until I could make out the broad backs of a pair of chestnut horses, the glinting Y-shape of the plough and, behind it, just visible, the dot of a man’s head.

Sometimes the literary inspiration is more overt as in A Curiosity of Warnings, when a man follows in the footsteps of the protagonist of one of M R James’ ghost stories with unintended consequences. Other stories with supernatural touches include The Witch Bottle, where Kathy’s new home holds the memory of a long-ago tragedy that threatens the present; The White Doe, where Fran experiences the mythical or mystical visitations of the doe while coming to terms with the death of her mother & The Watcher of Souls, where a barn owl’s nest hides a cache of love letters from long ago.

One of my favourite stories was Whispers. Dr Theodore Whybrow has been working on the definitive biography of Regency poet Wiliam Colstone for years. He’s almost paralysed by the pressure that comes with writing a book so long-awaited. On impulse, he buys a Martello tower on the coast, a remnant of the Napoleonic Wars that he knew as a boy, & as he spends more time there, he feels the closeness of the past & the inspiration that he needs.

It had been a calm night outside, overcast and starless, the sea as close to a millpond as he had known it. But the tower was never silent. Even on the most breathlessly still of nights, there were whisperings in the bricks. He sometimes wondered if it was really the sea – some subterranean echo or vibration, rippling up through the walls from the shingle on which they stood. Or perhaps an illusion, a trick of the mind, like the echo of the waves heard in a seashell. Yet, for all that, there was a paradoxical realness and solidity about the voices here, an immediacy – yes, that was the word for it: immediate, unmediated – which recalled with a sudden sharp pang the early days of his scholarship, that quickening of the blood he had thought to have lost. A connection thought severed, rejoined.

Many of the stories are about the links between generations, of the same family or of the people who have lived in a house or a place. In All the Flowers Gone, three generations of women are connected to an airfield. Lilian works at the airfield during WWII & falls in love with a pilot. Her daughter, Rosa, protests against nuclear weapons at the base in the 1980s. Rosa’s daughter, Poppy, is a botanist, searching for a rare flower that has been sighted near the old runway. I loved the way that the women were linked not only by blood but by cycling with its connotations of freedom & the way that the place played a significant role in the lives of Lilian, Rosa & Poppy.

It was a perfect morning for cycling. The temperature must have fallen during a clear night and a dawn mist had formed over the fields.As Poppy bowled along Tunstall Lane it rose in layers, which seemed to lift and peel away without losing any of their density, and hung just clear of the barley so that sunlight filtered through underneath, tingeing them from below with watery gold. Once through Tunstall village and out on the road that stretched straight ahead into Rendlesham Forest, she rose on her pedals in her battered trainers, pushing down harder with each stroke, enjoying the stretch in her calves and the rush of cool air in her lungs, until the dark trees on either side were no more than a blur.

In Nightingale’s Return, the son of an Italian POW travels back to the farm where his father worked during the War & we travel back to Salvatore’s time at Nightingale Farm while his son makes the journey in the present day.

I loved the humour in many of the stories. I think my favourite story was The Interregnum. The rector of St Peter’s Blaxhall goes on maternity leave & her replacement is Ivy Paskall. Ivy is a lay reader studying for the ministry rather than a member of the clergy but secretary of the PCC, Dorothy Brundish, is sure that the parish will manage. That is until Ivy’s plans for bonfires at Epiphany & a women’s feast at Candlemas, the Christian equivalent of Imbolc, begin to cause some uneasiness. Ivy’s explanations seem very reasonable but are her ideas maybe a little pagan for the congregation of St Peter’s?  In High House, a woman cleans for Mr Napish, a retired engineer whose obsession with theories about tides & flooding feed into his unusual hobby.

I enjoyed this collection of stories very much. The book is beautifully produced by Sandstone Press & the cover image is incredibly striking, evoking the themes of nature & unease in the stories. I’ve read all Rosy’s novels & reviewed several of them here (see Ninepins, The Tapestry of Love, More than Love Letters). Rosy was the first author to contact me back in 2010 when I started blogging & ask if I would like to review her book which was such a thrill. Luckily I’ve enjoyed her books so reading them has been a much-anticipated treat.

Rosy Thornton kindly sent me a review copy of Sandlands.

Wonder Cruise – Ursula Bloom

Ann Clements is 35 years old, single & middle-aged before her time. She works as a typist in an office on Henrietta Street in London, lives in a depressing bedsitter ruled by her unpredictable landlady Mrs Puddock. Ann’s routine is rigid & unforgiving. She washes her hair one evening, mends the next, surreptitiously does her ironing the next evening (cooling the forbidden iron by waving it out the window). If money is short, she’s reduced to poached eggs & tea for lunch by Friday. On Sundays, Ann goes to Balham to have lunch with her pompous, hypocritical parson brother, Cuthbert, & his family. Her annual holiday is a boring two weeks at Worthing with Cuthbert, his wife, Eleanor, & their daughter, Gloria.

One day, Ann wins a prize in a sweepstake. She didn’t even realise she had a ticket as a colleague had bought it for her instead of the raffle ticket that she usually indulged in. Encouraged by her sympathetic boss, Mr Robert, & urged on by the disapproval or indifference of her colleagues, Ann decides to book a cabin for a Mediterranean cruise. Each step seems to take on an inevitability. Mr Robert encourages her to go, even lending her the money for the deposit, Miss Thomas (who bought the ticket & feels entitled to have an opinion on how Ann spends the money) gets her back up so that she finds herself insisting on the holiday & on going alone, which is even more reprehensible. Ann is whirled into the travel agent’s office by a group of people as she’s gazing into the window & before she knows it, she has a cabin, a passport, instructions about luggage & she finds herself committed.

Ann felt that a new spirit had settled down upon her, the new gay spirit of adventure. She had reserved a cabin for herself on a wonder cruise. For the second time that day she found herself outside Charing Cross, and she knew that she had had no lunch.

The cruise begins badly. Ann is frightened by the thought of the lifeboat drill, scared of the chief steward, realises all her clothes are wrong & gets seasick. Her fellow passengers are unattractive people & she’s surprised to meet Oliver Banks, a man she’s met before, sitting on a park bench on a sunny day in London. Soon though, the atmosphere & the wonder of the places she visits begins to change Ann. She becomes aware of the special atmosphere of the cruise & recognizes its effect on her fellow passengers,

It was sea-fever. The beginning of a romance at sea; it was the strangely subtle atmosphere of a great liner urging forward, bent on pleasure.

Every day leads to a new departure for Ann. In Gibraltar she has her hair shingled; in Marseilles, she spends far too much money on clothes; in Malta, she bathes in the sea, practically alone, with a man. Ann’s conversations with Oliver turn all her ideas about life upside down & she realises how restricted her life has been. He pushes her into new experiences, from dancing to walking through the ruins of Pompeii to bathing in a secluded cove in a bathing costume that Cuthbert would have thought indecent.

Instantly she knew that she had never dared to think for herself, but had allowed her father and Cuthbert to mould her views and set their own opinions in her mind, like little flags pinned to a map to denote the route. She had never formed a single opinion of her own, and it dismayed her.

After being left behind in Venice by the ship, Ann travels to the Dolomites with a new friend, Eva Temple, & the farcical situation that develops there is only resolved by the arrival of her luggage. The ending is very satisfying with almost everyone getting their just desserts.

She had started the cruise as a woman, a woman nearing middle age, who had had nothing out of life, and less out of love, and who expected nothing. She had been awakened vividly in the Alameda by an old hag who had warned her to take what she could. She had taken what she could. And now she had become a pretty girl who tempted strange young men to kiss her. Whatever you might say, the change was a gratifying one to your vanity.

Wonder Cruise is a delightful Cinderella story but there’s more depth to the characterization & the social commentary than might be expected from a romantic novel. Ursula Bloom has some very sharp & satirical things to say about Ann’s fellow passengers, from Mr & Mrs Spinks, who have made their fortune in trade & can’t resist telling everyone how much money they have, to Mrs Duncan who’s frankly man-hunting for her daughter, Ethel, determined to snap up an Italian Count at least, to the Frenchman who only came on the cruise for the food. Then there’s the kind but disappointed ship’s doctor, the Assistant Purser who is determined to make a conquest among the passengers & odd little Miss Bright whose idea of a good day out is a tour of crypts & church vaults with a monk. Bloom also makes some spiky, clear eyed observations of the predatory motives of the passengers & crew on board; this is not a fluffy romantic novel by any means.

Ann’s delight in the European cities she visits, the gradual relaxation of her inhibitions & blossoming into an attractive woman is subtly done. As each layer of her old habits, old thoughts & the old restrictions that her upbringing & her own timid nature had imposed on her begin to disappear, Ann becomes more confident in her own feelings & decisions. Even when her judgement is wrong about a person or a place, she comes to realise that she has to take responsibility for herself & her life & break away from the old ways that had imprisoned her in deadly routine & the expectations of unpleasant, unworthy people like Cuthbert.

Corazon Books are planning to reprint more of Ursula Bloom’s novels & they kindly sent me a review copy of Wonder Cruise.

Doctor Thorne – Anthony Trollope

Doctor Thorne opens with the events of twenty years before. Henry Thorne seduces Mary Scatcherd, sister of the local stonemason. When she becomes pregnant, her brother, Roger, beats Thorne so badly that he dies. Tried for murder, he is convicted of manslaughter when the facts of the case became known, & serves six months in jail. Henry Thorne’s brother, Thomas, is the local doctor, a steady, sober man in comparison with his wicked brother. Dr Thorne pities poor Mary Scatcherd in her sad situation. When Mary’s former suitor still wants to marry her & emigrate to America, he does so on the condition that she leaves her daughter behind. Dr Thorne pledges to bring up baby Mary & care for her & Mary Scatcherd agrees.

Twenty years later, Mary Thorne has grown up beautiful, kind & the apple of her uncle’s eye. She was sent off as a little girl to be educated but has lived with her uncle since she was 13. She is on terms of friendship with the local squire’s family, the Greshams of Greshamsbury. Doctor Thorne is a friend of the Squire & is tolerated by his haughty wife, Lady Arabella, who never forgets that she is a member of the De Courcy family of Courcy Castle. Squire Gresham has squandered the fortune left him by his father. His daughters will have tiny dowries & his only son, Frank, will have to marry well to hold on to what’s left of the estate. Marrying well means marrying money & Lady Arabella is soon scheming with her sister-in-law, Lady de Courcy, to bring this about. Lady de Courcy has invited Miss Dunstable, heiress of an ointment fortune, to Courcy Castle, & wants Frank to marry her.

Frank Gresham is a nice boy, that’s the only way I can describe him. Fond of his family, conscious of his father’s perilous financial position, loyal to his friends & eager to do the right thing. Frank is also in love with Mary Thorne. Lady Arabella has always disapproved of Mary’s intimacy with her children, not only because she has no money. Her ambiguous social position is also a problem. The sad story of her parents has been forgotten by many & the young Greshams & Mary herself have no idea that she’s illegitimate. However, once Mary is of an age to marry, she begins to ask her uncle questions about her origins.

Roger Scatcherd, the stonemason, has prospered. He is now a rich man, a baronet, living at Boxall Hill, land that once belonged to Squire Gresham, but was sold to pay debts. Scatcherd has been a friend of Doctor Thorne’s ever since the terrible events of twenty years before. Doctor Thorne helped Scatcherd’s wife & child while he was in jail but the Scatcherds know nothing about Mary. Sir Roger’s health is poor because he’s an alcoholic. His drinking bouts & irrational rages are undermining his constitution & he refuses to listen to Doctor Thorne’s advice. Doctor Thorne has never told Sir Roger about Mary because he fears that the Scatcherds would want to take her away from him. He knows how unhappy Mary would be with Sir Roger & his wife & so he says nothing. However, when Sir Roger, after another bout of illness, makes a new will, leaving a fortune to his sister Mary’s eldest child, but without naming the child, Doctor Thorne, as executor of the will, must tell Sir Roger the truth. The will leaves this eldest child the money if he or she outlives Sir Roger & his dissolute only child, Louis Philippe, who will inherit when he turns twenty-five.

Doctor Thorne is faced with a terrible dilemma. He knows that Mary & Frank are in love. He believes it is probable that Sir Roger will soon be dead as he refuses to stop drinking. Louis Philippe is well on the way to emulating his father & could very well die young, leaving Mary a considerable heiress. Sir Roger refuses to amend the ambiguous wording of the will. Should Doctor Thorne tell the Greshams of Mary’s possible inheritance in the hope that they will allow Frank to marry her? What if Louis Philippe reforms & lives to a ripe old age? Frank & Mary would be left with nothing.

I loved this book. This was actually a reread as I read the Barsetshire novels over 30 years ago. I was prompted to reread it because OUP kindly sent me a review copy of the new edition. We haven’t seen the new TV series here yet but I’ll be interested to see it when it makes an appearance. After 30 years, it was like reading a brand new novel anyway. I was especially taken with the good humour of the narrator. I thought of him as Trollope just as I think of the narrator of A Christmas Carol as Dickens & I kept thinking of Trollope standing in the spirit at my elbow (as Dickens writes when the Ghost of Christmas Past visits Scrooge). Doctor Thorne is also a very funny book. Whether it’s the satire of Lady Arabella & Lady de Courcy’s attempts to find a rich bride for Frank & his attempts to evade them or Augusta Gresham’s miserable engagement to Mr Moffat which ends with Frank horsewhipping him, much to the Squire’s approval, the tone is amused & genial.

Trollope’s descriptions are also pithy & very amusing. He describes Mr Winterbones, Sir Roger’s confidential secretary as “a little, withered, dissipated, broken-down man, whom gin and poverty had nearly burnt to a cinder, and dried to an ash.” He still tries too hard with some of his character’s  names, Dr Fillgrave, Miss Gushing, the easily bribed publican Mr Reddypalm & the political agents Mr Nearthewinde & Mr Closerstil. Doctor Thorne himself can be as prickly as his name when he feels he’s being slighted & Mary had spirit & wit, she’s no simpering young miss. I especially enjoyed her encounter with Lady Arabella where her pertness is on a par with Elizabeth Bennet’s when she is confronted by Lady Catherine.There’s also a very funny & satirical chapter consisting of letters between Augusta Gresham & her cousin, Lady Amelia. I don’t think I remember another Trollope novel where the narrator is so very present with comments & asides.

There are some implausibilities in the plot. I can only think that Sir Roger’s brain had been scrambled by drink for Mary’s identity to be such a surprise to him. Doctor Thorne had only one sibling, Henry, & Scatcherd knew his sister was pregnant when Henry died. Even though he was told the child was dead, where did he think the doctor’s niece had sprung from? Also, I would think that Mary’s illegitimacy might invalidate the terms of Sir Roger’s will without all the agonising that the Doctor goes through about what to tell the Greshams. Actually Trollope amusingly heads off any legal quibbling by boldly stating that if the terms of the will are incorrect, they’ve just been wrongly described! The critics had been scathing about the legal detail of his previous novel, The Three Clerks, so he was getting in first in Doctor Thorne. Still, surely Mary Scatcherd’s legitimate American children would have challenged the will? Anyway, it’s Trollope’s story & he tells us in so many words that it’s his world & he’ll do what he pleases with his characters.

I couldn’t help wondering what Wilkie Collins would have done with the same material. Trollope lays everything out for us so that by about Chapter 10 we know all about Mary’s parentage, the terms of Sir Roger’s will & the potential implications for Mary & her marriage to Frank. We then have another 35 chapters where Doctor Thorne works through every possible moral implication of these circumstances. His scruples won’t allow him to neglect Louis when he’s made an unwilling trustee of the estate, or raise Mary’s hopes by telling her of her possible inheritance.Wilkie would have made a mystery of every part of it with cliffhangers galore & I would have been on the edge of my seat. However, I was surprised how suspenseful the book was, considering that I already knew all the secrets & had a good idea of the ending. I read it over Easter & was glued to my chair for hours at a time.

More – Max Beerbohm

Max Beerbohm is an acquired taste. He has that witty, fin-de-siècle style reminiscent of the authors of the 1890s – Oscar Wilde & the writers at The Yellow Book are probably the best-known examples. Beerbohm’s essays remind me of the languid figures in Aubrey Beardsley’s drawings. I’m never quite sure when he’s being serious but then, that’s half the fun of reading his essays.

The only other book by Beerbohm that I’ve read is Zuleika Dobson, a complete fantasy about a girl so beautiful that whole groups of Oxford undergraduates fall into the river while gazing at her. Complete nonsense but a lot of fun to read. I felt a little like that about the essays collected in More. This book was published in 1899, when Beerbohm was only in his late 20s. It was his second book of essays (hence the title) & I think the best way to read them is to read one or two at a time. That’s what I did, I read one nearly every night & although I’m sure I didn’t always catch the irony, I did enjoy reading Beerbohm’s opinions on the many subjects he pokes fun at here.

Maybe the best way to decide if you’re going to enjoy Beerbohm’s style is to read a few examples. In “The Sea-side in Winter”, he enjoys his melancholy,

After the first day or so, my melancholy leaves me.The very loneliness of the place does but accentuate my proprietary sense. From the midst of all this lifeless monotony I stand out, a dominant and most romantic personage. Were I in London, who would notice me, no prince there? Even here, in the Season, I had but a slight pre-eminence over other visitors. But now I need but show myself to create a glow of interest and wonder. The blind man, standing by his telescope, knows my tread and tries, I think, to picture my appearance. The old gentlemen see in me the incarnation of splendid youth; the shop people, a dispenser of great riches; the school-girls, a prodigy of joyous freedom from French verbs. I could not have levied these tributes in the month of August.

On trying to convince shopkeepers that their window displays are so much less effective that the traditional sign-boards of the past,

Are you a jeweller? You fill your window with a garish and unseemly chaos of all you have : bracelets, sleeve-links, penknives, tiaras – toute la boutique. Your rival in Paris, even in New York, is much wiser. He understands the value of a reticent symbolism. Very little he puts into his window. What he puts is good. Men and women, beholding, praise it. Their imagination has been stirred, their appetite whetted from the things that are withheld, and they long to enter in at the door. Last winter, in the Rue de la Paix, I saw a jewel-window, sir, that should serve for an example to you. It was lined with scarlet velvet and illustrious with electric light. In the very middle of it, lay, like a bomb in a palace, one beautiful black pearl. Had I been rich, I must have entered.

He manages to insult the local jeweller, give a back-handed compliment to New York & exult himself as an arbiter of good taste while also admitting that he hasn’t the money to afford the beautiful things he craves.

In an essay on Going Back to School, he remembers the awfulness of the journey to the station at the end of the holidays, counting down the hours & minutes until he arrived (even paying for a first-class seat himself so as to avoid his companions for as long as possible,

Not that I had any special reason for hating school! Strange as it may seem to my readers, I was not unpopular there. I was a modest, good-humoured boy. It is Oxford that has made me insufferable. At school, my character remained in a state of undevelopment. I had a few misgivings, perhaps. In some respects I was always too young, in others, too old, for a perfect relish of the convention. As I hovered, in grey knickerbockers, on a cold and muddy field, round the outskirts of a crowd that was tearing itself from limb to limb for the sake of a leathern bladder, I would often wish for a nice, warm room and a good game of hunt-the-slipper. And, when we sallied forth, after dark, in the frost, to the swimming-bath, my heart would steal back to the fireside in Writing Home and the plot of Miss Braddon’s latest novel.

I can’t disagree with him there! I have to believe that he was joking when he deplores the Fire Brigade’s habit of putting out fires & thereby saving ugly buildings from destruction. That’s surely taking aestheticism too far. Some of his essays are still relevant today. A Cloud of Pinafores is about the cult of the child, “But, now that children are booming, the publishers and reviewers are all agog.” I loved the observation that children could now be as impertinent as they liked without being told to mind their manners. In Victorian times, the nursery was a stern place, full of discipline & cautionary verses to keep a child on the straight & narrow. Now, children have such absolute freedom that they are shocked by real life when they leave the nursery,

Finding no pleasure in a freedom which they have always had, incapable of that self-control which long discipline produces, they will become neurotic, ineffectual men and women. In the old days, there could have been no reaction of this kind. The strange sense of freedom was a recompense for less happiness of heart. Children were fit for life.

What would Beerbohm have thought about children’s fashion labels, babycinos & the abolition of prize-giving at sports days because “everyone’s a winner”?

Other essays on the state of the music hall, the novels of Ouida & Madame Tussaud’s waxworks are equally entertaining. You probably know by now whether or not Max Beerbohm is for you. Simon has also reviewed More in the latest issue of Shiny New Books.

The publisher, Mike Walmer, kindly sent me a copy of More for review.

Wodehouse and Kay – two short reviews

I decided to write short reviews of two books I’ve read recently – The Code of the Woosters by P G Wodehouse & The Youngest Lady in Waiting by Mara Kay. I enjoyed them both but I know that if I don’t write down a few thoughts now, it won’t happen at all. I’m writing this on Sunday & the weather is warming up here as Spring begins. I spent the morning weeding the garden (my triumph was digging out an enormous spider plant. It took ages & then once it was out, it was so heavy, I didn’t think I’d be able to heave it into the recycling bin. Phoebe enjoyed jumping out at me from her “hiding” places as I worked my way along the fence & it was lovely to see bees enjoying the lavender & geraniums after all the horror stories recently about the demise of bee populations all over the world) & once the soil warms up properly & I start planting my veggies, I know I’ll be spending more of my weekends in the garden than writing reviews. All of which is a long-winded way of saying that short, sharp reviews may be the norm for the next little while.

The Code of the Woosters is one of the most famous of all the Jeeves & Wooster novels. It has everything – Aunt Dahlia, soppy Madeline Bassett, lovers parted over misunderstandings, a menacing dog, vengeful magistrates & the attempted theft of a cow creamer. Bertie wakes one morning after another night on the tiles to be summoned by his Aunt Dahlia, who has a proposition for him. Uncle Tom has his eye on a silver cow creamer & he’s devastated when his rival, Sir Watkyn Bassett, father of Madeline, snaffles it from under his nose. Aunt Dahlia needs Tom to be in a good mood when she asks him for more money for Milady’s Boudoir, her financially challenged magazine. Sir Watkyn has offered to trade the cow creamer to Tom in exchange for his French chef, Anatole. Aunt Dahlia’s solution is to ask Bertie to go down to Totleigh Towers, the Bassett country seat, & steal the cow creamer. Bertie is horrified at the thought of losing Anatole but, as Sir Watkyn hates him after fining him (in his capacity as magistrate) for stealing a policeman’s helmet, Bertie isn’t keen. Then, his friend, newt-fancier Gussie Fink-Nottle, asks for help as his engagement to Madeline Bassett is in peril. Madeline has always imagined that Bertie is in love with her so Bertie is keen to see their engagement continue as it lets him off the hook.

Bertie finds himself at Totleigh Towers, planning to steal a cow creamer, keep Gussie’s engagement to Madeline on the rails & also help Madeline’s cousin Stiffy Byng in her endeavours to get her uncle Watkyn to approve of her engagement to the local curate. I can’t remember how many attempts at blackmail & theft (including the theft of another policeman’s helmet) occur in just 250pp but there are a lot of them. As always, Jeeves is the one to extricate Bertie from all his troubles even though he’s not above a little blackmail himself in the cause of persuading Bertie to take a round the world cruise. There’s even some satire at the expense of Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in the form of the Black Short wearing would-be dictator Roderick Spode. It’s all reliably funny & very hard to keep track of the plot, which is half the fun of reading Wodehouse. I’m always amazed at how he managed to keep track of the plot himself.

I’m not going to be able to give an objective, reasoned review of The Youngest Lady in Waiting by Mara Kay because it was one of my favourite books as a teenager & I’m just so thrilled that Margin Notes Books have reprinted it so I can read it again after over thirty-five years.

This was the book that I discovered in my High School library that sparked my love for Russian history, especially the story of the Romanovs. That would have been in the late 70s & I’ve been reading about it all ever since. The edition I read has been long out of print & very expensive second-hand but, in a way, it didn’t matter because I’d read it so many times that I hardly needed the book. Having said that, I was very happy to be able to get hold of a copy & slightly apprehensive as to how I’d feel about the book after so many years. Would it live up to my memories? I sat down on a cold Sunday evening a few weeks ago, put on some Russian music (Glinka & Tchaikovsky) & read the whole book in one sitting. I loved it & I was amazed that so much of the story came back to me, even down to scenes & phrases. I had forgotten that Glinka himself makes an appearance in the book during the St Petersburg floods so it was lovely to be listening to his music as I read.

Masha Fredericks (first introduced in Masha, also reprinted by Margin Notes Books) is an orphan who has been educated at the Smolni Institute, a school for the daughters of the military & nobility, in St Petersburg. Masha has been noticed by Grand Duchess Alexandra, wife of Grand Duke Nicholas, brother of Tsar Alexander I, & is about to leave school & become the Grand Duchess’s lady in waiting. Her best friend, Sophie, is going home to a father she barely knows. Masha & Sophie have been inseparable at school & are determined not to lose touch. Masha falls in love with Sophie’s dashing cousin, Sergei, & is swept up in the excitement of first love. She also meets Sergei’s quieter, more thoughtful brother, Michael, & they become friends. Sergei is part of a group of young nobles who want to push for reform in the authoritarian Russian state. When Tsar Alexander suddenly dies & Grand Duke Nicholas becomes Tsar, there is unrest, exploited by the Army who wanted Nicholas’s brother, Constantine, to succeed, & Sergei & his friends, including Sophie’s fiancé, Mark. Masha is horrified by Sergei’s plans & stays loyal to the new Tsar, bound by loyalty to the family. Sergei rejects her & rushes out to join his friends, called the Decembrists, in their rebellion.

I remembered so much of this story – the scene where Masha & Sergei stand on a plank over a puddle on a St Petersburg street & she realises that he cares for her; Sophie’s Aunt Daria & her old country dacha, Rodnoye, with the household spirit, the Domovoy, flitting about the house, just out of sight. Masha’s encounter with an old man who may or may not be Tsar Alexander, rumoured to have faked his own death & to be living as a holy man in Siberia. In some ways, The Youngest Lady in Waiting is just a historical romance, full of the cliches of Tsarist Russia – the glittering parties, the sleigh rides though the snow with the bells on the troika tinkling, the aristocrats on their dachas & the downtrodden serfs. But, seeing it through Masha’s eyes, a shy young girl with no advantages & no expectations, is quite wonderful. This was probably the first book I’d ever read about Russia & I went on to read many more historical romances by Constance Heaven, Catherine Gavin, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles’ Kirov trilogy & Victoria Holt. I also picked up Anna Karenina & Robert K Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra (the Readers Digest condensed version first), which started me on a reading journey that continues to this day.

Mary Swann – Carol Shields

Mary Swann was a little-known Canadian poet. She lived on a farm in Nadeau, Ontario, wrote her poems on scraps of paper & had little contact with the outside world. On the same day that she took her poems to local publisher Frederic Cruzzi, she was murdered by her husband. The poems were published & then forgotten until academic Sarah Maloney discovered a copy of Swann’s Songs on holiday & suddenly the resurrection of Mary Swann had begun. Now, twenty years after her death, she is to be the subject of a biography by the distinguished writer, Morton Jimroy, biographer of Ezra Pound & John Starman. One of the few people who actually knew Mrs Swann, Nadeau librarian & Town Clerk, Rose Hindmarch, keeps the flame alive with the Mary Swann Memorial Room in the Local History Museum. There are plans for a Symposium on the life and work of Mary Swann which will be an opportunity for the academic world to celebrate the achievements of this most mysterious woman.

Mary Swann tells the story of the poet’s life through the lives & perspectives of these four people, all with their own slant on the woman & the work. Sarah Maloney is a young woman who writes beautiful, engaging letters, is in a relationship with Brownie, a rare book dealer, & sees Mary Swann as her own discovery. Sarah is in correspondence with Morton Jimroy & has visited Nadeau, spoken to Rose & visited the farm, eager to soak up the atmosphere & learn as much as possible about her poet. She possesses Mary Swann’s notebook which unfortunately contains little more than shopping lists & comments on the weather, no matter how often she pores over it, hoping for a revelation into the mind of the woman & the poetry.

Rose Hindmarch structures her day between her work as Town Clerk & Librarian. She knew Mary Swann as well as anyone as Mrs Swann frequently visited the library to borrow the two books her husband allowed her. Unfortunately for the academics, Mrs Swann’s tastes ran to Edna Ferber rather than T S Eliot. Rose also feels slightly guilty that she encouraged Mrs Swann to take her poetry to Frederic Cruzzi, one-time Editor of the Kingston Banner, famous for its Poet’s Corner & owner of the Peregrine Press. Could Mary Swann’s husband have become so enraged by her visit to Cruzzi, my her late return, by her reading & writing, that this is why he murdered her & then sat at the kitchen table & killed himself?

Frederic Cruzzi, now an elderly widower, remembers the day that Mary Swann knocked on his door with a paper bag full of scraps of paper. It was freezing weather, his wife Hildë was out ice fishing, & Mrs Swann arrived, inadequately dressed, timid & apologetic. Expecting nothing more than the usual odes to spring & nature that any small press specializing in poetry attracts, Cruzzi was overwhelmed by the quality of the work & eager to publish. Hildë returns to find Frederic overwhelmed by the poetry although they can have no idea that, by the time they sit down to read the work together, Mary Swann is probably already dead.

Morton Jimroy is on a year’s sabbatical in California, working on his biography of Mary Swann, such a change from his previous work on male poets. He’s ill at ease on campus, where he is a Distinguished Visitor, disconcerted by the weather, his clothes (bought in haste when the airline lost his luggage) & increasingly obsessed by his research into Mary Swann. He interviews her daughter, Frances, but she doesn’t remember her mother reading or writing. Her mother read her The Bobbsey Twins & Five Little Peppers, but there was nothing remarkable about her childhood. How is he going to write the life of this very ordinary woman? His correspondence with Sarah Maloney relieves his loneliness, feeds his fantasies, both personal & professional, as he dreams of meeting Sarah in person & gaining access to Mary Swann’s notebook.

The four protagonists meet at the Swann Symposium, a section of the book structured as a screenplay, where the academic world collides with reality. It becomes apparent that Mary Swann, or at least her work, is disappearing. Jimroy’s notes for his book were lost with his luggage & his briefcase is stolen during a power cut at the Symposium; Sarah’s only copy of Swann’s Songs, was loaned to a friend & not returned & the precious notebook, as well as the copy in the archives, have been lost. One of only two photographs of the poet is missing from the Mary Swann Memorial Room & Frederic Cruzzi’s house was burgled on Christmas Eve – all that is missing are the last four copies of Swann’s Songs from his print run. Mary Swann the woman has been engulfed by the needs of other people; what will be left?

This is a poignant, very funny book. It’s not just about academia, although there are some wickedly funny scenes about academics & their obsessions. Morton Jimroy interviews Rose about Mary Swann’s religious beliefs,

“Why do you think she stayed away from church so religiously? – if you’ll pardon my little joke.”
“Clothes probably,” Rose said this boldly. She was conscious of a noisy brimming of happiness. She had only once before in her life been taken to dinner by a man, and that had been Homer Hart, years ago, before he married Daisy.
“Clothes?” His pencil moved busily.
“Well, she probably didn’t have the right clothes. For church, you know.” …
“You don’t suppose,” Jimroy said, “that Swann felt her spirituality was, well, less explicit than it was for regular churchgoers in the area. That it was outside the bounds, as it were, of church doctrine?” He regarded Rose closely. “If you see what I mean.”
“I see what you mean, Mr Jimroy. Morton. But I really think, well, it was probably a question of not having the right kind of clothes.”

As the academics get hold of Mary Swann’s work, her poetry becomes loaded with meanings that only academics can see. They remake her in the image of their own current fashion or enthusiasm. Any little scrap of information is seized on as proof of their own pet theory. As Frederic tells Sarah at the Symposium,

He (Jimroy) wants Mrs Swann’s life. Every minute of it if he could have it. Every cup of tea that poor woman imbibed. Every thought in her tormented head. And what’s more, he wants her death. Or some clue to it.

Carol Shields writes about the personal & the domestic life better than almost anyone else. In the four chapters of the book focusing on Sarah, Morton, Rose & Frederic, we witness their whole lives, not only the parts of their lives that intersect with Mary Swann. I first read Mary Swann in the 1980s, not long after it was first published & I’d forgotten how movingly she describes loneliness & regret, even as she also reveals the absurdities & mistakes in every life. Mary Swann is much more than an academic comedy, poking fun at the pretensions & ambitions of those who make their living from the work of others. It’s a moving examination of life & the different ways that events & facts can be interpreted. We learn a lot about these four lives, even if the person we know the least about at the end, is the one thing they have in common, Mary Swann.

Fortunata and Jacinta – Benito Pérez Galdós

Benito Pérez Galdós was the most famous Spanish author of the 19th century. He’s been compared to Dickens & Balzac in his depiction of Spanish society & the broad canvas of his novels. He wrote 46 novels in his great series, Episidios Nacionales, from 1873-1912. In Spain, his name needs no explanation but very few of his novels have been translated into English.

Fortunata and Jacinta is the story of two women who both love the same man. One is his wife, the other his mistress. Juanito Santa Cruz is the spoilt only son of a wealthy merchant. He’s never had to work in his life & shows no desire to try. Juanito spends his days & nights touring the poorer districts of Madrid with his friends. He meets Fortunata, a poor but beautiful young girl. They have an affair, she becomes pregnant & he leaves her. Juanito’s mother becomes concerned about his profligate lifestyle, although she doesn’t know about Fortunata. She engineers a marriage with Juanito’s cousin  Jacinta, a lovely but sheltered girl who soon falls passionately in love with her husband. After the honeymoon, they settle in to a comfortable life with the older Santa Cruzes. Juanito has confessed his affair with Fortunata to his wife & she forgives him. However, Jacinta is desperate to have a child. When she doesn’t fall pregnant, she becomes obsessed with Fortunata’s son & tracks the child down to a relative of Fortunata’s who is caring for the boy. However, this child is not Fortunata’s son, who died as a baby. The unscrupulous relatives try to convince Jacinta to adopt the boy & almost succeed.

Fortunata has taken up with a man who mistreats her & when she leaves him, she has several unsuccessful relationships until she meets Maximiliano Rubín, a young man studying to be a pharmacist. Maxi falls in love with Fortunata at first sight but he’s a poor specimen, thin, sickly & unprepossessing. He lives with his aunt, Doña Lupe, who disapproves of Fortunata’s lifestyle but eventually gives in to Maxi’s desire to marry her. Fortunata is still in love with Juanito but eventually agrees to marry Maxi for security. He persuades her to enter a convent that specialises in saving fallen women, where she will be able to cleanse her soul & prepare herself for marriage & life in a respectable family. While there, she meets an old friend, Mauricia, a seamstress who has delusions & visions caused by her drinking. Fortunata leaves the convent full of good intentions & marries Maxi.

Juanito, having lost sight of Fortunata for some years, sees her again & finds her more beautiful than ever. He pursues her, renting the apartment next door to the newly married couple & easily seduces her again. Maxi discovers the relationship & the torment he suffers begins to affect his mind. Juanito again leaves Fortunata & she is taken up by Don Evaristo Feijóo, an older man who becomes her protector & teaches her more cultured manners. Eventually he convinces her to return to Maxi as he worries about her fate after his death.

Almost immediately Fortunata realises that she has made a terrible mistake. She can’t bear Maxi or his aunt, who is suspicious of her. She begins seeing Juanito again & confronts Jacinta, telling her that she is Juanito’s true wife as she met him first & had a child by him. When Fortunata becomes pregnant, she can’t hide it from Maxi, who begins having homicidal fantasies & vows to take revenge on his faithless wife & her lover.

Fortunata and Jacinta is a panoramic story of life in 1870s Madrid. The story is so rich that merely describing the plot doesn’t begin to explain how absorbing it is. I know very little about Spanish history & the references to Spanish politics went over my head but it didn’t really matter. I read a little bit about the fraught political situation around the succession to the Spanish throne but not knowing much about it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the novel. The minor characters are just wonderful. Maxi’s aunt, Doña Lupe, is a canny moneylender & investor who had brought up Maxi & his two brothers, political opportunist Juan Pablo & Nicolas, a priest whose appetite is legendary but who never pays for the enormous meals he consumes. The pharmacist, Bellester, who falls in love with Fortunata & tries to protect her from Maxi’s odd behaviour. Mauricia, the alcoholic seamstress who shocks the nuns in the convent by her foul-mouthed tirades when she manages to get hold of drink. My favourite character was Guillermina Pacheco, an indefatigable worker for the poor who bullies all her acquaintances into supporting her charitable endeavours.

Juanito Santa Cruz was a completely worthless man with no redeeming features at all. I could only wonder why Fortunata loved him so much & why she kept going back to him after he treated her so badly. She seemed to think he was her fate & didn’t even try to resist him. Jacinta became completely consumed by her desire for a child, unable to enjoy her privileged lifestyle & becoming more & more fascinated by the idea of Fortunata & her hold over Juanito. I read Fortunata and Jacinta with my 19th century bookgroup & I loved coming back to the book every week for another installment. I hope more of Galdós’ novels are translated into English as I’d love to read more of his work.

Moby-Dick or The Whale – Herman Melville

How can I possibly write about Moby-Dick? It’s such a famous story but also one of those classics that I’ve always been daunted by. I’ve had a copy on my tbr shelves for several years now. Then, I bought another copy, this beautiful Penguin Deluxe Classics edition. I’d heard how difficult the book was, how elusive the language, how monumental the digressions. Finally, I borrowed the audio book from our e-library. Listening to William Hootkins’ wonderful reading of Moby-Dick made me fall in love with the story & for the last six weeks, I’ve been listening to one of the most exciting, engaging & funny books I’ve ever read.

The story is well-known. Ishmael, a young man tired of working on merchant vessels, decides to give whaling a try. Arriving on Nantucket Island, he meets harpooneer Queequeg, a tattooed Pacific Islander, the son of a High Chief, with cannibal tendencies who worships an idol called Yojo. They are taken on by the owners of the Pequod, & are not deterred even when they are warned about the odd behaviour of the captain of the vessel, Ahab. They don’t see much of Ahab during the fitting out of the Pequod but they meet the other mates, Starbuck, Stubb & Flask, & the rest of the crew, men from all over the world. It’s not until they’re at sea that the captain emerges from his cabin.

Captain Ahab has his own reasons for undertaking the voyage to the whale hunting grounds & it has nothing to do with procuring precious whale oil for the boat’s owners. Ahab has lost his leg to the great white whale, Moby-Dick, & has sworn revenge. His obsession with Moby-Dick has become madness & he incites the crew’s greed by nailing a gold doubloon to the mast with the promise that the man who kills Moby-Dick will have the coin as his prize. The Pequod sails from Nantucket to South America, round the Cape of Good Hope to South-East Asia & Japan. Whales are chased, caught & slaughtered but Ahab’s only question to the other boats they encounter is “Hast thou seen the white whale?” Nothing else matters but his revenge & they sail towards the encounter with Moby-Dick that is the climax of Ishmael’s story.

No mere retelling of the plot can give an idea of the flavour of this book. The language is heightened, convoluted, Biblical in cadence. Here’s Captain Ahab telling the crew about Moby-Dick,

“Aye, Starbuck; aye, my hearties all round; it was Moby-Dick that dismasted me; Moby-Dick that brought me to this dead stump I stand on now. Aye, aye,” he shouted with a terrific, loud, animal sob, like that of a heart-stricken moose; “Aye, aye! it was that accursed white whale that razeed me; made a poor pegging lubber of me for ever and a day!” Then tossing both arms, with measureless imprecations he shouted out: “Aye, aye! and I’ll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition’s flames before I give him up. And this is what ye have shipped for, men! to chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out. What say ye, men, will ye splice hands on it, now? I think ye do look brave.”

Ishmael’s narration is intimate & confiding. The long passages about the history of the whale & the whaling trade, the detailed descriptions of hunting, harpooning & catching whales are exciting if also a bit mind-numbing at times. When Ishmael describes the sperm whale’s head, he takes several chapters to do it as well as describing every variety of whale & disputing the stories told of whales by every historical writer from the Bible & Aristotle to Beale & Bennett. But then, there are the tales of other ships that Ishmael tells along the way & the many funny incidents such as Ishmael’s first meeting with Queequeg when he is terrified of sharing a room with a cannibal but ends up sitting up in bed with him confiding their life stories to each other as the best of friends. Or Stubb’s determination to have a steak from the first whale they catch & making old Fleece the cook preach to the sharks scavenging on the gigantic corpse of the whale as it floats by the side of the ship because his steak was badly cooked & tough.

There are also some reflective moments of great beauty as when the Pequod comes across a pod of whales protecting the females & their calves,

But far beneath this wondrous world upon the surface, another and still stranger world met our eyes as we gazed over the side. For, suspended in those watery vaults, floated the forms of the nursing mothers of the whales, and those that by their enormous girth seemed shortly to become mothers. The lake, as I have hinted, was to a considerable depth exceedingly transparent; and as human infants while suckling will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at then time; and while yet drawing mortal nourishment, be still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence;- even so did the young of these whales seem looking up towards us, but not at us, as if we were but a bit of Gulf-weed in their new-born sight.

William Hootkins’ narration won an Audie award in 2006 & it’s a wonderful performance. He contrasts Ishmael’s lightheartedness at the beginning of the story with the more serious passages describing whales & explaining every aspect of the whale hunt. Ahab’s mad mutterings build to a crescendo as he becomes more obsessed with his hunt for the white whale & his monomania puts everyone’s lives at risk. I usually listen to audio books in the car on the way to & from work but I was listening to this one when I was ironing, cooking & any other time I could find. It was the perfect way to get in to this mythic story & I’m so glad that I finally read it.