Because it's fiction written by a man with a deep understanding of Roman ways, culture, myth and history. Whether the essentially sympathetic portrait of Claudius which Graves paints is historically accurate or not, the up and coming emperor is certainly a boon companion and reliable guide through the banquets and backstreets of Early Imperial Rome.
My one regret is that as a teenager I absorbed the BBC TV series starring Derek Jacoby as Claudius, so knew ahead of time some of the more frightful or surprising plot twists. More, the series sometimes went into more graphic detail than the book ever does, Claudius being a basically decent who man spends as little time as possible delving into the seamier side of his story. Still, as a piece of writing the book stands on it's own and is very enjoyable, though toward the end the taut narrative thread seems to go somewhat slack and we are treated to a mere catalog--a long, almost endless catalog--of Caligula's misdeeds and misrule. It is a relief when finally...but you'll want to find out on your own.
Meanwhile Claudius, while sympathetic, is still a Roman who lived 2,000 years ago. So while more humane than most of the figures who surround him, he finds nothing amiss in slavery, animal fights or the conquest distant tribes. In our politically correct era this is infinitely refreshing. While acutely critical of what he sees around him, Claudius still believes in the essential soundness and superiority of the ideals of Rome--a cultural confidence we don't seem able to muster these days.
As always, Frederick Davidson is simply superb. For the recording it almost sounds like he replicates Jacoby's voice characterization of Claudius. His ability to get all the nuance or sarcasm or irony out of a sentence serves this book (and all the books he reads) very well.
Some of my favorite reads are books that select one sliver of time, a single, crucial historical event, and delve into all its’ aspects. An extreme example is George Stewart’s Pickett’s Charge: a micro-history of the final attack at Gettysburg, a book that limits itself strictly to the afternoon of July 3, 1863. More expansive is David Hackett Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride and Washington’s Crossing, works that thoroughly set the political, cultural and military stage before describing the signal events in their titles. This second type is what Steven Gillon promises us in his introduction: a study of how FDR handled the crisis of December 7, 1941. In very large part, he delivers on that promise.
His basic premise is something I can agree with wholeheartedly: recent fashions in historiography have devalued the acts of great actors and focused on the “impersonal forces of history”. A Marxist hangover, this notion dehumanizes our bygone ancestors just as efficiently as Marxism has disposed of its living enemies. Gillon starts on the right track.
I admit to being new to World War II historiography, so can’t say whether the insights and opinions Gillon offers are standard issue or genuinely original. Beyond knowing that the Pacific was seen as “our war” while Europe was considered “Britain’s war”—a perspective passed on to me by parents who lived through it all—just about everything Gillon offers up is a revelation to me. These range from local weather conditions to the military realities and public illusions of the day. For example:
December 7th, 1941 was an unusually warm day across the nation so fewer people were by their radios.
Before Pearl Harbor, there was no such thing as a Press Pass to the White House.
Pearl itself was a well-fortified base that many Americans, FDR included, considered impregnable.
To attend the emergency cabinet meeting, the Vice President and two cabinet members took a commercial flight from New York to Washington.
FDR had recently moved the Pacific Fleet from the West Coast to Pearl as a countermove to Japanese aggression.
Most satisfying of all, Gillon refuses to link that last detail to the worn-out “FDR-let-Pearl-Harbor-happen” conspiracy theory. Pretty extensive reading in other eras of history has shown me how rare real, bona fide conspiracies are in human affairs.
Gillon’s style is ideal for consumption through ear buds: not so sophisticated that it can’t be followed but not so plain as to be unlistenable. And, though a work of history, no maps are necessary. Initially John Pruden’s performance struck me as a little flat, but I got used to it and now think he was a perfect pick to deliver this book.
On the downside, Gillon revels in detail. There are mountains of it here, much of it unfocused into any thematic channels. I’m thinking especially of the chapter on White House security, or rather the lack of it and the fevered effort to beef it up quickly. We are told how many men were assigned to the South Lawn, how many weapons they carried and of what caliber, what the air raid bunker under the East Wing was constructed of, even the nature of the “facilities” (port-a-johns). But this is never set into a larger context of a nation stepping, albeit unconsciously, into the role of superpower.
Admittedly, I would never have bought this book if it hadn’t been a Daily Deal last December 7th. I avoid 20th Century history for the simple reason that partisan colors come out far too easily and, given the political allegiances of most of academia and publishing, that partisanship is predictably Liberal. We are told that FDR’s war message prompted Republican lawmakers to cheer him “for the first time in years”. Is this really that surprising? Isn’t the essence of a two-party system that there are two essentially different visions of how things should be? Reference is also made to Roosevelt’s recast Supreme Court, by 1941 purged of old “conservatives” and restocked with younger men who “shared FDR’s faith in activist government”. Living in the aftermath of more than 70 years of activism, it’s a faith I find it very hard to share. Perhaps the lowest point for me was when Gillon credited FDR with a level of deception and news-management that would be unthinkable today. It makes one wonder if he reads today's papers.
Also, the idea that the Second World War saved Roosevelt’s failed New Deal policies is credited to Adolf Hitler—a clear warning to anyone who has entertained that notion on their own. But then Gillon goes on to enumerate the number of unemployed (17%) in 1941, a clear indication that those policies had been less than wholly successful.
Again, this is why I usually avoid “modern” history. Beyond being something of an oxymoron, “modern” history reviews the arguments of 50, 60 and 70 years ago—arguments that are the prelude to the arguments of 2014. The epilogue contains perhaps the best example of this: rightly (and obviously) saying that World War II set up America on the road to Cold War confrontation, Gillon opines that the liberation of Europe and defeat of Japan didn’t prepare us for the “moral ambiguities” of fighting Communism in Third World countries. But didn’t we confront the Axis powers in North Africa? And what could be morally ambiguous about resisting dictatorships that existed longer and inflicted more human suffering than Hitler could dream of? And World War II was not free from moral ambiguity, either; my parents certainly felt that Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary, but that’s debatable. But this is why I usually shun “modern” history.
On the other hand, you shouldn’t shun this book. Overall it is very informative and enjoyable, especially for someone like me who has only touched the tip of the historical iceberg called World War II.
There are a round dozen recordings of The Scarlet Pimpernel available at Audible. Unabridged, abridged, a radio play featuring the great Leslie Howard and even a version in Italian. I chose the one by David Thorn for three reasons: it is unabridged, it is by far the cheapest and, to my ear anyway, it is the best performance. I’ll add a fourth: it isn’t in Italian.
These impeccable reasons overcame my uneasiness at the cover art: a sort of CGI nightmare of two humanoids in non-period costumes swooning woodenly toward each other (if that’s possible) in the sort of faux-medieval atmosphere familiar to dedicated gamers (or “Barbie Princess” video viewers). But the real problems started when I hit “play”.
First, my eager ears were saluted by a gaggle of kids chanting, “This is Audible Kids!” Really? This tale of intrigue and guillotines, set in the complex political atmosphere of Revolutionary, Republican France, riddled with references to Gluck and Burke and Fox, is a kid’s story? Granted, what the good baroness wrote is not great literature—in the pantheon I’d put her somewhere near Ian Fleming: a gifted spinner of tales, observer of people and writer of dialogue. Her book is one of the best examples of an iffy genre: popular historical fiction. I can’t recall another story I’ve seen spoofed more often. Still, this isn't kid’s stuff.
Next came the musical accompaniment at the beginning and end of every chapter. I suppose it’s meant to cast a spell of mystery and intrigue. What sounds like a synthesized guitar (or harp?) wanders up and down the scale hand-in-hand with a toy piano—or possibly a miniature xylophone? I didn’t know what it reminded me of. And then I got it: 70’s lounge music. I could see the shag-carpeted electric piano, the cocktails with little umbrellas. Next thing I expected was Bill Murray belting out, “Sta-a-a-a-a-r Wars, nothing but Sta-a-a-a-a-r Wars!” (Youtube it if you’re too young to remember.)
Then I discovered that the chapter divisions on my iPod didn’t sync up with the chapter divisions in the book. Instead, my menu showed eight “chapters”, each an hour-and-some-odd minutes long, each containing several actual chapters. In other words, lose your place and you’re lost.
And in between every chapter was wedged a generous slab or two of the lounge music. But I shouldn't complain. Those oases of synthesized smarminess served as the next best thing to chapter divisions, making the job of finding your place a little easier.
But the real problem, the thing that makes this recording a tragedy, is that there are words missing.
At first it wasn’t so bad. At the end of chapter 5, the last few words of the final sentence actually begin to fade away in order to make room for the dreadful muzak. But at least I could hear them.
Then, at the end of chapter six, the final sentence didn’t make sense at all. Looking up The Scarlet Pimpernel on the Guttenberg Project, I discovered that the sentence was missing its entire second half—words that reveal a detail I very much needed to hear if the story was to make any sense later on. The same thing happens at the end of chapter seven, the middle of chapters thirteen and fourteen and, I have no doubt elsewhere in places I didn’t notice. Admittedly, these later gaps are not nearly as crucial. Still, they’re flaws any competent producer would have caught.
I called this a tragedy but that’s too strong a word. This is simply a waste. Because David Thorn’s performance—his delineation of character, his pacing, his ability to keep several simultaneous voices (and the narration) distinct and vivid—is very good. It is a shame that his fine performance should be marred by such slipshod production. And it’s a shame that such a good yarn—a story that has come, like the Three Musketeers, to define our collective image of the period in which it is set—should be robbed of it’s full vigor.
I can give you no better proof of that vigor than by saying that, in spite of all the production flaws, I persevered because I was hopelessly hooked. It really is a glorious, swashbuckling rip-snorter of a story. Yes, at heart it is a bodice-ripper. The horns of Lady Blakeney’s various dilemmas are dwelt upon ad nauseum. One more reference to “a woman’s heart” and I probably would have given up. But there is good writing here and even shrewd insights.
For example, this description of an empty dining room is something of a tour de force:
“When Chauvelin reached the supper-room it was quite deserted. It had that woebegone, forsaken, tawdry appearance, which reminds one so much of a ball-dress, the morning after.
“Half-empty glasses littered the table, unfolded napkins lay about, the chairs—turned towards one another in groups of twos and threes—very close to one another—in the far corners of the room, which spoke of recent whispered flirtations, over cold game-pie and champagne; there were sets of three and four chairs, that recalled pleasant, animated discussions over the latest scandal; there were chairs straight up in a row that still looked starchy, critical, acid, like antiquated dowager; there were a few isolated, single chairs, close to the table, that spoke of gourmands intent on the most recherche dishes, and others overturned on the floor, that spoke volumes on the subject of my Lord Grenville's cellars.
“It was a ghostlike replica, in fact, of that fashionable gathering upstairs; a ghost that haunts every house where balls and good suppers are given; a picture drawn with white chalk on grey cardboard, dull and colourless, now that the bright silk dresses and gorgeously embroidered coats were no longer there to fill in the foreground, and now that the candles flickered sleepily in their sockets.”
Not bad. Not bad at all.
Then there are keen observations that get at the heart of the paradoxes of the French Revolution and, indeed, of all modern totalitarianism:
“On seeing the strangers…[the innkeeper] paused in the middle of the room… looked at them, with even more withering contempt than he had bestowed upon his former guests, and muttered, "Sacrrree soutane!"
“[One of the newcomers] had taken a quick step forward towards Brogard. He was dressed in the soutane, broad-brimmed hat and buckled shoes habitual to the French cure, but as he stood opposite the innkeeper, he threw open his soutane for a moment, displaying the tri-colour scarf of officialism, which sight immediately had the effect of transforming Brogard's attitude of contempt, into one of cringing obsequiousness.”
In other words, the political saviors have quickly become even more terrifying (and hateful) than even the Church that had supposedly been oppressing everyone so ruthlessly up until then.
Long story short: this is a good book and a very good performance, hampered by lamentable production. Which is probably why it was the cheapest.
Because the book doesn’t have a brigade of Hollywood art directors over-dressing every scene. Because the book isn’t beholden to the orthodoxies and political pieties of our own particular time. And mostly because, unlike a moviegoer, a reader (or listener) can see into the mind and heart of James Bond and discover much more than the heavily armed, libidinous playboy portrayed on the screen.
This James Bond has doubts. He feels pain, both emotional and physical. And he has worries beyond where his next cocktail is coming from and whether or not it will be shaken or stirred. Most surprising of all, in this first of the series we discover that the predictable cycle of a love affair (bed—more bed—no bed—weak excuses—break up on a doorstep in the rain) bores and even embarrasses him. No, that’s not the most surprising revelation in this book; the most surprising revelation is that James actually makes up his mind to…but no, you need to find out yourself.
True, the Daniel Craig version of Casino Royale did plumb the character deeper and try to bring out the hidden insecurities and not-so-hidden flaws. But in the book we see Royale and the casino that is the town’s main attraction for what it really is: a shabby kind of place that has seen better days—under Napoleon III. We hear Bond spout the sort of relativistic reasoning regarding good and evil that wouldn’t be really fashionable until the 70’s. And we see him argued out of the retirement from the fray that he contemplates—first by a French ally and then by circumstances.
Also, for someone raised on the movies the nearness of World War II always comes as something of a surprise. It was the place where Bond, his allies and his adversaries learned their trade. Missing arms and eyes remind you of the shadow that still broods over every character, whether they were soldiers or civilians.
Long story short, this isn't fantasy Bond. And Simon Vance brings to the story just the right dramatic edge—this is still, after all, a spy thriller—while remaining true to the book’s basic realism. Flemming was a very good writer and Vance makes him sound even better.
There are books you like. There are books you enjoy. There are books you admire. And then there are books that go off in your head like a bomb. Or, rather, fireworks. Bombs can only destroy. Fireworks illuminate. And I haven’t felt this illuminated by a book since I listened to Michal York reading Brave New World—a work that pales in comparison.
Like many people, I used to docket Oscar Wilde as a mere maker of glittering, memorable aphorisms and observations. And, indeed, his conversational flourishes can tickle us with their humorous dexterity:
“My dear fellow, she tried to found a salon, and only succeeded in opening a restaurant”.
Or titillate us with their utter cynicism:
"Young people, nowadays, imagine that money is everything."
"Yes," murmured Lord Henry, settling his button-hole in his coat; "and when they grow older they know it.”
Or simply stop us in our tracks with a subtle distinction that has never occurred to us before:
"I didn't say I liked it, Harry. I said it fascinated me. There is a great difference."
"Ah, you have discovered that?" murmured Lord Henry.
We laugh at Wilde’s humor, admire his penetration or relish his audacity—and we take a moment to try to commit what we have just read to memory. But Lord Henry Wotton coins so many aphorisms that, early on, I began to tire of them—the excess of brilliance and scandal, the detonation of so many conversational hand grenades in my ears, made me wonder if Wilde were nothing more than what he seemed in his photographs: a gifted dandy, the petted aesthete who lived on the surface of life, a committed spectator, much like his creation, Lord Henry.
And when, in the book’s preface, Wilde asserts that, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all” I assumed he was setting forth a principle that would inform the book I was about to hear. That I was entering a world where Art was never good or evil but just well- or ill-wrought—a world were, as Lord Henry says, only ugliness is a sin. Like many other readers before me, I assumed wrong.
The more I listened the more Wilde’s assertion in his preface perplexed me. From the evidence of the story it is absurd: one of the major influences that corrupts Dorian Grey (and this story is all about the power of influences) is a book, lent to him by (who else?) Lord Henry. As the story unfolds it becomes abundantly clear that, for all Lord Henry’s wicked witticisms, the real sin is the studied avoidance of ugliness.
In fact, it was the sheer weight of Lord Henry’s endless aphorisms and sophisticated cynicism, at first so charming, that gives us the first indication that our trio of friends (Lord Henry, Basil Hallwood and Dorian) have the wrong end of the stick. Though amusing, Lord Henry’s dicta are unworkable; though others refer to it as a, “philosophy” it fails to hang together in any coherent way. As the book progresses, Basil Hallward and even by Dorian himself tire of the endless, empty effusions; they grate on their nerves as much as they grated on mine. (What an artist Wilde is—to create in the reader the same visceral frisson of annoyance his characters are feeling.) Predictably, Lord Henry, like so many destructive thinkers before and after him, dresses up his point of view as courageous: “The aim of life is self-development. To realize one's nature perfectly--that is what each of us is here for. People are afraid of themselves, nowadays.” The real danger, of course, is that he is half-right. We really are here to realize our true nature. But that realization can only be achieved by serving others, not by primping and pampering ourselves. So when Dorian adopts Lord Henry’s empty tenants (“Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul”) the consequence of trying to live out his unworkable ideas is a life that is unlivable.
Yes, Wilde was a flamboyant aesthete, a bad boy who made his reputation saying what we all think but never dare to say—and saying it far better than we would ever be able to. But he also died a Catholic convert, received into the faith he had felt drawn to since his undergraduate days. Yes, some books are neither moral nor immoral. But The Picture of Dorian Grey is not one of them.
I’m not going to spoil your chance to experience the arc of this story firsthand. It is a masterly performance throughout, both by the writer and the reader—Simon Vance was the perfect choice, from the timbre of his voice to his ability to read Wilde’s words as familiarly as if he had written them himself. He reinforces the power of the work he is reading. And there is power here—enough to change your life; or at least make you take a good long look at it. A book about a portrait that reflect the moral corruption of it's subject becomes a mirror for us.
And, now that it’s all over, I think I may have a line on the reason Wilde wrote what he did in his preface. After its publication he spilled much ink defending his book from those who thought it was immoral. But rather than reiterate the audacious ideas in his preface this self-declared aesthete, who had often borne the banner of art-for-art’s-sake in the public square, offered instead something very different:
“Yes; there is a terrible moral in Dorian Grey—a moral which the prurient will not be able to find in it, but which will be revealed to all whose minds are healthy. Is this an artistic error? I fear it is. It is the only error in the book.”
While writing Dorian Grey, Wilde confessed, “I felt that, from an aesthetic point of view, it would be difficult to keep the moral in its proper secondary place; and now I do not feel quite sure that I have been able to do so. I think the moral too apparent.”
In his preface Wilde could very easily have been playing a part—at one point in the novel Dorian observes that we are never more at our ease than when playing a part. But there is another possibility. Fearing that his moral was too apparent and that his art had been compromised, he may have been simply trying to throw his readers off the scent.
He needn’t have worried. There is great art and great truth in this book, which will be evident, as Wilde said, to healthy minds. In fact, he blended art and truth so well that perhaps this book might even heal unhealthy ones. As he once observed, “Every saint has a past; every sinner has a future.”
There's no need to convince you that Pride and Prejudice is a great book. The number of movies and atrocious spin-off novels should be enough to convince even the most skeptical that, whatever Jane Austen intended when she took pen in hand, she created an iconic hunk of Western Culture and a durable addition to the List of Books Everyone Should Read.
For the unpaid freelance commentator, that leaves only the performance to evaluate. I admit that the first few sentences surprised me. Flo Gibson sounds, at first blush, as if she should be singing the Blues in a Honkey Tonk. There's a suggestion of too many coffin nails and too much bootleg whiskey, consumed at all hours of a series of misspent nights. Then everything clarified and I realized she was doing a perfect job. I don't think she's English--at least, she doesn't sound English--but that doesn't stand in her way as she delineates each character, men and women, old and young, splendidly. Her pacing is perfect for Austen's sometimes highly complex sentences, into which she packs so much insight about us human beings.
Bought this as a Daily Deal some time back, but it would still be a bargain at full price.
Imagine Bertie Wooster with more IQ but the same basic outlook and approach to life and you have Albert Campion. He is a sleuth who keeps you guessing just as much as the ne’er-do-wells he pursues. His wit is so subtle and his character so unostentatiously outlandish, that lots of things get by you (well, ok, by me). Just be prepared to rewind from time to time or you’ll miss some exquisite stuff.
The plot, like the main character, is offbeat as well. Much of the time we’re not even sure if a crime has been committed. It looks like a possible murder, and it looks like a possible kidnapping, but is it? Were the previous attempts on the supposed victim’s life really attempts, or a series of odd accidents?
Heading our supporting cast is the gloomy, fatalistic Lugg, Campion’s man, who seems to know everyone who’s anyone in criminal circles—possible because, not too far back, he himself was a someone in those circles. The by-play between master and man is as funny as any Bertie-and-Jeeves banter, in a completely different and delightful way.
All of the above Francis Matthews conveys with a deft, unhurried delivery that gets every character right. He can make Campion sound as simple-minded as any member in good standing at the Drones and then as perceptive as Lord Peter Wimsey. Very fitting, if my sources are correct. I'm told that Allingham’s original impetus for creating Campion was as a parody of Lord Peter.
There will definitely be more Campion on the Wish List.
That’s how Wodehouse described the kind of books he wrote. And, as with “those poet Johnnies” Bertie Wooster used to talk about, Wodehouse hit the nail on the head and was entitled to a cigar or cocoanut, his choice.
But don’t be led astray by that word “Another”, as if I’ve had sufficient of the type of book Wodehouse wrote. I haven’t. I don’t think I ever will. These days the world needs as many musical comedies as it can jolly well get, with or without accompaniment.
And our world is definitely a better, brighter place for having this particular comedy in it. A Gentleman of leisure (U.S. title: The Intrusion of Jimmy) is a gem. Published in 1915, about the same time other Wodehouse characters like Psmith and Ukeridge were coming into their own, it shares some basic qualities with Love Among the Chickens, Psmith in the City and Psmith, Journalist. Wodehouse still has one foot in the world of real human emotions, concerns and difficulties, while his other foot is in the world that, gradually, his fiction came more and more to inhabit: that of tempests in teapots, persiflage and sheer physical comedy. Somehow both worlds mesh seamlessly under Wodehouse’s gifted and humane pen.
And, as always, the late lamented Frederick Davidson’s urbane, knowing delivery conveys every emotion, nuance and sarcastic jab to perfection. I’m not going to even try to summarize the plot because plot is the point of Wodehouse—and hence, divulging it spoils the fun. And spoiling the fun is, as Bertie might say, just one of those things that aren’t done in the better circles.
Back in July Audible presented a selection of books, one of which we were invited to download for free. It was a handsome offer, and the book the piqued my curiosity was Doctor Doolittle. Added goose: Frederick Davidson was the narrator.
Now, after the vast expanses of Don Quixote, I was in the mood for something short and quick. The introduction (by an unnamed author) that praised the book for it’s approach to children’s literature—writing for children rather than about them and eschewing the modern trend to psychologize—seemed right up my particular alley. Here, I thought, was a pleasant romp.
Unfortunately, this is an audiobook that really needs the illustrations. At least that’s my guess. Otherwise, I can’t account for how such a flatly written book could ever have recommended itself to generations of children and Walt Disney, too. Having recently experienced the rich word painting of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan the dullness, the outright ordinariness of Hugh Lofting’s style, was painfully apparent. (I could not recommend Peter Pan too highly, by the way—for both parents and children.)
Yes, I know: Doctor Doolittle was written or children somewhat younger than those for whom Barrie was catering—hence the heavier dependence on illustrations to carry the story. But that introduction really set me up to expect something of a tour de force: parrots that act like parrots, monkeys that act like monkeys. All I heard was a lot of animals that talked exactly like people.
Long ago in my undergrad days I blew by Don Quixote in a survey course. To a mind not very attuned to thick books and partial to any explanation that would make the test easier, believing that Cervantes had penned nothing more than a multi-volume diatribe against those iniquitous chivalric romances was a cinch.
Such an oversimplification served my purposes: first, to identify Cervantes’ proper place on the flowchart of “Those Who Have Contributed to the Creation of the Modern Novel”. Second: to get a passing grade, graduate and get a job and a place of my own.
Over the years, however, I’ve often wondered how any writer, no matter how gifted, could stretch such an indictment over some 900-some-odd pages and still manage to achieve a work that would be reverenced and relished for 400 years. When Audible put Don Quixote on sale in February of 2011, I decided to see—or rather, hear—what Cervantes had really written.
Before I did, however, I decided to immerse myself in the romances that were supposedly Cervantes’ target. I read all of Chretien de Troyes. I read Beroul. And Gotfried von Straussburg’s, Wolfram von Eschenbach and Hartmann von Aue.
I discovered works that were a joy to read. Works that captivated the imagination, that even played with and parodied the very genre they were establishing. So far from finding dusty books worthy of contempt, I found vivid invention and vigorous writing. And in the first dozen minutes of Don Quixote I discovered I had been reading the wrong romances.
Cervantes’ target seems to be the later romances written just before his time, chiefly the Amadis of Gaul and Orlando Furioso. I’ve never read Amadis, but years ago I did get Orlando under my belt and enjoyed the hell out of it. I began to wonder if the whole indictment of chivalric romances was just a device to tell a great story.
No matter what his motivation, we should all be glad he did set pen to paper. I rank Don Quixote with Tom Jones and Pickwick Papers as the three of books I’d choose if cast upon a desert island (not that that’s likely to ever happen). It never ceases to delight. And now that’s it’s over I miss it terribly. Seriously. Most of the credit goes to Cervantes, but the reader Roy McMillan deserves his share as well. His easy tone, light manner and perfect diction make him the ideal travelling companion for this ride.
Oddly enough, the book gives the same kind of pleasure as those romances it lampoons. In this guided tour of life in early 17th Century Spain, you never know what’s going to happen around the next corner. Is the stranger at the inn a villain or a saint? Is the shepherd singing on the hillside a man or a woman? Is the fantastic story they tell true or false? Is the popularity of the first volume of the book, which we find recorded in the second, a tweak at the reading public who consume such improbable works as Amadis of Gaul so avidly?
And of course there’s the ultimate, overarching question that seems to hold the book together: is Don Quixote mad or sane?
Though the book ends with a vigorous diatribe against chivalric romances, the hero (or anti-hero, if you go that way) could not be more sympathetic and likeable. When not smashing puppet shows or liberating condemned cutthroats he is full of good sense and rounded phrases. His “achievements” (battling with windmills and wineskins, for example) make him famous throughout Spain and indeed Europe—not because they are real achievements, of course, but because the book that records those deeds gives such delight.
Maybe that’s why Don Quixote deserves its central place in the “Who-Created-the-Modern-Novel” flow chart: because Cervantes shows us that real life, our ordinary existence, can be as enchanted and improbable as any romance.
The thing about reading—or listening to—Wodehouse is that his characters live such long, complex lives. Bertie Wooster, for example, made his first appearance in 1919 and his last adventure was published in 1974, the year before Wodehouse’s death. Consequently, the happily married man in the novel you just finished reading may have a backstory you know nothing about. Beyond, of course, the arch allusions to his checkered career made by his wife, his relations or the narrator in the novel you just finished reading.
It all adds to the odd realism of Wodehouse. Keen observers like Evelyn Waugh asserted that the England Wodehouse writes about never really existed. Yet the appearance and reappearance of places and characters, the ability to see the same character from several other characters’ viewpoints, the interweaving of characters— for example, Bertie Wooster and Tipton Plimsol both belong to the Drones and therefor must have at least a nodding acquaintance—all contribute to this queer substantiality, making the England of P. G. Wodehouse, Utopian as it is, as solid as Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.
All of this is by way of explaining why Blandings Castle is such an enjoyable listen. You get the back story of how Freddie Threepwood met and married Niagara “Aggie” Donaldson. You finally understand what a character in one of the later Blandings Castle novels was talking about when he describes Lord Emsworth as being worried about his pumpkin (your natural reaction is to assume it’s a typo; he must have meant “pig”). You discover the surprising family connection between Lord Emsworth and his head gardener. And you get the full story, only alluded to in later books, of the chap from Nebraska.
Beyond these revelations that do so much to illuminate the rest of the Blandings Castle saga, you get “Lord Emsworth and the Girl Friend”, probably one of the sweetest stories Wodehouse ever wrote; not saccharine sweet but rather revealing an unsuspected tenderness and solicitude on the part of the ninth earl.
So much for the first six stories in this collection. The other six are a delightful grab bag: one featuring Bobby Whickam, the rest the various nephews and connections of Mr. Mulliner who work in Hollywood. Bobby’s tale is pure Wodehouse lunacy and the last story, “The Castaways” is a writer’s-eye view of Hollywood that should not be missed—especially if you’re a writer.
James Saxon’s performance makes me wish he’d record more Wodehouse. His characters all live as individuals in your ear buds and his vocal range covers every Wodehousian nuance, from the sprightly and brainless to the dark and dubious.
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