intense sensations

The Measure of a ManThe Measure of a Man by Marco Malvaldi

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a story that fires your imagination. The setting alone is enough to get you excited — Renaissance Italy — a time of miraculous advances in every field of human activity.

Marco Malvaldi, being Italian, has access to many books about this period in the language of those who experienced it. What a thrill it will be, I thought, to be led into this astounding world by a worldly Italian, a man of science who is an award-winning writer of crime fiction! And what a choice of detective! Not your plodding and jaded police inspector so loved by modern crime writers, but a true man of genius, an inventor, an artist, a man whose brain teemed with ideas and discoveries — Leonardo Da Vinci!

At first I was very disappointed. Marco Malvaldi is as flippant in his novels as I am in my reviews. I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy his sense of humour and his sense of drama is often ill-judged and sententious. The image below is typical.

“Trotti looked up. The moment had come to play all-in, as Texas Hold’em poker players would have said, had they witnessed the scene — highly improbable, given that America had been discovered barely a year earlier and during those months the conquistadores had had other things on their minds, like wiping out the natives, rather than inventing card games.”

There are good things in the book, however, if you can see beyond the anachronistic jokes.

The novelist has organised a vast amount of material very logically so that it is easy to keep track of a great number of characters. Complicated social situations have been rendered in broad brush strokes. Even the science and matters of high finance are easy to understand. For all this, Marco Malvaldi deserves praise. You can read this book quickly and, if it whets your appetite for a more immersive and comprehensive exploration of Renaissance Italy, there is a very helpful note at the end with some suggestions for further reading.

The plot is ambitious in scope but the actual outline of the plot is somewhat formulaic. I won’t spoil it by summarising it here even though the same summary could apply to hundreds of modern crime novels.

Overall I enjoyed reading this but I was left wanting a longer, more serious book, with more depth to the characters. I like humour in a novel, in fact I would go so far as to say it is essential, but I would have preferred this book without the jokes, especially this one:

“Ludovico was silent for a moment. His face turned scarlet.
Then he burst out laughing. A belly laugh, like a boy who sees a man slipping and falling on the ice or a woman making twenty-six maneuvers to park her old clunker in a spot big enough for two.”

I cannot drive, so I don’t take this joke personally, but really, this image does nothing to illuminate the characters or the epoch. I think it is possibly Marco himself who is driving the old clunker.

The Robbers and WallensteinThe Robbers and Wallenstein by Friedrich Schiller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve been wanting to write a review of The Robbers for months but unfortunately this wild and unruly play is packaged up in this Penguin edition with Schiller’s late masterpiece about Wallenstein and the Thirty Years War, which I haven’t read and probably won’t read until next year.

One thing is certain. I am bound by more rules in my reading than young Schiller was in his writing.

It is easy to adopt a superior attitude to The Robbers. The characters are like the feral scrawls of a cave dweller who is haunted by recurring nightmares. Their actions make no sense. The killings are rampant and random. The violence is completely unjustified. And yet without it all the rhetoric would be hollow.

So the work seems immature. Even Schiller himself didn’t know what to make of it. All these ideas just exploded out of him and he tried his best to give them shape. It appears he changed his mind a few times and probably never quite succeeded in getting down on paper exactly what it was he wanted to say.

But I loved the play’s boldness. And I loved Schiller’s description of it as ‘a novel in dramatic form.’

It is completely appropriate to me that the plays of Schiller, of Shakespeare, Sheridan, Racine, Corneille and even the plays of Moliere, whose comic genius, we are told, was apparent in his performances as much as in his verse, should all exist now as books to be read. I can best appreciate these plays by reading them so it is very consoling to know that Schiller had no expectation of ever seeing The Robbers on stage.

And I really enjoyed reading The Robbers. The translation by F.J. Lamport is first rate. It is so good I forgot I was reading a translation. The language rolls along like a smoke billowing out of a furnace. At times it echoes Shakespeare. It burns up Corneille and Racine who are like fragile cinders in its wake.

Schiller’s ambition is vaulting. Technically, he is not quite there yet but there is no doubting where he is going. He is like a fireball lighting up the end of the eighteen century and blazing a trail for generations of geniuses who will draw inspiration and sustenance from his vision.

His plays make excellent operas and there is an excellent rendering of The Robbers by Verdi in gorgeous lyrical music that tames the chaotic energy of its source. But you can’t make The Robbers beautiful. It is ugly and damnable.

And youthful and immature though it is, it has the immaturity of budding genius. It has the glimmer of greatness.

Schiller is not just a writer who was great in his time. He towers above all our contemporaries and The Robbers is an astonishing piece of writing, like a comet in the dark. I loved it.

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Neuromancer (Sprawl, #1)Neuromancer by William Gibson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It being a gloriously sunny spring day, I accepted a friend’s invitation to Kew Gardens. I was flirting outrageously, I suppose. We were in the hothouse when I asked him, ‘If you could sleep with anyone past or present, who would it be?’

‘What about the future?’

I assumed he was going to say something flattering like ‘You, Vanessa. Eternally and only you.’

‘Choose anyone you like,’ I said.

‘Molly from Neuromancer.’

Some quick neural re-programming was required.

‘Don’t tell me you haven’t read it,’ he chided.

‘I’ve read everything. But I have difficulty remembering it all. Is she the one with –‘

‘– the blades. Yes. And mirror shades grafted into her eye sockets. Don’t look so revolted. Aren’t you going to ask me why?’

‘Why?’ I asked.

‘Because she’s cool!’

‘Didn’t she also have a cut-out so she could switch off during sex?’

‘Only bad sex. Besides, it stopped working when she had her reflexes enhanced.’

‘For the motors on those razors. Yes. Don’t you think she might be kind of demanding?’

‘Oh, totally.’ He had a glint in his eyes. He seemed almost exciting in that exotic heat.

‘And you could cope with that?’

‘I’m up for the challenge,’ he said.

‘Have you had some motorized cyber enhancement I don’t know about?

‘Like to find out?’

‘Not if I’m going to be disappointed.’

‘Oh, I don’t think I would disappoint you, Vanessa.’

A mechanical hiss startled us and sprayed warm mist into the thick atmosphere.

‘You know how she paid for those cybernetic enhancements, don’t you?’ I said.

‘Of course. Prostitution. It’s corny, I know…’

‘Very dark.’

‘Is it?’

‘I recall a scene,’ I said, ‘where she woke up with a politician and a dead woman covered in blood.’

‘Well, that was a bit unfortunate.’

‘Then she killed the politician.’

‘I don’t remember that,’ he said. ‘But it’s a surprisingly prevalent fantasy these days.’

We walked through the hothouse exit into the fresh outside air. The light was blinding but I felt a sudden chill.

‘Oh my God! The future is fine as a topic but does it have to be so dystopian?’

‘Actually, I live in hope,’ he said, fixing me with those melting brown eyes.

I pulled down my sunglasses and touched his cheek with a blood red fingernail. ‘Hope is its own reward, they say.’

‘No, that’s virtue.’

‘You should make a virtue of hope, Richard.’

‘That’s not my style.’

‘Then, at least you have Neuromancer. A novel to be read more than once, I think.’


‘We’re agreed on that,’ I said.

In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote FrankensteinIn Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein by Fiona Sampson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book left me dissatisfied but I’m in a mood to be generous and award it five stars for lucidity, readability and the fact that it provoked me to try and express my feelings about it in this review.

It is not new to go “In Search Of” a towering literary figure. I have at least one other “In Search Of” biography in this very room with me right now. But it is nevertheless exceedingly apt, apt with a poet’s precision, to be In Search of Mary Shelley. And Fiona Sampson is a poet who writes with extraordinary attention to detail, gleaning everything she can from every surviving sentence of Mary Shelley’s novels, journals and letters, and those of her friends, so the book actually lives up to its title. Fiona Sampson is, for sure, a woman in search of Mary Shelley, and she is searching for her very conscientiously in the enduring and compelling words that Mary Shelley wrote.

And I really sympathise with that search. I share it. I have been searching for a while. I am searching more than ever now after finishing this tantalising book.

For Mary Shelley is elusive. She is, still, in a way, anonymous. She hides behind precise and evocative language. She defies even the modern magnifying lens of scholarly scrutiny. Some carping critics are still not entirely decided, as they were undecided at the time, how much of Frankenstein she wrote. Or, indeed, who wrote which entry in the shared journal that she kept with that young firebrand she ran off with.

Fiona Sampson believes, I think, in what she calls evidence-based biography. So she looks hard at the evidence. But then she believes in adding a little bit of conjecture, even fantasy, wild surmise, guesswork, interpretation and opinion.

I like her for that. It’s done tactfully and respectfully. Her opinions are very interesting and plausible. And while I was imbibing them I started to form opinions of my own. You can read many things into some of Mary Shelley’s letters. Her omissions, too, are suggestive. Her motives in many key moments of her life are open to question.

It is not that she is duplicitous. Not at all. She is, I think, courageously open, principled and bold. But she is also very shy, very private, very modest. She shuns the limelight. She draws a veil over many things, even in her private journal.

But she isn’t afraid of anything and she throws herself into a passionate life with the man she loves and does right by him all the time that he is alive and all the long years following his death.

I have the most devoted and indelible respect for Mary Shelley. I have always been fascinated by her, ever since, many years ago, I first opened a book of poems written by Percy Bysshe, which was based on Mary Shelley’s two editions of 1839. (This was Thomas Hutchinson’s Oxford University Press edition of 1919.) She writes captivating vignettes about their life together between those poems. They are like miniature biographical essays, all the more moving for the fact that she was forbidden to write a biography of her husband by her father-in-law, on whom she depended for the education of her son. You can tell she adored her husband and cherishes his memory. But she is also very sensitive, respectful and objective. This is very moving. She honours him by staying true to his intentions, in spite of the obvious pain it must give her, reading back many of those lines.

But it is very hard, actually impossible, to discover what she was really thinking most of the time. Normally you can discover a writer’s true spirit through her works. But I even wonder how much of her novels and stories were as heartfelt and sincere as they might have been had she not felt so bereft, felt so deserted, betrayed even, by her friends and family.

Fiona Sampson’s intense, slim volume, does much to illuminate some of the dark corners of Mary’s life. But it is inviting rather than revelatory. She shines her torch and says, “Look, here is something fascinating … ” but she doesn’t rummage or despoil.

Go and read the letters. Read the journals and novels and biographical notes. What do you make of them?

Who was Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley, really? Was her literary life, “the last stuttering of the revolutionary spark that her mother Mary Wollstonecraft ignited?”

I don’t know. But I am grateful to Fiona Sampson for making me feel much wiser than I was 10 days ago.

RakeRake by Matthew Caley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Poets are poor but readers of poetry are rich.

Rake is a slim book of poems by the rakish Matthew Caley, published by Bloodaxe Books. Some of the poems are tiny, four or five short lines. Some take up more than a page. But even with the long ones, if you like making notes there is plenty of space to do it. Or you can write your own poems underneath or beside Matthew’s if you are feeling frisky.

It is £9.99 well spent.

I chose to snuggle under the covers this cold Saturday morning and warm myself to its pulsing rhythms and insinuating cadences. Fancy an Acute Hot Knee?

If I behold your/rucked up dress, revealing as/it does one acute/hot knee in all its bare-assed/actuality, nothing//is composed.

Mmm, I don’t think he’s joking.

There is more. (This is not one of his short ones.)

I can’t do justice to his word placement. He is very cheeky with it.

There’s a poem here about a Giantess that caught my attention, after Baudelaire. Matthew’s take on it is quite erotic.

It’s not his only nod to the decadent Frenchman.

Baudelaire is clearly quite an influence, even when not named. He leads the London hipster to Hither Green (a very sexy poem), and then there is Bling, an acknowledged re-working of Les Bijoux.

My love is naked/almost, for knowing my kink/she keeps on her bling…

Tantalising, isn’t it? Or do you prefer the original?

La très chère était nue, et, connaissant mon coeur,
Elle n’avait gardé que ses bijoux sonores,
Dont le riche attirail lui donnait l’air vainqueur
Qu’ont dans leurs jours heureux les esclaves des Mores.

I feel richer for having Matthew Caley’s version. He leaves out the Moorish slave women in their happier moments, substituting a jangly American rock group called Audioslave. Witty?

You decide.

But, outrageously, Matthew’s rake claims to have had Jeanne Duval before Baudelaire did. In Brixton!!

This is some poetic licence!

It’s quite tricky to do humour in a poem. Even harder to do it in an erotic poem. But this collection aims high. The poems succeed in being erotic and funny at the same time.

How can you afford to be without this essential modern masterpiece?

A Sentimental Journey Through France and ItalyA Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy by Laurence Sterne
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Whether modern or old, the edition of a book is important. I am very fussy and perhaps even sentimental about this. For me a book is a physical object to be cherished for its sheer physicality as much as for its sentiment and sense. My first choice for A Sentimental Journey is the Oxford World’s Classics edition edited by Ian Jack and Tim Parnell. I like the font and the discreet signalling of notes with a little superscripted circle.

This Oxford edition contains A Sentimental Journey and Other Writings. The Other Writings are a sickly sweet love journal to his sweetheart, an adroit satire on political games played by obscure churchmen and some surprising sermons on such topics as feasting, concubines and enthusiasm.

Of these, A Sentimental Journey is easily the best. It is far and away the best. It is incomparable. It is sublime.

You might wonder what a clergyman is doing writing so wittily and sentimentally about his erotic experiences in France and Italy. But it is his very respectability that makes his sentimentality so piquant.

Mr. Sterne’s observations are never crude. He is a world away from Tobias Smollet’s toilet humour. You are given hints and you must find out the erotic detail for yourself. You must feel it. That is what Mr. Sterne is so very good at, making you feel. You must imagine yourself as the gentleman sitting next to the fille de chambre on the big hotel bed as she carefully searches for, then reveals, the quilted satin and taffeta purse she has made to hold the coin you gave her. You must wonder what you would have done had you been the Marquesina in Milan who was pursued by such a charming and witty clergyman. Would you, like her, have let him into your carriage?

I know I would.

That glimpse he gives us of his erotic adventure in Milan is, unfortunately all we get of Italy. The French portion of his journey occupies volumes one and two and the journal ends abruptly in Savoy, with Turin no more than a twinkle on the horizon. The work is unfinished. And yet, you might say, it is exquisitely finished.

It is impossible to do justice to Mr. Sterne’s work in a brief summary because he is so very brief himself. For readers only familiar with Tristram Shandy, it is astonishing how concise he can be. He is so concise you have to read the whole work to appreciate its beauty. He has put so much into it and, at the same time, left so much out. It creates ripples in your mind and in your senses. It is tantalising. It is perfect.

It is, truly, a classic.

doctor-thorne It’s only by reading War and Peace all the way through without skipping a few chapters or throwing large chunks away that you can appreciate the towering genius of Anthony Trollope. He did what Tolstoy refused to do. He shaped life to make it fit neatly into a novel. He crafted a cunning plot, fleshed it out with all-too-human characters, spiced it up with scandal and plenty of jokes and served it up as a frothy concoction entirely for our pleasure and amusement.

It’s fiction, of course, but it’s also, as Nathaniel Hawthorne observed, “just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting that they were being made a show of.”

Doctor Thorne has one of Trollope’s best plots. It’s the plot he was most proud of. It’s neat. It serves his purpose well. For his purpose, of course, is not simply to tell a story but to dish up some situations that can entertain us, make us laugh and make us think.

There are one or two old-fashioned moral dilemmas in the novel. I say old-fashioned because these days anything goes. Whoever heard of a modern politician with a conscience or a doctor with a qualm? What banker or businessman would balk at profit? Self-interest is these days synonymous with commonsense. We put ourselves first in everything, “because we’re worth it.”

But if you can rise above our contemporary moral landscape and imagine a world where people have a burning desire to do the right thing, then there is nothing at all old-fashioned about the pleasure you will get from reading this superbly crafted and highly readable book.

You don’t have to digest indigestible sentences or wrestle with intrusive philosophical tracts. Trollope writes beautifully and simply. He sums up moral dilemmas with admirable concision. He is a genius at putting things in a nutshell. He lets his characters speak freely but he makes sure they always speak to the point.

Frank is told almost every day that he must marry for money. Frank knows he has a duty to his family and doesn’t want to see it go to ruin. But he is in love with a woman who has no money and no social status. What should he do?

It’s a straightforward quandary and no other novelist could spin it out so delightfully for over 600 pages without making us conscious of the novel’s length. Trollope is never a chore to read, unlike Henry James who accused him of “a complete appreciation of the usual.” There are no murders here, no shoot-outs, no car chases, no weird drug problems, no psychopaths. Instead there is a delightful lightness of touch, a mastery of motive and character, and an elegance of expression that makes us see everything with absolute clarity.

This will not get stretched beyond credulity the way the plot of Downton Abbey was. But it is getting the same exposure, on prime time Sunday night television, with a script by Downton’s creator, Julian Fellowes. I hope the script does the novel justice and the exposure gives Trollope the audience he deserves.

Books by Vanessa Wu

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