Tuesday, May 04, 2010

April brings the sweet spring showers

At last, an accurate post title! Although they're autumn showers in our case... but anyway...

As I write this, the UK is tilting towards a general election with a difference – for pretty much the first time in living memory, there are more than two possible outcomes! Even from the second hand coverage here in NZ, the panic in the red and blue camps has come across loud and clear. Shit, they're taking Nick Clegg seriously! Quick, discredit him! Scaremonger! Propose a coalition! Anything! Have we spent decades gerrymandering the electoral boundaries for nothing?! Well, no, because even a large win for the Lib Dems is still only likely to result in a hung parliament. Personally I'd like to see a hung parliament in the UK (“hanged” surely? -Ed.) - even at worst it would at least make the Tories and Labour slightly less complacent. So here's hoping.

Readers will be shocked to learn that I've only read two (count 'em) books in the last month, an all-time low. In my defence, they were quite big books, with lots of words and hardly any pictures at all. Also, having still not found a job, I've taken on Project X (as we shall for the moment refer to it), which is taking up a fair amount of my time. Project X is likely to take a couple of months, so between that and trying to blog on the new series of Doctor Who (more anon), I've got my hands full. Anyway, here's the books:

Prizes: Selected Short Stories, Janet Frame
Library book. Part of my self-imposed programme of NZ writer familiarisation. Watch out, Barry Crump and Owen Marshall, you're (eventually) next. Janet Frame's story is an interesting one – her first volume of short fiction was published, to tremendous critical acclaim, just in time to save her from a scheduled lobotomy. She spent the rest of her life globe-trotting, signing herself into and out of psychiatric institutions and publishing very well-received novel and anthologies. Go and read her Wikipedia entry, because nothing less will do.
This retrospective volume contains a large selection from all of Frame's published anthos, plus a handful of previously uncollected pieces. I must admit that overall I'm a bit indifferent. Her early material has a bit of a Kate Bush vibe to it, if readers know what I mean, but after the first couple of pieces the style started to pall. I found the stories from her Snowman, Snowman collection the best of the bunch, although that may not be hugely surprising given that these stories have more of a fantasy feel than those from her other books. It may be worth my while tracking down that individual volume at some point. As far as this career-long collection is concerned – eh. I'm not seized with a burning desire to read her novels just yet.

The Divine Comedy, Cantica II: Purgatory, Dante (trans Dorothy L Sayers)
Library book. Previously on CSI: Catholicism – thanks to an act of divine intervention, Dante has been taken from the personal wilderness in which he had “lost his way” so that he can be shown the whole cosmological scheme of things, in the hope that this glimpse of the afterlife will encourage him to mend his ways. So far he's been given a guided tour of Hell by the classical poet Virgil, one of the most eminent of the “virtuous pagans” who are held in Limbo, just on the outskirts of the nether world. Now Virgil has led him all the way through the centre of the Earth, straight out the other side and into the Antipodes, where they are faced with Mount Purgatory. The two of them climb up its various cornices, meeting the penitent sinners that occupy each one, until they reach the summit where Virgil hands Dante over to the divine presence, in the form of the most beautiful woman Dante ever knew, who will conduct him through the crystal spheres that comprise Paradise.
As Sayers notes in her introduction (learned and informative again, although starting to become a little strident...), Purgatory is basically pretty similar to Hell except that the occupants want to be there. The layout is different – Dante wouldn't want to bore you with the same book twice – and the big difference is that everybody gets to leave (eventually), but the essential arrangement of types of sin being repaid in appropriate ways is the same. It's the Mirror Universe version of Hell. This is the old “we can do this the easy way or the hard way” doctrine that many non-Catholics find unpalatable – everybody's damned on principle, it's just a question of whether or not they accept that they're damned. And if they accept it, their souls are whisked away on a little boat to... well, to near enough New Zealand, I suppose... so that they can work off their debts and ascend into the celestial clockwork. That's 13th century metaphysics for you.
Once again, very lively and readable. Once again, Sayers provides some excellent rhymes, although she does also provide some rather clunky ones. There's a definite shift here from the near travelogue of Cantica I to a mixture of descriptive passages and philosophical argument between Virgil and Dante – Sayers suggests that this raising and refinement of the subject matter reflects the characters' own ascent through the more refined parts of the afterlife, which sounds good. Apparently Cantica III sees more philosophising again, not surprisingly.

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