Monday, June 29, 2020

A Violin and Murder

The Rainaldi Quartet 

The Rainaldi Quartet (Castiglione and Guastafeste, #1)

You expect the momentous events in life to provide some kind of warning. You expect to have some presage of what's about to happen, to be prepared for it when it hits you. But I wasn't prepared. None of us was.  - Paul Adam, The Rainaldi Quartet

This mystery involves a valuable violin and multiple murders in contemporary Italy.

Shortly after playing a short composition by Beethoven with his friends Tomaso Rainaldi, a retired professional musician and sometime violin teacher, and Antonio Guastafeste, a local detective; Gianni Castiglione, an elderly luthier (that is, a craftsman of stringed instruments), receives a suspicious call at his Lombardy countryside home from Rainaldi’s wife Clara. His friend hasn’t come home and he is soon found stabbed near his abandoned car. Guastafeste, a generation younger than narrator Castiglione or Rainaldi, returns when he’s assigned to the case. Because Castiglione’s technical knowledge makes him useful as a valuable resource, he accompanies Guastafeste on his investigation, which begins with Venetian violin collector Dottor Forlani. The curious collector lives in squalor but spends a small fortune on instruments. They learn that Rainaldi had contacted Forlani about acquiring a valuable violin known as the “Messiah’s Sister.” Not long after their visit, Forlani is also murdered by a nefarious and mysterious persona as ruthless as he is determined. The mystery’s trail, which includes old letters and older tombs, leads Gianni through a network of auction houses and black-market dealings across Italy and western Europe, reaching its denouement at Casale Monferrato, the cement capital of Italy.

Well-paced storytelling perfectly suits the subtle pleasures of this tale. The author offers plenty of European history and an immersion in a subculture of the classical music world as well as a pleasant mystery.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Heroic Retelling



“Old age hath yet his honour and his toil; Death closes all: but something ere the end, Some work of noble note, may yet be done . . . ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world . . . Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’ We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are; One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak in time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, and not to yield.”  ― Dan Simmons, Ilium

Having fairly recently reread the Iliad of Homer this book is a good follow-up both as a change, in genre, and as renewing my knowledge of the Iliad helps in understanding Simmons' novel. For in his novel Homer's relevance is more than an opening prop or gimmick. It is the Iliad that initially provides a bearing, a compass for the reader upon which the rest of the narrative depends, and without which, it could be argued, the rest, at least during the first third or so of the book, would unravel. This is a complicated novel with regard to plot and it is the familiarity of the Iliad story line that initially binds the work together, serving as a sturdy foundation while the other two strands, at first seeming unrelated, gradually come together.

Part humor, part literary space opera (and perhaps part mind game for intellectuals), Ilium is fascinating in its grand scope as well as the way it reinterprets earlier works to conform to an entirely new epic type. Within it references abound, not only to literature but popular culture, current events, philosophy and recent concepts of physics. It can be difficult to keep one's bearings as the author's vision is so expansive that the scale of events, characters and themes so often touched upon or merely suggested, only to be later viewed from different circumstance or perspective. Much of what occurs throughout the novel is driven by anticipation of how the author will ultimately resolve and integrate all of his various plotlines, cast and speculation. Intriguing hints are laid, sometimes in opposition: Proust's exploration of time, memory and perception or the secret paths to the puzzle of life; the moravec Mahnmut's interpretation of Shakespeare's Sonnets as a dramatic construct; the interaction and influence of will, represented by Zeus, the Fates, and chaos, upon events taking place upon the plains of Ilium; the fulcrum Hockenberry is urged to find in order to change the outcome of Homer; or the identity of "'A bitter heart that bides its time and bites.'" Cosmologies and ontologies, as well as metaphors, are borrowed, their identities and purposes remaining unclear or unexplained, as is so much else by novel's end, though suspicions are delectably stirred. 

This is a novel that provides a wealth of ideas and action which successfully entice the reader to continue the saga in the sequel, Olympos.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

The Eternal Man



“History has its truth, and so has legend. Legendary truth is of another nature than historical truth. Legendary truth is invention whose result is reality. Furthermore, history and legend have the same goal; to depict eternal man beneath momentary man.”  ― Victor Hugo, Ninety-Three

Ninety-Three by Victor Hugo is a glorious romantic imagining of an episode from the year 1793, during the French Revolution and the year of the Great Terror. The setting is Brittany where counter-revolutionary forces have risen up to oppose the Revolutionary leaders. The leader of this group, the aged Marquise de Lantenac, is a romantic hero in the grandest sense. A Breton noble, he disguises himself as a peasant after landing on the western coast. His mission, which he pursues with ruthless single-mindedness, is to act as a leader to the rebels, harness them to the royalist cause, and contrive an opportunity for an English military invasion.

His fate seems to be determined by the Revolutionary forces which are led by his grand-nephew, Gauvain. Pitted against Lantenac, Gauvain, formerly the Vicomte de Gauvain, has renounced his noble heritage and embraced the republican cause. Gauvain commands the republican troops allied with Marat and tasked with hunting down and killing Lantenac.

The third protagonist is Cimourdain, once a priest and Gauvain’s tutor, now a fervent revolutionary. It was from Cimourdain that Gauvain first learned the political ideals he has adopted. Cimourdain has a secret, the one weak spot in his ideological armour, for he loves Gauvain, has loved him since childhood, like the son he himself never had. Cimourdain is sent by the revolutionary leader, Marat, as a special agent to the Vendée to ensure that Gauvain does not waver in his loyalty, for Marat has heard disturbing rumors that Gauvain may be capable of mercy, and revolutionary leaders view this as a cardinal sin.

The tension of the story is provided not only by the action, which is fiercely exciting, but by ideas. At one point Gauvain says to Cimourdain:
"Louis XVI was a sheep thrown among lions. He tried to flee, to save himself . . . But not everyone can be a lion who wants to. His feeble attempt was regarded as a crime."
He asks Cimourdain, "lions? What are they?"
"This made Cimourdain think. He raised his head and said, 'Those lions are consciences. Those lions are ideas. Those lions are principles.'" (pp 197-98)

While Gauvain is a man of action, a revolutionary for the republic, he is also a thinker and it is his thoughts about the humanity of men that lead him to his ultimate actions. 
The grandeur of this novel is superb, while Hugo builds suspense in every section. Some scenes are so vivid that you are unlikely to forget them. One scene that is sometimes excerpted from the novel is the great cannon episode; depicting a loose cannon on a ship of anti-revolutionary French Royalists sailing towards Brittany, to aid the anti-revolutionary Chouannerie rebellion. 
The whole of the novel is like this, filled with one astonishing experience after another, keeping this reader spellbound.

Ninety-Three by Victor Hugo. Bantam Books, 1962 (1874)

Thursday, June 04, 2020

Images of a Life



"Time Present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation."  - T. S. Eliot, "Burnt Norton"

George Washington Crosby died. That, in sum , is the plot of this short novel, but within that death there is told a story of a life, a family, and a world made interesting through the beautiful prose of Paul Harding.

The book could have been called As I Lay Dying, but that title has already been used; it could have been called Clocks, or Timepieces, for that is one motif that recurs again and again in the story of George and his family, especially his father.

"That was it, he realized; the clock had run down." (p 33)

As we count down the hours until his death we experience images of his dreams, of his life, and of nature. Harding's prose brings each small detail alive as he shares the wonder of a life lived full of things, of tinkering, odd jobs, family interests, and disinterests. It is written with details sure to bring personal memories to the mind of the reader. It did for me, not that the small town may have been similar to my own, or not that the incidents might suggest ones I experienced; but one reference, to a Cribbage Board, brought back fond memories of learning how to play Cribbage and playing it with my Parents, Grandparents, and family. I still have a Cribbage Board hidden away in a closet, behind my Chess set. George's memories were like that, hidden away in the closets of his past, behind events long forgotten until the last days of his delirium.

We find out that George could not, or at least felt he could not, fill his father's shoes. Yet we are not told, but shown how, in a dream, George goes looking for his father and puts on his father's old boots which are too big for his feet, requiring additional layers of socks to make them fit. That is the way of this story: "Choose any hour on the clock. It is possible, then, to conceive that the clock's purpose is to return the hands back to that time . . ." (p 179) Thus the hands on the clocks go around and signal both the past and the present and, ultimately, the end.

Paul Harding has written a simple, subtle, and surely beautiful story about a man and his memories.  As a story of one man's death it reminded me of Hermann Broch's The Death of Virgil. Each story provides meaning, if that is possible, using exceptionally poetic prose to share the final dreams and thoughts of one man who has reached his end.