The Spy Who Came In From The Cold – Still Trying To Escape The Chill After All These Years

“We’re all the same you know, that’s the joke.”

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is John Le Carré’s 1963 novel about the Cold War, as fought by the secret services of Britain on one side, East Germany and Russia on the other. Well, I talk of sides, but that isn’t really accurate. You’d think it would be clear which side was which, seeing as there’s a great big Berlin Wall between them, topped with barbed wire, swept by search lights, guarded by soldiers. Ironically, the book shows that one side is much the same as the other. It is difficult to work out who is working for whom. Spies double cross their governments, though that treachery might be loyal service in disguise. Both sides use the same ruthless methods.

There is a curious use of the word “same” in the novel. It crops up a lot. Have a look at page 12 – when Control is talking to our world-weary spy protagonist, Alec Leamas. The word “same” appears nine times. And then through the book, it’s there repeatedly – 57 times in all. I counted them! Same even appears on the very last page, referring to steps on a ladder over the Berlin Wall. Same, same, same. That got me thinking – when we find the same cold on both sides of the wall, a reader could be forgiven for thinking that the cold is everywhere, and there is no coming in from it.

But there is warmth in the book, personified in certain individuals, particularly in the figure of Liz Gold, a lovely, caring women Alec Leamas meets while working in a library. She is nurturing, sensible and kind, the moral compass of the book really. Consider Elizabeth Gold’s name. Gold has all sorts of positive connotations of warmth and happiness. Then again, don’t you think gold sounds so much like cold? It’s sounds almost the SAME! If the cold is everywhere, maybe the warm is too.

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is a fascinating book, a compelling spy story hiding all sorts of subtlety, like a cold war cypher. It is certainly true that readers can make a pessimistic interpretation. John Le Carré, by all accounts was himself a pessimistic and troubled man. Nevertheless, there is something in his book, a suggestion that while we are out in the cold with no possible hope of relief, warmth is never far away.

Piranesi By Susanna Clarke – Controlling The Tides

Sketch from the “Imaginary Prisons” series by Giovanni Piranesi – eighteenth century Italian archaeologist, architect and artist

(Be aware, some spoilers may follow)

Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke, published in September 2020, is set in a kind of parallel world. This takes the form of a series of vast, interconnecting halls on three levels stretching for hundreds of miles in all directions. The lower levels of “the house” are washed by ocean waves, the upper levels obscured by cloud, the mid levels are habitable, at least if you know how to fish, and burn dried seaweed to stay warm.

I read this book two ways. The first involves the way people, self-regarding as always, tend to see their own affairs reflected in the world around them. The world of the house seems to be an actual physical manifestation of human thought over millennia. The house judges those within it through the action of natural events, rewarding those it favours and punishing those it doesn’t, mostly through the action of floods. This reflects the way many societies have viewed nature involving itself with their affairs. The ancient Egyptian civilisation, for example, had priests whose job it was to intercede with the gods to make sure the Nile flooded regularly and replenished the soil.

From this point of view I thought the scenario of Piranesi, an entire world built as a reflection of humanity’s doings, was as silly as expecting Egyptian priests to really control flooding with their prayers.

However, there was another aspect of the book that made me think again. The central character, known as “Piranesi,” emotional and mysterious though his bond with the house may be, is also a scientist. By close observation he knows when high tides will occur, and when they will pose danger by washing through the habitable part of the house. So when a dangerously high tide appears to help Piranesi, while thwarting his enemies, that is just a reflection of his understanding of tides, rather than any mystical judgement by the house. Piranesi really is in tune with the house, but he achieves this not with prayers and mysticism, but through close observation and note taking.

So the book is about the relationship of rationality and irrationally, or art and science if you like. Getting to the house involves a bit of mystical setting aside of rationality, but once there, what seems to be mysticism is actually the result of careful study.

Piranesi is an interesting and imaginative book, with an engaging central character. The setting may be bizarre, but it’s actually a mystery story, which even involves a police character who helps unravel the puzzle of how Piranesi ended up in the house. At a time when society seems to be struggling with irrational ideas, this is a timely reflection on how people think about the world around them

The Truman Show – Leaving Conspiracies Behind

Conspiracy theories and disinformation are rife. Many of the reasons for this come up in Peter Weir’s 1998 film The Truman Show – which I watched the night before the storming of the United States Capitol. This is an odd sci-fi story, involving an orphaned baby, Truman Burbank, who is adopted by a television studio and placed unknowingly in a reality show where everyone else is an actor.

Conspiracy theories make people feel important. They are about having “special knowledge” ignored by most people. This sets the believer apart as one of the chosen few who really knows what’s going on. No need to go to university for years, and then spend a long time gaining expertise in a job, to end up in a position of eminence. You can get all that by simply believing that the world is flat, or that the American election was stolen. The reasons people believe in conspiracy theories are complex, but I think you can say generally that a frustrated desire for prestige is often involved. Conspiracy believers are either unwilling or unable to achieve prestige in the normal, laborious way. They seek a short cut to self importance. It’s like choosing to steal a car rather than waiting to earn the money to buy one.

Truman Burbank grows into adulthood unaware of the true nature of his life. But then a number of production mishaps on the show start to make him suspect something is going on. He feels that he is living in a world focused entirely on himself. Clearly this suggests that he is very important. He has to try and square this feeling with the fact that he also seems to be an ordinary man.

Truman’s efforts to escape his false existence come to a climax in a sailing voyage across the “ocean” towards the limit of his world. And fittingly, his odyssey takes place on a flat Earth which really does have an edge. His boat bumps into the outer wall of the huge Truman Show studio. Truman disembarks, and walks around the sea’s margin, while the show’s director seemingly talks to him from the sky. We see the prestige which this closed world confers on Truman. He seemingly walks on water while God speaks to him from the heavens. God – that is the director – calls on Truman not to leave the show. It is so tempting to stay there and remain at the centre of things. But beyond the door lies the real world, and the woman who once broke the rules by loving Truman for himself and not because she was an actress following a script. Truman stands at an exit door in a painted sky, and debates with himself what to do. Finally he makes the decision to leave, cheered on by his audience. But his exit also results in the loss of his fame and importance. Truman’s glorious denouement coincides with two security guards reaching for a TV guide, to help them decide what to watch next. So you can see why some people hang on to their illusory beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence against them.

I think The Truman Show is a lesson in humility. We all have to accept that knowledge is hard won. Truman nearly drowns on his hazardous voyage to the edge of his world. He really has to work for what he knows. And his moment of triumph, ironically, is the moment he realises that everything doesn’t revolve around him. To truly appreciate the world, we have to stop telling ourselves that we are at the centre of it.

What Maisie Knew By Henry James – Innocence Meets Experience

What Maisie Knew is a 1897 novel by Henry James, about a young girl, tossed around between two parties in a vengeful divorce. They fight over custody of Maisie, and fight just as hard when each parent thinks they are being expected to spend too much time with the child. Then there is a sub plot of nannies and guardians who themselves have affairs with each vile parent, and with each other – and fight over Maisie!

This plot sounds like a kind of nineteenth century version of Dynasty. The tone of the writing, however, is very much nineteenth century literary fiction. The story is told from the point of view of Maisie, who is both confused by the machinations of adults, and able see through the self-serving fictions adults cook up to make themselves look good. We see events through Maisie’s eyes, but rather than the narrative voice remaining with her, we hear instead the tone of a world-weary, adult with literary pretensions. So the viewpoint and the voice make for an odd mixture, a combination of the innocent, and the knowing, which is fitting for the book’s preoccupations.

This is a very artful book, reflecting on the contradictions of knowledge and deception, innocence and experience. As just a brief example – Maisie always sees the best in everybody, which is a lovely quality. But admirable though this quality is, it has the practical effect of making her believe in whoever she is with at any particular moment. Her guileless effort to be loyal to everyone, can also have the appearance of flighty disloyalty.

A number of reviews of the book are included at the end of the Penguin edition. One from the Manchester Guardian of 1897, concludes by saying:

“It is undoubtedly a work of art, but hardly one you would like to hang on your walls.”

I think this sums it up. What Maisie Knew is a very clever book, but is by no means an easy and relaxing read. The world of childhood only comes to us through the voice of an adult, who loves his long sentences and even longer paragraphs. This is a children’s book for the sort of adult who is willing to suffer for their literary rewards

The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence – Early Twentieth Century Pride

The Rainbow is D.H. Lawrence’s 1915 novel about three generations of the Nottinghamshire Brangwen family, covering a period from around 1840, to the early 1900s. 

It was banned in Britain soon after publication, and would not be available for eleven years. D.H. Lawrence remained a controversial figure right up until 1960, when Penguin faced a public prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act following publication of their unexpurgated edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. 

Maybe the 1960s is a good place to start this review, since Lawrence was very in vogue then, what with his reputation for the free expression of love, commitment to personal development, and a sense of the mystical value of nature. It was all very modern. So, how does Lawrence, the rebellious Victorian hippy, portray in The Rainbow that period of time when the modern world came into being?

The first part of The Rainbow is focused on the traditional ways that people indulged their mystical leanings, which after all were not invented in the 1960s. Will Brangwen, for example, has a vague, highly emotional, religious enthusiasm, centred on church architecture and religious paintings. Meanwhile, Anna, his wife, pokes fun and points out logical pitfalls. The “lamb of God” comes in for a lot of snark. We don’t really get the feeling that traditional Christianity is the way to go for the forward-looking seeker of enlightenment.

Later in the book, we see people trying something more up-to-date. Compared to a traditional rural society centred on the local church, modern society based on vibrant cities and the wonders of science, might offer new hope for people to develop themselves and lead fuller, more meaningful lives. Young Ursula Brangwen certainly hopes so. She leaves the village where she grew up, heads to the town of Ilkeston, and then to university in Nottingham, with dreams of following her own independent path as a teacher. However, teaching at a tough school soon brings Ursula’s high hopes crashing down. The reality of her work is training children to accept the regimentation necessary to work in factories and offices. It’s a brutal business for all concerned.

So finally we follow Ursula through the most famous section of The Rainbow, where she tries to find something bigger than herself in the glories of nature. There is much lyrical writing about moonlight and rainbows, all of which Ursula celebrates with a kind of wild euphoria. I think we can feel that as far as D.H. Lawrence is concerned, this is the most real “spirituality” available to people. But we also see that even this path has its drawbacks, leading to embarrassments – and unplanned pregnancies – once the heat of the moment has worn off.

The book in the end doesn’t really have a philosophy of free love or individual freedom, or anything else you can embrace as a “cause” in the 1960s sense of university sit-ins or demos. In fact, The Rainbow is more of an exploration of different approaches to finding something meaningful, where upsides are balanced against downsides. Nothing is really a final answer, and nothing is dismissed out of hand. Will does find a transcendence in his church architecture even though his lamb of God is a joke; Ursula’s school is horrible, but on her last day the other teachers buy her a present, and reveal themselves as human beings doing their best. Maybe if there was a clear answer, this might only serve to reduce the value of an endless search, which of course the rainbow comes to symbolise. 

I enjoyed the book. There isn’t any plot in the traditional sense. It’s a family saga, where people grow up, have love affairs, endure black moods, interspersed with joyous interludes, get married, have children, who then go through the same process, each generation trying to find meaning in its own way. The writing style is often over-heated, but there is a surprising amount of humour – all those digs involving the lamb of God, for example. There is also a lot of thought to set against the emotion. And as I say, the final feeling is not of answers, but of continuing questions, which I suppose is how a book written in 1915 is still able to remain relevant many years later. The rainbow is a symbol today of acceptance of different points of view rather than prescription, and that’s how it works in the hands of D.H. Lawrence.

Tropic Of Cancer by Henry Miller – Do You Like Your Truth Ugly Or Beautiful?

Tropic of Cancer is a notorious novel from 1934 by the American writer Henry Miller. Banned on grounds of obscenity, it was not published in the United States until 1961.

When I read the book, it made me think, ironically, of Netflix comedy Emily in Paris. Oddly for a country which makes such a big deal of freedom, America is in many ways a morally conservative, sometimes puritanical country. This gives humour to Emily’s situation, where a poised, self-possessed young woman from Chicago collides with louche Parisians. Tropic of Cancer is a similar idea, only taken to much more of an extreme. The American in this case is Henry Miller – yes the narrator has the same name as the author. He is vaguely a writer, sometimes a proof reader, occasionally a teacher of English, who leaves his marriage in America to try and find artistic freedom in the hedonistic environs of Montparnasse. Henry might not be self-controlled like Emily, but he is the product of a relatively repressed culture crashing into a society that is altogether more rakish.

How does this American do? Well it’s all pretty chaotic, and with a crazy book I think it helps to make sense of it in terms of other things. So moving on from Emily in Paris, I also found myself reminded of the Rocky Horror Picture Show where alien Frank N. Furter flees his home planet and comes to Earth, hoping to do whatever he likes. But after a while, even having fun becomes hard work. At one point a disillusioned Frank moans: “It’s not easy having a good time. Even smiling makes my face ache.” There is a lot of that in Tropic of Cancer.

Tropic of Cancer basically has two modes. There’s the relatively straight-forward and frequently hilarious approach of sections describing Henry’s dealings with friends and acquaintances. My favourite is the one where he meets a turbulent Russian princess trying to make it as a film star. Using my comparisons technique, these passages are like Withnail and I. The second Tropic of Cancer mode is a stream of consciousness style, where reflections and opinions tumble along wild tangents. These segments are by turns poetic, incomprehensible, and smug. There’s the feeling that if you are not suffering, or living in poverty, or having extreme relationship dramas, you are not really getting through to the truth of things. I admit I sometimes found this attitude tiresome and weirdly snobbish in an inverted sort of way – though I got the point that being too comfortable might not be the most creative way to be.

Giving a book like this a star rating is not easy. You can imagine what Henry Miller would think of star ratings: drink in hand he would declare five stars to be “a brilliant constellation, in a night hung close, dagger-pointed, drunk as a maniac, an infinitude of emptiness.” This is a book that wants to get away from easy categories of good and bad, worthwhile and worthless. So rather than passing judgement, I can only really go with my personal reaction, which is – very funny in parts, sometimes moving, often distasteful, and perhaps misguided in believing that if something is miserable, dirty and horrible then it must be true. Didn’t Keats say that beauty was truth? So that’s at least one person who thinks that a disgusting flat, filled with bed bugs and drunk people is not necessarily the last word in veracity. From a writing point of view the book is well crafted, which is part of the irony of Tropic of Cancer. It might seem as though the author is throwing down the first thing that comes into his head, in a mad burst of creative abandon; but our narrator Henry Miller also talks of revisions and drafts, which tells us that his writing freedom is hard won. Henry works as a proof reader, and you don’t get to be one of those without understanding that writing takes work. Fittingly, the free-form but crafted writing of Tropic of Cancer is just like many other ambivalent liberties explored in the book. As you escape, there is always a kind of equal and opposite reaction to bring you back again – which even in its frustrations, can be oddly reassuring. But you will have to look hard for the reassurance. Henry Miller’s instinct is to be miserable.

A Gentleman In Moscow By Amor Towles – His Excellency Will Be Over To Take Your Order Shortly

This novel from 2016, tells the story of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, a Russian aristocrat, who is arrested after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, on the charge of being a social parasite. While most people in his situation would have been shot, the Bolshevik government mistakenly believe Count Rostov to be the author of a revolutionary poem of which it approves. So a lesser sentence is imposed – permanent house arrest at his current place of residence, which happens to be the Metropol Hotel in Moscow. The hotel’s lifetime resident is obliged to move from his luxury suite to disused staff quarters in the attic.

The early stages of his house arrest see Count Rostov continuing in the role of hotel guest. But a telling scene, when Rostov witnesses poor service in the restaurant, foreshadows what lies ahead. A young couple, who are about to say significant things to each other, are interrupted by a thoughtless waiter wanting to take their order. And if that isn’t bad enough, this incompetent then goes on to recommend an inappropriate wine for their meal! The count cannot help but interject. You begin to see that an aristocrat is potentially a very good waiter, attuned to refined, respectful behaviour with a intimate knowledge of the etiquette of dining. And, fittingly, needing work to fill his days, a highly competent waiter is what the count becomes.

I enjoyed this aspect of the book, the nuanced way it explores social and political questions. The count, unfailingly open-hearted and charming, serves to demonstrate that an apparently divided society might not be as disconnected as it appears. Aristocrats and waiters are not necessarily class enemies, forever pitted against each other. They are in fact people who resemble each other closely. Similarly, there is also reference to the hidden parallels between Russia and America, two countries which believe themselves to be implacable adversaries. A senior Russian government minister calls regularly upon Rostov who, as a well travelled man, can provide the minister with an understanding of America and the West. During their conversations, they realise that America and revolutionary Russia share an essential defining characteristic – an unflinching willingness to brush the past aside. The book’s contradictions also extend to the philosophical, as the hotel, this place of restriction and punishment, becomes a sanctuary where the count lives through some of the most precious moments of his life with people he loves. And the final contrast lies in the way a gentleman, who spends his life showing consideration, refinement and empathy can also display grit and ruthlessness. But observing “reviewing etiquette” regarding spoilers, you will understand why I won’t reveal to you, sir, or to you, madam, any more information about the denouement at this time. I would not wish to spoil your reading enjoyment.

I will just say that A Gentleman In Moscow is charming, and warm. It appeals to the emotions, but also sets you thinking about divides and oppositions, which might actually offer opportunities for fellowship and common ground. This is a graceful, humane book, serving as an antidote for divided times.

The Queen’s Gambit – Playing The Perfect Game

Netflix drama, The Queen’s Gambit, tells the fictional tale of orphan Beth Harmon, who after a difficult start, goes on to become world chess champion. I loved it. As a bit of geeky fun, here is the story of The Queen’s Gambit told as though it were a chess game. Start the clock.


Beth begins as a pawn, the smallest and weakest piece in the game. She has lost her parents and lives in a 1950s Kentucky orphanage. Her fortunes begin to change when the janitor teaches her chess. After showing great promise, Beth plays boys at a local high school chess club. In chess, a king has a similar range of movement to a pawn, which means the most symbolically important piece is essentially a dressed up version of the least powerful. Beth, as yet only a pawn, soon reveals the high school boys as emperors with no clothes.

Now it’s time to move our knights, pieces which are often involved early in a game. Knights are men who owe their important social position to an accident of birth rather than merit. Is there a subtle nod towards the unfairness of life in the way these aristocratic knights come at their enemies in a sneaky L shaped movement, jumping over other pieces. Beth is not a knight. She was born with no advantages beyond her talent. You could say in playing the boys, many of whom have a sense of entitlement, she is playing against the knights.


So we’ve opened with our pawns and knights. Next, let’s get our castles involved. These pieces move in straight lines, vertically and horizontally. If chess is a model of life, then you could say that castles are all about the straight line virtues – rationality, common sense, technical expertise, and discipline. Beth is a castle in many ways. She is supremely competent, does her homework, and as potential boyfriends find to their cost, can be cold and unemotional. However, Beth is not all castle. Playing the Russian master, Vasily Borgov in Paris, she objects to his “bureaucratic” style. The dour Russian is very much a straight up and down castle. Beth is different, often plays intuitively, sometimes even chaotically, especially when she over indulges in alcohol and tranquillisers, which she feels enhance her instinctive play.

And that brings us to the next piece, the bishop. The enigmatic bishop moves not on the castle’s straight lines, but on diagonals. Beth has an intuitive, almost spiritual aspect to her play. She can enter a trance-like state and see chess pieces moving in beautiful patterns on the ceilings of dark rooms. If any of the pieces symbolise this aspect of Beth’s play, it must be the bishops with their oblique direction of travel. However, nothing is simple in chess, and as with castles, there is a downside with bishops. You could see a tendency to self interest in the fact that the two bishops cannot support each other as the two castles do, because they can never back each other up on the same diagonal. When Beth becomes co-American champion with former child prodigy Benny Watts, it is Benny who points out that the dour Russian champions are strong because they support each other. American players tend to be in it for themselves. Americans are bishops in that sense, isolated on their diagonals. They inhabit the same board, but live in different versions of it, closed off in their dark or light squares. This all seems reminiscent of the closed-minded religious group which tries to offer Beth money to attend a tournament in Moscow, on the understanding that she will present her victories as the triumph of Christian America over atheist Russia. Beth tells Christian Crusade to take their money and get out of her house.

As our game gathers pace, we now have to try and use all these pieces together, balancing their strengths and weaknesses. Beth has to do the same thing with her various personal attributes. She needs to bring castle discipline to the intuitive bishop aspect of herself. In this spirit of compromise, Beth eventually stops drinking, throws her pills away, and finds a way to use her instinctive powers without these props. She works with the castle and bishop sides of her, each one enhancing the qualities and minimising the downsides of the other. In bringing disparate elements together, she also finds a way to work with the knights, her former opponents, who show their best, gallant side in giving supportive advice during a recess in a climactic match against Borgov in Moscow. The turning point against Borgov is the moment when one of Beth’s pawns reaches her opponent’s back row, and is turned into the most powerful piece in chess, not the all-show-and-no-substance king, but the queen – the only piece which combines the straight and diagonal abilities of both castle and bishop. The game has come full circle, the most humble piece transformed into the most powerful. And Beth’s subsequent victory turns out to be everyone’s victory, because this is a triumph where different sides combine to win. Her final success against Borgov pleases no one more than the Russians themselves, who as chess enthusiasts can truly appreciate a game played out between two great competitors. Borgov and Beth join hands, both of them triumphantly holding aloft the defeated black king.

The Queen’s Gambit ends with all the diverse aspects of Beth’s life, her qualities and weaknesses, her friends and opponents all coming together in one beautiful game. That I suppose is what chess can be, and what it suggests life should be. A winner does not have to diminish a loser.

Norman Mailer’s The Naked And The Dead, An Accidental Classic

The Naked And The Dead is Norman Mailer’s 1948 novel, based on his experiences with the United States Army in the Philippines during World War Two.

Mailer was only 25 when he published this book. In the Introduction to Penguin’s Modern Classics edition, he describes his young self as an enthusiastic amateur writer, who uses too many obvious adjectives with his nouns. But that’s really only the start of it. There are other “school boy errors”. A typical piece of advice given to beginner writers is to be consistent with point of view. I’ve been pulled up on that one myself. The thing is, point of view is all over the place in this book. It can change from one line to another. Beginners will also tend to use all their material, including back-story, while more experienced writers will explore these notes privately to give themselves a hold on a character. Back-story in The Naked And The Dead is shoe-horned into sections awkwardly entitled “Time Machine”. Finally, there’s the fact that young Mailer is trying to emulate a successful writer, a typical stage a novice goes through whilst looking for their own voice. Most days, before setting to work on The Naked And The Dead, our starry-eyed author would read a few pages of his hero, Tolstoy, who clearly influences the book in the way events dominate people rather than the other way round. So you can imagine a keen, promising youngster, thinking he is the new Tolstoy, deciding to write his own War and Peace without too much experience to back up his grandiose ambitions.

But darn it, the 25 year old Norman Mailer largely gets away with it. Maybe he succeeded in writing a bestselling classic through a happy combination of circumstance. The Naked And The Dead was published a few years after the end of World War Two, and during those war years, soldiers were generally portrayed as national supermen. Afterwards, however, Tolstoy would be a useful influence in reassessing the war in a more realistic and human light. As in War and Peace, Mailer’s generals are as powerless as privates when it comes to shaping events. There are no heroes, just a group of people with sore feet, tummy problems, dodgy kidneys, and personality defects, tossed around on the tides of history.

As for Mailer’s point-of-view-hopping style, the army is a many headed monster with one body – so the variable view point just happens to be an effective way to explore the beast

There is a very telling episode towards the end of the book, when a less than competent officer, Major Dalleson, finds himself thrown into command while his general is away. Most men in The Naked And The Dead go through agonies of endurance for no reward, just as most writers toil on their manuscripts for years and never find a publisher. In contrast, Dalleson finds his cack-handed decisions just happen to work out successfully. In effect he finds himself defeating the Japanese by mistake over the course of an afternoon. In a similar way, you might say that the young Mailer, dashing through this 700 odd page book in just 15 months, wrote a classic by accident. It shouldn’t work but it does.

Despite reservations, I did end up admiring The Naked And The Dead. This was because I came to feel that the many soldiers, or writers, who don’t find success in an afternoon can find succour in its pages. The most powerful sections involve men making supreme efforts to achieve a goal, which turns out to be irrelevant. But hope appears unexpectedly, in the way a soldier will characteristically feel the full bitterness of wasted effort just as the sun is coming up. The lack of satisfactory destinations suggests continuity, the reassurance that things will go on no matter what happens. Kipling said we should treat triumph and disaster just the same, and if ever there was a disastrous book which somehow works as a variety of triumph, it’s The Naked And The Dead..

Circe By Madeline Miller – An Alternative View Of Heroes

Circe by Madeline Miller is a modern reworking of The Odyssey, by Homer. This Ancient Greek classic tells the story of Greek warrior Odysseus, who after fighting in the Trojan wars, makes a long and eventful journey home. Circe is one of the characters he meets on the way, a witch living on a deserted island, who uses her magic to turn his men into pigs.

Madeline Miller tells this story from Circe’s perspective. We learn about her childhood as the daughter of Helios the sun god, her aptitude for “phamakos” – the use of plants to make healing and transforming potions – and her banishment to a remote island, for apparently misusing magical powers. In exile, Circe makes a life for herself, developing magical skills, and defending herself from passing sailors who occasionally come ashore looking for food and drink. This is how she eventually meets Odysseus.

There’s much you could say about the unusual woman’s point of view. Circe is traditionally portrayed in the various myths about her, as a predatory woman. She turns trusting men into pigs and seduces travellers. But hang on a moment. What is the likely scenario when a boat load of soldiers, brutalised after a long war, arrive at an island where the only inhabitant is an attractive and lone woman? What might actually happen in this situation? Let’s think. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see that from a woman’s point of view, a boat load of heroes looks more like a boat load of vile animals. Now we see that turning those men into pigs is a sensible measure of self preservation, with a metaphorical helping of just desserts.

So the viewpoint is very interesting, and says a lot about the historical portrayal and situation of women.

But I wouldn’t say this book was just about a woman’s perspective on personal power. It’s also about the way people in general try to influence their world and protect themselves. Circe, as daughter of a god, is immortal, which means that all the scars of her trials and tribulations fade away as if they never existed. She realises that in such a situation, it is very difficult to grow, to amount to anything. We also see Circe’s efforts at securing protection rebound on herself. Early in the book, she falls in love with a fisherman, and wanting to protect him from the dangers of his life, transforms him into a god, only to lose him in the arrogant deity she creates. Later, in an effort to protect her son, she gives him a spear tipped with the venomous tail of an ancient sea creature. Inevitably such a dangerous weapon causes an unintended friendly fire incident. These contradictions fill the book, and demonstrate that power itself makes certain things impossible, and security creates its own dangers. By the same token, vulnerable mortals have power and protection that even gods lack.

I recommend Circe. It gives a humane, feminine view of stories which have traditionally been told from a “heroic” male viewpoint. Its nuanced view of power offers a refreshing view of the strength of women. But whether the reader is a man or a women, they can enjoy a fascinating exploration of power and security in general. Circe is like Stonehenge – it has the spirit of something that looks like an ancient fort with mighty walls, but has plenty of space between the stones to allow in the light.