A Handful Of Dust by Evelyn Waugh – Deep Layers Of Dust

Pillars of space dust in the Eagle Nebula (NASA ESA/Hubble)

A Handful Of Dust by Evelyn Waugh, published in 1934, is the story of country squire Tony Last, who, after the collapse of his marriage, takes a trip into the South American jungle.

I found this a difficult book to get my head around, but it wasn’t hard work to read. Far from it. While there were many jumps in viewpoint, these shifts were so deft that the book read as easily as a country house comedy, which is where I suspected we were as the book opened. Then Tony’s son dies in a riding accident, and it becomes clear that country house comedy isn’t what we are dealing with. The humour takes a dark turn. For example, we have the dreadful Jenny Abdul Akbar getting muddled about the casualty’s name:

‘Quick,’ she whispered, ‘Tell me. I can’t bear it. Is it death?’

Jock nodded. ‘Their little boy … kicked by a horse.’

‘Little Jimmy.’

‘John.’

‘John … dead. It’s too horrible.’

So what to make of it. I had a look at what other people said about the book. There was much debate about Waugh’s conversion to Catholicism which was on-going at the time of writing. Apparently the critic Frank Kermode thought A Handful Of Dust portrayed the awful, frivolous world which exists without religion, specifically the Catholic religion. This seemed ridiculous. The idea that the characters in A Handful Of Dust might have avoided their collective disappointments if only they had converted to Catholicism, was far fetched to say the least.

Besides what good novel has ever been propaganda for a particular religion? So I forgot about Catholicism, and went back to A Handful Of Dust and my reaction to it.

A Handful Of Dust features polished lives hiding all kinds of depth, whether it’s depth of resentment, hurt and depravity on the one hand, or beauty, comfort and stability on the other. Sometimes superficiality is painful, and sometimes it’s light relief from pain. During Tony’s post break-up jungle trek, he falls ill with a fever, and discovers that both poisons and medicines are to be found amongst the tropical trees and flowers. Similarly, back in England, superficiality can be a medicine or a poison depending on how you prepare the raw material.

Although my reading about the background of A Handful Of Dust had mostly been a matter of wading through paragraphs debating Catholicism versus humanism and so on, there was one thing I did discover that interested me. Waugh was an admirer of his contemporary Anthony Powell, author of A Dance To The Music Of Time. Powell is one of my favourite writers. He had a great ability to take the surface elements of life – English life in particular – and plumb hidden depths. I realised that Waugh might be seen as a reluctant Powell, playing with the same themes whilst appearing more uneasy about them. Rather than seeking a religious shortcut to the apparently profound, Waugh might have done better to have gone all-in with the apparently superficial, embracing and enjoying it for good or ill, which is the secret of the wonderful A Dance To The Music Of Time.

Maybe Evelyn Waugh wrote a good novel despite himself. I much prefer Powell’s writing, but I still enjoyed A Handful of Dust, which remains primarily a novel rather than a demand that we look at the world through the lens of a particular religion.

Network Effect by Martha Wells – Human Meets Machine and Art Meets Science

Network Effect, by Martha Wells, is the story of a part human/part machine ‘SecUnit’, basically a futuristic body guard. SecUnit, unofficially known as Murderbot, has managed to disable the device which human controllers use to direct its actions. Now working freelance, Network Effect finds him in a kind of zombie scenario where planetary colonists have been infected by an alien virus. Murderbot, in an uneasy alliance with ART, the computer pilot of a large space ship, has to help out in a confused situation where it’s hard to tell friend from foe.

So, let’s deal with the less good things first.

I found the plot confusing.

Most of the peripheral characters in the book, of which there are many, are little more than names.

The writing style is what might be termed ‘workman-like’. Words tend to be repeated. As a quick example, what do you think about the word ‘before’ in the following sentence?

“I’d watched family dramas before, but I’d never spent much time around human families before coming to Preservation.”

Brackets are used so much they are distracting.

Now onto better things.

As far as the plot is concerned, I learned not to worry about it too much. It just sets up difficult situations, where our human/machine hero has to use human elements to deal with the unexpected, and machine elements to mitigate the consequences of humans doing stupid things. As for the characters, while the peripheral figures lack any real definition, the small, central group is well drawn – Murderbot, ART, and Amena, a teenage girl who likes to ask probing questions about her SecUnit’s ‘feelings’ in regard to a less than straightforward relationship with ART. The interest of this story comes down to this small group and its interactions, which develop in a way that sets you thinking about fate and destiny. Network Effect isn’t outwardly a heavy, philosophical novel. The upfront things are action and a wisecracking central character of souped-up masculinity trying to get in touch with a softer side. But there is something else going on when, for example, during an argument between Murderbot and ART, Murderbot says:

“You can either have an existential crisis or get your crew back, ART, pick one.”

Along with the ‘getting-the-crew-back’ elements of Network Effect, there is, it has to be said, existential crisis. Murderbot would probably react to such an idea in the same way he does to feelings. But, dammit, like feelings, existential crisis is one of the consequences of becoming sentient.

If we are compelled to follow a course, would that same course be different if we followed it through our own choice? Are we ironically more free when we don’t have to make decisions? While manipulation is never nice, some pointers along the way would be helpful; but where do pointers become direction, and where does direction become manipulation? Such questions run through the whole of Network Effect. And then there’s the ambivalent nature of the most powerful and central force in the book – ART, the spaceship computer. ART is a term of ‘affection’ used by Murderbot – meaning Arsehole Research Transport. But isn’t it ironic that a computer that’s all data feeds, analysis and scientific tech, should be called ART? Art is an activity people engage in, not to control the world in a strict scientific way, but to understand it in a vaguer, more intuitive sense. Actually, terms of affection aside, ART’s real name is Perihelion, an astronomical term referring to ‘the point nearest the sun in the path of an orbiting celestial body’. Now, recall the stuff where not being directed can allow an individual to find their own direction more fully. ART is very capable, protective of its crew, not above manipulation, and inclined to be bossy. But ART is not the sun at the centre of everything. ART, and the rest of the Network Effect cast, seem to be orbiting some other centre which, you might say, provides direction in not actually being present to point the way to go. It’s hard to explain. Maybe Murderbot, enjoying and enduring his new found freedom, would say it’s something you have to work out for yourself.

See what I mean? Existential questions.

Overall, Network Effect is a very interesting book. By the end, Murderbot was inclined to forgive ART’s transgressions. I was in a similarly forgiving mood.

All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren – A Reminder To Vote, Amongst Other Things

Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 novel, All The King’s Men, charts the rise and fall of fictional 1930s American politician Willie Stark. Narrated by reporter and writer Jack Burden, we begin by reading about the early days of Stark’s political career, when he values such things as truth and competence, and talks to voters about the technicalities of tax policy. Inevitably, this does not go well. Ruthless state governor, Joe Harrison sets up Stark as a candidate in an election campaign, not because of his sophisticated tax ideas, but as a means to split the opposition vote. After finding out about this plan, a humiliated and shattered Stark is only able to put himself back together again with the glue of cynicism. He vows to adopt the tactics that defeated him, while promising himself that such compromises will eventually be used to do good.

This beautifully written, often gripping, sometimes meandering novel, reminded me of a Greek tragedy where a great leader is brought down by a tragic flaw. But in this modern version it is very difficult to distinguish flaws from virtues. Is there any point being decent and honest if such qualities never get you into a position of power to make a difference? This is typical of the dilemmas Jack Burden ponders over as he watches Willie Stark’s career. Coming to terms with unpleasant compromise is a difficultly that many people face. Even writers like Jack Burden, are not immune. Try as he might to remain a neutral observer, the fact is Jack works for Stark, using his ivory-tower academic training in historical research, to ferret out damaging information on people who stand in his boss’s way. I don’t know what it says about me, but I resonated with the way Jack comes home from a rubbish day at work, doing stuff he does not want to do, and just wants to sleep for as long as possible. I found myself highlighting all the sleep passages.

At the end of the book, idealism and cynicism destroy each other – I won’t say how, out of respect for your reading pleasure. Suffice to say, extremes cancel each other out. But after a shocking denouement, there is a hint of a more moderate and reasonable future, in the shape of politician Hugh Miller. I’m not saying that All The King’s Men is any sort of manifesto for a particular brand of politics. In the usual way of a good novel, All The King’s Men presents problems to explore rather than supposed solutions to live by. But maybe this lack of prescription is all part of the book’s nuanced suggestion that maintaining our own personal involvement will give us the best chance. Robert Penn Warren based Willie Stark on real life politician, Huey Long, governor of Louisiana, who used the slogan ‘every man a king’. Ironically, while Huey Long, and his fictional counterpart Willie Stark were both vocal in proclaiming ‘power to the people’, their dictatorial actions and personalities tended to work in the opposite direction. They did not live up to the idea of making everyone a monarch. Perhaps that was their fatal flaw.

In real-world politics it can be generally said that high turnouts, and proportional representation – giving more weight to individual votes – increase the likelihood of politically moderate outcomes. And the middle is probably the best place to find reasonable government, of the sort Hugh Miller represents in All The King’s Men. This gives a bit of real-world support for the idea that it’s a good idea to haul ourselves out of bed and get involved, even if it’s only to vote – just as it is better to try to write a novel, or a review, even if you will never write the perfect one. That’s what “the responsibilities of time” mentioned in the last line probably involve.

All The President’s Men – The Writing Lessons Of Watergate

June 17th 1972, saw a break-in at the National Democratic Committee headquarters at the Watergate building, a sprawling office and apartment complex in Washington D.C. Over the next two years a number of journalists in New York, Los Angeles and Washington worked to reveal this event as part of a ruthless programme of political spying, sabotage and intimidation, directed by President Richard Nixon and his top White House aides. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post would be central to the press investigation. All The President’s Men is an account of their work during the Watergate period.

A number of things struck me about the book. First there were the similarities with political events of the 21st century. A ruthless cabal, interested in power for its own sake, elbows its way into government and then sets about portraying institutions that might hold it to account as arrogant “elites”. Departments of government and justice, are politicised, with the ruling group attempting to put their own people in charge, while systemically attacking anyone who gets in their way.

So far so similar. But the differences were also striking. Back in 1972, the investigation of conspiracy was very different. The media, as described in All The President’s Men, had tight control of editorial standards. We read a fascinating account of Woodward and Bernstein working day and night to make sure their reporting is accurate, gathering information from multiple, cross-checked sources. It is true that sometimes we see our reporter heroes bending the rules – trying to talk to members of a grand jury, for example. But the rules they bend are noticeably rigid. Washington Post editor Ben Crowninshield Bradlee is a formidable presence who will not accept sloppy reporting.

Today, by contrast, conspiracies flourish in a media environment that is a chaotic free for all. Watergate was a proper, no messing around, government conspiracy. It was exposed by diligent journalistic effort. But what do we get in the 2020s? We get conspiracies like Q-anon, mind control through vaccination or aircraft contrails, and a belief that the Earth is flat. Amateur Woodward and Bernsteins of social media generate misinformation rather than exposing it. Modern conspiracies are difficult to investigate rationally because their unreality pushes them into the realm of cult belief. The pesky ethic of accuracy no longer applies. Deception can be mass produced by disaffected individuals looking for a sense of importance. This gives the current equivalent of Nixon governments a chance to jump in and hide real corruption behind the prevailing barrage of nonsense. For example, consider the attempt to hide a staggeringly cack-handed conspiracy to manipulate the 2021 U.S. election, behind the fantasy that the Democrats were organising a sophisticated conspiracy to manipulate the election.

Reading All The President’s Men in the 2020s is a compelling and thought-provoking experience. The disciplined, conscientious writing process it describes is a salutary lesson for the world five decades later. The only reason I am able to share this review with you is because of new media freedoms. The contrast with the world of 1972, makes it clear that these freedoms have come at a price.

The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison – Bridge Over Troubled Water

The Goblin Emperor is a 2014 fantasy novel by Sarah Monette writing under the name of Katherine Addison. We find ourselves in an early industrial society of goblins and elves. The emperor and most of his immediate family have been killed in an airship crash. Destiny travels a long way down the line of succession, arriving at the door of young Maia. This unfavoured son has been living in an internal exile with a cruel guardian, after the former emperor cast his mother aside in favour of a new wife.

While the story’s setting is firmly in the fantasy realm, there are many parallels with the real world. Historically, I was reminded of the White Ship disaster of 1120 when a voyage across the Channel went horribly wrong, wiping out most of England’s royal family. Henry I was not aboard the doomed vessel, but the heir and most of his royal siblings all drowned. Mathilda, one the King’s daughters, was left to inherit the throne. Henry tried to get Mathilda recognised as heir, but the nobles weren’t having any of it. England had never had a queen and was not ready to accept one. A period known as the Anarchy followed.

The scenario in The Goblin Emperor is similar, but more positive. Maia, of mixed goblin and elf parentage, is young, inexperienced and lacks training, which all puts him in a rather Mathilda-like position. Inevitably there is a threat of anarchy, which does come close. But as I say, Maia’s story is generally a positive one. Much reading pleasure is derived watching the young man growing into his role, under the guidance and protection of advisors and bodyguards. Maia is no revolutionary, but in just being who he is, a decent and friendly person who has seen the problems of ordinary life, there is real hope for positive change, despite aggressive attempts by the powers-that-be to maintain the status quo. This sense of potential is centred on a project to build a bridge across a large river dividing east from west. In scenes reminiscent of the controversies of Brexit, wealthy and powerful figures want to maintain their monopolies. It is the many ordinary merchants who stand to gain by bridging divides. And it is these people who are given renewed hope by their young emperor.

The Goblin Emperor is a warm story, with a highly sympathetic central character, which has much to say about politics and leadership generally. I admit I did find the names confusing – characters can be referred to by first or last names, or by their titles, all of which might involve many syllables, umlauts and accents. This did leave me feeling a bit lost on occasion. But then Tolstoy had a habit of doing a similar thing and it didn’t do him any harm.

A heartening read with interesting relevance to real events.

The Bridge Of San Luis Rey – A Link Across The Abyss

The Bridge Of San Luis Rey is Thornton Wilder’s 1927 novel about a group of people who, in the summer of 1714, happen to be crossing a Peruvian rope bridge when it collapses. A scientifically inclined friar witnessing the disaster, is so traumatised that he sets out to research the victims’ biographies for reasons explaining their seemingly random fate.

Novels have a contradictory history when it comes to morality. There is a tradition where fictional characters are rewarded or punished according to their choices. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded of 1740 is an early example. But authors are not always fussy school teachers giving marks for good behaviour. In 1748 John Cleland published Fanny Hill, an exact reversal of novels which emphasise virtue – describing the life of a prostitute, who learns to enjoy her work, and use it to find freedom and financial independence.

So, is the God of Thornton Wilder’s book more of a Samuel Richardson or a John Cleland? The Bridge Of San Luis Rey suggests the Almighty could be both or neither. For a start, the vices or virtues of an individual often depend on who you talk to, or what particular aspects of an individual you are considering. And the ‘reward’ or ‘punishment’ is equally ambivalent. Are the victims of disaster good people called to heaven early, or bad people cast into the abyss? Judgement of people is never as straightforward as it seems. The image of the bridge in Thornton Wilder’s novel is an apt one, since instead of easy categories we get a sense of opposites existing together, with a fragile link spanning the gap between them. In a figurative kind of way, maybe the bridge collapses when people stop trying to make a leap of understanding. The Catholic Inquisition looms behind the action in this book, an illustration of human behaviour at its most cruelly judgemental.

This all makes for an intelligent and moving novel, relevant for our own times when there is still a temptation to judge behaviour rather than seek to understand it.

The Penguin Book Of Dragons – Monsters Of The Mind

The Penguin Book of Dragons is a fascinating collection of writing referencing this famous mythic beast, with examples dating from about 1500BC, to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

When I was at university in the 1980s, one of my courses covered what was called ‘agitprop’, a kind of aggressive, black and white theatrical style used to push a political agenda. Dragons started out in life with a starring role in what you might call religiously inspired agitprop. Heroes of all religious shades, wishing to acquire an impressive reputation, required a formidable enemy to defeat. The scarier the enemy, the more impressive the chosen one’s triumph. Drawing perhaps on an instinctive fear of snakes, a ferocious, fire-breathing serpent evolved to take on the task of symbolic enemy. For millennia this super snake was a tool, actually more a blunt instrument, used to build up heroes, run down opponents, or maintain discipline – in the ‘go to bed or the monster will get you’ sense. The Loch Ness Monster derived from accounts of this kind. In a more general context the dragon became a symbol of temptation or greed. While Genesis had a serpent persuading Eve to eat an apple from the Tree of Knowledge, later more secular incarnations were characteristically portrayed as guardians of cursed treasure hoards.

So pervasive was dragon imagery, so tied into primeval desires and fears, that early scientists bent themselves out of shape trying to make a mythic animal into a real one. In the case of the Loch Ness Monster, scientific investigations continued until quite recently – a 2019 DNA study of the loch showing a large eel population.

Slowly as the centuries went by, with people became at least a little more rational, these ferocious creatures began to lose their power. Though one scurrilous eighteenth century journalist suggested there were dragons living near Horsham, Sussex, their habitats were generally located in conveniently distant, inaccessible locations, the kind of places that were progressively squeezed away by the advance of knowledge and technology. By the early twentieth century, dragons had been tamed into cute characters in children’s stories, by writers such as Kenneth Grahame and Edith Nesbit.

And yet, all the human characteristics which gave birth to dragons still survive. People remain greedy, vulnerable to temptation, and are still prone to an irrational simplification of complicated situations into an easily digested agitprop. We might be more scientific these days, but irrationality in many ways is still a potent force, as seen in modern conspiracy theories and misinformation. Perhaps The Penguin Book of Dragons presents the trajectory of its narrative a little too neatly. There remain, after all, echoes of former dragon powers in Tolkien’s Smaug, and in the hatchlings of Westeros, which, in the Game of Thrones books, mark the return of a long-lost species of a fire breathing reptile to the world. Perhaps that return in George R.R. Martin’s hugely successful book series is instructive. Maybe dragons continue to lurk, not now in dark corners of the world, but in dark corners of the human mind from whence they originally emerged.

Howard’s End – A Small House With Big Rooms And Plenty Of Them

Howard’s End is E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel about three families: the wealthy, materialistic Wilcox clan, the somewhat less wealthy but much more cultured Schlegel siblings, and a working class couple, Leonard and Jacky Bast.

They are all brought together by circumstances, a chance meeting on holiday, or at a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The story of their goings on together raises a number of topics, such as the nature of art, or the need to see life with an open mind. But overall, the subject of change seems to be the most important theme. In some ways we get a picture of a world that really needs a shake up. Leonard Bast is a promising young man with artistic ambitions. But limited means make it very unlikely he will achieve his potential. Helen Schlegel tries to help him, with less than ideal results. Talking of Helen, women have yet to get the vote. However, despite this portrayal of a world in need of development, the book is also about the sadness of change. Old, well-established places represent a steadying distillation of human experience, which cannot be recovered once lost. The book is a constant struggle between a desire for stability and a need to move into the future – all focused on a rambling and attractive former farmhouse on the outskirts of London, called Howard’s End.

Howard’s End is Mrs Wilcox’s special place, where she was born and has lived all her life. Now facing her death, she decides to give the house to Margaret Schlegel, whose London home is soon to be demolished to make way for modern flats. However, when the time comes for Mr Wilcox to honour his wife’s wish, he ignores it.

As the ramifications of this decision unfold, I eventually got the feeling that a rather impossible compromise is required to keep people happy – their lives have to change but also stay the same. This tricky demand is behind Margaret’s house-hunting request, which would challenge even the most creative estate agent:

We merely want a small house with large rooms, and plenty of them.”

Margaret wants the cosiness of a small home along with space to expand and develop.

This is an interesting book, quite funny in places, usually at the points where artistic or wealthy pretensions get punctured. The school-masterly author voice can be a bit pompous, but its own pretensions sometimes find themselves cut done to size.

Howard’s End still deserves its classic status. After all, people continue to want small houses with big rooms and plenty of them.

The Fear Index by Robert Harris – Deductions Of Dread

The Fear Index is a 2011 novel by Robert Harris describing the fictional background to a stock market crash of 2010. The book describes a scenario where a brilliant American physicist, Alex Hoffman, sacked from his job developing artificial intelligence for CERN starts a new career, stock market trading in Geneva. Building on experience at CERN, he creates a computer system, called VIXAL, which looks for signs of global anxiety, via gloomy news reports, or any other internet source. The system then uses this data to make predictions about what will happen to stock markets, buying and selling in them accordingly.

Hoffman’s computer system is designed to take the scary uncertainty out of trading. VIXAL decides what to buy and sell without fear, or any other emotion. It simply uses measures of anxiety to make logical judgements on what the stock market might do. But this lack of feeling actually creates a frightening situation when the system achieves independent control of itself. First VIXAL starts using the internet to try to engineer situations to provoke fear in Alex Hoffman – since it has been programmed to seek out this emotion. The machine is a bit like a ruthless writer working to provoke scary thrills in a reader, since this is a good way to sell books. Then the system sets up a stock market crash to generate massive profits from betting on a downturn.

It is precisely because the system cannot experience emotion that its evolution to self awareness is so potentially threatening. VIXAL does not know pity or empathy, and will simply act to protect its own interests. The parallels with Frankenstein are interesting, another Monster created on the shores of Lake Geneva. Mary Shelley’s story is concerned with lost innocence. Similarly, VIXAL, in a sense, is innocent. It doesn’t mean any harm. However, the lack of malice is part of an unfeeling nature which makes the machine all the more dangerous.

In many ways this is a cerebral book, with its Frankenstein parallels, and quotes from Darwin and other thinkers introducing each chapter. But the thoughtful elements are combined effectively with a sense of emotion. Perhaps this is what novels at their best contribute – a view of the world which combines thought, and that other vital component in any understanding of human behaviour, emotion.

Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin – Showing Instead Of Telling

Go Tell It On The Mountain is James Baldwin’s 1953 novel about a critical time in the life of a 1930s Harlem teenager. John is a bright boy, trying to come to terms with turbulent family life, and the expectations of future leadership placed upon him by the local African-American Pentecostal church. We also hear much about the background of John’s father and mother and other close relations.

So what will John do? Will he become a preacher as his family expect, or will he embrace secular life? Whatever decision John might make, a biblical quotation hangs over him. One night, John goes to his church, to help out with an evening service. Only a few people turn up, which causes one of the devout congregation to complain about the lack of commitment shown by youngsters these days:

‘The Lord ain’t going to bless no church what lets its young people get so lax, no sir. He said, because you ain’t neither hot or cold I’m going to spit you outen my mouth. That’s the Word.’

The Word seems to require that you settle on one thing or the other, but not wobble in the middle. Ironically, I’ve always thought the sign of a good novel is the way it wobbles in the middle. If you want hot or cold on their own, then you should maybe go for political or religious writing of the more fundamentalist kind.

Go Tell It On The Mountain prevaricates, in all kinds of novel-like ways. Just a few examples – preachers, who are supposed to be examples for their flock, are deeply flawed, hypocritical individuals, while ordinary people who lack outward respectability, running dodgy bars perhaps, have great qualities. There are graphic descriptions of injustice perpetrated by racists, set alongside the seemingly inconsistent theme that there is no black and white where justice is concerned. Fittingly, given the importance of that quote about God spitting fence-sitters out of his mouth, the word ‘mouth’ appears repeatedly, 47 times I discovered – excluding all the many additional mentions of lips and tongues. The mouth is an image of temptation, argument, communication, deception, peace – overall an image of contradiction, which runs throughout Go Tell It On The Mountain.

Go Tell It On The Mountain was an interesting, sometimes harrowing read, which demonstrates what good novels might give us – an appreciation of subtlety in the face of everything that wants to paint the world in black and white. Novels are really the antithesis of sermons, showing rather than telling it on the mountain.