Well, it had to happen. Last week, I post about my affection for the late David Niven. Bare days later, I was challenged to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.
And, of course, I could not say no. Because, little as I wanted the dowsing, the cause is excellent. And my old hero Niven died of ALS.
So, here is your Anglocat, prepared to suffer in a good cause:
Ah, well. Had to happen, really.
Off to donate. It is a good cause, after all.
Thursday, August 21, 2014
I have received a wonderful endorsement for Phineas at Bay:
I couldn't be more pleased to have received praise form so knowledgeable and discerning a source.
In writing Phineas at Bay, John Wirenius has done the Trollope-loving world a great service. Phineas Finn was my first Trollope novel, at age 19 or 20, and ever since I think of him as the most charming character in English fiction. Now we have the chance to renew the acquaintance with Phineas later in life, and all of his world, in a novel Trollope himself would have thoroughly enjoyed: meaty, filled with humor, affection, drama, and above all, character – Trollope’s greatest genius and gift to the reading world. Read it at once, and, like all Trollope, again and again.--Randolph Williams, President, the The American Trollope Society.
I couldn't be more pleased to have received praise form so knowledgeable and discerning a source.
Wednesday, August 20, 2014
I always enjoyed the writing and the performances of David Niven, captured above in his famous ad-lib while hosting the Oscars. He was urbane and witty in person and in print, and enlivened many bad movies as well as being great in the good ones he was in.
But his anecdotage was perhaps my favorite side of him. Here's one sample, courtesy of David Frost:
"Goats? Bad show!"
Monday, August 18, 2014
Here it is. Anthony Hopkins gets three minutes and forty seconds to play the myth of Zorro, before the story does something unprecedented--it crashes the old Fox's last party, strips him of everything, and leaves him dark and embittered.
But for that 3:40, Hopkins gets to play the hell out of the legend.
Reality crashing into a legend and chewing it up is nothing new--think of Beowulf--he defeats Grendel and his fearsome mother, only to be, in the end called upon one more time, against insuperable odds, to take on a dragon, in his old age.
Zorro never re-appears in the movie--or, rather, not the original Zorro. We get the wreck of Don Diego, in his ruined lair, preparing a new Zorro:
Diego plays his part in the finale, but the mantle has passed. Like Beowulf before him, he is ready to meet his bane:
He dies, of course, a hero's death--but nonetheless, Zorro lives on, in the form of his successor. Legends tend to do that, too.
Saturday, August 16, 2014
My friend and editor Karen Clark has penned a remarkably generous and detailed analysis of her reaction as a reader to Phineas at Bay, now that her role as editor is behind her. I think she touches on some aspects of the book that I would not have, so here it is, submitted for your approval:
The curious thing about my friendship with John is that we don't always like the same books. We can agree on Saki, but his urgings of C.P. Snow and John Galsworthy as "must reads" leave me politely evasive. He, for his part, can drive me to frantic sputtering with a well-placed jibe at some of my own favorites. I did, some years ago, at his behest, undertake to read Anthony Trollope's Palliser Novels - six books that follow the fortunes and follies of a series of interconnected characters, and two of which, Phineas Finn and Phineas Redux, share the eponymous protagonist John chose to center his own novel upon in Phineas at Bay.
A confession: I did not become a rabid Anthony Trollope fan. The sorrowful fact is, I petered out after The Eustace Diamonds - a book I rather enjoyed, as it had that delightful creature known to fans of East of Eden, Gone With the Wind, Forever Amber, and Vanity Fair as "a good bitch." Lizzie Eustace, pilferer of the diamonds of the book's title, is one of those monumentally selfish, unlawfully charismatic, and entirely mendacious women of fiction who seem to have gotten in line twice for Seductive Charm and not at all for Moral Rectitude or Sensitivity of Conscience, thus making them an enormous pleasure to read about, if not actually to be in the same book with. (I'd hate to be Suellen O'Hara and have my unattractive middle-aged beau stolen for the sake of his paltry bank account by my older sister,wouldn't you?) The problem with Trollope, I decided, was that there were not enough Lizzie Eustaces, and since leavening the story about the Good People with a generous sprinkling of gargoyle-like grotesqueries à la Dickens is not in the Trollopian style . . . well, like Paolo and Francesca, I read no further. There was the additional problem that Trollope has a way of writing labyrinthine sentences that meander on for much of the page - and so, in short, I quit.
Luckily, John Wirenius has taken into account that not all of us have read the entire Trollope oeuvre. If you have been fearfully contemplating the sextet of nineteenth century tomes you think you must plow through in order to tackle Phineas at Bay - fear not, I didn't read them all, either, and I had no trouble whatsoever figuring out what was going on. Fortunately for the reader, John is gifted at weaving exposition into his tale without making it glaringly obvious that he is weaving in exposition. If you need to know what happened in earlier books for purposes of understanding the actions and character motivations in this one, he will let you know, and he will do it far more subtly than J.K. Rowling, who, by Volume Seven, was clearly getting tired of telling people just how Harry Potter got that scar.
Furthermore (and the Trollope Society will probably descend upon me with pandybats and howls of execration for this) I happen to think that Phineas at Bay, while scrupulous in its adherence to its progenitors in terms of the integrity of its characters and its overall tone, is a better read than the other six. A certain sly literary wit that I associate with this contemporary author threads sinuously through the book, like the violin solo of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. And, like that fabled storyteller to the Sultan, John Wirenius is a spellbinder, a Pied Piper of the Pallisers, hypnotically leading us along from page to page, until, like the Sultan, we realize that dawn has broken and we've spent the entire night immersed in the tale, because we simply had to find out what happened next.
Having read through the book three times already, with gun and magnifying glass in hand to search for typos and root them out, I was already familiar with its contents. Another confession: There are still typos, and I am both mortified and mystified. In some cases, I am ready to swear in open court that I took them out and the nasty Bot-Gremlins put them back! (In others, I simply screwed up.) Feel free to hunt them down yourself and to berate me for them (privately) so that we can take them out of the second printing.
So I wondered, as I opened the book, whether it would pass the test I apply to any work of fiction that aspires to take a permanent place on my bookshelves. Do I still read it with pleasure, after the first time around? Or have I already read all the juice out of it? And - the real acid test, which even fewer books pass - do I get more enjoyment, as well as more food for thought and a keener artistic appreciation of its structural beauties, out of it with each subsequent re-read, rather than less? Most of us read for plot the first time around. At least, I do. It's on the later read-throughs that I begin to appreciate subtlety and nuance. I begin to note literary references that may have escaped me the first time around. I start to notice themes. I am startled into a bark of astonished delight at an audacious risk on the author's part. (What other author, for example, have I seen depicting a certain Irish-born playwright - under a pseudonymn, of course - at a Christmas party, acting out scenes from his forthcoming drawing-room comedy that involve a harridan and a handbag?)
For this is another of the delectable departures from Strict Trollopian Form that John Wirenius has chosen to utilize - the cameo appearances of sundry real-life historical personages, some under their own names, some not. The fun, of course, lies in spotting the Nots. (I'll give you a hint - one of them, who has more than a cameo role, will grow up to become a Prime Minister who looks remarkably like a bulldog. His enchanting American-born socialite mother is recognizably the subject of a best-selling two-volume biography, as well as of a television miniseries. )
But John Wirenius doesn't stop there. Having gone this far, he adds an assortment of fictional characters, as well - only not, necessarily, out of the fiction of Anthony Trollope. An admirer of G.B. Shaw, he coolly appropriates several of the dramatis personae of Candida, adroitly endowing the love-addled secretary with a more prominent part to play than he gives the pontificating pastor. The nonexistent Barchester Cathedral that lends its name to another Trollope opus is back - and so is a sinister trio of statuettes that aficionados of Victorian ghost stories will recognize, with a start, as having crept in from M.R. James' classic tale about that imaginary Cathedral and its stalls.
As for the dramatis personae drawn from the source material - it should come as no surprise that I hailed the return of Lady Eustace - a.k.a Lizzie the Liar - with enthusiasm. If anything, she's better than before. Without giving away too much, I will merely state that, should Masterpiece Theatre have the good sense to option this novel, they would be well-advised to approach Nina Arianda on bended knee and beseech her to reprise her recent Broadway triumph, this time in the character of Lady Eustace. Let's put it this way - in a slantindicular (a word that I first encountered in Phineas at Bay, and that I have adopted with relish) nod to dear Charles Dickens and his giddily evocative nomenclature, Lady Eustace's law firm of choice is known as Rushforth & Bindtheboy. Need I say more?
Lizzie the Liar has a worthy foil in her former husband, the Right Reverend Joseph Emilius, returned from a sojourn in the American West to win her back. A charming and entirely amoral scoundrel, Joseph is Rhett to her Scarlett. Joseph Emilius knows Lizzie Eustace through and through, exactly for what she is. And frankly, my dears, he doesn't give a damn . . . he wants her back at his bed and his board, and is willing to go to any lengths to get her, including putting in a midnight appearance in a certain Irish barrister's office that had me exclaiming, "Good Lord - Amadeus!" ("Oh, you noticed that, did you?" the author said offhandedly, when I excitedly called him up to report my discovery.)
The orphaned Finn niece, Clarissa Riley, is a spirited variation on the dewey-eyed ingenue so beloved of nineteenth century fiction, profiting as she does from her close association with Marie Finn (formerly Madame Max Goesler), the enigmatic Continental cosmopolite who married Clarissa's beloved Uncle Phineas. Marie is a heroine worthy both of Clarissa's admiration and emulation - she is her husband's partner as well as his closest friend and companion, Penelope to his Odysseus, fully his equal in both cunning and kindness. One of the book's great assets lies in its wealth of formidable female characters, all of them different, and each of them endowed with a peculiar fascination all her own. Among the many pleasures of this novel is the fact that each of the various characters is so distinctively drawn, and that the point-of-view shifts so seamlessly from one character to another, whether we are seeing events through the keen eyes of Phineas Finn, or the luminous blue orbs of his wife Marie, or through the bloodshot eyes of Sir Felix Carbury, dissipated sot and one of the novel's most delicious sketches in drawling, languorous villainy.
True, as well, to the conventions of the Victorian novel as a microcosm of the world of Society and its mores, John Wirenius has deftly woven a tapestry of plot and sub-plot, in which one event leads inevitably - if, at times, surprisingly - to another, and nothing is either wasted or left dangling in midair. His invented personae behave as they must behave, given the rich and complex psychologies with which they have been endowed. Never once do they step out of character in service of the exigencies of the plot - the action is propelled by the force and energy of the people with whom the author has populated his imaginary world.
Which is not to imply that this is a novel that touts the haut monde to the utter neglect of the less fiscally fortunate members of Victorian Society. One key plot line follows Phineas' attempts to obtain justice for Ifor Powlett-Jones, a young Welsh miner being railroaded into prison for the so-called crime of having rescued a dozen fellow miners from certain death during a cave-in, thereby disobeying orders from his foreman and inadvertently damaging company property in the course of the rescue. Ably assisting Phineas at every turn is his stern, yet withal warmhearted, majordomo, the German butler Meier - Marie's mainstay, Phineas's impromptu fencing master, and Clarissa's horticultural docent (the author is a fan of Nero Wolfe, and Meier raises prizewinning orchids in the Finns' conservatory.)
But why should I go on? Surely by now you are aware that, for the lover of Victorian fiction who has read everything on the library's shelves and despaired of ever finding another book "as good as the ones they used to write," this novel has the tonic effect of a long, newsy letter from home to an expatriate who has vainly longed for the beloved homeland. If you, like myself, are sorry that nobody seems to write a book anymore that doesn't teem with incest, rape, dismemberment, and casual violence . . . if you have been yearning for the happy days of yore, when novelists assumed that they had an intelligent, well-informed readership to whom they need not condescend with tiresome explanations of what they were up to with a literary reference . . . if you have sharp wits, a discerning critical faculty, and a taste for political intrigue, discreetly dangerous liaisons, philosophical and theological cogitations, and House of Worth couture, then waste no more time on this blog post, but go immediately toPhineas at Bay and order your copy at once!
Thursday, August 14, 2014
On Tuesday, I provided a free sample of Phineas at Bay as a sort of a teaser. Here's the promised second installment; all you need to know is that the Rev. Joseph Emilius has returned to Great Britain elevated to the rank of Bishop of an American Church in the Southwest, with one end in mind: re-uniting with his former wife, Lizzie Eustace. At a ball in London, he impulsively interposes himself between two quarreling young men, and is inadvertently struck by them both. His high-ranking hostess invites him to stay:
Since he was so cruelly buffeted by the combatants, and then forcefully pressed by the Marchioness of Hartletop to partake of her hospitality, the Right Reverend Joseph Emilius had been conflicted in spirit, a rare occurrence for that man of great talents. Even a man of his social ambition and overweening desire for preeminence and attention could scarcely hope for greater public acceptance then to have the Marchioness expiate the sins of her guests by lionizing him among the bluest blood in England. And yet, the canny streak that had saved him from many vicissitudes warned him now that his place was perilous. Bishop Emilius had, in his youth, been a scholarly lad, and had read the tale of Icarus. The blazing sun, wilting wax-mounted means of ascent, and the headlong fall from dizzy heights were prominent in his mind in these days.The book is available in paperback or Kindle format.
While the bishop was in no way amenable to the claims of English law—absent evidence that would not now, could not now, ever be provided, regarding a certain blow struck on a long-ago night—he was keenly aware that his great project stood upon a precipice. His social antennae were sensitive enough to know that the woman he desired to wed anew was herself accepted but gingerly, on the implicit condition, as it were, that she give no further cause for offense. Hence, his predicament. Those old enough to remember the precise nature of the scandal that had engulfed their marriage could, if given any ground to do so, connect the charming American bishop staying at the Hartletops’ with the disreputable foreigner the mob had branded him back then. Were that to befall—well, he, like Icarus, could tumble from the skies, to the jeers of those who had once persecuted him. Indeed, the fall would be so easy to precipitate! In sum, were his name to be remembered in conjunction with the very woman whom he needed desperately to find and court, the game was up.
Yet the bishop was a man of some mettle, persistent, and not easily turned from his goals. He had, certes, several cards in his hand that might yet see him through.
First, he was ensconced in the most respectable, indeed eminent, of homes, and this by no request of his own. He was the invited guest of the undeniable doyenne of high society, a queen only slightly less eminent than she who wore the actual crown. And then there was his own not inconsiderable title—he was a bishop, and thus by definition a paragon of virtue. Aye, a paragon injured in a vain but valiant effort to maintain the peace in his hostess’ own home.
What on earth had he been thinking when he had thrust himself between those two young fools, Emilius wondered, distracted for a moment as he ticked off these assets. He was a little ashamed to own it, but he rather thought it was the tear-streaked face of that young girl as her night of enchantment was shattered about her. He had, quite simply, pitied her. How ironic that she should belong to Phineas Finn! Ah, well, he had no objection to doing the fellow a good turn; he could even, in his own conscience, acknowledge to owing Finn one, or even two, of them.
So: He was a bishop, a brave man—a gallant bishop, then—and a member of high society, residing in the home of a Marchioness. Who in the world would look for an accused bigamist, suspected of other, darker, acts, in all of these?
Tuesday, August 12, 2014
Without giving any spoilers, I thought it might be fun to share a few moments from Phineas at Bay that might not be in the preview, but might give some of the flavor of the whole. Here's the first, a glimpse of Phineas in court, representing a young Welsh miner accused of riot, in a politically-charged private prosecution at the Old Bailey, funded by Sir William McScuttle, the mine owner and a heavy donor to Phineas's own Liberal Party. Phineas is accompanied by his orphaned niece, Clarissa Riley, her suitor Savrola Vavsor, and his old friend, Oswald, the former Lord Chiltern, now Earl of Brentford:
Phineas moved to his seat casually, spreading a few papers, placing his pen just so, and looking around the courtroom until he saw Brentford’s party. As the judge had not yet entered, the barrister tipped a quick wink to his niece and smiled at Brentford and Savrola both. Phineas extended his hand to the leading barrister appearing for the prosecution, a gaunt, balding man only a little past his own age, but looking older. This barrister, Sir Simon Slope, had once been Solicitor-General, and in that capacity had been the junior barrister for the Crown against Phineas himself. It was thought that this unusual re-encounter was a stratagem on the part of Sir William McScuttle, an effort to rattle Phineas by placing him in the same courtroom in which he had stood trial for his life, against the very man who would have seen him hanged.Hope you enjoyed; another sample to follow Thursday.
Brentford smiled, a trifle grimly. That little stratagem did not appear to be working, if Phineas’s calm good humor in shaking the hand of his adversary, and exchanging some pleasantry with him was any indication. He mentioned the fact to Savrola Vavasor, who let out a soft whistle.
“The cheek of it!” he exclaimed softly. And Clarissa’s white hand gripped his own, and her milky flesh paled even more as she gazed in horror at the man whose energies and skills had been directed at the hanging of her beloved Uncle Phineas for another’s crime.
But now the usher was declaiming “Be upstanding!” and the judge was making his grand entrance: Sir Lemuel Bullfry, large and pouched, with deep-set eyes, resembled an amphibian, a fact that, combined with his name, had earned him the obvious soubriquet. Still, he bore the scarlet and ermine well, and played his part in the medieval mummery that ornaments the process by which years of a man’s life—nay, his very life!—may be deemed forfeit. But to call the pageantry in which the trial is cloaked mummery is to display ignorance of its purpose, the solemnization of one of the great functions of the people acting as a community, the weighing of guilt or innocence, and the meting out of the communal judgment on the accused. For the criminal trial is many things—a search for truth, a drama, a battle in which every technique of rhetoric and wit is brought to bear in the contest for victory. But it is nothing quite so much as it is a crucible testing the characters of all involved, though none so harshly as that of the accused, which must, unless it is of true steel, crack.
Phineas Finn had not cracked. Neither, though, had that other man, Joseph Emilius. If ever they were to meet, each would have the measure of the other in a way that very few could understand, almost none who had not undergone the ordeal they each had survived. While the one man strove to use his days to do good, and the other sought to bend the precepts of good to his own uses, both had faced the extremity of fear and shame—and had come through intact.
Now the test was upon poor Ifor Powlett-Jones, young, and without the friendship, or the education, or the sheer anger that had strengthened the man now defending him in his own hour. Phineas met the lad’s eyes as he was put into the dock, and tried to will some of his own confidence and buoyancy into him. The adrenaline of arriving at the day of hazard had revived poor Powlett-Jones a little, and he stood in the dock, dreadfully pale, but composed, the trembling in his hands suppressed by his grip on the rail of the dock. He looked terribly young, and terribly innocent.