The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Saturday, August 16, 2014

In Which I Steal a Post: A Good Review

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!


Anonymous said...

You have never stolen in your life. You are the most decent
man I have ever met. I am thrilled about your book.

Much love,

The father without the bucket on his head in the Romancers (Fall 85)

Anglocat said...

Many thanks, dear friend--and I am thrilled about the book, but even more so that we remain friends after all these years.

Much love,

The father WITH the bucket on his head in the Romancers (85)