A Mistranslated Title?

I’ve mentioned previously that I do like reading the novels of Emile Zola. This will be the fifth one I’ve read (not counting re-reads) and is, I think, one of his best known. However, because I can’t read French I have had to pick up a translation and the title has got me all confused. The novel I’m reading is La Bête Humaine, which my (Penguin) edition has translated as The Beast Within. This is entirely acceptable, and I’m sure there is no problem with it. It’s just that to me, the title translates as The Human Beast which, in the context of the story, seems to make more sense.

The crux of the story (about which I will probably write more later) is that of murder on the railways, and in particular, the mind of a murderer; but I would also like to explore other characters and their mindsets because I think it illustrates (my translation of) the title really very well.

Roubaud, a stationmaster, kills the man who molested his wife when she was younger in a fit of jealous rage. I’m not sure, actually, that it is jealousy – perhaps righteous anger, but still – and realising that he has means, motive and opportunity, arranges the murder. The victim, Galincourt, a wealthy company director and senior lawyer, is a well-known sexual predator whose crimes have effectively been covered up as a result of his position. Don’t be surprised if this sounds HORRIBLY familiar, because it did to me too. Unfortunately for Roubaud, the murder is witnessed by Jacques Lantier, a young engine driver who suffers from homicidal delusions and had just tried to rape and murder his godmother’s daughter (whose sister was raped and murdered by Galincourt).

Traditionally, it is Lantier who is considered the Beast of the title, but I think there are different meanings to the word which Zola plays with. Certainly Galincourt’s behaviour is beastly, and Lantier’s fits of mania hint at a lack of rational control which at the time was considered to (to quote an old friend) “separate us from the animals”. In the fullness of time, however, we see Lantier go on to kill his mistress, then his engineer and finally himself in a plot that twists and turns like a good 19th century classic – which, of course, this is.

I’m only about halfway through at the moment, and so far only Galincourt is dead, but the senior judiciary have already conspired to ensure that the case doesn’t go to trial to protect the deceased’s reputation. Zola was well known for his assertions against the State for injustice – he was a famous supporter of the accused in the Dreyfus affair – so this is hardly surprising. What surprises me is how prescient it feels in the light of more modern examples of Galincourt’s behaviour. Naming no names, because I refuse to give them publicity.

Looking at all the characters and the behaviour they illustrate, I can’t help but think my translation of the book is the right one. I’ll let you know when I’ve finished it.


The Hanging Stranger

Sometimes, Philip Dick wrote a short story that is quite good; occasionally, he wrote one that was excellent; and rarely, he wrote one that was simply breath-taking. I can’t quite decide which category this one fits into; I think it’s floating somewhere between excellent and breath-taking, but I love small town paranoia anyway. Dick did small towns and paranoia very well, but in this story the combination is a masterpiece of storytelling. Is Noyce going bonkers or is he really seeing what he’s seeing? In fact, if everyone tells you that you’re insane, how do you know that you’re not?

In terms of plot, this very closely resembles the 1956 movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where one man becomes increasingly convinced that the other occupants of his town have been taken over by strange insect-like creatures he sees descending from the sky. His reasoning is simple; none of them pay any attention to the man hanging from a lamp-post in the town square. The story is brilliantly told and although I did guess the twist at the end, it didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the story one jot. It’s delightfully creepy.

The Hood Maker

Not that I usually give a fig about being in fashion, but it does feel a bit strange to see Philip K Dick, one of my favourite SF authors, being so popular again. His star seems to rise and wane with alarming regularity – popular in the eighties, less so in the nineties, barely remembered in the noughties, starting to come back in the tens. Much as I like his novels, it’s his short stories that I really admire because they often deal with ideas and theories that probably couldn’t carry a hundred thousand words without veering off into lunacy.

I really like The Hood Maker, the first of his stories to be broadcast as part of Channel 4’s Electric Dreams series, which gave me the idea of reading all the original stories in the order that they were shown – partly because I prefer reading to viewing but also because I have the collected stories somewhere and it seemed a great excuse to dig them out. So before anyone asks – no, I haven’t watched the series and I probably won’t either, so I’m not necessarily aware of any differences between the two.

The central conceit of The Hood Maker is that people’s thoughts are no longer their own; the state employs telepathic mutants (“teeps”) to scan one’s unconscious thoughts and report any disloyalty. The state’s justification is that if one has nothing to hide, one has nothing to worry about. But some people do feel that there are secrets worth keeping and it isn’t long before strange alloy headbands (the “hoods” of the title) are being received by notable government employees which prevent the teeps from reading their thoughts. The state, unsurprisingly, drafts legislation banning them, but the story ends before the keynote vote (and reveals how it will fare).

Dick was, I suppose, something of a typical Californian libertarian; he was also quite paranoid and so the idea of the government spying on him using telepaths was something he revisited regularly – I suppose the best known version is Minority Report, also originally a short story, where people are arrested for crimes before getting the chance to commit them by (essentially) thought police. It raises questions about whether or not people have the right to keep secrets and the level to which a state can erode civil liberties before it becomes totalitarian. Given that the overwhelming majority of governments run on secrets – otherwise intelligence services wouldn’t be required – you can see why they would be concerned about “disloyalty”, for example. Whether or not it’s ever likely to happen is anyone’s guess – I’m fairly sure that people who have lived through the whims of a totalitarian regime before the fall of Communism would be able to vouch for Dick’s veracity here.

It’s a clever story, and it doesn’t seem dated – a flaw which has befallen a few of his novels, if I’m honest. It has elements of science fiction and spy thriller, which makes me wonder if there is such a thing as spy-ence fiction. On which note, I’ll move on to the next story….

The Impossible Planet

You know that scene at the end of the 1968 Planet of the Apes (the first of the Charlton Heston ones) where he’s riding along the beach and suddenly yells “Damn them all to Hell”? Yeah, that bit – that’s what I thought about when I got to the end of this story. And then I felt really sad for the future of humanity, which isn’t something I ordinarily do when I read Philip Dick short stories. It just felt very poignant.

The plot is quite simple; Earth has been consigned to myth by virtually everyone. Only a three hundred and fifty year old lady who grew up on stories told by her grandfather, who was born there, believes it exists. And she wants to go there. In desperation – and to pocket the inordinate amount of money she is prepared to pay – two space pilots pick a planet of similar description (i.e. third rock from a star) and take her there, telling her it’s Earth.

This made me recall something I often wondered when I was younger; assuming that there is life out there, what do they call our Sun? Do they have another name for our planet? Is it possible that at some point in the future, humanity will have spread throughout the universe and Earth may be forgotten? Big ideas, but that’s what Philip K Dick was all about.

Not Quite Downton

I’ve never read anything by Kate Morton before, but the library thoughtfully allowed a copy of The House at Riverton to remain on the shelf before anyone else got there, so I borrowed it to have a read. It’s a lovely read, interesting and with characters you can really engage with, and it took me no time at all to whizz through 500 pages.

If it reminded me of anything, the book closely resembled the second season of Downton Abbey, set during the First World War. This is primarily because both are set in a large country house, with noble owners and downstairs staff, and discuss all the changes that came with the onset of war, the slaughter and in due course the armistice. Although in that regard they are telling the same story, it is markedly different in how it is handled – at no time reading Morton did I imagine Hugh Bonneville coming down the stairs at Grantham to consult Carson over the wine list.

Riverton is narrated through the eyes of one of the maids, Grace, as she recalls her past which is in the process of being turned into a costume drama. There’s a lot more to the plot than that, but I found I wasn’t really interested in any of it; I wanted to go back in time with her, back to dusting every last nook and cranny in the library because Her Ladyship was convinced that a relative died of a dust infection three hundred years previously, and where Cook’s apple tartlets were considered a cure for shellshock on the grounds that they worked for everything else.

There are births, deaths and marriages in the novel (the greatest twist is where the inheritance of the title depends entirely on the gender of an unborn child so the household has to wait for three months to find out) as there are in Downton, and it’s all too easy to get wrapped up in the conspiracies, friendships and rivalries between the characters. I honestly think that if you like Downton, you will enjoy this – just don’t expect Lady Mary to turn up suddenly and have a fling with an Indian prince.

The Showman’s Art

I’ve only just realised – writing the title to this – that two of America’s greatest shock rockers have alter egos with female names; Marilyn Manson chose his by combining a glamorous celebrity with a notorious criminal whereas Alice Cooper was told a story about a New England witch of that name. Both play loud raucous rock music with controversial themes and subjects, wear outlandish outfits and lots of make up – and both put on a stunningly good live show. I’ve had the great privilege over the years to have seen both of them on stage a number of times, and I’ve never left disappointed.

And it’s interesting that both of them have been on tour to the UK in recent months, still putting on stage performances (with Manson in a wheelchair after suffering a broken leg) which are as good as any they’ve seen. You see, I believe that both understand the nature of performance; an audience go to see a show to be entertained, so give them something to watch. Whether this is Cooper’s fake guillotine or Manson on stilts, it’ll be remembered and talked about for a long time, which is the point.

Someone I know who knows these things said that many bands and musicians actually don’t make money from touring; they make it from the merchandise that is sold at the venue (provided you buy it from legitimate traders, obviously). So why do they bother? Well, it allows them to interact with their fan base but in order to attract new fans and keep the existing ones interested, you have to give them something worth seeing, and that is something that both Manson and Cooper understand inherently.

I can’t say what inspired them to do things this way, because I simply don’t know. I can say that it’s worth every penny of the tickets to go and watch, and is always highly entertaining (although if you don’t like the music, don’t bother). Perhaps a few other performers could take a leaf out of their books and entertain, rather than just show up on stage in a t shirt and jeans and warble a bit?

Goya’s Gothic Masterpiece

Goya painting titled “Time” or in Spanish Las viejas.

Deep down, I know I really shouldn’t like this painting half as much as I do. It’s really very wicked, blackly funny and very clever; it’s also slightly monstrous, which I think is why I like it. Of course, Time is nowhere near as bleak and gruesome as his famous painting of Cronos Eating his Children, but I think in its own way, it deserves to be centre stage a little more.

On the surface, Time is a portrait of a society lady who is incredibly elderly. She is accompanied by her maid, and there is a dark figure in the back, whom we will explore later. The lady is exceptionally well dressed, draped in white silks and lace and presumably her best diamonds. Behind her fan, you can tell that the maid is sniggering despite her skull like features. Yes, the lady who may once have been beautiful has decided that she will be beautiful again, by wearing finery that is outdated and probably unfashionable. The maid may have gone along with it as an opportunity to laugh at her betters – and it’s a salutary lesson for those of us who may occasionally risk harking back to our younger days and getting the punk/goth/rockabilly outfits out. What suited us when we were 17 may not necessary suit us when we’re 50.

Now, the character at the back – most art historians state that this is a personification of Time, which is very hard to disagree with (because of the title of the work) but because there is a very clear message about the effects of the passage of time. Alongside this analysis is also that this could be a personification of Death – he awaits us all and it is only the passage of time that separates us.

If your only taste of Goya has been his Black Paintings (which aren’t for everyone, even though I think they’re rather wonderful) this is a great example of his wicked sense of humour.

A Lesson in Being a Gentleman

Oh all right, I admit it. I only watched Kingsman: The Secret Service because part of it was set in Savile Row. Oh, and Mark Strong was in it, and I rather like him. Despite all the silliness, gadgetry and violence, there was some pretty good stuff in the film – especially on what it took to be a gentleman. Given that at least one of the candidates to replace Lancelot was a woman, I think it’s fairly safe to assume that these are general principles rather than specifically male ones.

I shall also try very hard not to sound too much like Colin Firth when I do this.

Firstly, a gentleman is not about birth but about breeding. This is one of the lessons that Eggsy has most trouble getting his head around, coming from a council estate and living on the dole. Being a gentleman is about being comfortable in one’s own skin, about being confident that one can adapt to and behave in any situation. As the Kingsman motto has it – manners maketh the man. It used to be clothes in my day, but to be honest, they’re just a sideshow. Good manners cost nothing but make a world of difference, and they are the mark of a gentleman – and they are something that can be learned.

Moreover, being a gentleman is about knowing when to work as a team and when to go it alone. It is about loyalty when needed and ruthlessness when required. Startlingly, it was often the female candidates who proved more adept that this than the men were, so it was no surprise when one became a Kingsman. She was brilliant, a real role model for young women.

Finally – and probably most importantly – being a gentleman is about taking responsibility for your actions. It’s about holding your hands up and admitting when you’re wrong and learning from your mistakes. Physical strength is all very well, but mental strength and tenancity are better; but all pale in comparison to integrity.

Kingsman: The Secret Service could teach everyone a great deal about being a gentleman – and hopefully young people will learn a lot from it as well. Not just how to disarm a gun wielding lunatic from a hundred paces.

Why Did The Earth Stand Still?

I caught a rerun of the original (and still the best) version of The Day the Earth Stood Still, a 1950s black and white science fiction classic where the special effects are basic and things don’t have to be blown up to make a very good film. I suppose the thing that bugs me most about this version is the overt Christianity – there are many references suggesting that Klaatu is a Christ-figure, which jars with me – and that there is no explanation for the title. Why did the Earth stand still? In surprise at the arrival of beings from another world – or is it a description of the result of Klaatu’s “experiment”?

About half way through the film, Klaatu agrees with Professor Barnhardt that he would get the world’s attention in such a way that nobody could either fail to take notice or get hurt. He does this by shutting down all electrics and mechanics – interestingly, early cars and motorcycles don’t move, even though they are much more mechanical than they are today – except for planes in flight and power to hospitals. This EMP lasts for precisely half an hour, during which Klaatu explains to Helen, a fellow tenant at the boarding house he is staying in, who he is and why he is on Earth. Although he can interfere with man’s impact on the Earth, he can’t affect it’s movement in the universe. So the Earth, strictly speaking, still moves.

I’ve not see the remake, starring Keanu Reeves as Klaatu, but I expect it is glitzier and with better special effects. I’m told it’s not as good as the original, and that significant changes were made to the screenplay, giving it a more topical appeal. Hopefully they will also have lost the religious elements as well. I’m not sure a society as advanced as Klaatu’s would still believe in myths and legends.

Many science fiction fans have spent ages trying to decipher the key phrase “Klaatu barada nikto”, which Helen has to say to Gort when Klaatu is shot by the National Guard. The best suggestion is that it is a deactivation code, preventing Gort from going on a killing spree. Yet so far as I can tell, nobody has considered the meaning behind the title. Why is it called “The Day the Earth Stood Still” when it clearly didn’t? Perhaps we’ll never know.

Writing Difficult Posts

I try to get at least one blog post out of the books I read or the films I watch. Sometimes it’s easier than others, and I can often get two or even three if it’s an especially good book. Sometimes, though, it’s a real chore. Either I can’t think of anything to write or I can think of lots to write but have no idea how to approach it. An example of the former is a book I read called Walkaway by Cory Doctorow – I really enjoyed it, but I couldn’t get any blog posts out of it.

As an example of the latter, one of the things that Alias Grace reminded me of was the efforts made by the Earl of Longford to have Myra Hindley released from prison (the picture I’ve chosen is from the TV dramatisation, starring Jim Broadbent as Lord Longford and Andy Serkis as Ian Brady). Now Hindley’s crimes were on a whole different level to those of Grace Marks so it really was a Sisyphean task – but Grace has herself attracted the attention of prominent society people who are busy petitioning the government to have her released. This is the reasoning behind Dr Jordan’s arrival to analyse Grace’s mental health. If she is sane, then she has an opportunity for release, if she is suitably repentant. (Whether she is or not is another question entirely and not really for this post).

The trouble I have is – how do I approach this aspect of the novel? Any discussion of the Moors Murders has to be handled extremely sensitively and if I’m honest, I don’t think I can do that because I don’t remember the Murders themselves. I certainly don’t want to cause unnecessary distress but I think it’s interesting how certain notorious criminals tend to attract intelligent and well-meaning people intent on securing their freedom, and I would have liked to discuss that. I just don’t know how.

Also, the subject of the history of mental health treatments – and female mental health in particular – is massive and well beyond the scope of either this blog or my learning. I do find it an interesting subject and it is one that I may allude to again in the future but it really is too big for one post. The same argument applies to the history of medicine in general, as well as custodial punishment and Spiritualism – all big, interesting subjects but way too big to tackle in one go and all of which play a part in this novel.

So you see – although I may produce lots of blog posts there are some that don’t get written at all, no matter how good the book is; sometimes I just don’t have the necessary inspiration. It’s nobody’s fault and I’ve stopped beating myself up about it. As soon as I stop enjoying myself, I will stop.