FRANCESWILSON A BUMPY NIGHT
★By Panos Karnezis (Jonathan Cape 264pp £12.99)
MARCOTIMOLEON, AShe is called in full throughout the novel, is The Richest Man in the World, and it is the occasion of his daughter Sofia’s twenty-fifth birthday. To celebrate, he organises a party on his private island and secretly includes amongst the invitees a doctor, a nurse and an anaesthetist, whom he has asked to perform an abortion in one of the guest bedrooms. Sofia, Marco Timoleon has discovered through his private investigator, is pregnant and while she is delighted by the news, he does not approve of the father-to-be. The tycoon, who does not have long to live, wants to ensure that his empire will be inherited by the heir of his choice. Also at the party is Ian Forster, Marco Timoleon’s official biographer, who happens to be Sofia’s lover. It is at this point that The Birthday Party begins; to quote Bette Davis from All About Eve, ‘fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.’ Not even after take-off can our seatbelts be loosened, despite the fact that the party does not get going until the end of the book. We are indeed heading into a bumpy night, but there are enough twists and turns along the way to make us wonder how and if we will ever get there. As we wait for the guests to arrive, Panos Karnezis, who is a wonderfully gifted story-teller, steers us back through the tycoon’s strange and lonely childhood in Izmir, Asia Minor, where his father disappeared when he was a boy; taking us then to Buenos Aires, where he reinvented himself as rich and impervious to pain, to New York, where his success as a dodgy businessman began, through his two unsuccessful marriages, the mysterious death of his first wife, the accident which killed their son, and finally describing the growth of his international fame and notoriety. The story spans from the 1920s to 1975, and Karnezis unfolds Marco Timoleon’s life in seductive detail, tripping up only once, but badly, when he describes Colonel Stanley Nicholls, the man who saved Timoleon from starvation in Buenos Aires, as ‘a compassionate Quaker who had spent several years in the Middle East as a young army officer’. Committed pacifists, no Quaker has ever joined the army; it is as if Karnezis had described a Rabbi working in a pork processing unit. Any resemblance between Marco Timoleon and Aristotle Onassis is surely deliberate: both are shipping magnates of Mediterranean origin who marry a jetsetting American princess; both have unhappy daughters
who battle endlessly against fat, addiction and depression. Both inhabit the homeless half-world of the megarich, and sack and promote their friends and family as though they were employees. A monarch without a throne, Marco Timoleon rules the seas over which he wanders like the ancient mariner, burdened by the past and leaving behind him the flotsam and jetsam of chaos. In Marco Timoleon, Kanezis has created an entirely believable character which is why the improbable plot works so well; this, one feels, must be what it is like to have all the money in the world and no sense of who you are. The story of how Marco Timoleon became a monster is complicated by the ubiquitous Ian Forster, who will do anything to uncover the true nature of his biographical subject and whose presence adds both veracity (we begin to suspect Forster is the book’s narrator) and menace to the plot. The complex relation between biographer and biographee recalls the one brilliantly described in The Lying Tongueby Andrew Wilson, also out this summer and equally gripping in its exploration of biographical morality. The birthday party itself, by the time we return there in the final pages, is a cocktail of Pinter’s play of the same name, the party thrown by Mrs Dalloway and one of those surreal affairs laid on by Jay Gatsby to which he doesn’t bother turning up. To say what happens will ruin the night; just make sure you refasten the seatbelt. To order this book at £10.39, see LR Bookshop on page 37
The Yale Drama Series 2008 Competition
Yale University Press and Yale Repertory Theatre are seeking submissions for a major new playwriting competition, the Yale Drama Series. The winner of this annual competition will be awarded the David C. Horn Prize of $10,000, publication of his/her manuscript by Yale University Press, and a staged reading at Yale Rep.The winning play will be selected by series judge Edward Albee.
Submissions for the 2008 competition must be postmarked no earlier than July 15, 2007, and no later than August 15, 2007. There is no application form. Please note that the rules governing this year’s competition have changed from those governing last year’s competition.
• Playwrights must be citizens of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland. • Submissions must be original, unpublished, full-length plays written in English—translations, musicals and children’s plays are not accepted. The Yale Drama Series is intended to support emerging playwrights. Playwrights may win the competition only once. • Plays that have had professional productionsare not eligible. • Playwrights may submit only one manuscript per year.
Send your manuscript to: Yale Drama Series, P.O. Box 209040, New Haven, CT 06520-9040, U.S.A. Include a cheque for $25.00, made out to Yale University Press. Donot send cash.
For complete rules governing the competition consult: www.yalebooks.com/drama
LITERARY REVIEW August 2007 FICTION
BENEATH THE SURFACE
★By John Preston (Viking 230pp £16.99)
JOHNPRESTON’S GREATidea has been to tell the story of one of the most dramatic discoveries in British archaeology – that of the Sutton Hoo burial ship and associated treasures in Suffolk, on the eve of the Second World War – and yet tell it as a quiet, contained and dryly funny chamber piece, with a small cast of eccentric and appealing characters. There’s Edith Pretty, the landowner of the site, whose desperate visits to a medium in London to contact her dead husband neatly echo the whole business of archaeology, as well perhaps as the belief systems of the pagan-Christian Angles buried beneath the sandy Suffolk soil. There’s Peggy Piggott – in reality she was John Preston’s aunt – whose marriage, and growing realisation of its barrenness, is beautifully drawn. And there’s the chief digger himself, Basil Brown, who rarely changes his clothes and smells like a silage heap on fire, or something like it. It’s a charmingly modest and limpid novel, its style and
technique the very opposite of flashy and overbearing: perfectly suited to a more self-effacing age, when parents really did admonish their children: ‘Don’t draw attention to yourself’, rather than take pride in them appearing on Big Brother and fornicating with strangers on camera. The characters are entirely believable, and the whole thing a very English meditation on time, mortality and love. Preston is also good on the way in which archaeology straddles both art and science. It’s partly about accurate measurements and painstaking digs with tiny little trowels, or even, as Basil Brown demonstrates at one point, a pastry brush. But it is also an art, an act of imagination and empathy, re-membering dismembered forebears. Reminders of human mortality stalk every minute in the muddy archaeologist’s trench. Towards the end, Robert Pretty, Edith’s son, examines a body found in the earth – except that it isn’t a body, it is simply the outline of a body. There is really nothing there. ‘Nothing except a thin crust of sand. Inside the crust, there was no sign of a skeleton; there was just more sand.’ Yet he finds this strange, fragile fossil a kind of consolation, for all that. This long-buried imprint of one long dead is still a little way of cheating death, for a while. Preston’s evocations of the Suffolk landscape are precise and unobtrusive, suited to that county of slow streams and meadows and big skies. At least there were plenty of meadows back in 1939. He uses the word ‘prairie’ at one point, which sounds slightly anachronistic, though is, alas, all too accurate now. Many of the descriptions are lovely, of a ‘landscape ... drained of colour’‚ a waterland, ‘hard and shiny’‚ and ‘between the rows of barley and rye, the soil was the colour of canvas’. There are more mysterious and ancient aspects to this landscape. The area around Sutton Hoo has always been known as Little Egypt. ‘No doubt on account of the mounds’‚ explains Edith. ‘People claim to have seen mysterious figures dancing in the moonlight. Even a white horse.’ But as you would expect from such a writer, the magic and faery are not overdone. You’re in safe hands here. I did wonder whether silage was really much in evidence back in those days. A quick consultation of Mary Kay Siefers’s authoritative study of the subject, A Brief History of Silage, put me right. (No, I’m not making it up.) I’m still brooding about whether you can have purple sprouting broccoli at the same time of year as mature cow parsley. But this is a rather footling little botanical-leguminous pedantry, especially when set beside such memorable descriptions as an unearthed ‘cluster of rabbit skeletons, with the bones all entwined together like a giant bird’s nest’. Edith Pretty observes at one point, ‘As in life, it was the ones who were keenest to make themselves heard who invariably had the least to say.’ And vice versa – as this understated, pensive, humorous little novel so deftly demonstrates. To order this book at £13.59, see LR Bookshop on page 37
LITERARY REVIEW August 2007