William Trevor: Felicia's Journey.

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Section link: Ben Elton: Blast from the past.

Picture of Dido and Aeneas

A young Irish girl, Felicia has her romantic illusions fed by deceivers, the romance in their natures perverted into mean, even deadly, adventures, for what we know thru-out much of the book. Led into a journey, made dangerous by her own incredible naivety, Felicia searches for the lover she still believes loved her.

The story seems to start out fairly hopefully. It's not exactly The Good Companions, who are shown unknowingly converging on each other's travails. But at least Felicia is striking out on her own. Crisis also means opportunity. Mr Hilditch's quiet life, with its soothing routines, is about to be involved with her problems.

Gradually, the reader, like the main character, loses hope. One realises those she meets do not have a redeeming character, nor can she redeem herself.

Her father is still too exercised by the troubles to consider that his daughter, as well as his country, may have been betrayed. He rushes to condemn and put a slur on the girl's character. When he finds out his mistake, it is too late to atone. He cannot be 'at one' with her again.
However, heady patriotism and its follies here is only a distant echo of classic treatments, such as Sean O'Casey's Juno and the paycock.

Recently, an Irish referendum, on abortion law, was close run. Abortion as murder is used to chilling effect, in Trevor's novel.

The author does not preach on this contentious issue, which has another side to it, in women's rights not to endure unwanted pregnancies. When a judgement is expressed, it comes naturally thru the thoughts of a character. Felicia belatedly wises-up to her pathetic persecutors. Ill deeds are not sensationalised. Trevor keeps a low profile, letting you forget about the story-teller. He sooner introduces a stray cat, as an observer, than himself.

Just the odd time do you seem to hear his voice: That was the point he was making, who else but the author is saying of Mr Hilditch trying to show off that he is with a young woman. He was trying to be one-up on a man he imagined was the one who kept him out of the army. Then, he realises this was just his proneness to fantasy, his mother remarked-on.

Mr Hilditch lives on day-to-day superficialities. If the reader takes long to get to know him, that may be because he doesnt know himself. The point of psychology is to know oneself, so one isnt moved by emotional forces out-side one's understanding and control.

Felicia's doomed and lonely quest wears her down. Those who cross her path are too wrapped up in their own illusions to change her fate. It is not that all the people she comes across are bad or that there is absolutely no such thing as kindness and succour.
She becomes a random element lost in the atomised masses.

Gone are the rustic folk stories of endless dark woods crowding pinnacled castles. The urban fairy tale is under its own evil enchantment of a throw-away society, that includes people as well as things. The story-teller may be likened to a trash sculptor, who uses the material to hand. His work does not degrade art, as is sometimes claimed. Rather, he shows society, in so far as it still exists as a society, has degraded itself. And society, in so far as it still exists, may prefer to blame him.

Not that this can be said of William Trevor. He is one of an abundance of authors, it seems, whose c.v. or track record, the book's blurb pains-takingly recounts for its literary prizes. Trevor may be more afflicted by this patronage than most.
In the golden age of literature ( we all have our illusions ) before television, corporate funding and arts officialdom, a writer existed in his own write, rather than being propped-up by prizes from well-endowed and self-appointed elites.

The complaints rumble on about the low level of functional English literacy. The Irish are even worse off, with their two most phonetically mis-spelt languages, Gaelic and English. But the complainers, like futile neurotics, stubbornly refuse to recognise this root of the problem. It's easier to indulge a grumble than inconveniently disturb 'correct' spelling.

Nevertheless, a century of popular education seems to have had some effect. We cannot agree with Bernard Shaw that literature is confined to the middle classes ( the clerical classes ) rather than dukes or dustmen. While literary genius remains rare to vanishing, there is an abundance of talent. Wearing his critic's hat, J B Priestley once expressed his tiredness with the obsession with genius. He was prepared to make do with some talent. The literature industry has surely granted his wish to excess, as in a tale of some over-zealous genie.

Being able to write well is almost like a social grace that, in former times, was expected of one. Corporate spending other people's money, from their taxes or savings, on hand-outs to the deserving literati, sometimes promotes books that are duds -- in my opinion. Others disagree. The question is: who are the popular writers of today, bar the book prizes? At the moment, I can only think of children's authors.

William Trevor's story-telling makes good, if unobtrusive, company, in contrast to some of his bad, if unobtrusive, characters.

Ben Elton: Blast from the past.

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This was certainly Elton's most tautly constructed novel to date. It may be a while before he writes a better. Blast from the past relies on his strength as a playwright. It is really a play written-up as a novel. And if he produces the story as both, it wont be the first time.
Like J B Priestley, the novelist is secondary to the playwright.

In his early ecological disaster novels, Elton's talents get in the way of each other. Elton the novelist as doom-sayer keeps getting elbowed aside by Elton the stand-up comedian. This appears to happen a little in Blast from the past. But that is deceptive. When he goes on jokily about American military might, his purpose is really to plant a motive for one of the character's surprising behavior, on which the powering-up of the plot depends.
The book held me, whereas in a theatre, like it or not, one is a captive audience, short of walking out on everyone.

By contrast, Trevor's novel, just reviewed, is down hill into disintegration. Elton's novel focuses at last in the heroine's attic, a classic stage set. Felicity's set purpose dissipates into an aimless wandering the streets. Both women are victims of 'the pretense of love'. Had they known, they were going to be loved and left, they would never have consented to sex.

When her old flame returns - the blast from the past - Elton's heroine makes the point that this betrayal of trust is rape. Just as it is rape to force sex upon a woman, so it is rape to engage in sex by fraud.

The triangle, in Blast from the past, is made up by a stalker, before the laws against this kind of harassment were tightened up. Like a dictator, the stalker lacks self-control. He knows no respect for the desired female's freedom. In truth he has no self-respect to tell him he does not need to rely on someone else to make life endurable. His obsession for the heroine is merely fed by her frustrated fury that he wont go away. For him, at least it is an emotional response of some sort. He can deceive himself of a grand passion and enjoy taunting her over it. 'Love' is really subordinated to self-love.

As in Trevor's novel, Elton explores the disenchanting worlds of certain kinds of male inadequacy towards women. ( This reviewer makes no pretense to be exempt from them. )

This is where Ben Elton makes good use of the extra subjective dimension a novel affords to the objective scene set by a play. For instance, the stalker's mother typifies the absence of parental sense of responsibility towards their offspring's crimes, which we hear so much about, nowadays. As her son's persecution goes from bad to worse, even she wonders to herself where things began to go wrong for his degradation to go so far.

Richard Lung

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