Saturday, 31 December 2011

What are you thinking of?

Progress has slowed on reading Proust. I got Anthony Horowitz's "House of Silk" for Christmas and have spent the last couple of days reading that. It is a new Sherlock Holmes story and pleasing in that it does not bring anything to the narrative not already present in Conan Doyle's original stories. It does suffer from the same problem as Doyle's own longer Holmes stories in that it is necessary to the plot for Holmes to be absent for a long stretch and the pace slacks in comaprison with when he is present. He is such a powerful engine in driving the plot forward and in maintaining the reader's interest.
Horowitz does toss in a seemingly random "the game's afoot" but steers clear of anything "elementary"; recognising, no doubt, that this remark does not feature in the original stories.
That aside, Horowitz hits his marks well with a good denouement and surprising resolution of the disparate elements. He also resists giving a revisionist version of the Holmes myth and just occasionally refers to things known only from a reading of the complete stories (such as the death of Watson's wife and Holmes' ultimate fate). I am not against a revisionist reworking of Holmes, the myth is strong enough to carry these added readings. I like both the Seven Percent Solution and They Might Be Giants, for instance. And even Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's Hound of the Baskervilles. The transposition to modern times in the current BBC version is interesting, though I am not convinced that any modern Holmes would have quite so much truck with electronic media. In its essence of motive, commission and trail of evidence, crime has not changed much in 100 years. The use of DNA evidence being the biggest single change There is enough material in the stories for a gay and also a marxist reading, less so for a feminist reading, I think. Doyle steers close to social satire on occasion also. But Horowitz sets up his book as a continuation in the spirit of Doyle and maintains his consistency throughout the narrative.
I have also been watching the Basil Rathbone Holmes films which show Holmes investigating crimes in Canada, Washington DC and are mostly set in the 1940s (so Holmes on at least one occasion battles the Nazis). That none of this jars is again testimony to the elasticity of the myth. I was particularly pleased to come across my favourite Holmes moment. At the very end of "Sherlock Holmes and the Woman in Green" Watson asks Holmes "What are you thinking of?" and Holmes says "I am thinking of all the young women that can come and go in safety in the streets of London tonight". You can watch this here.

To my knowledge this exchange does not occur in the original stories and is an invention of the Hollywood scriptwriter but I think it is a highly emblematic exchange. First, Watson asks Holmes what he is thinking. This is something you would normally only ask a very close person, your spouse or partner. I have never asked a friend what are they thinking and certainly not a male friend. But Watson thinks nothing of it. Holmes' response gives us his raison d'etre and his justification for hero status. Without his being aware of why he does what he does he is no more than a highly irritating smart aleck.
I saw this film years ago on the telly and this quote stuck with me. I was delighted in the 1980s when I heard it used in the introduction to a song by the Mighty Ballistics Hi-Power called "Springheel Jack" as this brought together two of my favourite pieces of Victoriana (Holmes and the legend of Springheel Jack - what a shame the great detective never took it upon himself to investigate the latter's activities). A terrific song whose message against exploitation echoes that of Doyle and is in turn repeated by Horowitz. What a shame that nothing much seems to have changed. The song is here.

Friday, 9 December 2011

The Colour of Hawthorns

One day, the narrator and his family decide to walk down Swann's Way. The narrator hopes to catch sight of Swann's daughter, Mlle Swann, who has made an impression on him. He spots a basket and a fishing line by the lake and thinks he is about to have an encounter when "I found the whole path throbbing with the fragrance of hawthorn blossom. The hedge resembled a series of chapels, whose walls were no longer visible under the mountains of flowers".

The narrator stands there, enjoying the scent of the flowers, trying to preserve the memory of it, denying himself the scent and then returning to it with renewed vigour. Then his grandfather calls him over to have a look at a particular pink hawthorn. "High up on the branches, like so many of those tiny rose trees, their pots concealed in jackets of paper lace, whose slender stems rise in a forest from the alter on the greater festivals, a thousand buds were swelling and opening, paler in colour; but each disclosing as it burst, as at the bottom of a cup of pink marble, its blood-red stain, and suggesting even more strongly than the full-blown flowers the quality of the hawthorn tree which, whenever it budded, whenever it was about to blossom could bud and blossom in pink flowers alone".

Suddenly, the narrator is unable to move as when a deeper kind of perception requires the participation of our whole being. He has seen a girl with red hair carrying a trowel. "I gazed at her, at first with that gaze which is not merely a messenger from the eyes, but in whose window all the senses assemble, and lean out, petrified and anxious, that gaze which would fain reach, touch, capture, bear off in triumph the body at which it is aimed, and the soul with the body". Clearly, this is well overwrought for modern tastes. Proust has just described his senses of smell, taste, touch and hearing as leaning out through his eyes. He hears that the girl's name is Gilberte.