Holmes and Russel, again

Another adventure with Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes, this time mostly at a huge estate on the English countryside, in "Justice Hall" by Laurie R King. To give you an idea of the atmosphere, think of films like Altman´s "Gosford Park", the recent tv-series "Downton Abbey" or perhaps a Poirot-mystery. As far as I can tell, King has done some fine research on the manners of the upper classes, the fashions and the spirit of the time, just a few years after the Great War.

Russell and Holmes are just come home from Dartmoor, have hardly had time to set their bags down, have a bath, and let mrs Hudson serve them tea and crumpets, when there´s a knock on the door. And back into their lives comes their two Arab brothers Mahmoud and Ali Hazr, from their adventure in "O Jerusalem", and puts a case at their feet that is rather surprising, considering. Can´t tell you more, without spoiling the surprise.

A quick trip to Lyons, an equally fast journey to Canada (by boat and train, no regular airtraffic for the masses at this time!) does not really affect the atmosphere of the Big House, not even flashbacks to the trenches in France and Belgium during the war. Between the investigations Russell is mostly concerned with topics of conversation, the etiquette of fowl hunting and, yes indeed, "Holmes! Whatever shall I do? I haven´t a thing to wear."

King is very good at spicing her 1920´s-brew with small references of things that are so familiar to us now, but were quite new then. Some things are just fads, others stick, and there´s no telling at the time what is which. And some of what was considered eternal before the Great War, disappeared so very quickly, both institutions and ideas. Of course, without the actual use of a time machine there is no way of knowing if she´s got it right, but it feels right. Absolutely right.

Holmes has become, I think, less and less a main character in these stories, and more Russell´s husband. She contributes as much, sometimes more, to the investigations, and, as some people keep pointing out to her, he´s getting on a bit. But he is the apple of her eye, for sure, and for some reason he is constantly getting in and out of a bath, standing in his bare stockings and fiddling with his shirt buttons as he´s getting dressed for dinner. And isn´t this a loving description of a husband: "Holmes slumped down into the hard chair and prepared to listen, fingers steepled over his waistcoat, eyes half closed and glittering in the firelight like those of an observant snake."

Do I need to say I warmly recommend this?


Looking at Art

When I was lately in Stockholm to see an old friend, we went to a favourite place of mine, the National Art Museum. The collections are spectacular, as one would expect, and they have a great shop. I bought three books, one I have already written about here on the blog, and now I have read the remaining two. They are similar in that they are about how to look at a painting.

The Crucifixion with de Rynck
First, I read "How to read a painting. Decoding, understanding and Enjoying the Old Masters" by Patrick de Rynck. He uses one opening per painting, two pages, and explains the different elements of the ikonography. Of course, this is mostly religious art, it being the old masters, but there are also mythological scenes, pastorals, portraits, landscapes and townscapes. It didn´t take long to get through, but a quick calculation tells me that he actually must deal with 179 paintings in there! Thing is, he does not go particularly deep with each picture. I´m sure there is much, much more to tell. I suppose de Rynck´s intention is to offer an introduction for folks who know absolutely nothing about the ikonography of religion, mythology and literature. And I suppose the book has taught me that I actually do!

The Crucifixion with Barbe-Gall
Feeling not entirely satisfied with having learned very little from de Rynck, I continued with Francoise  Barbe-Gall´s "How to look at a painting" and was immediately rewarded. She has divided her presentation into six chapters with headlines such as "Contemplating the Sublime" and "Getting over the shock of our first impression" and she shows six paintings per chapter. Every painting gets six to eight pages and she writes more, she is more of a narrator, she is like a guide gently talking to her audience so that they can begin to understand such oddities Bacon´s Study of George Dyer in a Mirror or Kandinsky´s With the Black Arch. But she also has a few of the old masters here, like Grünewald´s The Crucifixion (as you can see in the pictures). And some paintings that everybody knows, like that girl with the pearl earring by Vermeer and some water lilies by Monet. Fine by me, but these images feel a bit over-commercialized. A shame, really.

Barbe-Gall engages the reader´s entire brain, she wants you to feel as well as see. I suppose that is why she chooses the word "look" instead of "read" in the book title. And her selection is wider, she prepares you for any kind of art experience, while de Rynck has a very narrow selection and well, he risks loosing the reader at an early stage, simply because he does not have a very personal voice. He just staples facts upon facts. By this I´m not saying I´m sorry to have de Rynck´s book, but I think it will serve more as a kind of dictionary, rather than a book that I go to for inspiration. However, I can be wrong. First impressions aren´t always right and a few years on I might find that de Rynck is a winner in the long run.

If you want an excellent introduction to all kinds of art (and why shouldn´t you?), I would heartily recommend Barbe-Gall. If I may briefly take a stand on the soap box I would like to say that art should be a concern for anyone who aspires to be a Mensch.


The Silver Mask

I have spent a few days reading a short little book about the Swedish 17th Century queen Kristina, "Silvermasken" (= the silver mask) by Peter Englund, who is a famous Swedish historian and member (secretary, actually) of the Swedish Academy. The book was written for the Academy, actually.

I didn´t know much about her, not more than anyone else: that she was the daughter of Gustav II Adolf, who died on the battlefield in Lützen in 1632 (a fat king got lost in the mist), her mother became mad with grief, she was probably homosexual and she abdicated in favour of her cousin Karl X, and became a Catholic, and moved to Rome, where she died. Englund puts a bit more flesh on her, makes her a bit more complex.

She tried to get a new kingdom for herself, mostly because her allowance from Sweden was rarely paid out to her, as the new king needed every crown for his warfare. She wanted Neaples, and when that fell through set her sights on Poland, but mostly it was to her disadvantage that she was a woman and she had no heirs. There were lots of rumours about her and a cardinal Azzolino, but she was adamant that she died virgo intacta, and there is nothing substantial to contradict that.

She was also an entusiastic writer, she had at least two secretaries, and sat for hours every day with pen in hand. But she finished very little, and her memoirs became more and more fiction the more she worked with them, apparently. It seems to have been a lot about keeping up appearances, she was always a queen and she tried to live like one, even when she was rather poor. That image I had of a humble religous woman seems to have been completely wrong.

The title refers to her death mask, that was laid over her face in the grave, but also to the many reinventions of herself that she undertook during her life. It was only in the 17th Century that philosophy came up with the idea of the individual, with an ability to think freely, and break away from the predestination of one´s birth. Kristina had, from a very young age, been very interested in these ideas, and she was very influenced by them. Without them, she probably could never have acted the way she did.

So, an easy, educational and entertaining read. A great way to spend a few evenings.


Dungeons and Detectives

It´s the final week of December 1918, when a 54-year-old Englishman and an 18-year-old American girl are secretly set ashore in Palestine, recently occupied by the British. They are recieved by two Bedouin Arabs who are not too eager to have them tagging along. Of course it turns out that Sherlock Holmes is already fluent in Arabic, and through his relentless tutoring of Mary Russell, by the time they are going home, she can pass herself off as a Bedouin boy even in conversation. Yes, there is something of the savant about both of them. I often feel, when I read about this sleuth couple, really happy that they have found each other.

The book is "O Jerusalem" by Laurie R King, an up-graded boy adventure story, the kind I loved to read when I was little. The Americans are naive, the English are heroic and stout, the Arabs are noble vicims, the Jews too, and the Turks are swarthy villains. There are a number of dungeons, no dragons, but instead heaps of d... no, I won´t spoil it for you, and the clock ticks awfully close to Dead-line. Not all is as it seems, and Sherlock Holmes is a man who does not miss the small, infinitely important details...

What is there not to love about this? They seem to think so at my local library as well, since the last few books I requested in this series have been bought rather than sent after from another library. And I have become so Holmes-enthused that I have dug out my entire small collection of episodes from the tv-series with Jeremy Brett that I have randomly recorded and never watched. I wish now I had been more diligent and got the whole series, but no doubt it will be reprised anytime soon.

I tried to buy the next book in the series, "Justice Hall", for my e-book-reader, but copyright reasons (why do they only want to sell this book in the US?) prevented this. However, someone made a smarter deal about the next one, so now I have "The Game" in my reader and a request for "Justice Hall" at my local library. I want to read them chronologically, but I´m not sure I can keep myself off "The Game". This is a really excellent whodunnit-series, highly recommended. As far as I can tell, only the two first books in the series has been translated to Swedish: "Drottningfällan" and "Det monstruösa kvinnoregimentet".

Personally, I think if you know a language well enough to read an author´s original text, you should. With a few exceptions. Some authors are really well translated and I remember giving up on Antonia S Byatt once, getting the Swedish version instead. Reading shouldn´t be a chore, after all...