The two novels which are reviewed here today are markedly, dramatically, different; but each, in its own way, is well done.
One novel is written by a man, about a man; the other is written by a woman, and has a female lead character. The male author is well connected in the book world, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, he is published by a leading trade publisher (Weidenfeld & Nicolson); the female author knows no one with any clout (I would wager), and has published the book herself.
Neil Belton: A Game with Sharpened Knives
First published in 2005, A Game with Sharpened Knives is a novel about several years in the life of Erwin Schrodinger, the 1933 winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics.
We begin in Graz, Austria, in 1938. Schrodinger is in trouble, because of his known dislike of Nazism, and now the Nazis are running things. The book is worth reading if only for the scene in which Schrodinger (the Nobel prize winner, don't forget) is politely and quietly ordered, by the head of his university, to write a letter apologising for his past mistakes, and asserting, in effect, that the Nazis now have his full support. This Schrodinger felt obliged to do, and the result was printed in all the newspapers.
This scene is interesting, because it forces the reader to ask himself a question. Can you imagine, say, the current New-Labour-supporting head of some former polytechnic in England, doing broadly the same thing to a present member of staff? Well yes, unfortunately, one can. Only too easily.
And can you imagine the neocon head of some mid-western state university in the US today doing the same thing to a member of his staff? And yes, unfortunately, one can. Only too easily.
Neil Belton, the author, follows Schrodinger as he moves from Graz to Dublin. Along the way we hear a great deal about his interest in women; and the book ends in 1941, with Schrodinger settled, after a fashion, into his new surroundings.
Top-class physicists are not, of course, quite like the rest of us. I once knew such a man (not a Nobel winner but close) whose senior academic position required him to attend many social functions, such as concerts, which I knew were of no interest to him whatever. And yet he gave every appearance of enjoying himself. After I while I learnt why: he wasn't paying any attention to the music; he was doing equations in his head.
Neil Belton, the first-time author of this novel, is evidently a serious kind of writer; and he has chosen a very serious subject. But serious intents and subjects seldom translate into fun for the reader, and I would have to say that, in places, this novel was (for me) very hard going indeed.
The serious literary press praised the book highly, of course, and not without some reason. But the number and enthusiasm of the reviews may, just conceivably, have been influenced by the fact that Neil Belton is an Editorial Director at Faber, and the reviewers will doubtless bump into him socially from time to time.
I read the paperback edition: the print is far too small, and the prose sits in heavy, seldom-broken slabs on the page.
Angela Ashley: Blazing Embers
Angela Ashley tells, in the first person, the story of Alice -- a person who is best described by the title of the first chapter: a granny in search of an orgasm.
Alice has been happily married for several decades, and her husband is alive and well; well enough, in fact, to be sexually active, if a trifle traditional in his approach to sexual matters. But Alice has been watching late-night television, and has come to the conclusion that she has been missing out on some of the full experience of sex; and it is not too late, she feels, to put matters right. Not, please note, that she is willing to commit adultery; but she is determined, if possible, to persuade her husband to do things differently.
The tone of this novel is just as serious as that of Neil Belton's, but mercifully the touch is much lighter and the prose is much easier to read: Angela Ashley is a very skilful writer. Without ever resorting to crudity or four-letter words, the author makes the nature of Alice's problems brutally plain. And she describes in detail how Alice goes about solving them.
I did find myself wondering, as I read this book, where its natural readership lies. Young people, as we all know, find it impossible to believe that their parents have a sex life, let alone their grandparents. Middle-aged people probably don't want to be looking ahead to the health and sexual problems of old age. And as for pensioners, senior citizens or whatever you call them, not all of them are going to read this book with enjoyment.
For a start, anyone who is seventyish now will have been brought up (at least in England) is a thoroughly puritanical atmosphere, the like of which is barely credible when compared with the publicity that is given to sex these days. And old habits die hard (as Alice's husband's reaction proves). And then again, many elderly men are all too aware that bits of their body no longer work as they did when they were nineteen. So most pensioners are, I suspect, going to feel somewhat uncomfortable about the very plain speaking which is to be found in Blazing Embers. So before you buy it as a present, make sure you know your granny well.
All in all, this book is every bit as well thought out and well structured as the Neil Belton opus, but it has not, naturally, been reviewed anywhere important. I am particularly impressed by the author's courage in choosing such a difficult subject; and I can't imagine anyone dealing with this subject matter any better than it is done here.
If you want a sample, the first 40-odd pages are available online.