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I read over 100 books a year. Here are my thoughts on the best (and worst).

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

books on planes

Long haul flights always used to involve, for me, a bag full of books just to get me through the babies screaming, engine droning, claustrophobia, invasion of personal space and bad food. Sort of bring your own in-flight entertainment. This time I got only about 60 pages through a thriller called The Kingdom of Light by Guilio Leoni, then gave up to watch The Social Network, Get Him to the Greek and Toy Story 3 one after the other.
I've picked up the book again though. Leoni's thriller is set in Florence in 1300 and is one of the newish genre of books where crimes are either solved by famous figures from history or such figures feature in the narrative. Recent examples have been Oscar Wilde, Dickens, Shakespeare, Giordano Bruno and Immanuel Kant. (That's just off the top of my head - there are loads more I'm sure.)
You can probably guess that the person investigating a series of gruesome murders is Dante Alighieri, who in the book is working on his Commedia. He is having problems envisioning Paradise - indeed for many people it's the least successful part of the great trilogy due to the ineffable nature of heavenly bliss. Leoni is very skillful at weaving allusions to the Commedia into his gruesome thriller. Of course, these are occluded in English translation. The translator, Shaun Whiteside, points out that some of the lines of Dante are immediately obvious to Italian readers, just as quotations from Shakespeare are to English readers. The gimmick here is that the modes of death somehow reflect the personalities of the victims, a nod to Dante's knack for appropriate tortures in hell.
I was particularly interested to pick up this thriller, having just read the Inferno in the Everyman edition, where the swift-moving, plain but powerful translation is by C H Sisson. (Great Christmas reading...) I have also been working through the Inferno in the original, with a line-by-line crib. But, um, that's not been going too well.
Is Dante having a moment? Yes, but his seems to have lasted 700 years. More from my collection of Dante books anon.
My other Christmas book was a preview copy of Edward St Aubyn's latest novel, out in May, called At Last. (At last!). It is so rich and so dense, and his sentences are so brilliant and complex, that it demands another read. What I can say is that it is no disappointment after the other books in the Melrose family series: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Help and Mother's Milk. (Isn't he great on titles?) I was once asked who would be read in 100 years' time. I had no hesitation in replying: 'Edward St Aubyn.'

The Kingdom of Light by Giulio Leoni is published by Vintage at 7.99

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you on At Last, and on St Aubyn's titles. One of my regrets is that the publication of the first three Melrose books as a one-volume trilogy, reduces those wonderful titles to the status of mere chapter headings.

    Mother's Milk was, apparently, the loser in one of those regular 3-2 final voting decisions by the Booker judges. I would love to say that At Last stands a better chance, but the makeup of this year's judging panel - particularly the chair - suggests that something more thrillerish might be in with a better chance.