Tuesday, September 24, 2013

(No.248) Pseudonymous novels by John Banville & J.K.Rowling

"Pseudonymous novels by John Banville and J.K. Rowling --

and some other recent novels"

by Alastair Rickard 

Mark Twain said that "every time I read "Pride And Prejudice" I want to dig Jane Austen up and beat her over the skull with her shin-bone".

As Twain's comment illustrates, the source of great pleasure or dislike from reading is a highly individual thing, often both unpredictable and idiosnycratic.

Many of us who like reading fiction have favourite novelists whose books we so enjoy that we don't just anticipate them with pleasure we await them eagerly. In various RickardsRead columns several of the writers whose work I most enjoy have been included. Recently I enjoyed reading the latest novels of several novelists who are among my favourites.

Benjamin Black is the pseudonym adopted by Irish novelist John Banville, a writer of literary novels and a winner of the Booker Prize. Banville took this pen name not to cloak his identity but to establish a separate publishing personna for what turned out to be a series of 'crime' genre novels.

Set in Dublin in the 1950s the principal continuing character is a medical doctor named Quirke, a pathologist affiliated with a major hospital whose Dublin police detective friend involves him occasionally in murder cases. This sounds formulaic for a crime/detective novel. Banville's aren't.

The novels in ths Quirke series, of which there are now six, are not only beautifully written but inspired  as much by character as plot. Quirke is a complex man with many personal problems. The latest novel in the series "Holy Orders" (2013) is every bit as absorbing as its predecessors. They are rewarding reading whether one seeks the 'crime/mystery' genre or not.

My advice for those who take up reading this series of novels by Benjamin Black is to read them in the order of their publication to properly appreciate the challenges of Quirke's life. The novels proceed chronologically and contain references to previous stories.

The three novels immediately preceding "Holy Oders" are "Vengeance" (2012), "A Death in Summer" (2011) and "Elegy For April" (2010).


Robert Galbraith is the pseudonym of another established novelist but one who did use it in order to hide her identity: J.K. Rowling, the hugely successful English wrter of the Harry Potter series.

Rowling's first post-Potter novel, "The Casual Vacancy," was directed at an adult audience. My impression was that the critics, especially in the UK, were waiting to give her negative reviews -- and many did. I thought it was unfair and apparently she did too.

She decided to write her next novel for adults, "The Cuckoo's Call" published earlier this year, using a closely guarded secret pseudonym -- Robert Galbraith. An insider leaked the secret but not before the novel -- and Robert Galbraith -- received favourable reviews. It demonstrated that she got more even-handed reviews when critics thought it was a new writer they did not know.

And the novel, a private detective mystery set in today's London, is great reading. I could hardly put it down.

The central character named Cormoran Strike is a former British Army military policeman who lost half a leg serving in Aghanistan. He is the illegitimate son of an aging British rock star and a drug-addled groupie. As a private investigator he's barely hanging on financially and not at all in his relationship with his on again-off again female lover. And then a rich client with a long ago connection to Strike walks into his office.

The plot's twists are convincing as are the personal and professional complications of Strike's life. Rowling writing as Galbraith turns Strike into the sort of fascinating character ready made for a series like Banvllle (as Black) has written featuring Quirke. And I do hope she does.


Several more of my recent enjoyable reads also deserve at least brief reference in this column.

Philip Kerr's latest Bernie Gunther novel is " A Man Without Breath" (2013). Gunther, the pre-WWII Berlin cop forced into the SS finds himself involved with the uncovering of the Katyn mass grave of thousands of Polish officers murdered by the Soviets. One of my favourite series of novels and principal characters.

Lee Child's series of Jack Reacher novels are addictive and can be consumed at the speed of junk food snacks. The plot of the latest, "Never Go back" (2013),  draws on Reacher's time as a U.S. Army major and MP to tell a story about how and why he is set up for accusations of past offences.

Carl Hiassen is a journalist who, despite having become a very successful novelist, still writes a weekly column for the Miami Herald. His novels set in Florida are mainly very effective dark humour tied to off-center plots. The latest, "Bad Monkey", again features former Miami cop Andrew Yancy. It has not yet become a true 'Yancy' series but it may become one.

"Dark Summer in Bordeaux" (2012) is the second volume in Scottish writer Alan Massie's Bordeaux trilogy.  The first volume was "Death In Bordeaux" (2010) and publication date for the third volume has not been announced.

The novels are set in the city of Bordeaux in south-western France just before and after its occupation by Germany in WWII. The central character is a French policeman, Supt. Lannes,  and his family members. Superior writing makes it as much or more a literary novel than one of the police detective genre. The novels really need to be read in order as they tell a continuous story.

"Devil's Cave" is the fifth in Martin Walker's crime/police detective novels set today in France's Perigord/Dordogne region. The series is not dark or gritty in the way that, say, Kerr's stories are. The novels revolve around small town chief of police Bruno Courreges. I suspect the stories appeal as much to those who like reading abut French food, cooking and rural culture as those who like mysteries. Pleasant but unchallenging reading.

"Water For Elephants" by Sara Gruen is a story tied largely to the people and activity in a struggling American circus in the 1930s as recalled by a man now in his 90s who was part of the circus for a time. Fascinating, well written, interesting with a truly inventive plot. The novel was first published in 2006 and is still available in soft cover.


email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com 

previous columns/blog archive: to access previous columns go the blog
archive the links to which are located chronologically in the margin beside
each column as it appear on the RickardsRead.com website --
and use the links.

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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

(No.247) The legacies of several great art collectors

"The legacies of several great art collectors
on display in London, Philadelphia, Boston and Vienna"

by Alastair Rickard

Some of the most interesting and rewarding art collections Pat and I have visited have been the expressions of the particular interests, obsessions and eccentricities of wealthy individual collectors.

Instead of having been donated to and subsumed within large public museums these collections continue largely or entirely unchanged to present the face to the public that their collectors wanted and required be continued after their deaths.

Four of these personal art collections, each housed in its own grand home, are the subject of this column. Their impressive holdings of fine art make them a destination worth the travel:

The Wallace Collection in London
The Barnes Collection in Philadelphia
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, and
The Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Vienna

Unchanged since 1890 the Wallace Collection is the reflection of the tastes and resulting art acquisitions of five generations of the the family who assembled it: the first four Marquesses of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace (1818-1890), the illegitimate son of the 4th marquess. Wallace's widow left it and its home to the nation.

Opened to the public (admission is free) in 1900 the Wallace Collection is housed in Hertford House, a mansion located on Manchester Square in London. The collection is static. Nothing has been added, nothing can be sold and no object of the 5000 in its 25 galleries can be lent.

And what a collection it is: Old Masters, 18th century French paintings, furniture, porcelain, armour etc etc. For example: the paintings include several each by Titian, Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck and many other artists including 22 by Canaletto, one of my favourite painters.

( visit www.wallacecollection.org)


Between 1912 and 1951 a Philadelphia businessman Dr. Alfred Barnes collected paintings and other art of astonishingly impressive quality including what may be the finest collection of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintng anywhere this side of the D'Orsay in Paris. It includes (literally) dozens of paintings each by Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso and multiples of many other artists' work.

Barnes installed his collection in his Merion Pennsylvania home outside Philadelphia where it was to remain forever. He decided on the precise positioning on the walls of each piece of art.

After much controversey and dispute, a new home was built for the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia. It opened in May of 2012. It is a very modern style of structure, stark and stone clad. Inside the new building the 23 rooms in which Barnes arranged his collection in Merion have been duplicated with the hanging of the pieces replicated down to the last centimetre.

The eccentric Dr. Barnes personally determined the hanging of every piece in his collection and grouped pieces in what he called "ensembles". He frequently revisited these arrangements and reordered them but following his death in a car accident in 1951 the "ensembles" in which the Collection was displayed remained frozen, rather like bees in amber. And so they appear in their new home in Philadelphia.

So chock-a-block are the works on the walls of the galleries there is no room, even had Barnes permitted it, for traditional information cards posted adjacent to the works of art on display. Audioguides are available.

To view the Barnes Foundation Collection is a great art experience, one enhanced by its recent relocation to its new home in Philadelphia.

(visit www.barnesfoundation.org)


In March of 1990 two men propelled the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston to a much higher public profile: they robbed the museum of 13 major works of art the current market value of which would exceed $500 million. The stolen items have never been recovered.

The Gardner Museum keeps displayed on its walls the original (now empty) frames from which the stolen paintings were cut.

The museum itself (the original building and the collection within it of paintings, tapestries, sculptures and decorative arts) are all the expression of the tastes of Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924). She inherited wealth from her father in 1891 and then more from her husband less than a decade later.

She set out to collect art and did so on a grand scale. She hired an architect who built the museum in which to house her collection -- and did it to her specifications. It opened to the public in 1903.

The galleries are rooms gathered around a striking, four story courtyard/atrium. The rooms, both large and small, are filled with paintings. furniture, tapestries and other art objects. It is an impressive building, Gardner's vision and version of a 15th century Venetian palace.

Some of the gallery walls are so jammed with various types of art that it reminded me of the sort of display which Dr. Barnes used.

A particular point of interest is the commissioned life size portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner by John Singer Sargent, one which she required him to amend several times until she was satisfied with it.

Like Barnes and Wallace she set forth what was to be done with her collection and museum after her death. She stipulated that any departure would prompt a sale and the donation of the resulting funds to Harvard University.

While the original museum and its displays must (apart from the stolen art) look very much as they did during Gardner's life, the museum trustees ended up with court approval of their desire to add a modern wing. Designed by the architect Renzo Piano and very recently completed it is the sort of structure which, like the Barnes Collection's new home, doubtless pleases those who -- unlike me -- enjoy modern architecture juxtaposed with traditional.

Stewart Gardner's collection remains in the original museum to which the new wing is connected by an enclosed walkway. The modern addition houses a restaurant and various support and special exhibiton space.

I came away from the visit with an overall impression of rather too much 'stuff' crowded into too many dimly lit rooms, but our visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was a happily unique experience.

(see www.gardnermuseum.org)


Carl Jacobsen (1842-1914) was the son of the founder of Carlsberg Breweries. He was a passionate collector of art and his legacy to the people of Denmark is the collection housed in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek museum in Copenhagen.

Jacobsen accumulated the largest private art collection in Scandinavia. By 1882 the young industrialist and art collector had so many sculptures that he opened his collection to the public in the winter garden of his home. He called this The Glyptothek at Ny Carlsberg.

The museum, today occupying four buildings, is located not far from the famous Tivoli Gardens in central Copenhagen. Over the years it received various parts of his collection and now holds more than 10,000 works divided between  ancient and modern collections. The first building opened to the public in 1897.

The Glyptotek was essentially divided between being a sculpture museum (ancient and modern, including  large Rodin and Degas collections) and its collection of paintings.

There is a large and fascinating collection of paintings by Danish artists of the Golden Age as well as a European collection from the 18th century on.

It is noteworthy that in 1913 Jacobsen paid for the statue The Little Mermaid by Edvard Eriksen which was set up at Langelinie and has become, rather like the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, a major tourist stop for the city in which it is located.

When we visited the Glyptotek the museum's noteworthy collection of 19th century French paintings -- including more than 40 by Gauguin -- were unavailable for viewing. That was a disappointment but the museum and the rest of its collection was still impressive and worth the visit, for me no part more than the palm-filled Winter Garden with its fountain, benches and high dome.

(see www.glyptoteket.com)


email: alastair.rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

previous columns/blog archive: to access previous columns go to the blog
archive the links to which are located chronologically in the margin beside
each column as it appears on the RickardsRead.com website --
and use the links.

to set a Google Alert in order to receive automatic notice by email
of new columns as they are posted to RickardsRead,com, go to