onsdag 22 maj 2013

Short Eurovision lowdown - plus scraping the Wilkie Collins barrel

I don't feel up to much Eurovision blogging this time round. I was planning to do a review of the semi-finals and the finals and award prizes like "love triangle of the year" (Azerbaijan - both the crooner and his girl seemed more interested in the dancer in the box than each other), "vampire of the year" (Romania's answer to Farinelli), "stylish V-lizard-inspired fashion statement of the year" (Norway), "bad loser of the year" (guess - I'm not talking about the singer here but about her country's endlessly charming press) etc. However, the party's over now and my enthusiasm for the subject has nearly faded away. But hey, wasn't it an amazing show? I don't care that our boy-singer didn't get a better result: he did a respectable job with a song I personally didn't like much, and we didn't make fools of ourselves. The contests were professionally organised and hosted, and if the humour was a little strained sometimes, it was still P.G. Wodehouse compared to normal Eurovision standards. At last, one of my new year wishes came true!

On the reading front, I have come through one of my impulse-bought family sagas, which turned out to be more of a Catherine Cookson-inspired, heroine-faces-up-to-grim-destiny-and-wins-through-up-north tale. It wasn't a disaster, but neither was it brilliant. I suspect Cooksonish stories are most enjoyable in TV form (but then they are very enjoyable). I needed a safe card after that, and so I picked a fairly early novel by Wilkie Collins, Hide and Seek.

I'm well read-up on Collins by now. I've read his most famous novels (The Woman in WhiteThe Moonstone), the ones experts think should be more famous (Armadale, No Name), the almost-as-famous as the almost-famous ones (Man and Wife, Poor Miss Finch), novels generally considered to be also-rans (The Law and The Lady, The Dead Secret) and some of his shorter fiction, like No Thoroughfare which he co-wrote with Dickens. Enough bragging: the simple reason I keep returning to Collins is that he's such a good writer. Even a Collins also-ran is more interesting and more vivaciously written than many modern authors' best efforts. I have to say, however, that so far Hide and Seek is the weakest of the Collins novels I've read. I even liked The Moonstone more - which is saying something, as that book is a bit of a bug-bear of mine.

Collins's language is lively here as elsewhere: he knows how to freshen up descriptive and getting-from-A-to-B passages with flashes of humour, and he takes care of his secondary characters. The problem is, if Collins can do charming and engaging characters, he can also do very annoying ones. The main characters in Hide and Seek, if not as annoying as, say, Sir Patrick in Man and Wife or just about every protagonist in The Moonstone, are nevetheless on the irritating side. This may be because, for once in Collins, they are dangerously close to being stereotypes. The story of how the Philantropic Painter Valentine Blyth rescues the Beautiful Child Mary aka "Madonna" from a Dastardly Circus Owner reminded me of the melodrama acted by a group of itinerant players in the Lucky Luke adventure The White Knight (I'll probably return to this adventure at a later date, if ever I blog about what I call the "Lucky Luke audience syndrome" - confusing actors with the characters they play). It is such a basic and shamelessly button-pushing plot - good man, bad man, innocent child - as to be ridiculous. Back at home, the Philantropic Painter has a Bravely Long-Suffering Invalid Wife. The Beautiful Child grows up to be a Good and Beautiful Woman and, what do you know, she bears her fate with courage and good humour too (she's deaf and dumb as a result of a riding accident in the circus). She falls in love with a Good-hearted but Wayward Youth. Please, enough!

The other plot strand so far - how the strict upbringing of Mary's object of affection Zack has turned him wayward, in spite of himself - is even less interesting than the saccharine Blyth household. Strange how even plot-lines meaning to show that you shouldn't be too moralistic can stick in your craw if they're over-didactic. I saw from a glance at the Introduction that Hide and Seek is often compared to Dickens's Hard Times. I look forward to reading more about this once I've finished the book (you should never read an Introduction unless you already know what's going to happen in the novel). For all the surface differences - good circus owner versus bad circus owner, taking a circus girl away from the troop as a doubtful project versus taking her away as an unequivocal good thing (even if it means tearing her away from her foster mother), the perils of an over-scientific education versus the perils of an over-evangelical one - the two novels have a fault in common in my view. They are trying to prove their point or points at the expense of character complexity.

I'm not giving up yet, though - I have hopes that Hide and Seek will become more exciting in the second part of the book, the one called "Seeking". The opening chapter of this part is called "The Man with the Black Skull-Cap". Good. I like skull-caps.