About ten years ago I saw an impressive, if sombre, film, The Pledge, which starred Jack Nicholson and was directed by Sean Penn. It’s a dark tale in which a policeman is called to one last case on the day before he retires. It is the murder of a child and Nicholson’s character, moved by an impassioned plea from the child’s mother, makes a solemn pledge to find the killer. Becoming more and more obsessed with the quest, he eventually takes up with a younger woman with a child of around the same age as murdered child and – you can probably guess where this is going. What I didn’t know was that the screenwriters had drawn on Friedrich Durrenmatt’s novel of the same name. I wrote about Durrenmatt’s THE QUARRY, a couple of blogs ago. Well, I went on to read THE PLEDGE (first published in the UK in 1959) and then THE JUDGE AND THE HANGMAN (1954), and what extraordinary books these are. Neither of them are very long, but what a powerful punch they pack and what complex moral dilemmas they explore. The plot of the book is pretty close to the film, but we know from early on that the child the detective has more or less adopted does survive. What we don’t know is how the story will play out and if the murderer will be caught. THE JUDGE AND THE HANGMAN is just as compelling and I was constantly surprised and wrong-footed by the plot twists and forced to shift my moral ground, too. As in THE QUARRY Durrenmatt explores question of guilt, moral contamination, and how far the end justifies the means. No-one put it better than Nietzsche. ‘He who fights with monsters might take care lest he become a monster. And if you gaze for long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.’ On a lighter note, I wonder if I am the only person who thinks of THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, whenever they see a sign saying ‘Heavy Plant Crossing.’
I’ve just read John Mullan’s WHAT MATTERS IN JANE AUSTEN: TWENTY CRUCIAL PUZZLES SOLVED and haven’t enjoyed a book as much for ages. However the title is misleading: he doesn’t solve puzzles as much as explore fascinating questions, such as ‘Why is the Weather Important?,’ ‘Do We Ever See the Lower Classes?,’ ‘Is There Any Sex in Jane Austen?,’ ‘What do the Characters Call Each Other?,’ and ‘What are the Right and Wrong Ways to Propose Marriage?’ I loved being told that ‘so often mentioned and so frequent an influence is the weather in EMMA that earth scientist Euan Nisbet was moved to make a meterological analysis in NATURE magazine'(though it’s surely a journal rather than a magazine). The book is full of intriguing insights and is engagingly written. In the essay ‘What Do Characters Read?’ Mullan explores the way that shared literary tastes can lead characters to fall in love. He remarks ‘Marianne Dashwood is not entirely wrong to believe that reading takes you to a person’s heart. In MANSFIELD PARK, the first reason given for Fanny loving Edmund is that he “recommended the books that charmed her leisure hours.”‘ And I would say that this is true of friendship, too. There is nothing like loving the same books to bring people together. Mullan quotes Virginia Woolf as saying of Austen that ‘of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness,’ and I think there is some truth in this. But in his essay, ‘How Experimental a Novelist is Jane Austen?’Mullen does come close to putting his finger on what makes Austen much a marvellous writer. Reading this book was nearly as enjoyable as actually reading Jane Austen and there can’t be much higher praise than that. And I was pleased to note that Mullan doesn’t fall into the trap of over-familiarity. It is ‘Austen’ throughout, never Jane (though should that perhaps be ‘Miss Austen?’). Anyway, I loved it and would have liked it to be twice as long.