Dilettante's Diary

Aug 9/10

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
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A Toast to 2012
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How Fiction Works
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Head to Head
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Me In Manhattan
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About Me
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OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

Here's our NEW SYSTEM for Dating Pages: The date above will be the date of the most recent postings. As usual, the newest reviews will appear towards the top of the page, the older ones moving further down. When the page is archived, the items on it will be indexed according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here:  Inception (Movie); Lolita (Novel); Drawing Is Thinking (Art); Where Angels Fear to Tread (Novel)

Inception (Movie) written and directed by Christopher Nolan; starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Dileep Rao, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger, Marion Cotillard, Pete Postlethwaite, Michael Caine, Lukas Haas.

If you want a fair and balanced assessment of this movie, look elsewhere. All you’ll get here is a very personal impression from somebody who’s far from being a connoisseur of this kind of thing. I generally avoid sci-fi. But it looked like there might be something about this one that would appeal. After all, I pretty much live in the concepts the movie explores: whose reality is the real one, yours or mine? are we living in a shared dream? are you just a projection of my mind and vice versa? if I don’t wake up when I dream that I’m falling, does that mean I’ll die? This stuff probably goes through your mind, too, all day long.

And it’s not as if the main plot of the movie is all that hard to grasp. Leonardo DiCaprio has this system for breaking into peoples’ unconscious (wouldn’t Freud have loved him!). Somebody hires him and his team to go to work on the son of a big-shot industrialist so that the son will get the idea that what he wants most in life is to undermine dad’s empire. The guys who hired Leonardo, see, are the dad’s major competition for world dominance in some business or other, so they see that their route to victory involves some subversive work on sonny boy’s dreams.

Obvious, really. In the same situation, you or I might easily think of the same thing. But then writer/director Christopher Nolan has to go and complicate everything, like setting up dreams within dreams. Then there’s the sci-fi- gobbledy-gook. Statements like "I adjusted the sedative to allow for....[whatever]," and "Whose subconscious are we trying to enter, exactly?" and "That explains the gravity shifts". We also get stuff about time warps. Limbo even comes in for mention. A brilliant architecture student designs the alternate worlds of the dream states, but it turns out that you gotta be careful with your blueprints or you might end up with a freight train barrelling down main street in a traffic jam. (Speaking of cute little Ellen Page as that architect, I’m all in favour of casting against type but it only works if you have an actress who can make it believable.)

And don’t think all this state-of-the-art hokum leaves out good, old melodrama. The hoary theme of father-son conflict raises issues about dad’s will. Hints abound regarding secrets to be revealed. Also references to dark troubles locked in the subconscious (pictured as an actual vault). And lines like "There’s something you should know about me." The reason Leonardo DiCaprio’s character takes all this on? So that he can get back to his darling kids in America, a country he’s barred from because of suspicions there about his having committed a grievous crime.

But mostly what you get is a lot of shooting and explosions and ominous shots of watches ticking off the seconds, for no reason that I could discern. But what can you expect from somebody who has never played a video game? It’s all accompanied by a tempestuous and insistent score that’s supposed to pump up our adrenalin but it just made me feel glad for those well-employed Hollywood musicians. After two and a half numbing hours, the ending looks rather sweet – unless I’m misunderstanding it, which I probably am – so sweet, in fact, that I almost wish I cared, just a little.

Rating: for people who like this kind of thing: C (i.e. "Certainly worth seeing"); for people like me: F (i.e. "Fergeddaboudit")


Lolita (Novel) by Vladimir Nabokov, 1955; Vintage Books Edition 1991

The mere presence of this title on my reading list will get me in trouble with some people. But let me offer an explanation before rendering your verdict on the question of my moral turpitude.

You have to understand that I never expected to find myself reading this book. In fact, up to this point in my life, all reference to it turned me off. No matter that it was generally spoken of as one of the most important works in US fiction, I simply was not interested in such depravity.

But I was browsing the library shelves one recent summer day. Everything I picked up, even books by some favourite writers, looked like a lot of "blah-blah-blah." This book, however, was facing out, on the shelf of books especially recommended by the librarians. With a strong dose of skepticism, I picked it up and started reading.

The narrator’s voice caught me immediately. That’s one of the most important aspects of any book for me – the style of narration. In this case, the vivid, immediate, compelling personality of the narrator carried me through several pages. So the book was definitely worth taking home, even if I had to drop something at the checkout desk, then bend down to pick it up, by way of trying to hide my face from the clerk.

In this edition of the novel, the original text comes with a brief essay by the author, as well as an elaborate analysis and extensive notes by editor Alfred Appel, Jr. (An expert on the writings of Vladimir Nabokov and a retired professor at Northwestern University, Mr. Appel died about a year ago.) The additional material amounts to nearly as many pages as the novel itself. While the annotations and the explanations are illuminating, many of them deriving from the editor’s interviews with Mr. Nabokov himself, the preponderant tone is heavily academic and fastidious. An approach that we won’t attempt to emulate here.

However, the book’s riches prove far too extensive to explore fully even on our decidedly non-scholarly terms. What follows, then, will be a summary of some of the highlights of a first-time reader’s encounter with the book. I must note, though, that this is one of the rare cases when it will be impossible to talk about a book in any meaningful way without mentioning some points that could be considered plot spoilers. I’ll try to keep them to a minimum, but consider yourself forewarned.

The many references to this novel that I’d heard to date had never made me aware that it was presented as having being written by the first-person narrator, Humbert Humbert, from his confinement in prison. That’s made clear in the opening pages. So, you get the impression early on that he didn’t get off scott-free with his perfidy. He acknowledges from the get-go that what he did was very wrong. And it helps when you witness his many efforts to rid himself of his problematic inclinations. So it’s not as if the book could be considered a key element in a campaign for the kind of vice the narrator indulged in. More like a study of one version of what we now call sex addiction.

And yet, it ultimately turned out that the narrator wasn’t in prison for the reasons one might assume. That’s another aspect of the book that surprised me – the plot twists. For a book that’s mainly about an obsession, it includes an unusual number of mechanisms that might be thought to be a more plotty novel's features. Things both big and small: like a dead battery and a fatal car accident, for example. There’s also some impressively careful foreshadowing, as, for instance, with regard to matters relating to doctors and heart conditions.

A point that could be taken as a matter for relief or disappointment, however you want to cast it, would be the almost complete lack of sexual detail. Which is not to say that the overall theme of the book isn’t relentlessly sexual. In terms of description or elaboration on acts and bodily parts, however, you’ll find nothing that could remotely appeal to what the judges used to call "prurient interest". For the most part, all sexual coupling is referred to after the fact and in a perfunctory way. Just one steamy scene stands out – an unforgettable encounter on a couch early on in the novel – but that scene wouldn’t ever make it into a pornographic movie, not just because everybody keeps their clothes on, but mainly because the fever-pitch eroticism is very much the private experience of the narrator.

The humour of the book also caught me completely off-guard. Mr. Nabokov shows himself to be very nimble at deploying many different kinds of wit. Most prominently, there's the satire. In many ways, the book amounts to a hilarious indictment of every aspect of 1950s US culture, whether it be home decorating, consumerism, tourism, religion, hotel life or progressive education. Other flashes of humour may come in the form of a sardonic quip, such as the narrator’s dubbing a hotel "Insomnia Lodge". Or there are the mordant comments involving puns, like the one about guardianship laws which "completely ignored stepfathers with motherless girls on their hands and knees." A catalogue describes a gun as "Particularly well adapted for use in the home and car as well as on the person." Or this reference to a town: "Soda, pop. 1001." It’s tifling word play but, in a somewhat paradoxical way, the mere silliness of it impresses you: this narrator can’t be all bad if he can make such stupid jokes.

One of the greatest pleasures of his humour is the subversive side to it. While reading what could be considered one of the direst sections, the one where the narrator is plotting to drown somebody, I found myself wondering: is there something wrong with me in that I’m finding this very funny???? The best of humour is like that: you feel slightly guilty about laughing. Come the final shoot-out, though, the comedy is unmistakably of the in-your-face variety. Not just the physical shenanigans, but the accompanying commentary of the bystanders. When the narrator remarks that he has killed a certain person, someone says: "I guess we should all do it to him some day" – a remark worthy of Oscar Wilde’s Miss Prism.

If you’re talking about superlative writing, you should be able to cite some amazing insights and/or images. On that score, Mr. Nabokov comes through with flags flying. Rather than say that he felt shaky, the narrator tells us: "...my knees were like reflections of knees in rippling water." A magazine falls to the floor "like a flustered fowl." This observation struck me as original and startlingly true: "Exceptional virility often reflects in the subject’s displayable features a sullen and congested something that pertains to what he has to conceal." And here's another striking thought:

I have often noticed that we are inclined to endow our friends with the stability of type that literary characters acquire in the reader’s mind...Whatever evolution this or that popular character has gone through between the book covers, his fate is fixed in our minds, and, similarly, we expect our friends to follow this or that logical and conventional pattern we have fixed for them....Any deviation in the fates we have ordained would strike us as not only anomalous but unethical.


Given that we’re not taking the academic approach here, we’ll skip over most of the classical allusions to Shakespeare, Proust, Poe, the bible, etc.In fact, a non-academic reader like me probably misses many of them. One that I can't help singling out, though, comes when the narrator talks about the problem of knowing whether or not somebody has actually died. Unless you have some clarity about that, you might not know whether you're dealing with the actual person or a ghost. And then, almost as a throwaway line, comes the zinger: "Thomas had something." I find that casual reference to the New Testament a wonderful example of the richness of the author's mind and his skill at the apt allusion.

Which brings us to what is outstanding feature of the book, for me: the character of the narrator. Yes, his voice is engaging and compelling, but that’s not to deny his unsavoury side. The cold, calculating way he sometimes refers to his concubine’s need to fulfill "her duty" or her "basic obligations" makes me cringe.  He threatens and manipulates unconscionably to get his way when necessary. If that doesn't work, he can resort to violence. His deplorable racism towards "Eskimo" girls might be seen as typical of a white male of his time, except that his contempt for all females who don’t appeal to his sexual tastes could only be called despicable.

So how does a reader tolerate this man’s company? Because his apologia tells us so much about the complex mystery of being a human being. For instance, his explanation that a man who has predilections like his is not a murderer or a rapist. He says that he and his ilk are "innocuous, inadequate, passive, timid strangers...We are not sex fiends! We do not rape as soldiers do. We are unhappy, mild, dog-eyed gentlemen....Emphatically, no killers are we. Poets never kill." Mind you, due to the more extensive knowledge that we have today about this kind of crime, we sadly know that sadism and even murder are often involved.

But that doesn’t make HH’s claim for himself, in his own time, invalid. In a way, it’s his attempt to be honest about himself, to acknowledge both the bad and the good in him, that makes him believable as a human being not very different from you or me. As with all of us, his opinions about himself include a lot of contradiction and ambivalence. Is it pure self-delusion when he refers to himself as tender-hearted and heroic? Or is he making fun of himself and, if so, is that where we touch the bitterest humour at the core of the novel?

Closely allied to the narrator’s character is his style of narration. And here’s where Mr. Nabokov shows some of his most brilliant literary touches, to my way of thinking. In all sorts of ways, the normal conventions of literary narration are flouted. And not just by way of showing off. The innovations all contribute to a more compelling narrative. As for instance, when the narrator asks: "Please, reader: no matter your exasperation with the tenderhearted, morbidly sensitive, infinitely circumspect hero of my book, do not skip these pages! Imagine me; I shall not exist if you do not imagine me..." (A critic might note that this breaking through the veil of fiction to speak to the reader is a feature of postmodernism, but we promised not to get academic here.) Or he’ll suddenly start referring to himself in the third person, which has a dis-arming effect. At one point, he says that he did something but then denies it, saying "this is the kind of fool thing a reader might suppose I did." I think the effect of his catching himself in his own lies is to make him not less believable, but all the more so.

Another aspect of this toying with literary convention has an effect today that it couldn’t have had when the book was first published. It gives you a special jolt near the end to find that the narrator is predicting that it must now – as you’re reading – be around 2000, given that he has asked that publication of his story be delayed until all the major characters have died. That gives you the uncanny feeling that somebody’s lying in their grave watching you reading.

Granting the brilliant creation of the narrator’s character, what about other characters? Almost the only one who matters much, apart from the eponymous Lolita, would be Charlotte, her mother. In this woman, Mr. Nabokov has created a vivid and recognizable portrait of a certain kind of person. No matter that the narrator scoffs at her shallowness, her character is so fully realized that I got totally caught up in her fatuous pursuits, her deluded affection for HH and her disillusionment ultimately. I was also struck by Mr. Nabokov’s portrayal of Rita, the former prostitute whom HH hooks up with when deprived of his young paramour. In spite of the narrator’s ruthlessness in much of the story so far, this washed up drunk is treated with a kindness and consideration that are all the more remarkable for the clear-sighted appraisal of her blighted situation.

As for Lolita, then? Her teenage instability, flightiness, truculence, her penchant for fads and her shallowness ring absolutely true, even her 1950s cool-cat lingo. About half way through the book, though, at the point where we learn some salient facts about her recent past, she began to seem slightly less plausible to me. This raised an important question: was the author falling into what we call today the "blaming-the-victim" syndrome? It was as if he were trying to mitigate the narrator’s guilt by claiming that Lolita wasn’t all that innocent either. We now know this to be a tactic of some perverts like HH. Am I applying today’s sensibilities to a work that might not be expected to share them? Maybe. Still, it seems to me that you have to notice what was going on, even if you couldn’t expect the writer to be as aware of the dynamics as we would be.

Other possible flaws in the book? Occasionally, but not very often, it devolves into a kind of travelogue, a cross-country inventory of America. In the first few pages of Chapter Two of Part Two, until the conflict between the characters flares up again, the descriptive stuff is something of a yawn. This is a potential liability for every "road movie" (or "road book") in my estimation. Stories always work better for me when characters settle down and try to deal with their given problems rather than constantly moving on to new territory and new issues.

Further in the deficit department, the long description of Lolita’s tennis game bored me but this, admittedly, might fascinate another reader. One scenario appears twice – the narrator thinks he’s watching a young girl through her bedroom window but it turns out to be an old man – but maybe lapses like that can be forgiven in works of genius. (Marcel Proust was given to absent-mindedly bringing characters back from the dead.)

As for the appeal or otherwise of the prose style, no question that it harkens back to an age when the orotund sentence was in vogue, but that does help to remind one of the narrator’s European origins. For a reader today, the vocabulary can be quite a stretch at times: anent, charshaf, incondite, olisbos, rubious, callypygean, etc. One sentence, however, needs to be saluted for its perfect melding of the narrator’s European-ness and his newfound American-ness: "This, to use an American term, in which discovery, retribution, torture, death, eternity appear in the shape of a singularly repulsive nutshell, was it."

Whatever its relatively minor deficits, Lolita has shot to the upper reaches of my list of best books ever read. The final encounter between the two major characters packs into one brief scene more heartbreak than you’ll find in most entire novels. Near the end of the book, when the narrator details his analysis of his guilt, his recognition that an attempt to seek forgiveness would be fultile, Mr. Nabokov takes you to places in the soul that literature has never probed before. What more can you ask of great writing?


Drawing Is Thinking (Art) by Milton Glaser, 2008

A while back, an interview on Eleanor Wachtel’s program "Wachtel On the Arts" (CBC Radio One) drew my attention to this distinguished designer. Apparently, he’s at the top of his field. In case you, like me, aren’t up to speed on that subject, he’s the guy who came up with the phenomenally successful logo to promote New York: "I [heart]NY". Some of the ideas expressed in the interview made me think this book would be about the process of seeing things in order to draw them. Something about how the brain works to convert a three-dimensional subject to a two-dimensional one.

Actually, the book isn’t about the process of drawing at all, although many splendid drawings are included. Rather, it’s about how a piece of art works on the viewer. A more appropriate title might be "Perception Is Thinking." Mr. Glaser has arranged some two hundred of his drawings and paintings in such a way as to provoke some sort of uncanny discovery on the part of the viewer. A person’s paging through the book is meant to be a kinetic experience in the mental as well as the physical sense; the sequence of artworks can be thought of as something like a musical line in that a sort of narrative is created. But it’s not one pre-ordained by the artist. It’s supposed to be your own discovery.

There’s also a kind of dialectic going on with some of the juxtapositions. On one page, you might get a rough sketch and on the facing page a finished painting of the same subject; or a detail on one page and the full composition on the facing page; or the same subject in colour on one page and in black and white on the other page. Sometimes it’s hard to see any clear connection between the juxtaposed works. That’s where Mr. Glaser’s hoping that your brain will come up with some nifty inferences of its own.

It could come as something of a disappointment to the verbally inclined to find so little explanation in the book. Nearly all of its 223 pages are taken up exclusively with art work. The only text comes in a three-page introduction by Judith Thurman (too pedantic for me) and a twelve-page conversation between the artist and Peter Mayer. Here, Mr. Glaser expounds intriguing ideas about how our response to art takes place beneath the rational or conscious level and how truly original art irks us because we shirk the unfamiliar. Good art, he insists, doesn’t tell us everything; it forces the brain to supply the missing links. Inferior art, i.e. art that’s too literal, leaves nothing for our imaginations to work on. (I’m paraphrasing here.) Mr. Glaser sounds very "Zen" in his claim that the purpose of art is to induce a form of meditation that rids our mind of familiar clutter, thus enabling us to see reality clearly.

All very interesting. However, given the quantity of art in the book, a hefty price – $50 CDN – is inevitable. Rather a lot to pay, it seems, when your own subconscious is being asked to do most of the heavy lifting.


Where Angels Fear to Tread (Novel) by E. M. Forster, 1920

Although this novel is hardly breaking news, it came to my attention recently, as featured prominently on the shelf of books recommended by our devoted librarians. My first impression was that they could only have meant to show us that a very distinguished writer can produce a lousy novel (his first novel, in this case).

We’re dealing with a family of Brits who have their knickers in a twist about their daughter-in-law. Following the death of the family’s esteemed son, his widow is forming an attachment to someone "unsuitable". To distract her, the in-laws concoct the plan of sending her on a year-long trip to Italy, while they look after her youngish daughter back home in Blighty. But Italy produces even more horrifying adventures for the young widow, forcing the in-laws to jump into the fray. It’s the kind of material that you can imagine Henry James relishing.

In a very un-Jamesian style, however, the narrative skips from incident to incident, often with a lot of narrative "telling" to fill the gaps. Characters sometimes come off as puppets jerked around at the behest of the author, rather than as humans with their own lives. At attempt to convey the dialogue of two Italian men doesn’t sound convincing. The tragic death of one major character, about half way through the book, seems to be treated by the author as just a plot contrivance. Near the end of the book, another death – one that deserves even more poignant treatment – takes place in the context of something like farce.

Eventually, I realized that the only way to appreciate this book is as a comedy of manners. At its best, it works as something like a cross between the sly wit of Jane Austen’s writing and the outrageous antics of Auberon Waugh’s novels (which would appear nearly half a century after this one). You can’t help enjoying lines like: "....[it] made Lilia so uncomfortable that she forgot her nature and began to reflect." When the scion of the family of in-laws is sent to the rescue in Italy, he doesn’t mind because: "It was the first time he had anything to do." We’re told of the family matriarch, regarding her decision to do some good: "Pride was the only solid element in her disposition. She could not bear to seem less charitable than others."

Among other pleasures, we’re treated to delicious satire on the differences between Italians and the British. One frustrated Brit comments that Italy has been upsetting people "from the beginning of the world." (Clearly, this author was in the process of finding a rich vein of travel humour to mine in future books.) Not to mention hilarious send-ups of Roman Catholic hagiography and Italian opera audiences.

Throughout, the writing, is clean and finely polished in the best British tradition. Towards the end of the book, though, the author appears to want to take his characters more seriously and he attempts to show them undergoing profound changes. I couldn’t always follow their psychological shifts. Some good points are made, though, about men’s freedom and women’s servitude. One person stumbles on the "horrible truth" that "wicked people are capable of love." It’s as though the author, being caught between youthful high spirits and the more thoughtful work of maturity, hasn’t quite found the voice that suits him best.

Still, the dialogue in the best passages jumps off the page with such delightful immediacy that I wondered if this book had ever made it to the stage or screen. Turns out it has. The 1991 movie, directed by Charles Sturridge, featured, among others, Helen Mirren, Rupert Graves, Helena Bonham Carter, Barbara Jefford and Judy Davis.

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