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Tolstoy on power, logic, and pathological self-belief, 100 years ago:

But, even though he was convinced that he had acted as he ought, he was left with some sort of unpleasant aftertaste, and, to stifle that feeling, he began thinking about something that always soothed him: what a great man he was.


Despite the fact that the plan of a slow movement into enemy territory by means of cutting down the forests and destroying provisions was the plan of Ermolov and Velyaminov, and the complete opposite of Nicholas's plan, according to which it was necessary to take over Shamil's residence at once and devastate that nest of robbers, and according to which the Dargo expedition of 1845 had been undertaken, at the cost of so many human lives -- despite that, Nicholas also ascribed to himself the plan of slow movement, the progressive cutting down of forests, and the destruction of provisions. It would seem that, in order to believe the plan of slow movement, the cutting down of forests and the destruction of provisions was his plan, it would be necessary to conceal the fact that he had precisely insisted on the completely opposite military undertaking of the year forty-five. But he did not conceal it and was proud of both his plan of the expedition of the year forty-five and of the plan of slow movement forward, despite the fact that these two plans obviously contradicted each other. The constant, obvious flattery, contrary to all evidence, of the people around him had brought him to the point that he no longer saw his contradictions, no longer conformed his actions and words to reality, logic, or even simple common sense, but was fully convinced that all his orders, however senseless unjust, and inconsistent with each other, became sensible, just, and consistent with each other only because he gave them.

Hadji Murat, 1912
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Captive Prince V3 came out last month -- long-awaited and very enjoyable and satisfying. Satisfying, however, in a significantly different manner to the first two books, and in a manner that pushes my buttons a little less. What I miss in it most is the sense, pervasive in the first two books, of an organising mind -- Laurent's mind, and the author's. Pacat was tremendously skillful in developing a narrator that is not so much unreliable as unknowledgeable. That would be the point of view character, Damen, who is plunged deep into the deadly political intrigue of a rival foreign country, and spends the first two books in desperate catch-up mode.

During those books it becomes apparent that initial antagonist Laurent's story is buried inside the tight perspective Damon's own story. It exists in observations that Damen or can't fully understand, or wilfully misunderstands; in events that colour past words or actions retrospectively; in surprises and slow puzzlings out of character deed and motivation. Every time Damen turns a corner on his understanding of Laurent and his environment, the foundations of our assumptions and prejudices crumble a little more, and we get a marginally clearer glimpse of the long game that Laurent is, and has always been, playing.

One of the cleverest things Pacat manages to do -- genius-level stuff -- is to run Damen's and the reader's levels of knowledge at different speeds. The reader -- cued by genre clues, mostly -- is running a few steps ahead of Damen at most points. And yet we still can only know what Damen knows, and seemingly inconsequential moments like the reveal of an earring as a disguise come as momentous, emotional, characterful shocks. Pacat manages that trickiest of things -- to have a Laurent's tremendous intelligence and competence actually feel like a living, realistic intelligence, organising the narrative behind the scenes without trickery or crutch, and she keeps it so, even on reread. This was, honestly, a revelatory pleasure for me.

By V3 most of the tension created by an unknowledgeable narrator has been settled: reader and Damen has much better handle on Laurent and the true antagonists. The reveals of V3 are correspondingly smaller and less undermining; it contains a narrative "cheat" POV switch; Laurent's interim plans reach fruition; romantic desire has been satisfied, although there is still a good level of tension; and, perhaps most crucially, the two major secrets that continue to underpin the emotional stakes are essentially resolved in the reader's mind, and are unavailable for the same kind of destabilising shock.

Laurent is still, of course, a genius, and legitimately reads so, but the third novel is organised around Damen's ascendency and power, and his is a much more straightforward, A-to-B, enduring kind of power, and the texture of the narrative follows accordingly. The plot(s) and characters remain twisty and complicated, but Damen is the one in the know now, and while it is immensely satisfying to see him and Laurent renegotiate their relationship and kick ass, that "uncharted territory" pleasure is missing, that feeling of you and Damen matching your wits against Pacat and Laurent both.

All three books are an incredible achievement, and Pacat is very generous about passing on some of the lessons she's learned. I've reread the first two several times and look forward to going over the third again to marvel at just how she does what she does. I've been thinking a lot about unreliable narrators lately, and the way she manipulates information, context and assumption just blows me away. Do check her out.
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When people ask me who my favourite author is, I usually say Patrick O'Brian, because it's an impossible question, and because it's basically true. I recently read his 1953 pre-Aubrey-Maturin book Richard Temple, which is excellent -- if typically abrupt at the end -- a really contemplative and dissociative portrait of the life of a young painter. It has plenty of those delightful O'Brian surprises where really important stuff happens between words in the most overlookable places (for instance, the surprise gay: He and Gay had always got along well together, but it was only in the last year that they had been such close friends, drawn together, it must be admitted, by the abominable vice of sodomy.).

Towards the end, and after several periods of greater and lesser moral and financial dissolution, Richard has an encounter with some of his older work.

Let's read it now. )
I love O'Brian's writing for its ineffable intimacy, this kind of rhythmic stepping through characters' psyches. His writing seems so clinical -- and indeed the above passage is probably the most clinical of the whole book -- but that objectivity, that commonsensical mundanity, is such a lie. His books are entirely bent around his protagonists (slipping sweetly between them, in the case of Aubrey and Maturin). He is such a generous writer, so evidently delighting in their passions and joys, from which he draws terrific humour and pathos.

There is less joy and humour in Richard Temple, perhaps because Richard is extraordinarily, and unknowingly, lonely, despite the intense attachments he forms with a succession of men and women. He is recounting his life to himself while he is interred in a POW camp, trying to hang on to his identity in the face of torture, but this backward-looking sets up an essential foreignness, a distance, a search that meanders and loses its way. The Richards of school, of France, of London, of Churleigh, even of Germany, are strangers, connected more by a happenstance of space-time, and less by any concrete Richardness. There is something really curiously hollow at the centre of this book and character, a space in which buzzes about the sneaking fear that connection is impossible, that will is empty, that encounters with people and art are never transformative because there is nothing to transform; a terror with which I empathise keenly as I get older, uglier, and boringer. So I love the above passage for how vivid and visual it is and how forgiving about the past, for how Richard is able to pull a kind of shocking, beautiful unity into being, to sit contentedly with himself if only for a moment.

Certainly Richard Temple is not about any such fucking pablum as "how passive resistance can be a form of courage and what it truly means to be a hero", as the blurb suggests.* It's an excellent book though, if not as comforting as our dear old friends Aubrey and Maturin.


* True heroes, Channel 9 and Telstra have taught me over the last couple of days, are people that can swim really fast, or perhaps do other things fast. Our great nation is currently undergoing the developmental anxiety and trauma of realising that there are other people, who also have heroes, and that our heroes sometimes do not swim as fast as those other heroes. Thus indicating that we have turned five.


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