Thursday, May 10, 2007

Non-MNW Books by Macmillan New Writers: Part 1 of 2

Roger “RN” Morris and The Gentle Axe (“AGentle Axe to those of you in Europe) have received plenty of well-deserved attention in the press and on the web. I’ve now read it, let it sit, and have even cruised back through it once more.

My initial reading was delayed by the desire to re-read Crime and Punishment itself first, since I’d last read old Fyodor’s great novel in my dissolute teen years. As it turns out, the book is far more horrific to an adult (especially the scene where a horse is beaten to death by its owner). While C&P is not by any means a prerequisite to Gentle Axe, reading it first really deepens your appreciation of Roger’s—excuse me, RN’s—book.

All the fine reviews Gentle Axe received are deserved, and, at the risk of being attacked as a Philistine, I’ll even go a step further: For the modern reader, it is in a number of ways more atmospheric and vivid than Crime and Punishment. Upon reflection, I realized this was in some ways inevitable; Dostoyevsky was writing for an audience that already knew how the world felt and sounded in the mid-1800s, while RN needed to evoke a past unfamiliar to most of us. (This makes me wonder how many elements we leave out in our own novels set in comtemporary times.) Similarly, Dostoyevsky could take for granted the reader’s knowledge of how Russian law enforcement was organized at the time of his story, but RN cagily introduces surprising details about bureaucracy and petty politics that brings the past to life.

Of course, the intent and scope of the two books are utterly different. As John Gardner remarked, Dostoyevsky throughout his novels chose his characters largely for the kinds of things they would talk about; his intent was invariably to wrestle with moral dilemmas and the consequences of various worldviews. RN’s aims are more modest. The Gentle Axe is a combination crime novel and homage, whose references to Crime and Punishment are by turns affectionate, sly, touching, or amusing.

I cordially dislike the growing tendency for all crime novels to be expanded into ongoing series…but I have to admit that The Gentle Axe deserves at least a sequel.


Roger Morris said...

Thank you David. A very generous 'mention'. As for sequels and series, well, we'll have to see! There is another book written and in production with Faber.

If they ask me to write any more after that... I dunno. It's difficult to say. As I think I mentioned elsewhere, I'd like to get back to being 'Roger' rather than 'RN' for a while. But in the meantime, I'm doing some reading. I don't much feel like writing anything at the moment. It seems more urgent to catch up on a lot of long-overdue books. Aliya's novella certainly sounds great. I will have to add it to my pile!

David Isaak said...

When in doubt, read.

And "Mean Mode Median" is certainly something you'd enjoy with your Roger hat on.