Saturday, 20 December 2008

On Wilbur Smith

unless I do something really stupid, like read another book by Patricia Cornwell (1), then Wilbur Smith's The Seventh Scroll is going to be my worst read of the year (2). In fact, I can only think of two books I have disliked to the same degree - Melvyn Bragg's Credo and Iris Murdoch's The Bell. Wilbur Smith being compared to Iris Murdoch? Truly, we do it strange.

Where to start with The Seventh Scroll? First things: its length, size isn't everything, but when we are talking bout truly, reprehensibly bad writing, dull plotting and cardboard characters, then size suddenly becomes very important. The Seventh Scroll has a lot of size, a harrowing 486 pages. Bricks are smaller, and more readable.

You know when you read a book, and you bounce down the first page, all Bambi enthusiasm, waiting to get hooked in to the story, to become fascinated by the characters or the sweep of the story or the intracy of the plot or the way that the writer batters new stuff out of the English language? That is what I was like with this book. I thought I should read something by Wilbur Smith, as I've been snottily turning up my nose at his books for years. Natural justice compelled me to see if my high brow derision was merited - Hell's bells, I am the limpest-wristed of liberals and believe in all hose fine principles like innocent until proven guilty. I have a lemming like streak, which I mentioned before in relation to Patricia Cornwell, that makes me make intermittently misguided reading choices in an attempt to bond with the common folk. Never, ever again. Until I read The Da Vinci Code, at least.

But, anyway, about the bloody book. All right, so it is big. The plot and the characters are hopeless. Rider Haggard did this sort of thing 10,000 times better, long, long ago. Save yourself the ordeal and re-read King Solomon's Mines. It is shorter and better.

Briefly: Royan, half English, half Egyptian and very hot, survives a savage assault that leaves her elderly Arabic husband dead. they were working on an archaelogical project relating to the mysterious seventh scroll, which might locate the lost tomb of Pharaoh Momose. She seeks help from a dashing English adventurer type, and together they locate the tomb in the face of opposition from the nefarious types - the ringleader is of course German - Hell bent on their destruction.

None of this would be terribly bad if it wasn't so drabbly written. I think it was about page 6 or 7 that warning bells started ringing, when the elderly Duraid is murdered. It was just horribly flat, badly paced, lacking tension. I was suddenly struck by a longing to read an Haggardian adventure story writen by Ian MacEwan. Think how much fun that would be. But not, never, another word by Wilbur Smith.

Never the less, I ploughed on. Royan flees Egypt and enlists the help of the aforementioned adventurer. He is - get this - an authentic English aristocrat, complete with double barrelled name (Sir Nicholas Quenton-Harper. Not Quentin, you understand, but Quenton) who delights in shoting game birds and rare antelope but still styles himself a 'conservationist' - though he only winces at the thought of cutting down ancient trees and doesn't allow his scruples to actually stop him, of course.) Sir Nick is a gentleman, which means he doesn't shag Royan, though she does allow him to get to to fool around a little bit more than is ladylike (must be her kinky Arab blood). Everyone else is at it, of course, especially the black characters, who are portrayed various as foolish, lazy, stupid, drunk or horny. And there is an evil Russian as well, who we know is evil because he debases his woman. And the aforementioned evil German mastermind, who is also, naturally, sexually deviant.

Crude, offensive stereotypes aside (Did I forget the sleazy, untrustworthy Arab?), the novel is very badly written. Characters talk - and think - in fully, uncontracted, non-colloquial language, no matter how grim the circumstances. Since Smith has already got plenty of words he should have been merciful and spared us a few by allowing his characters to say "Don't" instead of "Do not." I am sure Roayn and Nick were very well raised, but surley even they would have used the odd contraction especially when fleeing for their lives for the umpteenth time.

There is one almost-good joke in the book. Wilbur Smith puts himself in it as a character, referred to as a writer of books redolent with sex and violence. As a passing wink this might have worked, but he decides to hammer home the point by repeating it several times, perhaps feeling his readers are too thick to get it. More likely, they are simply comatose.

Beneath the smug author photograph inside the dust jacket, I am told that Smith dedicated his last 20 novels to his wife Danielle. If they are all of this quality, then she should be insulted.
1 - As described previously on lefthandpalm: http://lefthandpalm.blogspot.com/2008/12/from-potters-field-by-patricia-cornwell.html
2 - The year in question was actually 2005. This review was posted on an MSN book review group, that is shortly to be deleted. It is reproduced here because I'm very fond of the sheer glreeful viciousness of it.

1 comment:

judithb said...

Tee hee! Thanks for that, you have summed up my feelings about Smith exactly. I do enjoy a bit of gleeful viciousness with my coffee. I am impressed that you actually finished the ghastly book, you have more stamina than I.