Saturday, 23 June 2018

Bad News - Edward St Aubyn

Very much the flavour of the month, thanks to the Showtime dramatisations (which I hated), St Aubyn has written five autobiographical novels about his alter ego, Patrick Melrose. Bad News is the second. It is also, as it happens, the novel upon which the first episode of the dramatization was based, the only one I managed to sit through to the end.

Turns out I dislike the acting of Benedict Cumberbatch much more than I dislike the writing of Edward St Aubyn. In fact, I like the writing a great deal. St Aubyn is rich, pampered, objectionable in principle - of course he became an author of autobiographical novels, that's what people like him do, just as people slightly less well off than him publish them. Talent, however, is no respecter of wealth or lack thereof. I loved St Aubyn's way with words from the off. I especially enjoyed the scenes in which Patrick is so stoned that he hears voices. I was less fond of the scene in which he dines with a trio of bores; this is because, self-evidently, they are boring.

We have to accept that Bad News is already a historic artefact, a relic of an era now long gone. 1992 (when the book was written) was when heroin chic was ultra-fashionable and those with inherited wealth were the perverted mirror of 'honest' entrepreneurs like Branson and Green. The book is set in 1982 when St Aubyn/Melrose was 22, which makes him a pioneer of excess. Patrick Melrose is reminiscent of the late 7th Marquess of Bristol, except that Melrose is never going to run out of cash. Ah, those were the days!

The trick, of course, is that St Aubyn makes Melrose not only acceptable but actually likeable. We laugh at his jokes, we tag along on his helter-skelter of Class A drugs. We do not want him to come to harm.

Much of this empathy is achieved via the horrible backstory of being raped as a child by his unspeakable father. The bad news of the title, by the way, is that old man Melrose has died in New York and Patrick has to fly in (on Concorde) to collect the cremains. We are told by the internet that this is what in fact happened to young Edward. The older Edward is successful as a novelist because he tells the tale of the ultimate sad little rich boy. He knows whereof he writes. And he really does write beautifully. More of the same for me, then!

Thursday, 21 June 2018

A Study in Scarlet - Arthur Conan Doyle

Everybody knows it - but how many have actually read it? Not as many as one might think, is my guess. I certainly read lots of Sherlock Holmes in my early teens but even after fifty years I'm sure I would have remembered this. Why? Because nearly half of it is actually a cowboy story!

To be clear, I have always thought Conan Doyle is overrated - a moderately capable writer who, from time to time, and not only in the Holmes genre - hit upon really compelling storylines and great characters. None of that applies to A Study in Scarlet. Part One, the Holmes origin and initial investigation as we would expect it, is actually extremely well done, the writing considerably better than in later works. The second part, the cowboy stuff, is guff beyond belief, filler in every sense of the term.

The reverse thinking, the famous analytic deduction, I found as unconvincing as ever. Holmes just proposes something outlandish and Conan Doyle works backwards to justify it. But it works as well here as it ever did later on in the canon. And there are many things I didn't realise would be present in the first episode. We have both Scotland Yard inspectors, Lestrade and Gregson, for example. The Baker Street Irregulars are up and running. Mrs Hudson doesn't have a name yet, but she does have a maid and a dying dog. I was under the impression that Watson had to leave the army because of a leg wound from Afghanistan but it transpires it's a shoulder wound and a bout of enteric fever contracted in hospital.

As for the title - again, everyone knows it, but who can explain it? Well, Holmes does to a certain extent: "There's the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life and it is our duty to unravel it." Well, no there isn't. Other than that, your guess is as good as mine.

In short then (and one of the best aspects is that A Study in Scarlet is only really a novella), reading the first Holmes story was something I should have done fifty years ago. Reading it now was fascinating and, even allowing for the cowboy romance, it turned out to be much better than expected. Yes, I enjoyed it.

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

The Difference Engine - William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

What we have here is a collaboration between two founding fathers of cyberpunk, an alternate history in which Babbage's proto-computer has changed the world, notably Britain. The Tories under the Duke of Wellington tried to hold off the Radicals until Wellington was assassinated and the Rads took over. Byron is Prime Minister, his daughter Ada is effectively First Lady, and the House of Lords has become an appointed senate of savants. Steam carriages prowl the streets and the greatest, most popular form of communication is by way of punched cards. Vast bodies of data are stored and minutely analysed. The Victorians of 1855-56 even have their own version of fake news - eye-catching headlines on big screens with no real fact or analysis behind them. Which is pretty damn impressive for a book published in 1991.

It fascinated me. I loved the game of style played by the authors in which we have a series of five more or less standalone 'iterations' and conclude with a 'modus' of pseudo documents. We have a series of protagonists who come and go, some taking up more space than others. We have the Rad prostitute Sybil Gerard, who becomes involved with the speaking tour of ousted 'Texian' president Sam Houston; then there is Edward Mallory, discoverer of the Wisconsin Brontosaurus. He falls in with Laurence Oliphant, a sort of effete James Bond with connections in the very highest circles in Britain, the US and, for some reason, Japan.

These are fascinating characters. The world they inhabit is vividly realised down to the tiniest detail. The warnings to the modern reader are manifold. The problem is, though, I haven't the faintest idea what the book was about. What is its theme? What exactly are our heroes trying to achieve? And what do they actually achieve?

I'm not at all sure these things actually matter. They didn't in any way spoil my enjoyment. I suppose in a way there's a similarity to Murakami's 1Q84. Essentially, this is the world I have created for you; this is what these people do in it; make of that what you will.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

The Quiet American - Graham Greene

It's faintly disturbing to come across a book written in the year I was born, about then contemporary events, that seems so up to date today, sixty-three years later.

Graham Greene, as usual, knew what he was talking about. He had reported on the early stages of the Vietnam conflict and had encountered the early stages of US involvement. That is the setting here. Thomas Fowler is an ageing (in the 1950s he would have been downright elderly) reporter for a major London newspaper. He has been happily covering the conflict from Saigon for several years. It suits him because his high Anglican wife back in England won't divorce him and out East he can live with his twenty year-old girlfriend Phoung and his opium pipe. Unluckily he meets the rawest of new boys, young WASP Alden Pyle, who claims to be working for medical aid but who is clearly a 'diplomat' as they used to be called, or spy as we call them now. He supports America's policy of a third way in Vietnam (basically replace French domination with American). Pyle is a devotee of the US thinker York Harding. Harding is fictional but reflects a trend of the time. Fowler elucidates: Harding was a foreign correspondent rather than a frontline reporter; his work is all opinion with no factual underpinning. The irony is, Fowler's secure life is now threatened because his paper wants him back in London as their foreign correspondent.

Fowler and Pyle become unlikely friends. Thus Pyle encounters Phoung and falls in love. Unlike Fowler he is single and plans to take Phoung home with him. Fowler cannot do that if he returns to London and his wife still won't divorce him. So he doesn't stand in the way when Pyle takes Phoung from him. But then Pyle is found dead in the river. Inevitably Inspector Vigot suspects Fowler. Vigot and Fowler are old friends, which makes things awkward.

It could easily be a murder-mystery but it's not, albeit the story does rely on an unexpected twist in the tale. Instead it is a novel of clashing attitudes and beliefs - a strong philosophical basis brought to life by the deft characterisation of the handful of main characters. The other stroke of genius is the time structure. We start with the discovery of Pyle's body, then recover the events that preceded it. A lesser hand would have either gone back to the beginning and continued in the past or alternated, but Greene was at the peak of his powers in 1955. He flips back and forth between present and recent past - the investigation unfolds for the reader at the same time as s/he discovers the relationships between the characters and their motives. It really is brilliantly done.

For me, the only drawback was the purely journalistic stuff, the local colour. The problem here arises because in 1955 Greene could have no idea of the horrors that full American involvement would bring in the Sixties. In 1955 Vietnam was largely unknown to the English-speaking world and was very backwards under its French masters. Therefore Greene had to explain it and show how primitive it was in parts. However for those of us born in 1955 we all know about Vietnam (or we think we do - how many of us truly know that the US took over a pre-existing war and turned a war for freedom into civil war?), thus the 'native' sections were very dull for me. On the other hand, it is unmistakably, inarguably anti-American, which makes it irresistible in the time of Trump.

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Burmese Days - George Orwell

Burmese Days was Orwell's debut novel in 1934. It is however set in 1926 and, like many first novels, is heavily autobiographical. Orwell was resident in Burma, then part of the greater British Empire of India, until 1927. He was a member of the Imperial Indian Police, unlike his counterpart in the book John Florey, who works for a timber firm. Orwell's stay was terminated by a bout of dengue fever; Florey, without giving anything away, finds another way out.

Obviously, I have read Animal Farm more than once. I have recently read key works of non-fiction - Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier. None of these prepared me for the skill and immersive storytelling of Burmese Days.

Florey is a peripheral member of the ex-pat community in this up-country maidan. He keeps a Burmese mistress and is on friendly terms with the local Indian doctor. Life for the Europeans centres on their club. It is not much of a bulwark against the natives - they can't even guarantee ice for their gin - but it is all they have. When notice comes from Delhi that they should consider admitting at least one local to their club, sparks fly. Similarly, the corrupt local magistrate O Po Kyin begins to plot against Dr Veraswami, his only serious rival for the honour.

The routine of ages is further disrupted when the Lackersteens' niece Elizabeth arrives from England. Elizabeth is very modern with her cropped hair, but insufferably old-fashioned regarding her mission in life. Her mission is marry a suitable man. To return from Burma without a husband would be unthinkable. There is not much choice in Kyauktada; Florey perhaps, albeit he has socialist leanings, a disfiguring birth mark on his face and talks too much; or the dashing young policeman, Verrall, who talks hardly at all, loves Polo and bears the title The Honourable.

All narrative strands are pleasingly resolved, by no means all in foreseeable ways. There is much comedy, smart, authentic-sounding dialogue, and the occasional laugh-out-loud comedy. The characters are brilliantly drawn and Orwell takes us inside their heads to reveal the beliefs and attitudes they would never dream of voicing.

I was hugely impressed.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

Gather, Darkness! - Fritz Leiber

With sci fi, your premise is everything. Fritz Leiber (1910-1992) is an acknowledged master of the genre whose series morphed into fantasy games, so you would think he knew all about premises. Gather, Darkness (1950) was his second novel and the premise seems strong but ends up as basically fatuous.

As a young man Leiber studied as a candidate minister in the episcopal church and that may well be where he got the idea for the priestly Hierarchy which rules the world in the Second Atomic Age. The Hierarchy is, it goes without saying, oppressive and tyrannical. Commoners are kept in serfdom, tithed, and subject to curfew. The resistance, as it were, is the Witchcraft. They are not what one might call active in their resistance to begin with, but then Brother Jarles, priest of the First and Outermost Circle, goes rogue and reveals the great truth of the Hierarchy to the common people - that priests do not believe in God. Sadly, the Witchcraft don't  believe in the Devil either. That is a pity because old Mother Jujy really is a witch.

The Witchcraft, however, do keep familiars - little vampiric versions of themselves - and these are great fun. There is a leader called Asmodeus but I'm not entirely sure if he is real or not. Anyway, the Witchcraft try and recruit Jarles, who refuses. He is recaptured and brainwashed by the Hierarchy and then promoted to the Fourth Circle. Leading priest and subsequent dictator Goniface sees something in him. He reminds the great man of his youthful self, when he too believed in fairness and honesty. All a long way behind him now, of course. But the sister he chucked off a bridge when she threatened his career...  she seems to be still about and utterly un-aged. Surely she is the beautiful young witch and weaver Naurya, who Jarles is infatuated with.

Anyway there's a rising. This leads to civil war. Gondiface surrenders even though he is winning. It's all very complicated. It has its entertaining moments but, overall, the passage of time has done for poor old Leiber. The hi-tech visual equipment he postulates is less futuristic than a 1960s portable TV. There are no computers. Messages are delivered by runner. And, for me, it's all just a bit too po-faced. Interesting, though.

Saturday, 26 May 2018

Munich - Robert Harris

The blurb on the back, from The Times, describes Harris as "Master of the intelligent thriller". You can't argue with that. In three successive standalone novels - An Officer and a Spy, Conclave and now Munich - he takes storylines you already know the end of (or don't care in the case of Conclave) - and somehow, inexplicably, makes them exciting. I say 'inexplicable' but it must be possible to work out how he does it. I must take the time, sometime.

Here, obviously, this is the Munich Crisis of 1938. We all know how that turned out. Chamberlain waving his bit of paper at Croydon airport; 'Peace in our time. Part of how Harris makes this work so well is his unexpected sympathy for Chamberlain, until David Cameron came along, surely the most despised British Prime Minister of the media age. Harris, we recall, did a variant of this in The Ghost, wherein his unforeseen contempt for the clone of his old friend Tony Blair was the only saving grace of (for me) an execrable book. The other device that works very well in Munich is the use of two protagonists, Hugh Legat and Paul Hartmann, former Oxford friends who now attend the last-minute 'peace' conference as rising stars of the their respective civil services. How they will come out of it, particularly Paul who is most at risk, provides both the tension and a breathtaking twist right at the end which I for one never saw coming.

Thus a great deal of artistry goes into the construction of Harris's story which hides comfortably behind his seemingly effortless and efficient prose. The Times is right. There's only one word for Munich, that's masterly.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Behold the Man - Michael Moorcock

Moorcock is the king of modern British sci fi. He has been writing at a stupendous rate for more than fifty years and there are more than a hundred books. This, from the late Sixties and Moorcock's late twenties, is one of very few stand alone works. A version - a novella version - of Behold the Man won the Nebula award (best novella 1967). The thing about Moorcock is, he constantly reworks, rewrites and expands. There are multiple versions of various stories, just as there are multiple universes in some of his fiction.

This, it might be said, is Moorcock's distinctive take on H G Wells' The Time Machine. Wells, being Wells, was only really interested in the future. The time machine here, we are told as soon as our hero sees it, cannot go forward, only back. And if we can only go back - subject to the usual caveat of not  changing history - where would most of us choose to go? Elizabethan England perhaps? The age of the dinosaurs? The Holy Land circa 30AD? As might be guessed from the title, our hero Karl Glogauer opts for the latter.

His life in Sixties London, which is recreated throughout the novel, has led him to question his religious beliefs. So when the physicist Sir James Headington shows him his time machine and invites him to use it, Karl has only one destination in mind.

Virtually the first person he encounters in Roman Palestine is John the Baptist. Fortunately Glogauer has taught himself Aramaic, unfortunately John doesn't seem to have heard of his supposed cousin, Jesus of Nazareth. Yet the time is right - 28AD. Jesus should be mustering disciples and spreading the Word. His ministry won't last long and, critically, John has to die first.

Thus begins Karl's quest for the as yet unknown Nazarene. I won't reveal how it pans out but will just state that it does so in a highly satisfactory manner.

This is the first full-length Moorcock I have tackled. I was put off about the time he was writing the original version of Behold the Man, by a ridiculous piece of fluff he wrote for an alternative magazine of Swinging London. I enjoyed this hugely. I loved the nonstop tide of ideas, the clever way he play with the various levels of narrative and the distinctive tone he gives to each.  Glogauer is an amiable hero, not quite an everyman, more an everyday avatar of the polymathic Moorcock. I have already ordered another Moorcock - one which isn't listed among the hundred or so in this series from Gollancz but which Moorcock himself mentions in his introduction - called Mother London. I am definitely keen to read his take on Elizabeth I, Gloriana, though I am slightly worried that has something to do with the off-putting bilge I read on the train home from London circa 1968-9. We'll see.

Monday, 21 May 2018

Bloodline - Mark Billingham

Hard to say where Bloodline fits into the Tom Thorne series. I suspect it is Number 8. Does it matter? Not really. Bloodlines is still the right side of the dividing line which threatens all series - it is a crime thriller with bits of character development thrown in, rather than a character novel with bits of crime bolted on. In fact Billingham handles the 'personal life' stuff very well here. There is a major domestic crisis which reflects the main crime theme but the character development is that both Thorne and his partner Lou bury their feelings in their police work and prioritise the crime.

It is a serial killer story because Billingham is essentially a writer of very dark noir. The question is, in an era where genetic research is everything, can serial killing be an inherited trait? Essentially, the supposed son of a famous serial killing is going round killing the children of his father's victims in order to 'prove' that his father was obeying genetic code rather than personal inclination. It's a great idea, handled well on the whole, though I would have preferred some deeper development. Billingham rather handicaps himself in that respect by sending super-pathologist Hendricks, the fount of all theoretical argument in Thorne's world, to a conference in Sweden.

My only other reservations are these: I didn't care for the tricksy prologue and quickly fathomed out its relevance; and I really didn't like the killer's journal. These are very minor quibbles. I'm sure other people thought they were great. Yes I guessed who dunnit as soon as we were introduced but that to me is no problem at all. The plotting was as ever fiendish and Billingham writes like a well-modulated dream. The dialogue crackles, especially the banter between Thorne and Hendricks.

Has Billingham succeeded Rankin as the premier UK crime writer of today or is that Val McDermid? It's a close one and I fancy it boils down to how quickly Rankin dumps the increasingly tedious Malcolm Fox and fully revivifies Rebus.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

The Encyclopedia of the Dead - Danilo Kis

Danilo Kis (1935-1989) was a Yugoslavian expat, living and working in France. He wrote some novels but is perhaps better remembered for his short stories (or pocket-sized novels, as he called them) of which this, from 1983, was his final collection.
Kis's style deliberately reminds us of Borges but I also found links with Umberto Eco (whose Prague Cemetary is strongly reminiscent of Kis's 'The Book of King and Fools') and Isak Dinesen (very much so in an off-beam love story like 'Last Respects'). He is elusive and goes to considerable lengths to disguise fiction as fact. The key story here is presumably 'The Encylcopedia of the Dead' itself, which is what it says it is - a woman looks up her father in the huge encyclopedia of everyone who has not been recorded elsewhere. Actually I wanted the story to go further - so that should you ever be mentioned in any other written record (such as a short story or a memoir) you are automatically deleted from the encyclopedia of unknowns. Perhaps that is easier to envisage in the age of the internet. Kis's story is an uncomfortable reminder how far archival records have come in just 35 years. I liked 'The Book of Kings and Fools' even more, largely because  I had read and enjoyed Prague Cemetery so recently.

My favourite over all, though, is 'Simon Magus', the gnostic story of the rival messiah who fell spectacularly foul of Christ's disciples. This is exactly the sort of story I love to read and write.

I am not the biggest fan of introductions. Here, however, the introduction is by Mark Thompson, who is Kis's biographer, and I feel the stories would have been harder to get into without it.