Sunday, 30 March 2014

The Burning Sky - Jack Ludlow


The first volume in the Roads to War trilogy, Ludlow has created a gentleman adventurer in the manner of Buchan's Richard Hannay (Cal Jardine even has a Scots heritage) but has updated the genre.  Jardine is not always a gentleman (see the eyebrow raising scene with a very different M) but largely so.  He is footloose and fancy free after an equivocal divorce and occupying himself by smuggling Jews out of Hamburg in 1935.  He is approached by a former comrade to get involved in smuggling arms to Abyssinia, which Mussolini has just invaded.

Ludlow is one of the pen names of David Donachie, who has knocked out several historical series under several names.  Given the number of titles we cannot expect high literature, but his prose is just about acceptable (far too many subordinate clauses for my liking).  His characterisation is good, though, and his research impeccable.  He gets to the nub of 1930s atrocities and his judgement is sound.  I especially enjoyed the ambivalent ending.  For Buchan everything was always sorted by the end, good always won, and the British way triumphed.  That is not the case here and it is that authorial choice that has me keen to read the next volume of the trilogy.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Four Absentees - Rayner Heppenstall


Another oddity this, not dissimilar to the memoirs of Julian MacLaren-Ross which I read and reviewed here earlier this month.  Indeed, it was the mention of Heppenstall in the MacLaren-Ross book that made me wonder if Heppenstall had written anything in a similar vein.  The answer is yes, quite a bit, of which this is just one.

Heppenstall was a bit of a poet, an experimental novelist, a writer of at least one book on ballet.  A peripheral figure on the London literary scene of the 1930s but not an absolute soak like MacLaren-Ross and Dylan Thomas.  This is a memoir of four absent friends, and what an ill-assorted bunch they are.  From left to right in the spiffy cover art by Natacha Ledwidge: John Middleton-Murry, much married critic, socialist utopian, best known for having married Katherine Mansfield; then Dylan Thomas himself; then George Orwell; and finally the incestuous sculptor, graphic designer and self-made monk Eric Gill - all of whom were dead by the time Heppenstall wrote this in 1960.

Heppenstall would seem to be the sole link between them - but how well did he really know the much older men, Murry and Gill?  Not very well would seem to be the answer.  Dylan he knew reasonably well, and a highlight of the book for me is Heppenstall's two-page dissertation on the subject of Dylan's death - suicide or accident?  Orwell he knows best of all, having shared accommodation with him until Orwell drove him out one night with his shooting stick.  It's annoying that Heppenstall insists on calling him Eric Blair and always putting inverted commas round 'George Orwell'.  Yes, it's accurate because Blair didn't become Orwell until after he and Heppenstall went their separate ways, but we know him as Orwell and we are only interested because of his Orwell fame.

After the war Heppenstall joined the BBC (radio, naturally) and became a producer.  As such he was able to offer his friends work.  Gill had long since died, but the always impecunious Murry did one of Heppenstall's "Imaginary Conversations" between Keats and Coleridge.  Orwell was offered one between Pilate and Lenin, which would have been interesting, but didn't do it.  He did, however, provide a dramatization of Animal Farm for his former flatmate.

It's odd the sort of thing people used to be able to publish.  We certainly wouldn't get away with something this flimsy nowadays.  Heppenstall is a pedantic writer (the commas are wildly out of control) and there is far too much of Heppenstall in a book that professes to be about the other four.  Still, it throws an interesting light on the literary scene before and immediately after World War II.  There are lots of authoritative studies of Thomas and Orwell that seem to me not to know it.  As it happens, I have Dylan's letters on my desk and there is a mention there of the shooting stick incident which the editor has been unable to place.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

The Black Eyed Blonde - Benjamin Black


Black's latest book stays in the post-war decades but switched from Dublin to Los Angeles and revives Raymond Chandler's legendary private dick, Philip Marlowe (and also, apparently, uses a projected title from Chandler's notebooks).  Chandler's books were never about plot, other than that it should be impenetrable, and all about tone.  Black manages to capture both.  Oddly, given John Banville's eminence as a writer of literary fiction, he seems to miss out on the zing of Chandler's prose.  Observations on twinkling streetlights are all very well but they don't come near "Down these mean streets".  With that single reservation, though, this book is a joy.  I wouldn't like to see Black abandon Quirke altogether but I would relish another trip to LA land.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Memoirs of the Forties - Julian MacLaren-Ross


Julian MacLaren-Ross was a character, a hand-to-mouth writer hanging round Soho and Fitzrovia between the late 1930s and his death in 1964.  His writing seems, on the basis of this, the first incomplete volume of his projected four-part memoirs, to have been heavily based on his life.  The short stories included here certainly give that impression, as does the helpful introduction by his friend and publisher Alan Ross (no relation).

MacLaren-Ross was born in 1912, of Anglo-Raj stock.  He spent much of his childhood and youth in the more glamorous reaches of France but by his twenties was flogging vacuum cleaners in a seaside town on the South Coast of England.  He was called up in 1939-40 but discharged from the army for reasons unstated in 1943.  His short stories based on his military experiences were his first moderate successes.  Before the war his most successful stories were set in Madras, a city in a country he had never visited.

For the remainder of the war he collaborated briefly with Dylan Thomas on the notorious Home Guard documentary that was never made, and after the war largely subsisted on radio scripts.  These memoirs capture the flavour of Fitzrovia better than any other I have encountered, even those of the much more successful Patrick Hamilton (Hangover Square, for example).  I especially enjoyed his description of BBC Drama Head Val Gielgud as "a man with two beards, one sprouting from each corner of his chin."  I also enjoyed the half-dozen short stories included, my favourite being the one that first attracted the attention of Cyril Connolly, then the editor of Horizon, "A Bit of a Smash in Madras."

MacLaren-Ross lived far too dissolute a social life to build a literary career, thus he will only ever be a footnote in the work of greater artists.  But that shouldn't detract from the fact that he writes like a dream, effortless yet stylish and controlled.  I loved reading this book.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

The Accursed - Joyce Carol Oates


I have been an admirer of Oates since the early Seventies but haven't read anywhere near enough of her prodigious output.  The Accursed (2013) is magnificent, a triumphant meld of literary skill and pure imagination.  In this instance the imagination is Gothic and very dark indeed. 

What we have is the world of the Princeton elite 1905-6 - professors, presidents, priests, and the socialist madman Upton Sinclair churning out utopian propaganda on the sidelines.  Woodrow Wilson is president of the university, whereas Grover Cleveland sits on the board and has twice been president of the US.  We are taken behind the veil of decency which cloaks these private/public lives.  Most thrilling of all, in many ways, is Poor Puss, the invalid Adelaide Burr who has never recovered from her wedding night and who confides the most outrageous things to her coded journal.  Even the historian who gives us the account is pivotal to the action in that his unexpected birth caused one of the many flowerings of the Princeton Curse.  There are subplots by the dozen, worlds within worlds, and a juicy cameo from Jack London and his 'lady' Charmian.

To say more might be to give the game away.  I simply cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Blood Sisters - Sarah Gristwood

This is something of an odds-and-sods adjunct to the Tudor women genre revived recently by Philippa Gregory and Gristwood herself.  It purports to show that women were powerful players in the Wars of the Roses (or Cousins War, as Gristwood prefers) but ends up, by and large, proving that they weren't. 

Elizabeth Woodville was certainly the epicentre of a powerful clique, mostly her relations, but was either a nonentity or a completely heartless bitch.  Because Gristwood wants to play the feminist card, she opts for the nonentity option.  Margaret Beaufort, on the other hand, was certainly a woman of brains and ambition - but had to exercise her talents through the single son she gave birth to at the age of thirteen or younger, the future Henry VII.  Elizabeth of York looked like a plumper version of her mother and was certainly a nonentity.  Margaret of Burgundy was the dowager duchess of a small but wealthy and influential duchy.  She brought up people of significance, like Philip the Fair, but threw her backing behind anyone who could pass as one of the murdered Princes in the Tower.  She was, therefore, a rotten judge of character.  Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, suffered more bereavement than anyone should and outlived more or less everybody involved in the Cousins War, but she let her reputation be trampled in the mud at the whim of her ruthless sons.  Margaret of Anjou, queen of the hopeless Henry VI, was another who had a rotten time and lost everything when she lost her son, the Prince of Wales.  The poor old Neville sisters, wives of dukes, princes and kings, seem to have existed only to give birth and die.  They were absolutely pawns in the games of sleazy men and completely undermine Gristwood's argument.  One woman who does seem to have had skills as a courtier and who is only mentioned in passing here - Katherine Gordon, wife of the pretender Warbeck, who seems to have flourished after his execution - is the one I would like to learn more about.

Sarah Gristwood is a cracking writer and this book is a pleasure to read.  Whilst I criticise her thesis, I have only two criticisms of her technique.  Firstly, she really overdoes the Fortune's Wheel device.  Secondly, after properly branding as unreliable the writings of Tudor propagandists like More, who weren't there and didn't know the people concerned, why then rely so heavily on Shakespeare, who didn't even know Thomas More?  There is no conspiracy behind the fact that Shakespeare overlooks Margaret Beaufort - he just didn't have an actor who fancied playing a midget in drag.  I really appreciated the extensive notes where she makes many of her more scholarly arguments.