Saturday, 30 August 2014

The Double - Fyodor Dostoyevsky


You wait ages for a book called The Double to come along, then two arrive in doublequick time.  First the Pelecanos (see below), now the Dostoyevsky.

The Russian Double is from 1846, an early novella and the author's second published work of fiction.  Dostoyevsky was in his mid-twenties, a long way from imprisonment in Siberia and the dark depths of his mature work.  Essentially what we have here is a straight take on Gogol's The Nose from ten years earlier.  Even the dialogue smacks of the earlier work and, according to the notes by Ronald Wilks, Dostoyevsky even quotes from The Government Inspector and 'The Overcoat' in The Double.  We can safely say, then, he was a Gogol fan.

What the young Dostoyevsky lacks, however, is the mature Gogol's command of the absurd.  Here, middle ranking civil servant Golyadkin finds his life usurped by a doppelgänger who even claims to have the same name.  In The Nose the titular appendage absents itself from the face of Major Kovalyov and adopts an independent lifestyle.  Gogol embraces the absurd whereas Dostoyevsky opts for Kafkaesque comedy.  Both aim for a parody of naturalistic dialogue and internal monologue which was cutting edge at the time but now seems horribly contrived.  That said, The Double is enjoyable - I especially relished the description of the St Petersburg winter weather - and, like the best novellas, is just the perfect length for its story.  Wilks' translation (2009) seems about right.  I'm not sure I needed the notes.  Does it matter where some of the towns are?

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Who Killed Palomino Molero? - Mario Vargas Llosa


Mario Vargas Llosa dips his toe into the whodunnit genre.  Obviously it's not as simple as that.  That the bolero singer turned volunteer airman Palomino Molero has been horribly, ritually killed is not in doubt, but even at the end who exactly did it and why is open to question.  And the cops are not exactly Scotland Yard or NYPD - just two unexceptional flatfoots from the local Guardia Civil in the rural middle of nowhere, which in Peru in the 1950s is pretty remote.

Why the 1950s?  I suspect the core of what is actually a novella was written back in the 50s, then rescued from the bottom drawer when Llosa got famous and heavily reworked.  I say reworked because all of the mature techniques are there: the elegant elision between past and present, memory and reality; the politics that underpin everyday life, even this far out in the backwoods; class prejudice; and, of course, the exploration of complex characters.  What, for example, is Alicia Mindreau's true state of mind?

Given the slim format, which feels just right for the subject, there is just one subplot - the comic infatuation of Lieutenant Silva for his Amazonian chubby Dona Adriana.  And the outcome of that is just as unexpected as the outcome of the main mystery.

Because it is very much centred in the landscape, there is far more description than in citybound Llosa novels.  I especially enjoyed the juxtaposition of the ocean and the blazing hot desert.  Only in Peru...

Sunday, 24 August 2014

The Double - George Pelecanos


Some people say George Pelecanos is best known as one of the writers on The Wire and, latterly, Treme.  I had definitely read at least one of his noir crime novels before then, but I'm damned if I can remember which one.  I think it might have been Soul Circus.  Anyhow, this is his latest, barely a year old, and it's a classic.

The Double is the second novel featuring Spero Lucas, ex-marine turned private investigator.  There are a number of storylines but the main one concerns a woman who had her painting (The Double) stolen by an ageing stud.  The title of the painting is a metaphor for the story.  It's not a double but the two sides of one man's personality, and hunting for it reveals the conflicting sides of Spero's personality, to him as well as to us.

Once you read Pelecanos's prose, you will recognise his dialogue in the TV series.  He has crafted a unique voice for himself, not so extreme as Ellroy, nor so flamboyant as Elmore Leonard, but crisp and hard and utterly compelling.  I get the impression Pelecanos is not as well known in the UK as he should be.  Now that Elmore has passed and Ellroy seems to have got stuck, there really is no better crime writer operating in the US today.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Lady Jane Grey - A Tudor Mystery - Eric Ives



Eric Ives, being a highly respectable historian, offers something different amid the forest of books on England's first queen.  Instead of the usual recycled guff, he goes back to basics - to contemporary sources and indisputable facts - and reassesses everything.  Some of his conclusions may be arguable but you can't question the rigour with which he got there.

Why it's called a mystery I cannot fathom.  If anything was done in the full light of day, so far as the record is concerned, it was the Nine Day Rule.  Other than that, a superb addition to the canon which deserves to be top of the list for anyone fascinated by the Mid Tudor Crisis.

I was sorry to learn that Professor Ives died last September.  He wrote the classic study of Anne Boleyn (which I already have on my to-read pile) and brought a welcome scepticism to popular Tudor history.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

The Feast of the Goat - Mario Vargas Llosa


I can't imagine what I've been reading all these years.  How have I managed to miss out on contemporary South American fiction?  One fairly insignificant Marquez - that's my lot.  Then I saw this in the library.  I liked the cover, I liked the fact that Faber had reissued it as part of its Revolutionary Writing series.  I thought, why not?

I'm staggered.  It's a masterpiece, pure and simple.  It's so good, I bought two more before I'd even finished it.

The deal is this: Urania returns to the Dominican Republic after 35 years.  In all that time she has had no contact whatsoever with her family - her father, her aunt, her cousins.  She left for America at 14, smuggled out by nuns on a contrived scholarship.  Her life has been hugely successful professionally.  Internally, though, nothing whatsoever.  Through the book we discover why.

She left in 1961, just after the Generalissimo (Goat) was assassinated.  We also relive those events, with the dictator, his puppet president, his assassins.  Every one of dozens of principal characters comes alive.  From time to time we are even inveigled into empathising with the Goat himself.  It is so cleverly structured that it was only in the penultimate chapter that I guessed how Urania and Trujillo were connected.

Not so much a cracking read.  More a life-changing artistic experience.  Can't recommend it highly enough.

Monday, 4 August 2014

The Wrestling - Simon Garfield


I bought this book when it first came out in 1996 and was prompted to re-read it by a mention on TV the other day.

The book is partly based on Garfield's earlier journalism but mainly on the memories of ageing grapple-and-groaners, gathered for a reunion at Wayne Bridge's pub in Greenwich in August 1995.  Distilled to its essence it might sound something of a cut-and-paste job but actually it is much better than that.  Garfield, like me, was a fan in his youth.  Given he is more youthful than I am, I fear he missed some of the greatest days - for example I went regularly to the wrestling when I lived in Middlesborough 1976-77, and saw Giant Haystacks fight Kendo Nagasaki (pictured, sort of, above).  Nagasaki is one of the stand-out characters in the book.  He doesn't speak - he never speaks, even on radio - but others speak about him with a certain awe.  He was spectacularly dedicated to his business and has never dissed it.  He is identified here but it matters not - without his mask and ring character he really is nobody.

The other stand-out who doesn't speak directly is Les Kellett, a middle-aged clown in the ring but very odd and extremely hard out of it.

Because mine is the original edition (there has been an update), Garfield only covers the first ripples of US superstar wrestling on the British scene.  He interviews a young Triple H, and Shawn Michaels when he still had a full supply of hair.  Unfortunately he doesn't get to Vince McMahon or any member of the Hart family, which became linked with two of the greatest British exports.

I remember seeing the Dynamite Kid, at Middlesbrough, when he was only 17 or 18.  He paved the way for British wrestlers in America, essentially the WWF.  Now the Kid is back in England and disabled, and his cousin Davey Boy Smith, the other half of the British Bulldogs, died in 2002 before he was 40.  Smith is interviewed here, at the height of his fame, and you can't help sensing the tragedy to come.  Already, in 1995-6, the Dynamite Kid was a reclusive, excluded figure.

Garfield's narrative is the death of British professional wrestling after it was dumped by ITV in the late 1980s.  You get the impression it was never much of a game, despite packed houses all round the country.  The wrestlers were never paid worthwhile money and the promoters ran a typically exploitative closed shop.  I get the impression that some pro wrestling still goes on in the UK - that must be a pretty tawdry affair.