Monday, 29 December 2014

A Delicate Truth - John le Carre


John le Carre gets better with age.  A Delicate Truth was published in 2013 when he was 82.  It is his 23rd novel and for my money one of his best.  What keeps him going, I suspect, is disgust with the state,  It used to be the conflicting states of East and West but now it is the controlling, deceitful and above all secretive state of Britain (and, to an extent, our American owners) that gets his goat.  And boy, is le Carre's goat well and truly got.

Three years before the novel's 'present' - that is to say, back in the dying dog days of New Labour - a long serving Foreign Office civil servant is persuaded to go and observe a clandestine op in Gibraltar.  The mission is definitely off the books; even the SAS are acting as a pro tem mercenaries.  'Paul', as he is then known, is acting as the Minister's red telephone.  Officially it's a success.  The dubious international target is captured and taken off to one of America's secret interrogation centres.  But, this being le Carre, that's all spin.  In fact the op was a disaster.  Still, spin covers all that.  The minister leaves parliament for a cushy job in the private sector, the government changes and nobody is any the wiser.

Except. ... the rising star minister was given a rising star private secretary.  The private secretary was excluded from all knowledge of Operation Wildlife and, for his own protection, secretly recorded the discussions.

Now, three years later, everything unravels.

The key point, though, is that the government might have changed but the way it operates hasn't.  The book is full of wonderful vituperation from le Carre, himself of course a former insider, about the spreading web of secrecy, the ever-increasing number of bankers, arms dealers, international arms merchants etc who are granted special access to the corridors of power.  In an ideal world the intelligence services serve the nation, not the government of the day, and the civil service acts as a buffer between ministers and the corrupting world of private finance.  Neither of these things are true in contemporary Whitehall and le Carre has a boundless well of insidious double dealing at his disposal.

A great novel from one of Britain's best.  A classic of the genre.

Monday, 22 December 2014

The Aerodrome - Rex Warner


The most striking thing about Warner's dystopian classic is the date of its composition.  The Shape of Things to Come and Brave New World were both written in the Thirties and allegorised the rising threat of Fascism,  Animal Farm and 1984 are both postwar Forties and reflect the perceived Soviet threat.  But The Aerodrome came out in 1941, when the war was well under way and Germany and Russia were still allied.  What threat is Warner dealing with here?

It seems to me he is dealing with a much earlier threat, one which never came to anything.  In the immediate aftermath of World War I, when Britain had faced airborne invasion for the first time, when millions had died for no apparent gain and millions more were dying from Spanish flu, spread by the returning survivors of war - back then it must have seemed that revolution was a real possibility and the most likely revolutionaries were the newly skilled servicemen, especially those masters of the newest war technology, airmen.

That is certainly what they are up to on the unnamed aerodrome outside Warner's unnamed country village.  The airmen are unaccountable - the Flying Officer shoots the Rector, by accident, at the fair and succeeds him as Rector in time for the funeral.  Then the Air Vice-Marshal, who attends the funeral, takes a shine to young Roy, who has only just found out he isn't really the Rector's son, and persuades him to join the Air Force.  The Air Vice-Marshal has a plan; it seems to involve taking over; but we never find out what it is because---

And underneath all this is the question who is actually the child of whom?  It's not just Roy.  No relationship in this neck of the woods seem to be what it really ought to be.  It doesn't help that only three characters are referred to by name - Roy, Bess and Dr Faulkner.  Everyone else is the Rector's Wife, the Squire's Sister, etc.

It's all very enigmatic, almost deliberately obscure.  Take, for example, the subtitle, 'A Love Story'.  Oh no it isn't.  Yet it is constantly entertaining and beautifully written.  Chapter Twelve, in which the Air Vice-Marshal addresses his new recruits, is a masterpiece of dystopia in its own right.  This Vintage edition also has the bonus of an excellent introduction by Michael Moorcock.  Well worth checking out.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Gold - Blaise Cendrars

The subtitle says it all: The Marvellous History of General John Augustus Sutter.  Sutter was a Swiss ne'er-do-well who abandoned his wife and children, pitched up in California in the days when San Fransisco was basically a landing stage, and made himself the richest man on the planet, all in the space of a decade.

Then - the twist no one could ever have seen coming - gold was discovered on his land, and it ruined him.

Cendrars was a modernist, himself half-Swiss.  He seems to have spent fifteen years boiling this epic story down to a bare 120 pages.  The result, published in 1924, is startling and seductive.  He declaims what seem to be facts but are probably not.  There is no characterisation, no real development.  Yet this detachment somehow contrives to make the great man's stupendous downfall all the more poignant.

A striking original, well worth discovering.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

The Unsettled Dust - Robert Aickman


The third of the Faber Finds collection I bought earlier this year and which have informed my reading (and a good slice of my writing) ever since.  There is a fourth, traditionally published by Faber on the back of the Finds success, which I will be treating myself to as a reward for surviving Christmas.

Overall, I found The Unsettled Dust  most satisfying of the three collections.  "The Cicerones" is well known, following a TV adaptation a couple of years ago which did much to stimulate a new interest in Aickman, certainly in my case.  "The Unsettled Dust", "The House of the Russians" and "The Stains" are equally disturbing in a similar way - the unexplained, peripheral horror; an almost feral nastiness always waiting to pounce.

What will I do when I've read the fourth and final collection?  I shall have to seek out the stories that missed the cut.

A Farewell to Arms - Ernest Hemingway


Published in 1927, A Farewell to Arms was the novel that made Hemingway.  The first-person narration makes it seem autobiographical, but it's not.  Hemingway was not in these battles and he didn't lose the real nurse in the way described here.  There are autobiographical elements, though.  Hemingway was, of course, a volunteer ambulance driver in World War I, he was badly wounded and decorated for it, he did fall for his nurse and - most disturbingly, his real wife was undergoing the traumatic delivery at the time Hemingway wrote the scenes that end the book.

I have listed the autobiographical elements because are the episodes in the novel that hooked me and kept me reading.  Otherwise, the rather antiseptic, offhand affair between Fred and Catherine alienated me.  Having now read the end sequence, I understand why Hemingway took the risk.  The detachment we feel - which he means us to feel - renders the ending all the more harrowing.  The ending makes the novel stupendous and is well worth waiting for.  In the meantime Fred Henry's wartime adventures, the characters he meets, and the brilliant descriptions of landscape keep us just interested enough.

A Farewell to Arms is one of those novels you have an emotional interaction with.  It's like a love affair in itself - frustrating, occasionally captivated, and when it ends, utterly devastating.  A true classic of world literature.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

In Dubious Battle - John Steinbeck

In Dubious Battle is Steinbeck's unabashed socialist novel.  Written in 1936 at the height of the Depression but before The Grapes of Wrath it deals, in a sense, with what the Joad family were heading out to California to do - find work picking fruit.



Jim Nolan has had enough.  He has seen his father beaten and humiliated for trying to stand up for the working man's rights.  His father stood alone - that was his mistake - so son Jim decides to join the Party.  There is little doubt that Steinbeck means the Communist Party.  The Party locally is run by Mac and soon Mac takes Jim down to Torgas Valley to try and organise an apple-pickers' strike.

Fruit picking is the only work available.  Families travel miles in clapped out jalopies or, like Mac and Jim, by hopping on freight trains.  Because it is a hirer's market, and because they know the labourers have spent their last dime just to get to Torgas, the owners slash wages the instant the men arrive.  What are they going to do about it?  Nothing - until Mac plants the idea of striking in their minds.  After all, the fruit has to be picked right now, or the growers lose their profits.

Thus begins the labour war.  Mac is a professional; people suspect his motives.  But Jim is open and honest and becomes something of an icon.  The outcome, inevitably, is violent and tragic.

It's amazing that In Dubious Battle isn't better known.  Surely it can only be because of its politics.  There is no doubt whatever that Steinbeck is with the strikers.  It can be said that he knows their efforts are doomed but nevertheless he is in awe of their willingness to fight.  The characters - almost all men - are varied, vibrant and vividly drawn; not just Jim and Mac but London (a reference, surely, to that other literary socialist Jack London), the bear of a man they persuade to lead the strike; old Joy, an echo of Jim's father, who hops a freight down to Torgas just to betray the scabs; the Andersons, father and son, who pay a terribly price for supporting the strikers; the ambivalent Doc Burton, who voices what seems to be Steinbeck's feelings; old Dan, who used to be a daredevil tree-feller; and even Burke, who may or may not be the bosses' plant.

No mere polemic, the book is crammed with plot and twists and surprises.  I for one did not expect the ending.  To put it plainly, I adored In Dubious Battle and cannot recommend it highly enough.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Disappeared - Anthony Quinn


Disappeared is Anthony Quinn's first novel, and allowances must be made.  On the positive side, a story about the 'disappeared' of the Ulster Troubles is current and compelling.  Quinn's descriptions of the shores of Lough Neagh are spellbinding and sometimes downright beautiful.  On the negative side, the plot is preposterous, there are far too many characters to keep track of, and pretty well all of them are more interesting than Quinn's lacklustre protagonist DI Celsius Daly yes, the name is the only interesting trait).  On the whole, the positives just outweigh the negatives.  I read it to the end, otherwise it wouldn't be here on my blog.  The denouement was a bit disappointing - somewhat of a deus ex machina.  Also, am I right in thinking that diesel isn't easily flammable, thus not the weapon of choice for your averagely intelligent teenage arsonist?

Personally, I won't be revisiting Inspector Daly again in a hurry.  That shouldn't put anyone else off - I hated the first Rebus novels when they came out, and look what happened with them.