Sunday, 27 October 2013

Three Novellas - D H Lawrence

The Ladybird is set at the very end of World War I.  Lady Daphne's husband is a POW in Turkey, Count Dionys, a German officer she knew as a child, is in a military hospital in London and then a detention house for enemy officers.  Both men are eventually released.  Daphne has to examine her feelings for both of them.  On the surface, it's very Lawrence, full of mystical sexual impulses.  I enjoyed the contemporary subtext, though.  At one point it seemed to me Lawrence was reflecting on the fall of the old imperial order and advocating the rise of new, charismatic leaders.  1923, when the trio of novellas was published, is too early for Hitler or Franco but Mussolini had become Italian PM the year before.  Is this what Lawrence was responding to?

The Fox is more archetypical Lawrence - brutish young stud comes between two undeclared lesbians running an unproductive farm.  It is powerfully atmospheric, and I found the characters interesting, but the predatory fox metaphor is obvious and overdone.

The Captain's Doll purports to be a comedy.  I enjoyed until about halfway, when the machinations of plot took over from character.  Then it lost me completely with the longest, most tedious travelogue since that awful, endless passage in the middle of Little Dorrit.  In both cases it is purely filling space.  By far the least interesting of the three.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

To the Bright and Shining Sun - James Lee Burke

Only Burke's second novel but a classic of modern Depression fiction.  The Kentucky coalfields are dying by the day.  The James family have devoted their lives to the union cause.  Old Woodson had his chest caved in by a rockfall and is now a happy-pappy, clearing forest trails for welfare.  His teenage son Perry is busy sabotaging strike-breaking scabs.  But Perry goes too far and has to get clear of the county.  He signs on with the Job Corps.  He makes mistakes but does well.  Things look like they're on the up - until Perry gets called back home to watch his father die - and to seek revenge.
A powerful story, expertly told, an example of what Burke might have been had he not become seduced by the lure of series crime fiction.  Not that Burke's crime novels aren't good, even great, it's just that this is better because it has higher aspirations.  I shall keep an eye out for more of his singles.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

The Fort - Storm Jameson

I've got to be honest: my copy doesn't have a cover and I've borrowed the above image from the ever-reliable Fantastic Fiction.  Also, I only bought it because the title cropped up during some academic research I'm doing on another forgotten bestseller of the Thirties and Forties, Eric Linklater.

One reviewer described it at the time as a hybrid of a play and a short story.  No it's not, it's a novella and I'm sure the word was current in 1941.  Jameson wrote it in the couple of months immediately after the fall of France in June 1940.  It is set, specifically, on June 13.  A wounded English officer has taken refuge in the cellar of a French farmhouse.  Also hiding there is a French officer and two of his junior officers.  During the night another English soldier arrives and a German is captured.

What the story is really about is Jameson's utter contempt for the defeatist element of the French nation.  She does not make the mistake of over-egging the heroism of the English nor portraying the young German as just a mindless fanatic.  She is convinced both of the justice of the war (despite having been co-founder of the Peace Pledge Union in the late Thirties) and the damage it will surely do to the world.

The ending is a surprise which would have been much more powerful at the time.  As it happens, it is exactly the effect my subject Linklater pulls off at the end of his first radio 'conversation', The CornerstonesThe Fort was also adapted for radio in 1942.  You have to try and imagine the effect the ending had on British listeners enduring the Blitz.

Rogue Royale - Jeremy Duns

Jeremy Duns is a British author of Cold War spy fiction (featuring Nick Dark) who now lives in Finland.  He is the man who found out R J Ellroy was writing his own ecstatic reviews on Amazon, which recommends him strongly to me.

This is an ebook which expands on journalism he wrote following his discovery of an never-filmed script for Casino Royale, penned by the legendary Ben Hecht (The Front Page etc.).  At something over 10,000 words it is the perfect length and subject for a non-fiction ebook.  Now I can't stand Bond in either film or print, especially print, but Duns is a fan and is able to place Hecht's work in the developing Bond canon during the early Sixties.  He is not too dazzled by Hecht's reputation to spare him due criticism for dumb ideas like the mindreader who helps Le Chiffre cheat at cards.

It's an impressive piece of research and eminently readable.  I recommend it.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Hurry On Down - John Wain

This is the book that is said to have started the Angry Young Men on their angry way.  Actually, it's more of a Movement thing, very slightly (1953) predating Amis and Larkin.  In essence, it's a classic English comic picaresque, the misadventures of Charles Lumley in the first year or so after leaving university.  What makes it different is that Charles has no mission (other than to find a mission) and sets himself firmly on a downward trajectory - accidentally becoming a window cleaner, car delivery driver (and crook), hospital orderly, chauffeur, nightclub bouncer and radio gag-writer.  What I especially liked was the dense quality of the writing.  I've always found Kingsley Amis somewhat glib and superficial whereas Wain seems to be always aware of the relationship between art and character.  There are some marvellous lines here, for example: "His life was a dialogue, full of deep and tragic truths, expressed in hoarse shouts by red-nosed music-hall comics."  Brilliant - a bona fide classic of the mid twentieth century.  This should be on the school curriculum.

And by the way, check out that superb cover art by Len Deighton.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Euripides V - Andromache, Herakles' Children, Herakles

Volume V in the Methuen Euripides series edited by my former drama lecturer, J Michael Walton.  He and I failed to see eye to eye on more or less everything but I have to admit I found his introduction here interesting, reliable and stimulating.

On the other hand the translation of Andromache, the main reason I bought the book, is downright bloody awful.  I really cannot stomach translators who want to advertise their own dramatic conceits.  A new version by an established creative writer, like Ted Hughes, or Brecht, or Tony Harrison - that's something else, a new version of an ancient original.  This exercise by Robert Cannon is just risible.  I'm no Greek scholar but I'm willing to bet Euripides didn't write one clause per line.  Ghastly.  Still, I suppose it's a measure of Euripides' greatness that a powerful tragedy still shines through.

I had assumed, in my ignorance, that Herakles' Children and Herakles itself weren't up to much - scraps from the master's table.  With the former I was definitely wrong - the battle of wills between Herakles' mother Alkmene and the devious Eurystheus, King of Argos and deviser of the Twelve Labours, is compelling.  A complicated back story, mixing one part history with four parts myth, is expertly doled out in bite-sized portions.  And Herakles himself isn't in it.  Indeed, Euripides' fascination with the hero - both here and in the eponymous play - seems to be about the human consequences of godlike heroic achievement.  That said, Herakles itself seems to be missing an act.  Did Euripides really just have a character called Madness appear, make a speech, send our hero off his nut and then just bugger off?  I don't think so.  But I did enjoy the Choral song about the Twelve Labours, which sounded to me like an extremely ancient form incorporated by Euripides as a device to demonstrate just how long ago his play was set.

The translation of the two Herakles plays is by Kenneth McLeish and a much happier product.  This, after all, is meant to be basically a source book from which performers can then build their own interpretation.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

The Crow Road - Iain Banks

I'm ashamed to say I was only inspired to seek out a Banks novel by the rather impressive way he handled his early death.  I'm also abashed to realise that such a great writer was out there - and I, who fancies himself a litterateur - hadn't read him.

I had, of course, seen the BBC dramatization of The Crow Road back in the Nineties (which the Beeb, for pretty much the reasons given above, recently repeated).  I liked the TV version but it's nowhere near as good as the book.  The blurb on the front touts Banks as an 'imaginative' novelist.  What's that supposed to mean?  Well in this case it means a novelist who can imagine the world of part of a Highland community in such detail that he can even describe the inner workings of a piece of constructivist modern art.  The three families focussed on have such a depth of backstory that every twist and turn of their interconnections seems to have been mapped.  There is a central mystery but that's only really the fuel that keeps Prentice, our hero, peeling back the layers.  When the mystery is finally resolved it seems almost irrelevant - and yet it completes the novel.

Five hundred pages plus and I can only find one fault.  What is the point of the third McHoan brother, the one unsurprisingly deleted from the TV dramatization?  It seems odd that someone with so vivid a vision should keep trundling him onto our shared imaginative stage for no good reason.

I loved this book.  I will seek out more.  I might even try the sci-fi.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Come Unto These Yellow Sands - Angela Carter

Angela Carter was a true enthusiast of radio drama which she found ideally suited to her gothic sensibilities.  For Carter, radio was the natural home of her fantastical creations.  So what we have here are the radio versions of Company of Wolves, Vampirella and Puss in Boots, plus the title play, a magnificent dramatic feature on the Victorian artist, madman and murderer, Richard Dadd.  I suspect I saw the same exhibition of Dadd's work from the madhouse that Carter did, sometime around 1973.  I too fell under the spell of The Fairy-Feller's Masterstroke.  We all did.

What Carter achieves here is a seamless meld of fact and disordered fantasy.  Doctors and Dadd's former friends discuss his condition whilst characters from his paintings - Oberon, Titania and the Fairy-Feller himself - discuss their own reality.  Magnificent.  Very few radio plays nowadays attempt anything remotely so ambitious, and the situation is likely to get worse as we goes weeks on end without Drama on 3 and the plays on 4 become every more like bad TV.  So transport yourself back to the late Seventies and early Eighties when Carter was working in radio and remember that they did these things differently back then.

For a longer, more scholarly review click here.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Serjeant Musgrave's Dance - John Arden

Classic stage play in the classic Eyre Methuen blue paperback, the badge of quality when I began collecting drama.  Serjeant Musgrave was first performed at the Royal Court in 1959, produced by Lindsay Anderson.  Every element of that sentence is a badge of quality.

It was resonant then and it's resonant now because it is more than anti-war play; it is, to my eye anyway, anti pointless colonial wars which also asks the question, what do you do with a standing army in peacetime - why loose it on the working class, of course.  How often have we seen that?
For those unfamiliar with Arden's blend of Brecht and folk tradition the writing might seem difficult.  If so, the trick is to read it aloud.  Then it sings.  Arden came towards the end of the Angry Young Men era but he continued writing longer than any of the others and, more importantly, kept his anger stoked to the very end.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Phantom - Jo Nesbo

As it says on the cover, the new Harry Hole thriller, and the best yet in my view.  Harry gets into the story good and early and there's no need for him to opt out of the official police investigation as he is no longer a policeman and the real cops have already closed their investigation.

Harry's excesses are understandable because the case is the only case that conceivably drag him away from his sober new life in Hong Kong.

I particularly admired the way Nesbo is prepared to take risks.  Who is this talking at the beginning and indeed all the way through.  Then we realise.  Then we realise who he is talking to.  Superb craftsmanship.  I can't think of anyone else who could pull it off so successfully.  The only comparison I can think of is Nesbo's standalone, The Headhunters, which is probably the best Nordic Noir novel ever.

After the disappointment of The Bat, which was juvenilia best left untranslated, Phantom came as a huge relief.  Nesbo on top form - unbeatable.  And the next Harry Hole, Police, is already out.  Let me at it!

The Road to Wigan Pier - George Orwell

Supposed classic - massive disappointment.  The first half seems acceptable - things that Orwell witnessed personally, statistics he collected - but then you realise: he's looking at the lower working class like a lab assistant watching bacteria through a microscope.  He has no emotional engagement whatsoever.  Worse, he fails to recognise or probe the emotional engagement they have with one another.  Orwell describes the squalor in which they live and sleep but never seems to register that the working people, and even the unemployed, bear the squalor by being out of the house as much as possible.  I knew these people - not at the time, of course, but in their 50s and 60s.  They were my family.  They came from the slums of Sheffield, which Orwell regards as a face unfit for human habitation.  My great-uncle who, to me as a child, was the greatest man alive, lived in a back-to-back with communal toilet block in the yard and a pigeon loft above the lavvy.  These people lived out of the home.  The women chatted on their doorsteps.  They went to the cinema, to social clubs (never pubs for my relatives, many of whom worked for breweries).  Other families lived their lives around church and chapel.  Spiritualism was popular, as was night school.  Many were actively involved in politics, others trades unionists and communists.  All of this passed Orwell by.

The second half was recognised at the time as awful - the publisher, Victor Gollancz, felt obliged to publish an apology for it in the first edition (omitted in this Penguin edition).  The second half is the story of Orwell's journey from middle class public schoolboy, via Burma, to ineffective, vaguely socialist, social critic.  I read it with mounting disgust.  But I did read it, all the way to the end, so it must have some literary quality.  I was planning on getting Homage to Catalonia, or Down and Out in London and Paris, but I think I'd rather try Jack London instead.

The good news - it hasn't put me off Orwell's fiction.