Thursday, 30 October 2014

The Lair of the White Worm - Bram Stoker

It's coming up to Halloween and I just love these Penguin yellowbacks.  I saw this and couldn't resist.

Bram Stoker was a one-novel writer - and what a novel Dracula is.  Unfortunately he wrote several other novels of which Lair of the White Worm is one.  It may be the best but we are talking a bad bunch, one of which, The Man, is just execrable.

The Lair of the White Worm is not execrable.  It's tosh.  Young Adam Salton is brought from Australia to (gawd 'elp 'im) rural Staffordshire as the chosen heir to his elderly great uncle, who plays no further part.  Instead Adam is taken up by the former diplomat and historian of Mercia Sir Nathaniel, who tells him all about the strange Caswalls of Castra Regis and druidic Diana's Grove aka the titular Lair.  There follows a load of guff, including a giant bird-scarer kite and a series of unfortunate mongooses.  There is also a lot of jaw-dropping racism concerning Caswall's black African servant Oolanga, which I fancy was a bit strong even for the Edwardian era.

It all comes to a sort of life when we realise that Lady Arabella is actually the physical embodiment of the Worm.  This comes as no surprise given that she dresses in white, wears tinted glasses, waves her arms about in serpentine manner and tears mongooses in half.  The worm itself is massive so where it all goes when it's in human form beats me.  Ultimately there's a storm with no rain, the kite does what it was always going to do and conducts lightning down to Diana's Grove which goes spectacularly bang, scattering bits of age-old worm all over Staffordshire.

The writing is medium grade pulp, full of discordant word choices and irritating habits - the number of times Sir Nathaniel says "Let's continue our discussion of this important matter when we've had dinner/lunch/supper/a kip/a walk etc. drove me insane.

The Angry Island - A A Gill

Subtitled "Hunting the English", this is a series of essays on the National Character by Sunday Times TV and Restaurant critic A A Gill, who is actually Scottish.

Some bits are inevitably better than others.  Gill is good on class, exceptional on Letchworth Garden City, and builds to a climax with an attack on the National Trust which to him represents the sealed-in-aspic aspect of Heritage Britain.  He is less good on things like political correctness and class, the latterly probably because he is a beneficiary of the class system.

It is readable enough, and I read it to the end with varying interest.  The trouble is, I don't like his tone, which is sub Clive James in the days when he revolutionized TV criticism, but without the redeeming intelligence and soul.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

If Not Now, When? - Primo Levi

I was astonished to learn that this was Levi's only novel written at the end of his career.  I remember him as an iconic writer, in many ways the spokesman for all Holocaust survivors, and had assumed that at least some of his many books were fiction.

Levi was an Italian Jew but his hero here is a Russian Jew.  Mendel has become detached from his unit of the Red Army.  For a year he has been wandering alone through the vast Russian landscape.  Then he is joined by Leonid, a paratrooper who has escaped from the German lager at Smolensk.  Leonid, too, is Jewish, but is keen to hide the fact, a recurring theme of the book.  They decide to wander on together - and wander is the word; they have no plan, no goal.  They meet up with various others in the same predicament, until they come upon the predominantly Jewish partisan troop led by the quixotic Gedaleh.  This becomes their family.  They share the troop's Jewishness and adopt their aim of finding a way to Israel.  Instead of trying to avoid the war, they begin to attack the Germans.

A fascinating and truly moving book, all the more so because the debutante novelist turns out to be a master storyteller.  He doesn't wallow in the horror of the Holocaust but finds green shoots of humanity and hope sprouting from the horror.

It is a disgrace that this is not on the A-level syllabus every year.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Katherine the Queen - Linda Porter

Like every other biography of Katherine Parr, Porter's book claims to be the first "full-scale" life of Henry VIII's sixth queen.  This is nonsense - publisher's puff - and should not be held against the author.  The facts are generally well known and I have to say I was a little let down by Porter's coverage of the Anne Askew affair, surely the most dangerous moment of Katherine's public life.  Other than that, Porter provides a thorough, well-written and entertaining account.  A modern biographer, of course, has to determine a persona for their subject.  Traditionally Katherine has been presented as something of a bluestocking, churning out tedious and pompous leaflets on the New Learning.  Certainly she wrote such material, and certainly her puritanical streak got her into hot water with her husband.  But Katherine was clearly also a woman of passion who, when finally free of arranged marriages, threw herself into marriage with the rakish Thomas Seymour within weeks of old Henry's death.  She was also, as Porter points out, popular with her stepchildren, which can't have been easy with such a bunch.  This latter, I suggest, is what Porter really brings fresh to the party.  Katherine the Queen may not be the first in its field, but it may well be the best to date.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

A Confederate General from Big Sur

I read a piece by Jarvis Cocker citing Brautigan as his favourite author, so I laid hands on this anthology to see if Cocker's opinion was worth spit - and it was.  I won't go so far as to say Brautigan has now become my favourite author, but he's certainly in there with another hundred or so.

Brautigan was a hippie success in the Sixties and Seventies, who fell from favour in the Eighties and shot himself in 1985.  A Confederate General from Big Sur was one of his first fictions, written in the late Fifties but not published until 1964 after the "success" of Trout Fishing in America.

You get the idea of what Brautigan is about when you realise a) there were no confederate generals from Big Sur, and b) there are no confederate generals in the novel.  There is, however, a lot of Big Sur, though it should be borne in mind that this is long before the Beach Boys and the Californian promontory was strictly for the dedicated Bohemian.  And such a one is Lee Mellon, our hero and very much the hero of Brautigan's narrator persona Jesse.  Every life should have a Lee Mellon in it.  I know and am grateful that mine did.  Lee Mellon (always referred to by the full name) is a force of nature, toothless, workshy, but a devil with the ladies, and he invites the insular Jesse down from San Francisco for a season in the wild.

The echo of Kerouac and Neal Cassady is unavoidable - especially since Kerouac also wrote a novel called Big Sur.  On the Road was published in 1957, the year in which Confederate General is set. But Brautigan's work is much gentler and humorous.  Lee Mellon and Jesse use weed not speed.  I found their story much more to my taste.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Something Nasty in the Woodshed/Beast of Jersey

The second of Kyril Bonfiglioli's comic capers featuring the Hon Charlie Mortdechai is set in Jersey, where Bonfiglioli himself popped up following publication of his first, Don't Point That Thing at Me, previously reviewed on this blog.

The most striking thing is that the story centres on the truelife Beast of Jersey, Edward Paisnel, who had only been sentenced for a decade of appalling sexual attacks on women and young boys seven years before Bonfiglioli's comic take was published.  What is alarming is how heavily Bonfiglioli relies on the cash-in book, The Beast of Jersey (1972), ostensibly by Paisnel's wife, Joan.  I say 'relies' but I am being over-generous: Bonfiglioli simply lifts great tranches of Beast, lock, stock and barrel.  It is such shameless plagiarism that I recognised some passages almost forty years after originally reading them.  So I re-read the original, a huge success in its day, and I was right.

Otherwise, Something Nasty is vintage Mortdechai, full of drink, debauchery and generally disgraceful behaviour, all rendered in wickedly cynical banter.  The story, effectively making fun of rape, is unpleasant, not to say ridiculous - but anyone reading Bonfiglioli for the story has made a fundamental mistake.

As for The Beast of Jersey itself, cobbled-together cash-in though it is, it is also a classic of its type and era, as ubiquitous in its day as Emlyn Williams' study of the Moors Murderers, Beyond Belief. Everybody I knew had a copy and I daresay most of us still do.  There must have been a massive first edition but so far as I can tell nothing further.  The cover remains iconic.

Yes, Paisnel walked about a five mile long island where he had lived all his life dressed like that and no one noticed.  Like the Yorkshire Ripper ten years later he was caught by traffic police for a relatively minor infringement.  The book itself is a second parallel with the Sutcliffe case.  Nobody believed Sonia Sutcliffe couldn't have suspected something about her husband and people felt the same, apparently, about Paisnel's wife Joan.  Indeed, Paisnel's behaviour was much more bizarre than Sutcliffe's and, of course, he was committing crimes on his doorstep whilst Sutcliffe capitalised on his job as a HGV driver.

For example, Paisnel and Joan did not live or sleep together as man and wife, to the extent that he built accommodation for himself onto the family home.  He told fantastical lies about his past which she soon knew were rubbish and he first approached her in connection with the children's home Joan ran with her parents. (Yes, I know - Jersey/children's home/paedophilia - but the official line is that Paisnel had no connection with Haut de la Garenne, it's a complete coincidence.)

Anyway, Joan very quickly got her account into print.  The book purports to be by her but the few times we do hear her voice stand out like sore thumbs - for one thing, they all share the same message: "I knew nothing!"  The real authors were Alan Shadrake (recently imprisoned in Singapore for attacking their judicial system) and John Lisners (recent biographer of Rupert Murdoch).  The speed of their writing is obvious from the vast number of typos and grammatical errors.

For all that, it's a strong read that stands the test of time.  What struck me most on re-reading it this week, was Paisnel's sentence - thirty years, a phenomenal sentence at that time.  He got full remission and died a free man in 1994.  Today he would have got multiple life sentences without possibility of parole.  And we think we've made progress...

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Queer - William S Burroughs

An unsatisfactory offcut of a larger, more significant work, I'm afraid.  Queer was originally the second part of Junkie, culminating in a hunt for the drug Yage, which ultimately became a stand-alone story.  Having temporarily come off the junk, Burroughs' alter ego William Lee becomes infatuated with with an American student studying in Mexico City, Eugene Allerton.

Apart from the deliberately provocative title, there is no real homosexuality in the book, certainly nothing physical.  From time to time Lee persuades Allerton to have sex with him, then we instantly cut to post coital torpor.  We are never told who does what to whom, albeit we can guess.  They then head off to various South American countries in the world's least-travelled travelogue since Sterne's Sentimental Journey.  Somewhere in Ecuador Burroughs simply abandons the story, annoyingly having come up (belatedly) with an interestingly opaque character, Dr Cotter.

The truth is, Queer is an abandoned chunk of text, retrieved from the bottom drawer and published in 1985, more than thirty years after it was written.  Burroughs added on a pointless return to Mexico City intended to round-off the narrative, and a long introduction which I remember generating a heap of publicity at the time.

The thing is, Junkie and Queer and the Yage story are an autobiographical sequence covering the years 1950-1952.  What is missing is the most infamous event - Burroughs being goaded by his wife Joan to shoot an apple off her head and missing, fatally.  This is why in the bolted-on return to Mexico, Lee has to sneak back into the country, because proceedings are ongoing.

Burroughs can write, but this is one for students only.  Insignificant and half-baked.  Burroughs himself likened Queer to "an artist's poor art school sketches."  He exaggerated: it's worse than that.