Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Running Dog - Don DeLillo

Running Dog (1978) is a relatively early DeLillo novel.  It is redolent with post-Watergate paranoia in which mysterious corporations war with alternative entrepreneurs but both, fundamentally, seek the same thing, control of assets.  The nature of the assets matter little.  Everyone and everything is corruptible, which DeLillo demonstrates by anchoring his story on an asset which, in itself, could not be more corrupt or corrupting: a film believed to feature footage of Hitler and his entourage having orgies in the Berlin bunker as the Russians close in.

DeLillo deploys a number of principal characters, all of whom pay a price for their involvement in the quest.  The second rank characters, corruptors all, pay no price whatsoever.  This is their world and in it they flourish.  Albeit Running Dog sounds like a polemic, the characterisation is so accomplished that the message never supplants the medium.

I've had a long but sporadic relationship with the novels of Don DeLillo.  I always enjoy them but never seem to seek them out.  This was the same.  I picked it up by chance and enjoyed it on every level.  I commend it to you.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Richard III and the Bosworth Campaign - Peter Hammond

Written in 2010, that is to say before the discovery of the body in the car park, Hammond writes in the belief that nothing the likes of Thomas More, the Croyland Chronicler, and indeed every single contemporary chronicler said about Richard III was true.  Of course the undoubted body demonstrates that everything they said about his appearance and death was absolutely true, which logically suggests that everything they said about his usurpation was true too.  Hammond is a dyed in the wool Ricardian, a former research officer of the Richard III Society.  As such he seems reluctant to accept that Richard's seizing of the throne was a usurpation, and no mention is made here of the fact that he had his nephews murdered.  Instead we have a long and unnecessary passage about how he didn't really want to marry his niece, Elizabeth of York, albeit, according to Hammond, Elizabeth was mad keen on marrying Richard.  This is piffle and our author is wearing blinkers.

We know where he starts from by his use of the works of Ashdown Hill, who has won awards for his genealogical research but who labours under the belief that everybody in the 15th century was either illegitimate, responsible for whole tribes of illegitimate offspring, or preferably both.  Here we are given two Ricardian bastards, John and Katherine, both of whom seem to have been teenagers, albeit their putative father was only 32 when he died.  It is of course perfectly possible for Richard to have fathered children when he was himself an early teen but let us not forget (what Hammond and Ashdown Hill didn't know in 2010) that Richard's puberty was much worse than most with his spine curving by the day.  It had to hurt and it had to have had psychological impact.  Still, perhaps his response to the trauma was to go out and get bastards.

The main problem with this book, though, is that it doesn't tell me anything I didn't already know about the battle.  Surely A L Rowse did a better job back in 1966?  Funnily enough, Hammond doesn't cite Rowse in his bibliography.  He does, however, make extensive use of the Mancini text, and the second continuation of Croyland, which both have the merit of being contemporary.  I'm sure everything Hammond says about the battle is true so far as it can be, but in a book of only 116 pages, specifically about a battle and written for a specialist military publisher (Pen & Sword), less than ten pages of actual battle is not enough.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Nemesis - Philip Roth

Here we have late Roth, great Roth, superlative Roth.  Set in Newark, New Jersey, in the furnace-hot summer of 1944, our hero is Bucky Cantor, 23 year-old athletic star who has been rejected for military service because of his appalling eyesight.  Bucky is nevertheless a local hero.  All the young boys want to be like Bucky, all the girls adore him.  Bucky is embarrassed not to be in the army with his friends but here in Newark he does his duty.  As a newly-qualified sports teacher he does summer work running his local playground.  Then he finds his personal battle.

Polio starts its annual rampage.  A bunch of Italian youths make mischief at Bucky's playground.  Soon after the first of Bucky's young charges - a promising young lad very much in the Bucky Cantor mould - falls ill and, shockingly, dies.  The Jewish parents (this is a wholly Jewish part of town) blame the Italian layabouts for bringing the infection up from the slums.  Some blame Bucky.  Bucky certainly blames Bucky.  For a time he fights then, at the urging of his fiancee Marcia, he does the unthinkable - the one thing no one ever expected Bucky to do - he runs away.  He takes up a cushy job at a summer camp for better off Jewish kids.  The consequences are obvious.  This is not a complex story.  What it is, though, is a powerful, thoroughgoing examination of the all-American local hero.  Roth spares us nothing.  He is as scientific in his dissection of character as he is in his polishing of prose.

I'm in two minds about the ending.  Is it too long (the final section, not the book itself)?  Is it necessary at all?  I didn't like the ending, but I suspect that's Roth's point.  It got me thinking, reading at deeper than normal level.  And that, I fancy, is what makes a masterpiece.  Check it out - now!  See what you think.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Watchman - Ian Rankin

Watchman is Rankin's third novel, after Flood, which I loved, and the first Inspector Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses, which I bought when it first came out in paperback and thought was very poor. Watchman, reasonably enough, sits somewhere between the two.  Like Knots it is genre fiction and thus does not aim as high as Flood.  In this instance it is spy fiction, written very much in the aftermath of watching the Smiley adaptations on TV.  Miles Flint is a silly name, but no sillier than George Smiley, and as with Smiley the name is the direct opposite of the man.  Smiley never smiled - or, at least, not as if he meant it - and Miles Flint is neither well-travelled nor especially hard.

Flint is a watchman, an organiser of surveillance.  One of his key operations goes horribly wrong.  He seems to have been forgiven but soon realises he hasn't.  Machinations are in progress for the top job at MI5, as they always seem to be in sub le Carre fiction, and Miles finds himself caught in the crosshairs.  He is despatched to Ulster, still - in 1988 - embroiled in the Troubles, betrayed and left to fend for himself.  Can he rise to the occasion?  That is the nub of the book but it is far too long in coming.  Really what we have here is three stories rather crudely bolted together.  It cries out for depth and knowledge of the human condition that sets le Carre apart.

It's an immature work by a young writer still trying to find his voice.  There's nothing wrong in that - on these foundations Rankin built one of the great literary careers.  It's well worth reading and judging on its own merits.  But you wouldn't want to read it twice.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Ghost Stories - M R James

Why is it I didn't take to the stories of Thomas Ligotti (see below) but fell instantly under the spell of M R James?  They have much in common - James is obviously a key influence on Ligotti.  Both writers tend to use the same type of narrator - learned, single, often a writer - and both use distancing devices such as "this is the story as someone told it to me."  I have thought about it for some days now, and have concluded that the difference is the attitude of the narrator/protagonist.  Ligotti's are inert, accepting, and thus alienate us; James's academic old buffers, on the other hand, rebel against their disturbing experiences and strive to put the world back in order.  That makes them appealing.  They do what we would hope to do in their position.

This selection, for Vintage Classics, includes an introduction by Ruth Rendell.  I like Rendell but hate it when publishers feel they need to add a 'name' to a classic.  This introduction is amiable enough but in the end it is piffle.  It tells us nothing about James and even less about his works.

On to the stories themselves, there are thirteen of them, naturally, and the best for me was the story "Number 13".  Can I say why I preferred it?  Well, to an extent.  It is odd, as hotel rooms tend to be odd, especially old hotels which have been converted from something else.  Hotel rooms strive to be comfortable, to be a temporary home from home, but they always fail because most of us can never be truly comfortable away from home.  We never fully have our bearings because there's always somewhere else, staff areas and other people's rooms, which we cannot access.

As always with ghost stories, it depends what you find frightening.  If you have a problem with spiders, then James is definitely the boy for you.  Personally, it's the oddness rather than the apparition which unsettles me.  The flapping sheet on the beach in "Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You My Lad" is, for me, much scarier than the attack on Parkins by his bedsheets.  But even if the thing itself in a particular story doesn't raise your gooseflesh you can always enjoy the sheer mastery of James's writing.  James, of course, was far more learned than any of his protagonists; that means he does not need to show off, and he doesn't.  Instead his pen flows like Picasso's line, effortless and yet magnificent.