Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Heart of Darkness Joseph Conrad

Before this, the only Conrad I'd read was The Secret Agent, interesting enough but not dazzling. I knew Heart of Darkness's reputation but, despite being the basis for Apocalypse Now, I had not been attracted. Big mistake, it turns out.

First off, it's a novella, only three chapters long, which enables Conrad to create and sustain an oppressively dark atmosphere.  Even though the key action all takes place on the River Congo, everything is dark, primeval, threatening.  Marlow becomes obsessed by Kurtz because everyone he comes across speaks of him like a god.  Long before they find Kurtz's station they hear he is ill, that he may even have died.  Then they find him, defeated and dying, kept going only by his fascination with this antediluvian wilderness.

It's amazing to think that English wasn't even Conrad's second language.  Even when he first decided to become a novelist he wanted to be a French one.  Certainly the shorter French form has paid off brilliantly in Heart of Darkness - so much of the descriptive prose teeters on the edge of Symbolism, the key movement in French literature of the Belle Epoch.  French dialogue is differently punctuated and might have been easier for Conrad than the English, given we have Marlow telling his cronies in the Port of London his first-person account of the quest for Kurtz, including the tales told by the ex-pats he encounters along the way and, of course, Kurtz himself.  Everything is allusive in this tightly contained world.  Nothing is certain.  Kurtz is a character like no other I can think of - seedy, broken, twisted, perhaps even deranged, but still charismatic, above and beyond pity or compassion, utterly compulsive. Harking back to Apocalypse Now, no wonder they had to fly in Marlon Brando to play him.

God, it's a staggering achievement. Conrad, of course, writes from the heart. He had been to the Congo as a young sailor.  It affected him so profoundly that he tried to shoot himself through the heart.  It is why he gave up the sea and took to writing.  From such suffering comes art of the highest order.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

The Murder of Harriet Krohn - Karin Fossum

There is a trope in Scandinavian noir in which the protagonist appears rarely.  The later works of Hakan Nesser are almost entirely devoid of Inspector Van Veeteren.  Indridason also manages most of his translated Inspector Erlendur and Sigurdur Oli series with very little Erlendur and no Oli whatsoever.

This, it seemed, was going to be the case with The Murder of Harriet Krohn.  Her series investigator, Inspector Konrad Sejer, doesn't appear in person (he is mentioned in the press early on) until page 187.  He then disappears again for a couple of chapters.  I thought that was it.  But I was wrong.  Fossum is by some distance the finest writer of all the Scandi noir lead players, a Norwegian Barbara Vine if you will.  Her interest is the evil that good men do, not simply the restoration of balance through justice.  Here, her interest is the wretched Charlo, who kills to try and break out of the wretched spiral of his life.  He knows perfectly well that he has done wrong.  He is fully conscious that he has a moral debt to pay.  He tries to put his life back together, to become again the good person he once was.  He re-establishes contact with his estranged teenage daughter.  He finds an interest they can share and love together.  He takes on menial labouring work to try and exorcise his guilt.  He even visits the grave of his victim, not to gloat or weep but to try and understand what happened between them.

Fossum goes to great lengths to make us empathise with Charlo, even giving him a crippling disease.  Thus when Sejer finally gets into his stride and questions Charlo our sympathies are equally divided between two fundamentally good men.  This sequence, lasting thirty pages or so, is a magnificent piece of writing, an object lesson on how these things should be done.  There is no trickery, no slight of hand, just diligent, effective questioning from Sejer and Charlo calculating how close he can stick to the truth without confronting the ultimate truth of what he has done.

I was reminded of Crime and Punishment - so strong were the resonances, I cannot believe Fossum did not seed the prompts deliberately.

I've said it before, but I wish she was better published.  Vintage is a great publisher, I look out for Vintage publications - so why is this cover, like all Fossum covers, so feeble?  And why that pathetic font?  Surely the way the author's name is done would sit more comfortably on a children's book.

Archangel - Gerald Seymour

For those of a certain generation (mine) Gerald Seymour was a familiar face, reporting for ITN from the world's troublespots.  Then in 1975 he published Harry's Game, which was a game-changer in itself.  It was a tremendous hit, the first thriller to really engage with the Northern Irish Troubles, which were then only five or six years old.  Seymour immediately gave up TV for writing and is still turning out high-quality, serious thrillers today.  The 'serious' tag is what has always set him apart from the more lightweight practitioners.  Seymour knows what he is talking about and, if he doesn't, you know that he has the skillset to find out.

Archangel is from 1982, when the USSR was still the Evil Empire.  Michael Holly is a British businessman of Ukrainian extraction.  He has genuine business interests in Russia but stumbles, as so many did in those days, into agreeing to deliver a message on behalf of MI6.  He is caught as they always were and sentenced to fourteen years - not a problem in itself, for there were longstanding ways of dealing with such regular embarrassments.  A swap is set up for a Russian agent in Wormwood Scrubs - everybody's happy, it's business as usual. But the Russian suffers a heart attack and dies.  The deal is off.  Holly can forget the comparatively cushy prison life of a trading asset, he's off the back of beyond, the Correctional Labour Camps of Mordovia.

This is where Seymour really comes into his own.  Holly can speak Russian thanks to his exiled parents.  Everyone else in the camps is Russian or from one of the subject Soviet states.  Seymour humanises them all, even the ambitious KGB captain and the useless camp commander who is counting down the days to retirement.

Meanwhile MI6 is checking Holly out back in Britain.  Will he be able to survive?  Will he give in to torture or blandishments and embarrass the secretive element of HM's government? Meanwhile Captain Rudakov offers a deal: all Holly has to do is admit the espionage and he will be on the next plane home.

In many ways the story boils down to a battle of wills between Holly and Rudakov, which Seymour handles expertly.  It's not giving too much away to say that Holly outstrips expectations.  We think we can guess the outcome because of the way Seymour sets up the narrative. But can we?  Can we really?  Holly might be suffering reality in its harshest form, but at the British end we are in the world of smoke and mirrors.

It must be thirty years since I last read Seymour.  I had forgotten how good he is.  Thankfully Hodder have issued this "Ultimate Collection" so I can catch up.

Empire of the Sun - J G Ballard

Jim Ballard was born in Shanghai and interned by the Japanese from 1942 to 1945.  The pubescent hero of Empire of the Sun is also called Jim, also born in the English enclave in China, also interned.  It would be wrong, though, to confuse the two.  Empire of the Sun is only autobiographical in its setting and background.  The real Ballard was interned with his parents, the fictional Jim isn't.  He spends the Japanese occupation alone, initially trying to be reunited with his parents, later afraid of the reunion.  Empire of the Sun is therefore what might have happened to Ballard had he been separated from his parents, based on the occasional adventures he had as a child cycling round Shanghai on his own.

It is a classic of war literature and effectively unique - I know of no other coming of age story set in a Japanese prison camp in China.  Indeed the brutal Sino-Japanese war is scarcely mentioned in postwar western literature and for most, I suspect, the Rape of Nanking is thought of as a single personal sexual attack.  It startles us that Jim, China-born and never having lived elsewhere, harbours hopes of a Japanese victory.  It startles and engages us.

Ballard's problem in his speculative fiction is often the inability to explore character amid the high concept of his idea.  That is in no sense a problem here.  Jim takes us with him on the journey.  We understand the disturbing things he feels compelled to do, the often wrong decisions he makes based on the limited information available to him, the ghastly friends he makes in order to survive.  Paramount among the latter is the appalling Basie, American cabin steward, thief, and corrupter. He is a monster equal in my mind to Fagin or Mr Hyde.  His use of lady's talcum powder is a signature as chilling as Ernst Blofeld stroking his white Persian cat.

I have seen Spielberg's film and cannot remember a moment of it.  It is dull and worthy, like so much later Spielberg.  It will be a long time before I forget the original novel.  It is a work of genius. I recommend the Harper Perennial edition because of the excellent extra material at the end, a practice I usually deplore.

Monday, 4 April 2016

Snowdrops - A D Miller

I remember this book when it came out.  I remember assuming it was another attempt to write a Russian crime thriller in the wake of Gorky Park.  That's what it looks like, after all.  I remember being surprised that a crime thriller should be nominated for the Booker.

That's what happens when your publisher lets you down with a stereotypical cover.  I mean to say, doesn't it look like every one of Philip Kerr's Gunther novels?  And focusing on the 'snowdrops' - bodies that pop up in the spring thaw - doesn't help, especially when there is only one of them in book, a character we have never encountered and whose only purpose is to be discovered when winter ends.

In fact, Snowdrops is a serious novel about corruption in post-Yeltsin Russia, where of course more or less everyone is corrupt.  It is a world Miller knows inside out, having been a journalist there between 2004 and 2007.  His hero Nick is an ex-pat lawyer, and therefore a corruption magnet.  His firm is blithely working on some complex sub-Abramovitch oil deal when Nick falls head over heels for young Masha, a woman fifteen or more years younger than him.  Through Masha he meets Katya, the sister-who-isn't, and Tatiana Vladimorovna, the aunt-who-isn't.  The affair starts with the first chill of winter and ends with the thaw when Nick's suspension of disbelief washes away with the snow and he realises how low he has sunk, how willingly he has been corrupted.

It's an important novel, then, which certainly deserved its nomination. 2011, in case you're wondering, was the year Julian Barnes won the Booker with The Sense of an Ending.  Miller is a serious and talented novelist, albeit he doesn't seem to have followed up on Snowdrops.  If and when he does, I'll be reading him.

The Hammersmith Maggot - William Mole

William Mole was the pseudonym of Bill Younger, Dennis Wheatley's stepson and wartime MI5 agent, working for Max Knight and involved with the internment of members of the Right Club.  Stricken with polio as a child, Younger's growth was stunted but he apparently made up in aggression what he lacked in physical force. A well-reviewed poet before the war, he took to writing novels in the forties and fifties, and seems to have completed five before dying young, in 1962, aged only 45.

The Hammersmith Maggot is from 1955, so more or less the middle of his fiction-writing career.  The hero, Casson, is a Mayfair wine merchant with the time and the money to pursue his interest in unconventional criminality, wherein he is aided by Strutt of the Yard.  The criminal in this case, the titular maggot, is far from ordinary.  He blackmails well-off citizens over something they haven't done but the public would believe them guilty of if the allegation ever became public.  Lockyer, the elderly banker who draws Casson into the case, is a confirmed bachelor who admits he has no interest in women, but he's not gay, although the blackmailer suggests he could be.  He pays up because, obviously, he can't prove otherwise.  Besides, the amount demanded is substantial but nothing he cannot easily afford.  It's as if the extortion has been tailor-made for Lockyer and the other victims who come to light.  The Maggot has another trick up his sleeve.  He promises his victims that the payment will be a one-off - he will not be back for more.  Thus far he has kept his promise.  The threat of a return or, if captured, the allegation getting into the public domain, keeps the victims quiet.

This fabulous Penguin greenback, with a tremendous cover illustration by Romek Marber, is clever, well-written, very old-fashioned and highly amusing.  It could so easily have been formulaic but is kept on a higher level by Younger's gift for characterisation. I'm on the lookout for more.