Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Death in Venice - Thomas Mann

Thomas Mann is one of those literary greats I have often wondered about but never actually read, I bought this novella when it came out, as a film tie-in, in 1971. It has waited, unread, on my shelves ever since. I've never even bothered to see to the Visconti movie, or the Britten opera.

Well, now I've read it. It dates from 1912, more or less the middle of Mann's life. He was too young to be the hero Gustave von Aschenbach, and all bar one of his major works were yet to be written, Buddenbrooks (1902) being the single exception. Nevertheless, in terms of sexuality, Aschenbach is an extreme version of the author. Mann's bisexuality only became known when his diaries were published long after his death. He married and had several children. Aschenbach is alone, having sacrificed all semblance of a private life for his highbrow literary art.

One evening in Munich, he is overwhelmed by the need to break his rigid routine and take a holiday. He begins in Trieste, which doesn't suit, and ends up in Venice. Staying in the same hotel is a Polish family - a mother, presumably widowed, several straitlaced daughters and young Tadzio, a pubescent boy of extraordinary beauty. Aschenbach is entranced. He observes the boy from a distance, interest becomes an obsession, obsession becomes infatuation.

And at that moment of self-recognition, cholera breaks out in Venice. Aschenbach knows he should leave but cannot tear himself away from the daily sight of Tadzio in his sailor suit. He wonders if Tadzio is a sickly child who will not live to be an adult. He allows the hotel barber to dye his hair and pluck his eyebrows and rouge his cheeks to try and mask the vast difference in age - but Aschenbach, of course, is the one who is sick, who cannot accept that the boy's beauty will one day coarsen and fade.

Reading the novella today, you have to wonder to what extent this is paedophilia. In 1971 we would never would have. Hard as it is to believe today, in the age of free love we never countenanced such transgression. How then did Mann view his protagonist in 1912? He is well aware of the corruption, of course. That is why he chooses Venice, all facade for the tourists, literally plastering over the corruption and decay that hides behind. That is the meaning of the cholera outbreak, which the hoteliers, of course, pretend isn't happening - only a British man working in a German bank tells Aschenbach the truth.

Is it also, I wonder, the reason for the overly-elaborate writing, the various passages of high-minded pontification on the subject of Eros and love. Is he really saying to us that in the ends it's all about sex, and that literature that considers itself above or better than humanity is pointless?

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

The G File - Hakan Nesser

The G File, published in Sweden in 2003, is the final novel featuring Inspector Van Veeteran. Nesser long since got himself in a tangle by retiring his protagonist far too early in the series. Some of the later Van Veeterans scarcely feature our hero at all. The problem is solved very easily and effectively here. The key murder takes place in 1987, when VV is barely into his fifties and still unhappily married. A glamorous American commissions disgraced cop turned private detective Maarten Verlangen to watch her husband. A couple of days later, the woman is found dead in her diving pool. She apparently dived in before checking for water. The obvious subject is her husband. Unfortunately he has a cast iron alibi - he was drinking in a restaurant with Verlangen, having recognised him as the cop who got him sent down for drug dealing.

Van Veeteren leads the murder investigation. He too knows the suspect Jaan G Hennan - known as G to distinguish him from the other Jaan Hennan in the school, obviously. At school G was a bully and a bastard. VV wouldn't put any crime past him. His suspicions seem to be confirmed when it turns out G took out a substantial life insurance policy in America - much as he did when his first American wife mysteriously disappeared a couple of years earlier.

It's obvious G is guilty. But can they prove it? No - and we cut to 2002. VV is retired now, and working in the antiquarian book shop. But he can't resist a return to the case when Verlangen goes missing. Especially since Verlangen had told his son that he'd finally got a break on the Hennan case. The evidence leads VV to Kaalbringen, scene of the axe murders featured in Borkmann's Point. To say more would be to risk giving the game away. Suffice to say, the twist is a corker. I definitely didn't see it coming.

The G File, with its cunning time structure and extra length (600 pages in the paperback above) is not only a fitting end to the ten-book series, it is by some distance the best of the later post-retirement Van Veeterens.

Other Van Veeteren novels featured on this blog:

Where to next for Nesser? He has already published five novels featuring Inspector Gunnar Barbarotti, a Swedish cop of Italian descent, and his latest standalone novel - horribly and pointlessly previewed in the back of the Pan Macmillan paperback - is set in, of all places, Somerset. Hakan certainly gets around.

Boneland- Alan Garner

To begin to get a grip on this startling and unique work you have to know a bit about its author. Garner is born. bred and still lives near Alderley Edge in Cheshire. For those who have never been, Alderley Edge is one of those odd offshoots of the Pennine Chain (I myself come from the valley of another) which in their size and isolation seem to be imbued with mystery.

When he was very young, Garner started writing books for children set in Alderley, exploiting that mystery and linking it with long-forgotten Celtic myths and legends. J R R Tolkien had of course done much the same with Hobbits and Anglo-Saxon myth. Garner's good luck was that his book was on offer at exactly the time Tolkien finally found a large adult readership. His misfortune, perhaps, is that he was always linked with Tolkien in terms of genre whereas Garner is a much better writer and his books much more daring.

His first book was The Weirdstone of Brisingamen in 1960. Irs continuation, The Moon of Gomrath, followed three years later. Both follow the adventures of siblings Susan and Colin as they explore Alderley Edge and interact with its supernatural guardians. At the end of the second book, Susan is stranded in another dimension. Clearly here was a trilogy awaiting its third and concluding part.

It turned out to be a long wait. Garner wrote other books in similar vein - The Owl Service, my personal favourite, became a cult classic. He wrote adult books, some of which have supernatural undertones, and he wrote accounts of the ancient British myths. But it was not until 2012, when he was 78 years of age, that Garner brought it all together with Boneland, an adult novel completing the Brisingamen Trilogy.

We find Colin, in middle age, a professor of astronomy based at that other feature of Garner's native district Jodrell Bank (albeit Garner, typically, never names it).  Colin is, to say the least, eccentric.  He lives in a hut in a quarry, has no memory whatsoever of life before he was 13 (his age in Gomrath) and is trying to contact the sister he cannot remember but knows he had through radio interaction with the Pleiades, which would be the action of a madman, obviously, if it weren't for the replies.

His employers send him for counselling. His counsellor, Meg, may or may not be an avatar of the Morrigan, the death goddess who stalked the battlefields of the Celtic twilight.

Interwoven with Colin's exploration is the quest of the prehistoric guardian of the Edge, the solitary Watcher who gives the animals life in song and stone and bone. His, then, is the Boneland. His problem is that he is alone. For ritual purposes it is right that he should be alone - but who does he pass his lore on to? He needs an heir and sets out in search of a woman to mate with. He finds one, sure enough, but - and this is sheer brilliance - she is not the same species as him. Her people know nothing of his lore.  Can he negotiate a solution?

Colin, likewise, finds Susan - or at least the featureless shadow of a girl - in a cleft in the hill which he uses as a wine cellar. Is it Susan? Is this a reunion?  As with the Watcher, Garner does not tell us. He is not a writer of A to B plot progression.  His text is all about evocation, the embodiment of the term 'opaque'. Nothing in Garner's fictional world is real or certain. It is real to the people experiencing it, but never ever certain. That said, much of Boneland is dialogue between Colin and the therapist Meg. Here Garner flaunts his gift for witty, contemporary wordplay.

Alan Garner is now 82. He is one of the few undoubted geniuses in contemporary literature. His output is slender - ten novels in over 50 years. The books themselves are equally brief - Boneland a mere 148 pages. That is because they are polished and condensed, every word weighed, every sentence honed. Why the hell is he not lauded to skies? Why was this summation of his life's work not mentioned in any broadsheet newspaper that I read?  I would have noticed.

Read him. Discover him. Treasure him.

Blair & Iraq: Why Tony Blair Went to War - Steve Richards

Blair & Iraq: Why Tony Blair Went to War - An Investigation (Kindle Single) (Kindle Edition)

Steve Richards is unusual among political commentators. He knows what he is talking about because he has been there and done it. He makes his own judgements and is not overswayed by the political agenda of his rather dubious employers. I used to read him assiduously in The Independent before the Russian takeover. He may still have connections with the 'i' but since that was taken over its political stance has been become slightly to the right of Nigel Farage and I wouldn't touch it with the proverbial ten-foot-pole grasped in asbestos gauntlets.

To return to Blair and Iraq. The timing is perfect, given the arrival of the long-awaited Chilcot report in the next few days. I suspect his conclusion is different from the Chilcot view, even after redaction. Richards' argument is that Blair's agenda was not a crazed crusade but the logical consequence of his determination to make Labour electable again. He and his New Labour cronies believed that the public would not back a party that was anti-American and could not countenance armed intervention. Clearly, then, he put both those failings right in Iraq - and made Labour unelectable for a generation.

Perhaps Richards will expand the book in the wake of Chilcot. As it stands, this is the beauty of Kindle Singles - a book exactly as long as it needs to be.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

The Bad Girl - Mario Vargas Llosa

The seven-chapter structure is the clue.  The Bad Girl is Vargas Llosa's view of the Seven Ages of Woman. Written when he was nudging 70 it is, unfortunately, a tad sentimental, more than a little self-serving, and - it has to be said - downright misogynistic. Good old reliable, hard-working, studious Ricardo is always the good boy and the object of his lust (he prefers 'love of his life'), with her sudden disappearances, reinvention, forever changing persona and sexual self-indulgence, is perforce the bad girl.
You could certainly read The Bad Girl on that premise, and no doubt enjoy her fall from grace, the inevitable ruin of age and promiscuity. But never forget that Vargas Llosa is a genius. On a more prosaic note, remember his predilection for marrying relatives. This may reflect women he has known but he has surely never known a single woman like this bad girl.  This is fiction, not autobiography. So we should question Ricardo's self-righteousness - to what extent does he let himself be mistreated because that is how he likes it?  To what extent does he relish the ultimate triumph, when he gets to tend her like a pet because she has used up all the life in her whereas he has doled out his life, like Prufrock, in coffee-spoons? And Lily, who was never even Lily to begin with, what of the vast majority of her life which we don't see?  What caused her to live this life of assumed personas? How much of the pretense is artifice, how much delusion? In this respect, Vargas Llosa offers one insight, in the penultimate chapter, magnificently entitled "Arquimedes, Builder of Breakwaters".
The book only achieves maximum effect if you constantly challenge what you are being told. Even to the extent of asking, is Arquimedes really who he claims to be, or just an old chancer telling the guy who buys him drinks what he wants to hear? The bad girl is, after all, the good boy's dream girl. And The Bad Girl, the novel, is a magnificent achievement, published in the 21st century but really a classic of the late 20th. Hugely, unreservedly, recommended.

Others books by Mario Vargas Llosa discussed on this blog:

Friday, 10 June 2016

Return of a King - William Dalrymple

Obviously I'd heard of this book, which received a huge amount of cross-media free publicity when it came out in 2013. I approached with caution because that level of freebie usually means one of three things: the author is an ex Tory MP, the author is phenomenally rich and/or well-connected, or it really is an astonishingly important book. The name Dalrymple (actually a cut-down version of the hyphenated original) rightly suggests the middle category, but luckily for us he is also a writer of genius, a historian who delves into archives which average scholars couldn't begin to tackle and surprisingly even-handed in his judgments. For example some British military men were complete idiots, others were astonishingly brave. Some were just incredibly lucky or indeed unlucky. The Afghanis who sucked up to, repulsed and then were butchered by the British are duplicitous, chivalric, noble, homicidal and generous. Everyone here, even the inbreds of both camps, is a real, three-dimensional human being.

This then is the story of the First Afghan War 1839-42. For reasons never entirely clear, the British decided to replace Dost Mohammad Khan, the perfectly friendly ruler of the always fractious mountain people with the man he deposed thirty years earlier, Shah Shuja. The replacement itself went surprisingly well, but everyone including the man himself knew that Shuja was simply a puppet of the 'envoy' Sir William Hay Macnaghten. A dyed-in-the-wool diplomat who knew nothing about tribal culture, Macnaghten was given to machinations and, far worse, often late in paying the pensions (bribes) which kept the peace between the rival chieftains. Over time, the Afghani leaders waxed nostalgic for the long golden age of Dost Mohammad. There was a king who was approachable, fair, and who paid his bribes on time.  Rebellion broke out. The idiots in India and their envoy in Afghanistan all misread the situation, and unbelievable bloodshed resulted. Very few Brits and hardly any of their sepoys made it out alive.

This to me was the most emotive part of the story. Dalrymple pulls no punches and his description of the disastrous retreat through the Khyber Pass in January blizzards is truly shattering. The Afghans who enslave and mutilate their captives are named and shamed. Yet he contrasts the behaviour of the outlying villagers with that of Dost Mohammad's son Akbar Khan who personally slew Sir William Macnaghten but who protected Macnaghten's widow and the wives and children of officers who were in the field against him with courtesy that would shame the Geneva Convention.  One fascinating aside, expertly handled by Dalrymple, is the escape of these hostages and their long journey to freedom, effectively under the command of the more mature women.

Then comes the Army of Retribution - and we should be thoroughly ashamed that we ever had such a force.  The new Tory government in London could not let such an affront to British arms go unavenged. So the army returned, with capable commanders, killed all who could not prove themselves friends of the young Victoria's fast-expanding empire and reduced the historic cities of Afghanistan to sand.

But the Afghans were not conquered. The Afghans are never conquered. The Army of Retribution came, slew and destroyed, but then withdrew and left Dost Mohammad to it.  Dalrymple is right to draw the parallels with today.  We Brits have just 'withdrawn' from our fourth invasion of Afghanistan, so that's 4-0 to the Afghanis.  Those guys even saw off Soviet Russia for Pete's sake!

I knew nothing whatever about this subject before reading Return of a King. I am now fascinated. That is surely the aim of the popular historian. Job done, then.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

When the Devil Holds the Candle - Karin Fossum

I won't waste space by restating my conviction that Karin Fossum is by far the best writer in Nordic Noir. What I will say is that When the Devil Holds the Candle is easily the best Fossum I have read thus far.

First off, Inspector Sejer enters the fray much earlier, and he has the assistance of Jacob Skarre, his regular protege. Indeed, Skarre makes a brief appearance on page 1. The crime itself is complex; there are several of them and we are never sure until the very end how they are linked, if at all.  Essentially two young lads, Andreas and Zipp have too much time on their hands. They get into minor scrapes until a handbag snatch goes wrong and Andreas reveals an uncomfortable truth about himself to Zipp. In order to regain lost ground he takes on a home invasion.  After that, no one hears from him again.

To reveal more of the plot would risk giving away some of the twists and turns. What sets Fossum apart, when she's on form such as this, is her exploration of her characters, whether good or bad.  Of course, in truth, no one is wholly good or wholly bad. Andreas and Zipp both love their mothers. Sejer is dating again after a long time alone and wonders if he has waited too long. Irma Funder, who keeps cropping up throughout the novel, is older than Sejer, lonelier, and equally stubborn. I bet Karin regrets calling her elderly now that she herself has turned sixty.

Felicity David's translation from the original Norwegian reads very well. The cover is not as bad as other Vintage Fossum covers, though scarcely a design masterpiece, and it does for once reflect the story.

When the Devil Holds the Candle is therefore HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. If you're trying Fossum for the first time, start here or The Water's Edge.

Other novels by Karin Fossum discussed on this blog: