Thursday, 28 July 2016

To Sir, With Love - E R Braithwaite

Probably best known for the 1967 film version starring Sidney Poitier, Judy Geeson and Lulu, the original book is actually set in the five years following the end of World War II. Braithwaite, a Guyanan, is a university graduate who had a successful engineering career in America. On the outbreak of war he came to the Mother Country and served with distinction in the RAF. Demobbed, he seeks work in London. With his qualifications he should walk into a well-paid job, but of course he is black, and for the first time in his life experiences colour prejudice. His account of how that felt is some of the most powerful writing in a powerful book. He is not brow-beaten, demoralised, ashamed of his race - the responses that have become stereotypical in liberal white fiction - he is bloody furious. He feels the cancer of hate boiling up.
In the end he is persuaded to try teaching. He doesn't need training thanks to his degree, and the London Council will take on all comers. Braithwaite finds himself sent to a poorly-regarded school in the East End. To his surprise, he finds an enlightened Head with a progressive programme of education and a passionate belief in the potential of his pupils. The other teachers are a mixed bag but most are behind the Head. Braithwaite finds himself in charge of the top class, boys and girls who will soon be venturing out into the world of employment and national service.
The book is as much about progressive education as it is about prejudice. A key point is that schools are a vital element of the local community. The local adults are unthinkingly prejudiced but accept Braithwaite when their children make them.
To Sir, With Love is a truly beautiful and moving book. The success of the film probably did it no favours in terms of literary repute. But Braithwaite, whom I'm delighted to learn is still among us at the age of 104, is a fine writer and deep thinker who wears his learning very lightly. He doesn't seem to have written many books, and some of them I'm guessing are scientific, but I am definitely keen to read more of his autobiographical fiction.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Memoirs of Hadrian - Marguerite Yourcenar

Published in 1951 and translated into English three years later, this is the novel that made Marguerite Yourcenar (born de Crayencour - it's an anagram, geddit?) internationally celebrated. I say celebrated rather than famous because I doubt very much it was ever a bestseller. It's far too recondite, academic and, dare I say it, dull. Her success thereafter was measured in the usual terms for French litterateurs - Ivy League professorship and admission to Academie Francaise. To be fair, Yourcenar was the first woman academician. Shame it wasn't on the basis of a better book.

To be objective, there can be no doubt of her literary skill. The text convinces on the level it professes, a vast letter of advice from a not terribly distinguished emperor to the teenage next-heir-but-one, who isn't his grandson or even a relative. Where it fails is in revealing the soul of the man. Hadrian is famous for his wall. Other achievements, such as the Pantheon in Rome, are generally less known, and his military record was confined to places no one but a classicist could point to on a map. His reign was the result of a good deal of sucking-up (to his predecessor Trajan and, more significantly, Trajan's wife Plotina), a generous slice of being in the right place at the right time. and ostensibly not much else. He was a consolidator, not a conqueror, a Hellenist, a man of culture - and a man of terrific ego, apparently, given the number of settlements he founded in his own honour. He was a nasty piece of work to women other than Plotina, and hopelessly in thrall to the Bythian youth (no, no idea where Bythia might be) Antinous.

Antinous is Yourcenar's biggest failure here. She cannot give him any character because it is Hadrian's version of events we hear and Hadrian - here at any rate - sees Antinous only as living work of art. We are left in no doubt that their relationship is sexual, but get none of the action. Antinous's suicide, around the age of twenty, must surely have been the turning point of Hadrian's emotional life, yet we learn next to nothing. He simply founds a city in the lost boy's honour. Perhaps Yourcenar hoped to go further - I could not be bothered finishing her pretentious Reflections on the Composition of the Memoirs of Hadrian appended to this volume - but found herself trapped in her narrative device. After all, Hadrian is writing to another teenage boy, the future Marcus Aurelius.

I don't begrudge the time spent persevering with Hadrian. It is scrupulously researched, finely written (although I'm not convinced by Grace Frick's translation). It's an achievement. Sadly, it's not at all entertaining.
By the way, Penguin Classics, that's a horrible cover.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Kidnapped - Robert Louis Stevenson

RLS has been poorly served by posterity. He remains extremely famous; everyone knows the title of at least three of his books - and yet do we actually read them or are we put off by hammy films, cheesy TV adaptations, or the countless continuations or reimaginings of variable quality? Are Kidnapped and Treasure Island yarns for Victorian boys? The truth is, we are put off. Which is grossly unfair considering the brilliance of his prose and the finely-tuned directness of his storytelling.

Anyway I'm very much not a teenage boy, except at heart, I am as highly qualified academically as it is possible to get - in literature, moreover - I have always been put off RLS by associated crud, and I am so glad I have now discovered him on my own terms. Forget all those quasi-academic theories of narrative by people who have never written narrative. This, right here, is how to write an action thriller.

The plot is so well known, do I need to spell it out? Orphan David is sold into slavery by wicked Uncle Ebenezer to deprive him of his rightful title. David is rescued by adventurer Alan Breck and after many scrapes is restored to his legal status. Actually, I probably do. Did you realise that the kidnapping was actually about enforced slavery on the American mainland? No - because no Disneyfied movie is ever going to mention such a disgraceful practice. I hadn't realised that David and Alan Breck are shipwrecked in the Highlands and Islands and that the trek to Edinburgh is actually a trip south. I certainly never knew that Alan Breck Stewart was a real person and that his involvement in the Appin Murder of the Red Fox, Colin Roy Campbell of Glenure, was pretty much as described here.

What we have, then, and what is always played down in dramatisations, is a political subplot. David is a Whig, a supporter of Hanoverian rule, a Protestant. Breck is a Jacobite (in real life he defected from the English army to the Scots at Prestonpans), an enemy of the state and Catholic. All this is fully explored in the conversations they have whilst hiding from the redcoats. The abject poverty of the Highlands after the putting down of '45 rebellion, is vividly portrayed in Chapter 23 "Cluny's Cage". Cluny is chieftain of the Clan Macpherson, stripped of his titles and estate by Act of Parliament and reduced to living in a patched together structure of living trees and a nearby cave. Yet he maintains his dignity and his social role and responsibilities.

In contrast to Cluny, two chapters later we encounter Robin Oig, one of the sons of Rob Roy Macgregor.
He was sought upon all sides on a charge of carrying a young woman from Balfron and marrying her (as was alleged) by force; yet he stepped about Balquidder like a gentleman in his own walled policy. It was he who had shot James Maclaren at the ploughstilts, a quarrel never satisfied; yet he walked into the house of his blood enemies as a rider might into a public inn.
Cluny Macpherson is a natural aristocrat, Robin Oig Macgregor a pure thug. The Scottish Highlands in 1751 is like the American Wild West in 1870.

I loved this book. If you haven't had the delight of reading it as an adult, I urge you not to miss out.

Monday, 18 July 2016

When The Killing's Done - T C Boyle

Ten years ago I happened upon T C Boyle, who had by then wisely stopped calling himself T Coraghessan Boyle, thus accelerating his international sales. I began with Drop City and quickly read most of his other novels up to Water Music, which I considered his best. I stopped because I was obviously reading them faster than he was writing them. Now, something like five years since I read Water Music, I found this, Boyle's 2011 eco-novel.

Essentially, the premise is this: a series of women, earth mothers all, become involved with two islands in a chain of four off the coast of California. All are intent, one way or another, in perpetuating the natural haven which is their romantic view of the islands. The thing is, society's view of what is natural changes with the generations.

The contemporary storyline is that of Alma Takesue, a eco-scientist in charge of re-naturalising the islands. This involves ruthlessly expunging all non-native fauna like the rampaging razorback pigs left over from previous attempts at farming. This prompts rich slacker Dave LaJoy, who once had a disastrous first date with Alma, to launch a protest movement, and when the courts dismiss his claims, to resort to practical sabotage.

Dave's girfriend Anise was brought up on the island where her mother was cook to a half-baked sheep farming operation. The mother, Rita, was a former hippy musician. Alma' grandmother Beverley was the only survivor of a shipwreck off the islands in the late 1940s, when pregnant with Alma's mother Katherine. Katherine lost her husband diving for sea urchin in the same waters. Alma's partner Tim has a simpler answer to the prospect of becoming a father. He simply leaves.

Boyle is at his best with a diverse cast of characters taking diametrically opposed stands on the same issue, especially when, as here, he can roam over a number of time periods. When The Killing's Done is thought-provoking on the subject of interference with nature. Dave LaJoy is a typical Boyle bull-in-a-china-shop loser and great fun. The sole problem is Alma, a really annoying sanctimonious self-centered prig. I'm afraid I wanted to skip any section that started with her, though I'm glad I didn't.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Midnight Sun - Jo Nesbo

This is, I believe, Nesbo's latest novel. It came out last year. Headhunters was the first Nesbo stand-alone novel. This is the fourth. I raved about Headhunters here on my Biblioblog but got a little bored with the more recent Harry Hole novels. The reprints of the early Hole novels, long delayed in the UK, were delayed for a good reason - they were rubbish. I was beginning to lose faith. Then came the TV series Occupied, with a storyline by Nesbo, and I was tempted to try again. So, having missed The Son and Blood on Snow, I picked up Midnight Sun.

OK, it is not as good as Headhunters. The characters are more traditional, the twist is not as jaw-dropping, the cringe scene is nowhere near as hideous, but at least at barely 200 pages it doesn't outlive its story. The story is, as I say, fairly basic: hero runs away from big city to wilderness with a dark secret - he has done a very bad thing, which turns out not to be so bad after all and is kind of justified. He pitches up in the wilds with an assumed name and falls for the preacher's daughter.

The big difference, of course, is that this is Norway. The wilderness is extremely wild. The locals are not rednecks but Sami (Laplanders) and this is Nesbo telling the tale. He does so expertly. It's secondary Nesbo (which is not the same as second-rate Nesbo) but it's a cracking read and therefore a welcome return to form.
A blast from the past. My review of Headhunters from March 2012:

How annoying for those of us who write - the best contemporary Nordic author of series crime fiction, quite possibly the best full-stop, turns out to be just as good at stand-alone first-person psychological thrillers.  No wonder this has been snapped up for the first Nesbo movie, which opens in the UK and Ireland on April 6.

Thank goodness it's a Norwegian movie, not some hopeless Hollywood mess.  Unfortunately, I suspect that means it won't get shown much outside major cities.

However, back to the book...

I have simply never read such a masterful riff on the twists and turns essential for the genre, nor the untrustworthy narrator device which, when done right, raises the typical to the exceptional.  For example, most thriller writers return to their prologue at the end.  Not Nesbo; he picks it up in the middle and makes it his key turning-point.  As for the final twist ... it was so unexpected, so stunning, that I had to flip back to the relevant passage to make sure Nesbo hadn't cheated.  And he hadn't.  Wonderful - more than worthy of Hitchcock or Patrick Hamilton.

But the world of books would be a dreary old place if we all agreed...

I found a slightly different opinion on Beattie's Book Blog (unofficial homepage of the New Zealand book community), which is an excellent, highly-informed site:

I have to say I didn't rate the stand-alone Headhunters, (although I reckon it will make a great movie); no give me the Harry Hole titles any day and on that note the good news is that the next one is due soon.Phantom – the thrilling follow-up to The Leopard……….Synopsis:Summer. A boy is lying on the floor of an Oslo apartment. He is bleeding and will soon die. In order to place his life and death in some kind of context he begins to tell his story. Outside, the church bells toll.Autumn. Former police inspector Harry Hole returns to Oslo after three years abroad. He seeks out his old boss at Police Headquarters to request permission to investigate a homicide. But the case is already closed: the young junkie was in all likelihood shot dead by a fellow addict. Yet, Harry is granted permission to visit the boy's alleged killer in jail. There, he meets himself and his own history. What follows is the solitary investigation of what appears to be the first impossible case in Harry Hole's career. And while Harry is searching, the murdered boy continues his story.A man walks the dark streets of Oslo. The streets are his and he has always been there. He is a phantom.Yay, bring it on, can't wait to read it................

Me neither.  Actually, I don't have to.  It is published in the UK today and Harvill Secker have done a vid.

What I want to know, though, is what has happened to the first two Hole booksThe Bats (1997) and The Cockroaches (1998), neither of which are available here?  I can't think of another series, which has established a reputation and sales in another country, that hasn't started from the beginning here.  Decidedly odd.


Really, really wish I hadn't asked that last question. Do you suppose it provoked them?

Here are all the Nesbo books I've reviewed on this site.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Norwegian Wood - Haruki Murakami

This is Murakami's 1987 breakout novel, the one that made him a bestseller in Japan and successful around the world. This was because of its universality - ostensibly your basic rite of passage story - its apparent simplicity and its slightly offbeat characters. Typically for Murakami, the protagonists are welded in sexless love. Watanabe loves Naoko. Naoko loves Watanabe but cannot have penetrative sex with him (though they have plenty of non-penetrative) because she is still mourning her childhood sweetheart Kizuki, who also happened to be Watanabe's best friend. Kizuki killed himself at 17. Watanabe and Naoke have both gone to university in Tokyo, although they attend different ones. Watanabe loses Naoke when she enters a sanatorium to try and get over her grief. Left to his own devices Watanabe trails along in the wake of the dormitory Lothario Nagasawa, who picks up girls for them both, has sex with them and dumps them. Nagasawa is fully aware of his shortcomings, but accepts the way he is. After all, he is open with his longtanding girlfriend Hatsumi - there is no deceit involved with her or with the pick-up girls. Hatsumi quite likes Watanabe and would have sex with him, were it not for Nagasawa.  Meanwhile Watanabe visits Naoko at the sanatorium and meets her room-mate, the forty-year-old musician Rieko, who has been there seven years. Naoko and Rieko sleep together. Watanabe has sex with neither. Back at university, he meets a fellow drama student, the ultra-cute Midori, who would like to have sex with him but....

So it's not quite your usual rite of passage scenario. More a case of - boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy has lots of girls, boy meets two more girls and a woman, boy cannot have any of them, but he finally loses the first girl, has sex with the woman, and decides to take up with the girl he should have focused on all along. Typical Murakami after all.

The beauty is the simplicity. Like the song, which Watanabe hears many years later in Hamburg (which then provokes his memory of Naoke, whose favourite song it was), the writing is incredibly simple yet exceptionally captivating. The translation here, by Jay Rubin, strikes what is surely the right note. The chronology seems to be straightforward but in fact a vast amount of backstory is sneaked in, even for comparatively minor characters. There is a regular use of letters between the principals in which they can reveal truths to one another which they could not say in person. Truth and untruth is one of the themes of the novel - Nagasawa is the extreme example of someone who is brutally honest about his actions whilst fooling himself that admitting his betrayals somehow legitimises them. Reiko is his opposite; again painfully honest about her past life, she excoriates herself unnecessarily. Nobody ever seems to tell the whole truth to Naoke and Watanabe  does his best but has no real idea about his true feelings. Discovering them, embracing them, is his coming of age (he is still only twenty-one at the novel's end). The exquisite final paragraph suggests that he has just for him the real journey is only just beginning.

Because I have come at Murakami the wrong way round, reading his most recent and ambitious work first, I was initially slightly disappointed with Norwegian Wood because it seemed so simple and unambitious. But I stuck with it and discovered the true depth and complexity. I cannot pick favourites. Read them all is my advice.


1Q84 Book 3