Tuesday, 27 December 2016

John le Carre, The Biography - Adam Sisman

There are a couple of problems that writing a biography of a still living, still practicing creative artist always present. Additional problems face the biographer of an artist who is, to a certain extent, a fictional construct in his own right.

Le Carre is, of course, a pseudonym. In the early days, when interviewed in the le Carre persona, David Cornwall gave conflicting accounts of his secret service experience. Since then he has channeled enormous amounts of autobiographical material into his fiction, especially concerning his scapegrace father Ronnie, who crops up all over the place and is the dominant character in le Carre's most autobiographical (and for me, most exhausting novel) A Perfect Spy, which I have been wrestling with for months. The Perfect Spy was le Carre's thoroughgoing attempt to purge the Ronnie factor from his life. It is also in many ways his last Cold War novel. And that is where, in an ideal world, Sisman should have left it.

Sadly he gives us another 200 pages of the later career, which le Carre has spent anatomising the state-controlled corruption of globalisation with its arbitrary wars and exploitation of so-called 'emerging economies'. How can anyone take a view on a work so vividly in progress? Who can say how it has effected its creator while the creator is still creating? Well Sisman can't, that's for sure. Instead we get 200 pages of what is essentially tactics and results - le Carre's regular switches of agent and publisher, the setting up and closing down of the company to manage his copyright and royalties, the production company he now owns with his sons, and swathes of reviews from all the usual suspects. My teeth positively ached when Sisman gave us the petty feud between le Carre and Salman Rushdie, now happily resolved.

It is, of course, an authorised biography. Le Carre worked with Sisman as, throughout his career, he has worked with scriptwriters on the films of his books. The question arises, how truthful is le Carre? How truthful can anyone be who has so thoroughly fictionalised his own life? Sisman himself makes the point towards the end: David Copperfield, he reminds us, was Dickens' most autobiographical novel, but that doesn't make it autobiography. With le Carre the question becomes even more complicated because no sooner had Sisman's breezeblock landed in 2015 than le Carre published his own 'autobiography' The Pigeon Tunnel, which is next on my reading list. Funnily enough, Sisman describes an earlier attempt by le Carre to anthologise the various autobiographical fragments he has produced over the years. Le Carre abandoned the project. Is The Pigeon Tunnel the same material reworked? We shall soon see.

As for this, like so much of le Carre's middle period output, especially The Perfect Spy, it is much too long. I nevertheless warmed to character of David Cornwell, still furious after more than fifty years. And I warmed somewhat towards Sisman who scrupulously (unlike so many contemporary biographers) left himself out of the story. It is the definitive biography to date. It would have been a lot better in two volumes.

Monday, 26 December 2016

Carmilla - Sheridan le Fanu

Perfect for Christmas night reading, Carmilla is effectively the mother of Dracula. John Polidori was the father, with Lord Byron a sort of fairy godfather. Polidori's The Vampyre came out in 1819, originally credited to Byron in the hope of bigger sales. In fact The Vampyre was Byron, thinly veiled under the name Lord Ruthven, the name he had appeared under in Glenarvon (1816), a scandalous bodice-ripper by Byron's spurned mistress Lady Caroline Lamb. Carmilla - likewise a novella - came out in 1871 and derives from the legend of Hungarian noblewoman Elizabeth Bathory, who is said to have preserved her beauty by bathing in the blood of young virgins. A quarter of a century later along came Bram Stoker to combine to two - all he needed to find was another medieval Eastern European blood fiend, preferably one with a catchy name.

Stoker was a Dubliner, like le Fanu, and it is inconceivable that he should not have known Carmilla. He was working, in Dublin, for a newspaper co-owned by le Fanu when the story came out in serial form in late 1871. He may or may not have known of Polidori. The term 'vampire' was not original and indeed is deployed in Carmilla. Modern screen Draculas may have a whiff of Byron about them but Stoker's Dracula, in the novel, does not. Indeed the only thing Stoker seems to have added to what le Fanu supplied, aside from material lifted from the life of Vlad Tepez, is the vampiric means of transmission. The bite itself passing on the contagion seems original to Stoker. Le Fanu has some obscure device of vampires infecting suicides and I'm not sure that the question of transmission arises in Polidori (it certainly doesn't in Byron's 'fragment' "The Burial".

Carmilla was written at the very end of le Fanu's life, by which time you would hope he had developed a graceful turn of phrase. Sadly, a lifetime's slog as a journalistic hack seems to have undermined his prose, which plods somewhat. On the other hand his structure is very clever, a story within a framework, which then admits other stories. The frisson that made it successful, however, is the implied lesbianism between Carmilla and the narrator Laura. Given that Laura speaks to us directly we can be safe in the assumption she did not die. The victim is Berthe, ward of General Spielsdorf, the neighbour and friend of Laura's father in Styria. We only see Carmilla as beautiful and loving and extremely sexual. It is Spielsdorf who later reveals what she really is and how she must be destroyed - which, incidentally, is done in the way familiar to all Dracula fans. The learned man who assists at the destruction is Baron Vordenburg of Graz, who is described thus:
He was tall, narrow-chested, stooping, with high shoulders, and dressed in black. His face was brown and dried in with deep furrows; he wore an oddly-shaped hat with a broad leaf. His hair, long and grizzled, hung on his shoulders. He wore a pair of gold spectacles, and walked slowly, with an odd shambling gait, with his face sometimes turned up to the sky, and sometimes bowed down toward the ground, and seemed to wear a perpetual smile; his long thin arms were swinging, and his lank hands, in old black gloves ever so much too wide for them, waving and gesticulating in utter abstraction.
Small wonder, then, that Stoker preferred to combine Vordenburg's knowledge of vampiric lore with the more reassuring professional person of Doctor Hesselius. to whom Laura's narrative is addressed - et voila, Van Helsing!

Le Fanu doesn't do bats but there is an animal entity. In the most horrific passage of the novella a monstrous cat - 'four or five feet long' - pounces on Laura's bed.
The two broad eyes approached my face, and suddenly I felt a stinging pain as if two large needles darted, an inch or two apart, deep into my breast. I waked with a scream.
Intriguingly, le Fanu leaves a major question unanswered - who is the mysterious 'Countess' who claims to be Carmilla's mother but who dumps her daughter first on Spielsdorf, then on Laura's father. She meets Spielsdorf at a masked ball and refuses to unmask for him because. she insists, he will recognise her. Did le Fanu simply forget? I doubt it; the encounters with the Countess are allotted too much space within the hundred pages of the novella. Perhaps le Fanu planned to bring her back in a follow-up story. After all, Carmilla was one of five stories published in In A Glass Darkly (1872), all of which were presented as being from the papers of Doctor Hesselius, who thus became the first occult detective. Sadly, le Fanu died early the following year before he could publish more.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Ted Hughes: The Life of a Poet - Elaine Feinstein

Published in 2001, this was the first full-length biography of the enigmatic Hughes. As such, it laid out the groundplan which others have since followed. A fair bit of detail about the childhood years, a long account of the six-year marriage to Sylvia Plath, and a brisk canter through the remaining thirty-five years.

Feinstein is herself a poet, thus her insights into Ted's work are particularly valuable. She was a friend of Ted and fellow client of his sister/agent Olwyn. As such, she provides a welcome counterbalance to many of the more militant accounts from the pro-Plath camp. Whilst she does rather gallop through the second half of Hughes's career, she nevertheless takes due time to consider and evaluate the stream of work he maintained. She even delves into areas that few others mention - his prose work, for example, notably the vast Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being. She is frank in her depiction of the always controversial Olwyn and generous in her account of Carol, Ted's second wife. Ted's death, which was fresh in her mind when she wrote the book, is profoundly moving.

The only area in which I take exception is a series of broad and unsupported generalisations which for reasons unknown Feinstein makes about Northern men and their attitude to women. It is an area in which I may be better qualified, being myself a Northern man, a generation younger than Hughes, admittedly, but from the next valley along with most of my ancestry from the same valley as him. I even share his South Yorkshire connections. And I can assure Feinstein that, in my experience, she could not be more wrong in her assumptions about the term 'mother' when used as a synonym for 'wife'.

With that proviso, which is of course always open to argument, there can be no better place to start delving into the life of England's greatest poet of the late Twentieth Century.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Anansi Boys - Neil Gaiman

It has been almost a fortnight since my last post. The delay is not because I'm reading some colossus of a book (though I now am) or that I've been wasting eyesight on a book I cast aside before finishing. It's because I did finish Anansi Boys, perhaps against my inclination,
Now, to be clear, I am a huge fan of Neil Gaiman. I adored Neverwhere and Black Orchid frazzled my brain. Anansi Boys, though...

Essentially it is a mechanistic farce - a limited number of characters forever popping up in one another's lives. Improbability is the whole point of farce, which is one reason it doesn't greatly appeal to me. And, to be absolutely fair, Gaiman does offer some justification through the context of Caribbean mythology. After all, if events didn't come across as wildly improbable, how would we know the gods are involved?

The book has its funny moments, lots of them, some of which made me laugh out loud, which I rarely do. The problem was I couldn't really care about these people. And that is, I suspect, because Gaiman has erred in choosing an almost entirely Caribbean cast of characters. Gaiman is not of Afro-Caribbean ethnicity and neither am I. How can we possibly understand the particular complexities of the lives of Afro-Caribbeans and their communities? Sure, we can research their mythology - and Gaiman handles this aspect with aplomb - but Fat Charlie and his circle live in contemporary Florida, London and on a fictional island. In the first two locales they definitely face challenges which Gaiman and I don't.

Again, let me be clear, there is no hint of racism here. Gaiman clearly likes all his characters. But for me that's not quite enough. The characters are lacking a context. That leads inescapably to a lack of three-dimensionality and character progression.

The other problem is the lack of jeopardy. In a farce, the jeopardy is usually the potential loss of the true love. Charlie's girlfriend Rosie is not the one he should be with, so losing her is the right thing, whereas the true love, Daisy, is right alongside from Charlie from early on. In fact, he can't lose her even when he wants to.

So there it is, the reason for my reluctance to blog about Anansi Boys. It won't stop me reading more Gaiman, not by a long chalk. It is not a bad book: it is expertly written, bowls along, with jokes. It just lacks that element of fantasy which for me is essential - believability.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

The Man Who Japed - Philip K Dick

One of three early novels collected here, The Man Who Japed was written in 1956. It is set in the second decade of the 22nd century but it looks and sounds a lot like 1956. What Dick is doing is satirising the homely, apple-pie culture of the American Fifties and preserving its worst aspects - the sanctimonious self-righteousness, the fetish of the upwardly mobile, and above all the hysterical dread of infiltration by the unclean outsider.
Armageddon devastated the Western World in the 1970s. A hero arose from the ashes, Major Streiter. Unfortunately Streiter was a South African major at a time when the Boer state was not exactly known for its liberality. The society that Streiter created in his own image was called Morec - Moral Reclamation. Provided they remained moral, a family could aspire to rise over the generations, winning leases on one-bedroomed flats ever closer to the omphalos, the statue and spire honouring the New World Patriarch in Newer York.
Allen Purcell is one such high-flyer. In his late twenties, he has his own agency providing 'packages' for the state broadcaster Telemedia (TM). One morning Purcell is offered the ultimate promotion - director of TM. There's just one problem: earlier in the week Purcell spent the night in Hokkaido, drinking wine with two outsiders of his acquaintance; on the way home he passed through the park and 'japed' the statue of Major Streiter. That is to say he vandalised it. Big time. His unauthorised absence has been noted. A couple of days later he is seen with an attractive young woman who is not his wife.
The young woman is in fact the sister of Dr Malparto, a key figure in the flip side of Morec, the side polite society doesn't like to talk about - the Resort, where Morec sequesters the ne'er-do-wells, the artistic, the antisocial, the morally unreclaimable. The Malparto siblings kidnap Allen Purcell, try to psychoanalyse him, but Allen escapes, takes the job at TM, and ends up committing the ultimate jape.
Like so much of Dick's work this is satire but not as we generally think of it. Allen Purcell is by no means the archetypal Star Wars freedom fighter. His weapon of choice is not a laser gun but mockery. Yet he is a rebel, he has a cause, and in the end he turns his back on the easy solution. He is, unusually for a Dick hero, quite likeable. I liked him anyway.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Slade House - David Mitchell

Slade House is a traditional English haunted house story disassembled, dissected, twisted and tweaked by a master of literary tropes. Mitchell favours multi-viewpoint narratives and has made Slade House the perfect vehicle for the technique. Every nine years, over five cycles from 1979 to 2015, innocents and/or investigators are enticed to the suburban mansion that was once Slade House. Some are linked, others independent. On every occasion we and they have to try and disentangle what is real and what is not. Piecemeal throughout the novel suggestions are offered regarding the origin of the 'orison'; only at the end is the full story revealed.

Mitchell has previously been drawn to the epic format. Here, the shorter form (only 230 pages) suits his purpose better. For Mitchell, it seems to me, form and structure matter more than elegant wordplay. His words are well-chosen, his sentences polished, but he leaves the complexities to ideas which are by their nature labyrinthine. The orison, for example, is a concept Mitchell developed in his earlier novel Cloud Atlas, a sort of spiritual or supra-natural version of virtual reality. Here he traces the idea from various esoteric belief systems. Whether there is any basis for this in real world religious practice is immaterial. It reads as plausible, even authoritative, and thus the reader accepts it.

For all the structural bias, Mitchell creates characters who hold our interest for as long as they need to. The guileless son of a pretentious single mother, a libidinous copper, a chubby fresher from the local university, her sister the online reporter and, ultimately, the kick-ass doctor of psychiatry. The interdependency of the Grayer twins, whose career unites the episodic narrative, is especially well handled.

I liked this novel a great deal. I commend it to all.