Tuesday, 31 January 2017

The Four-Dimensional Nightmare - J G Ballard

Short stories were never going to be the driving force of Ballard's fiction. They were just something he wrote to get into print and build a readership. This 1977 Penguin collection is an oddity even for Ballard. Two of the stories in the version originally published by Gollancz in 1963 have been replaced. To be fair, one of the replacements, "Thirteen to Centaurus", is one of the standout stories here. The other, "The Overloaded Man", is however completely forgettable.

As for the rest, time is a recurring theme. "The Voices of Time" and "The Garden of Time" rather speak for themselves, and "Chronopolis" isn't exactly oblique in its subject matter. I actually enjoyed all three. The length of the first allows for complexity and ambiguity, which I find Ballard always does rather well, whereas the shortness and simplicity of the second tilted it more towards fantasy, which Ballard does hardly at all. "Chronopolis" would be a classic short story in any collection with its brutal, sardonic twist.

Both "Chronopolis" and "Thirteen to Centaurus" feature clever and lonely young boys as protagonists. Empire of the Sun, which I consider Ballard's masterpiece, of course tells the tale of young Jim. I really wish he had used the young boy character more often. You can forgive a teenager his or her obsessions, whereas the grown men of High Rise and Kingdom Come can be downright unpleasant.

Two of the three remaining stories, "Cage of Sand" and "The Watch-Towers", share the abandoned city setting of "Chronopolis". I preferred the former, which is set on Mars, where a handful of hangers-on gather to watch the regular orbit of the capsule with a dead astronaut in it.

My favourite in the collection, though, has to "The Sound-Sweep". The over-developed world has become so noisy that people are employed to sweep away extraneous noise. The mute Mangon has a particular gift for tracking down and erasing the slightest lurking murmur. In his spare time he pays court to the forgotten operatic diva Madame Gioconda. No one listens to live music now. The fashion is for
Ultrasonic music, employing a vastly greater range of octaves, chords and chromatic scales than are audible by the human ear [which] provided a direct neural link between the sound stream and the auditory lobes, generating an apparently sourceless sensation of harmony, rhythm, cadence and melody uncontaminated by the noise and vibration of audible music.
Now that is exactly the sort of fiendish construct that gets the very best out of Ballard!

Monday, 30 January 2017

Katherine Howard - Josephine Wilkinson

Katherine Howard has been the subject of a couple of biographies recently. It is certainly true that she is probably the queen of whom least is known. Anne of Cleves, of course, lived longer, and Jane Seymour has been covered as context to the careers and tangled affairs of her two attention-seeking brothers. Otherwise it's Ann Boleyn, Katherine of Aragon and Kate Parr, very much in that order.

Wilkinson falls into the trap of treating Katherine Howard as one would a contemporary teenaged girl. By the standards of her time, she wasn't. She was fourteen or fifteen when she started having sex (history is vague about her actual age). Many women of her rank were married by that age. Henry VIII's grandmother, Margaret Beaufort, perhaps the most influential of all Tudor women, was married, widowed and a mother at the age of thirteen. If Edmund Tudor wasn't seen as a paedophile, nor should his grandson be.

The fact remains, Henry was old enough to be her father - indeed, he had a daughter older than Katherine. Again, this is nothing new. Henry's problem, I have always maintained, is that he was always in the shadow of his childhood friend Charles Brandon, who was bigger, better looking, a more skillful jouster, who had even more wives than Henry and no problem begetting children, especially sons. Brandon, the duke of Suffolk, has recently married his ward Catherine Willoughby and fathered two strapping sons. This is doubtless what Henry wanted from Katherine Howard.

History has tended to portray Katherine as a brainless tart, so a corrective approach is long overdue. The trouble is, Wilkinson takes it too far. Katherine was demonstrably not stupid; everyone who wrote about her (usually for the advisement of foreign kings) approved of the way she handled her new role as queen. Therefore ignorance cannot excuse her pre-marital promiscuity, having sexual encounters with two of her step-grandmother's servants and setting her cap at a third. Katherine knew what was expected of an eligible bride.  The whole point of being cloistered with the dowager Duchess of Norfolk (who had herself married a man almost fifty years her senior) was to prepare her for married life to some landed gent or other. At best, Katherine was the victim of an overheated puberty.

Her other great quality was honesty. She seems to have immediately admitted her fault, perhaps in the hope of simply being set aside as Katherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves had both been. After all, she might have been indiscreet and distinctly unwise towards Thomas Culpeper during her marriage to Henry but no one ever claimed she had been unfaithful. Henry, however, went into a sulk and had her head lopped off, a fate she bore with stoicism. Wilkinson provides a nice detail of Katherine practicing with the block the night before her execution.

So, it's a decent account of a sad and ultimately inconsequential life. She didn't put Henry off his marital adventures, she just made him chose better next time. We of course feel sorry for Katherine, but no one made her behave as she did - and even nowadays a young woman with Katherine's sexual antecedents would not be accepted as a potential queen consort by the more ardent royalists. Consider the fate of Sarah, duchess of York.

One thing that really annoyed me, however, was Wilkinson's pretentious habit of fiddling with names. She insists on referring to King Francis of France as Francois I. Yes, he was actually christened Francois, and his subjects would have referred to him as King Francois, but if we're being pedantic then French history calls him Francois premier, and contemporary Frenchmen simply called him le roi Francois, since we only start numbering when there has been more than one. Equally inexcusable is calling Richard Rich Riche; where did that come from? I daresay Wilkinson has found a reference to Riche somewhere, but we all know about Tudor spelling and there are many hundreds of references to plain and simple Richard Rich. He clearly called himself Rich. Blessed with a surname like that, who wouldn't?

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Dr Futurity - Philip K Dick

The sheer weight of ideas Dick manages to cram into these early novels is amazing. Here we have Jim Parsons, a doctor in 1998 America, which as usual is a technologically advanced, freedom-stunted version of America circa 1957. A couple of pages in and Parsons is abducted into the distant future. He sees a vehicle coming towards him, waves for it to stop. Instead the young driver, little more than a boy, deliberately tries to run him down - because that is the expected, courteous thing to do in these times.

Parsons finds himself in a supercity full of very young, good-looking people who all look broadly the same because they share the same blended racial heritage, a sort of dark coppery flesh tone. Parsons tries to save a young woman's life, which is a crime here. In these days they don't have doctors they have euthanors, because everyone agrees to limit the population. Couples don't have children. The men are sterilised at puberty and the women donate their eggs to the central sperm bank to be fertilised as and when required.

For his inadvertent crime Parsons is exiled to Mars. His prison ship is intercepted and he finds himself back on Earth, in the tribal lands outside the city. The tribe that has captured him - the tribe that brought him forward in time - is the Wolf Tribe, and they do things slightly differently. They are clearly more Native American in ancestry and they have old people. Loris, the queen, has her mother and grandmother still secretly living. Moreover, her father Corith is in a cryogenic tank with an arrow in his chest. Corith is dead but Parsons has the skills to bring him back. No one since Parson's time has possessed those skills. The Wolf tribe have been able to track him down because they, alone among the tribes, have perfected time travel.

Parsons removes the arrow, repairs the damage and gets Corith breathing again. He has learnt by now that Corith was killed back in the sixteenth century when he went back to try and stop Sir Francis Drake landing in the New World and wreaking genetic havoc. Overnight he examines the extracted arrow. It looks like an authentic sixteenth century arrow - except the feathers are plastic. Next morning he is called to his patient. H finds another arrow jammed into Corith's chest.

To try and solve the riddle everyone goes back in time to Drake's Californian landfall. They aim to intercept Corith as he runs down the hill to confront the Englishman, thus intervening before the arrow is loosed and he is killed. Then things get really complicated and really ingenious. And the whole tangled web is satisfactorily sorted in a total 150 pages. A mini masterpiece.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

As a Man Grows Older - Italo Svevo

Svevo's story is unique. As a young man in Trieste he wrote two unsuccessful novels, of which this is the second. In middle age he befriended a young Irishman living in the city. He happened to mention his writing. The young man happened to be James Joyce. A decade later, the now famous Joyce found a publisher for Svevo's third novel, The Confessions of Zeno, which was published with great success in 1923, thereby encouraging English language translations of the earlier novels including this, in 1932, by Beryl de Zoete. Svevo had finished a fourth book and started a fifth when he died in a car crash in 1928. I'm guessing the car was the product of his belated success. And his name wasn't Italo Svevo anyway. He was Ettore Schmitz. Nonetheless his widow called herself Livia Svevo when she published a memoir of her husband.

Emilio Brentani, the hero of As a Man Grows Older, is a self-portrait. Like Svevo he aspired to literary success when young and missed. He now has a dreary office job and lives with his spinster sister Amalia, in Trieste, of course; nowhere could be better suited to this nowhere nobody. Emilio still considers himself an artistic man about town. He cultivates artistic friends like the sculptor Balli and - the modernist touch which appealed to Joyce - he overindulges in fashionable self-scrutiny. Every action, every emotion is gone over and over in his head, almost as if he is living an autobiographical novel. When he falls head over heels for the beautiful young Angiolina he builds himself a mountain of reasons why he shouldn't. His friend Balli, who fancies Angiolina himself and, in any case, doesn't want to lose his friend Emilio, encourages his neurotic behaviour. Emilio's sister Amalia, the only other significant character in the novel, likewise frets about losing her protector whilst consoling herself with erotic dreams of the flamboyant alpha male Balli. Angiolini couldn't care less. She is a poor young woman who knows that her beauty is her escape. She has had plenty of suitors before and makes no attempt to hide them. Emilio gets so tangled up in his strategems that he encourages her to become engaged to an unscrupulous tailor. He encourages her to sleep with her fiance so that he, Emilio, doesn't have to shoulder the guilt of deflowering her. Angiolina has no problem with this; her virginity is a distant memory - and, of course, the tailor dumps her the moment he has had his wicked way.

It is plain, spinsterish Amalia who pays the heaviest price for all this neurasthenic nonsense. Emilio comes home one day to find her literally deranged with frustrated passion. Emilio at least has the human decency to look after his sister, though not without asking Balli's advice first and accepting the medical guidance of Balli's friend, who cheerfully admits he has no idea what he is doing. It doesn't end well. Angiolina, meanwhile, has eloped with a cashier who has prudently robbed his own bank. Even then Emilio has to go through an elaborately staged charade of him abandoning her.

The novel is light but very modern in its time and still entertaining today. It is nothing like a Joyce novel but you can easily see what appealed to him here. Svevo is a writer who deservedly stands on his own, a unique voice unfairly forgotten.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Leaving Berlin - Joseph Kanon

Joseph Kanon is perhaps best known for The Good German (2001), which I confused with the terrible film The Good Shepherd and therefore overlooked.

Fortunately I looked again when I saw Leaving Berlin on the shelf at my local library. This is Kanon's latest novel, the story of a half-Jewish German author who fled to America after Hitler came to power but who has now effectively been deported for refusing to testify to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Alex hasn't even left before he is offered a lifeline by the embryonic post-war spy service - work for us in Berlin and we'll back your appeal.

What makes this novel really zing is that Alex has been invited back to East Berlin during the Russian blockade and the Allied airlift. As a successful author he is feted alongside Bertholt Brecht. Indeed, the climactic action takes place during the world premiere of Mother Courage.

Of course Alex is an equally enticing target for the Russian Occupation Forces. His first love, the aristocratic Elspeth, is now the mistress of the second most important Russian in town. Her sister and her husband are ex-Nazis anxious to repudiate their past. Elspeth's brother has just escaped from the slave camps. The brother of Elspeth's lost love - the boy she flaunted in front of the teenage  Alex - has grown up to become an officer of the civilian police force in Berlin. Everything is thoroughly internecine and everybody, without exception, is pretending to be something they are not.

The plotting is superb. The twists keep coming, right up to the last page. The characterisation and dialogue are extremely well done. The prose is refined, elegant, and perfectly suited to the story. Kanon is wholly American but his depiction of East Berlin in 1949 is utterly convincing. I am not the first to be reminded of John le Carre. Unlike le Carre, Kanon claims no personal involvement in Cold War espionage, but a lifetime in high-end publishing more than compensates. He is a magnificent writer, a new entry for the New Year on my list of must-read authors.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings - Iain Sinclair

Now this is a challenging read, worked and reworked until it resembles a palimpsest of interwoven narratives.

Sinclair is best known today as a psycho-geographer, exploring the effect of the deep past on contemporary cityscapes, in particular London, specifically London's East End, where he lives. When White Chappell was written in 1987 he was best known as a cutting edge modernist poet. Indeed, White Chappell combines the past and present of the author himself. It is thus a career crossroads for Sinclair.

Given the East End and the date of writing, it is no great challenge to work out what White Chappell refers to. As for Scarlet Tracings, I still have no idea. Blood trails, perhaps? Certainly that must be one interpretation. But why the medieval spelling of one and not the other...? We are not necessarily meant to know.

On one level it is about the antique book trade in the 1980s. At least one of the book scouts, Nicholas Lane, is a portrait of a real, crazed ex-rock musician who took to book dealing and who died late last year. His obituary sparked my interest in the book though I'm damned if I can find my note of his actual name. Sinclair, we must assume, is the narrator of these passages, who refers to himself as the Narrator. Here the writing is dense and poetic, almost brutalist. The seedy dealers come upon an early edition of Conan Doyle's Study in Scarlet, worth a fortune, which contains references to the Ripper murders.

The dealers do not investigate the Ripper leads, but the book does. It is established early on that Sinclair's favoured suspect is the royal physician Sir William Gull - also favoured by the legendary Stephen Knight, whose work is discussed by the dealers. To what extent Sinclair's Gull is historical, I do not know. Was he really the son of a Thames lighterman? I think we can say for sure that the way Sinclair handles his exposure and ultimate death is not historically accurate - but, wow, it is a passage that will live with me for a very long time.

Also interspersed is the story of James Hinson, a historical character who seems to have been both Gull's protege in surgery and his mentor in philosophical terms. Hinson's paganistic philosophy, available on many archival websites, is extreme to the point of derangement, but he certainly wasn't involved directly in the Ripper murders by virtue of the simple fact that he died ten years too soon. These passages are handled in letter form - letters from Hinson to his 'sister-wife' and her sister, the love of his life. Also included is a letter from Sinclair' friend and fellow poet Douglas Oliver, regarding an earlier novel, Suicide Bridge (1979), which Sinclair says is the second part of the 'triad' that closes with White Chappell, You see what I mean by palimpsest?

I know it sounds impossibly experimental but I have to say I loved it. It is absolutely up my alley in so many respects. To me, it was inspirational. I have to have more.

Savage Night - Allan Guthrie

This is a creditable effort at a Tartan Noir, well-written and intricately plotted. Sadly, it doesn't quite make it. It just doesn't have the side-of-the-mouth twang of proper noir.

The plot is grim but somehow underplayed. On the face of it, Savage Night is a revenge story. Jailbird Park believes, wrongly, that ex-tobacco smuggler Tommy Savage is responsible for the gangland murder of his daughter's boyfriend's father and embarks on a complex kidnap plot to exact financial retribution. Then his own son is accidentally caught in the crosshairs, which makes things personal. We then move to a narrative of two clans trying to extinguish one another. The twist which saves some and condemns others is left-field and I quite like it. The problem is, none of the characters is nasty enough to warrant the degree of carnage. They are insufficiently distinct to warrant our emotive investment. Fatally, they all speak the same, functional, unadorned plain English. OK, this is Edinburgh rather than Glasgow, to surely there is some form of local dialect?

Anyway, it rolls along. It keeps us entertained. It is all resolved within its own terms. The problem is, it lacks a final layer of dark polish.

Monday, 2 January 2017

The Pigeon Tunnel - John le Carre

As I noted last week, the curious thing about John le Carre (or, rather, one of several curious things) is that no sooner had he cooperated with Adam Sisman on the unfortunately flawed biography than, within a matter of months, he produced his own memoir, complete with the title he has given to almost all his earlier books at one time or another.

It goes without saying that he covers much of the same ground - his con-man father Ronnie, his brief career as a spy, working on the films of his books. It's no great surprise that he does it better, because he is a far superior writer. He also does it in exactly half the length, which surely cannot be a coincidence and - this is the surprise - he reveals the aspect of himself which Sisman insisted upon (at length) but could not demonstrate. That is to say, his humour. Yes, after fifty years in print, John le Carre proves himself to be not only witty but, on occasion, laugh out loud. At eighty-four, moreover, he shows himself to be a born raconteur, something he perhaps inherited from his father.

What he has done is perhaps cruel. Sisman obviously sweated blood building his tome. Fact is, though, if you want to know anything about the man behind the pseudonym, or if you simply want an entertaining tour round the life of a successful author in the second half of the 20th century, forget the back-breaking biography and take up the memoir.