Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Inside the Whale - George Orwell

What we have here is a collection of Orwell's essays, mostly prewar and mostly concerning literature. The title essay, for example, dates from 1940 and starts with Henry's Miller's Tropic of Cancer which in those days was still a scandalous, banned book. Orwell concludes it is a good book but that its subject matter is largely irrelevant because it is 'inside the whale' - sealed off, in a sort of time bubble of its own. It is not great literature, Orwell argues, because it is utterly devoid of politics. Indeed, politics in that special era should be the hallmark of literature, according to Orwell. That essentially is what the essays in this collection have in common, save for 'Down the Mine', which is extracted from The Road to Wigan Pier and 'Shooting an Elephant' which is part of his Burmese writing. Both are simply padding and stick out like sore thumbs. 'Politics and the English Language' is nowadays printed in more or less everything to do with Orwell and I have already given it a standalone review on this blog.

'England Your England' (1941) chimed with me because one of my interests is the Appeasement Period which dragged us into World War II. It has a great opening line ("As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.") and Orwell is surprisingly generous in dealing with Prime Minister Chamberlain, architect of the disaster:
Like the mass of the people, he did not want to pay the price either of peace or of war. And public opinion was behind him all the while, in policies that were completely incompatible with one another. It was behind him when he went to Munich, when he tried to come to an understanding with Russia, when he gave the guarantee to Poland, when he honoured it, and when he prosecuted the war half-heartedly. Only when the results of his policy became apparent did it turn against him; which is to say that it turned against its own lethargy of the past seven years.
I did not like 'Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool'. I disagree with Orwell's premise, feel he is ungenerous to the aged Tolstoy, makes no provision for the potential awfulness of the translations Tolstoy had, and - in common with his era  does not understand the mechanics of Elizabethan play-making. 'Politics a Literature' relies on Gulliver's Travels and I no longer have any interest in Gulliver's Travels. I was amazed when I read the real thing when I was nineteen or twenty but, like much satire, suspect it is a one-only revelation. My favourite, oddly enough, is the final essay 'Boy's Weeklies' (1939) which argues that the Victorian hangover comics Gem and Magnet present a hermetically sealed world from the previous century (Orwell makes the same point that recently dawned on me - that the forebear of all 'school' stories is Stalky & Co rather than Tom Brown's Schooldays) whereas more modern, Americanized boys' comics like Hotspur and Rover purposefully embody the far-Right views of their owners. No change there, then.

Just a final note: how great is that portrait by Patrick Procktor on the cover?

Monday, 27 March 2017

The Turn of the Screw - Henry James

The original, the classic, freaky children horror story. Yes, not one but two malicious brats conjuring up the ghosts of their dead governess and factotum, who may also (it is heavily implied) have been their abusers. Strong stuff for 1898; extremely strong stuff for the sexless aesthete Henry James. Atypical, definitely, but perhaps that's why The Turn of the Screw is his best known work.

Being a Penguin Classic, this edition comes with a pompous introduction by a Yale professor (David Bromwich) and James's own, even more pretentious introduction to the New York edition of 1908. I didn't bother pursuing either. James was a writer - everything he needed to say should be there on the page. I also did not require two pages of asinine notes from Philip Horne of UCL. I hope Phil didn't get paid for his labours.

Enough sounding off - time for the good news. The Turn of the Screw is a mini masterpiece. More than that, it can be seen as a turning point in English language ghost fiction. Before James, the stock phantom tended to be an unquiet soul needing its wrongs to be righted, or a personality-free memento mori in the manner of Dickens. These ghosts are very much personalities. Peter Quint and his disgraced lover, the former governess Miss Jessell, are completely aware of what is going on at Bly House. Whatever they got up to in life - and it was bad enough to corrupt their appearance post mortem - young Miles and sickly sweet Flora were fully involved with it. The implication is that Miles has been expelled from school for telling his friends the lurid details. When the new governess - our unnamed narrator - tries to drive them off, Quint and Jessell fight back. The final confrontation is horrific, and the last line, which I won't give away here, has to be one of the most chilling last lines in occult fiction ever.

The problem with James, to the modern reader, is his verbosity. He writes in a rhetorical style. Famous orators like Churchill, Kennedy and Obama, spoke emotively and effectively about absolutely nothing. Most of what they said, transcribed onto the page without the speaker's personality and performance, is utter nonsense. James does the opposite. He desperately piles up the words in search of every last nuance. In later life, as the notes on the 1908 edition demonstrate, he made matters worse, adding more verbiage long after the fire of creation had gone out. Unfortunately what Penguin gives us is the 1908 edition.

Nonetheless, The Turn of the Screw is the key text in the development of modern literary occult fiction. A must-read for every aspirant practitioner.

Friday, 24 March 2017

His Bloody Project - Graeme Macrae Burnet

His Bloody Project didn't win the 2016 Man Booker Prize (I can't recall what did) but it outsold all the other novels on the shortlist. It purports to be a dossier of documents found by Burnet when researching his Macrae ancestors. The documents relate to the murder of Lachlan Mackenzie of Culduie in Ross-shire in August 1869, for which seventeen year-old Roderick Macrae was hanged in Inverness in September.

The documents consist of a handful of witness statements gathered by local police, the account which Roddy wrote at his solicitor's request whilst awaiting trial, a report (wonderfully entitled Travels in the Border-Lands of Lunacy) by J Bruce Thomson, resident surgeon at Perth prison and leading criminal anthropologist, an account of the trial compiled from contemporary newspapers, and a short epilogue describing Roddy's wretched end.

It's all a fake - or is it? We can't fail to notice that Burnet is himself a Macrae. It is the actuality question which hooks us to begin with. After all, there can't be much of a whodunit here. There are only nine houses in the crofting hamlet and Roddy was seen heading to Mackenzie's with the murder weapons and again, coming back half-an-hour later smothered in fresh blood. More to the point, Roddy has insisted, from that moment forward, that he alone did it. Is he mad? This is the only hope of his solicitor, who commissions the report from Thomson. But there is no sign of madness in Roddy's writing. True, some of his neighbours consider him to be an imbecile, but his schoolmaster wanted to put him forward for a scholarship.

Burnet ingeniously plants a couple of clues that suggest all might not be as it seems. They come together at the end but - another masterstroke - we don't get Roddy's reaction to them because defendants were not at that time allowed to give evidence in court.

Alongside all this we get a fascinating insight into the life of a mid-Victorian Highland crofter, a life that seems unchanged for thousands of years and which, to those trapped in it, must have seemed like it would never changed - renting their land at the whim of the laird and his factor, their only refuge their grim church. One of the great elements here is Burnet's portrait of utter, hopeless despair in Roddy's father John, a man in his forties looking twice his age, armoured in misery.

A tremendous book by an author of prodigious promise. There is an earlier novel, The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau, which won the Scottish Book Trust New Writer's Award in 2013, so I must get hold of that. And Burnet's next can't come soon enough for me.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Young & Damned & Fair - Gareth Russell

You wait years for a serious biography of Henry VIII's fifth queen, Katherine Howard, then two comes along almost simultaneously. I have already reviewed Josephine Wilkinson's (below). This, by one of the emerging Tudor historians, is the deeper, more thoroughly researched, and therefore the better. It is by no means the better written. 390 pages on a girl who was only about twenty when she died and who only figured on the public stage for perhaps two years, tends to speak for itself.

Russell's problem, in some ways, is that he knows too much. He has done his research and he means you to know that. What he lacks, in my view, is understanding of human nature. He sets up a persona for his principals, and sticks with it. Henry is a querulous ogre, Norfolk a lickspittle, and Katherine herself a bit of a gormless tart. They are the puppets of history rather than its drivers. Russell does not understand that people respond to events; they make choices and they change their opinions.

Where Russell succeeds however, is in those areas where his deep research pays off, for example in the detail he provides for the comings and goings of Francis Dereham, Katherine's fatal fascination. He is very good indeed in describing the way the apparatus of state turned on Katherine and basically crushed her. It really is astonishing how much persecution the Tudor statesmen could cram into their day.

Ironically then, the reader who wants a broad insight into Katherine Howard and her very limited world needs to read both Russell and Wilkinson. Which would be my tip.

Friday, 17 March 2017

The Power of the Dog - Don Winslow

Don Winslow is a bit like James Ellroy. He writes dark crime in short, pared-down sentences. He depicts the underbelly of the American Dream in which corruption is the only currency. Unlike Ellroy, he keeps his conspiracy theories just this side of psychosis.

The Power of the Dog (2005) is perhaps his most ambitious novel. It took him six years to write and Winslow prides himself on productivity. It spans thirty years in the war on drugs seen through the eyes of three main characters, Art Keller, DEA agent, Adan Barrera, drug trafficker, and Sean Callan, Irish mobster turned mafia hitman. Over the years they find themselves in alliances and opposition. Linking them is high-class prostitute Nora Hayden and a broad cast of second-string characters including Tio Barrera, founder of the Mexican drug cartel, Jimmy Peaches Picone, would-be mafia boss, and Sal Scachi, colonel, hitman, the ultimate fixer. And many, many more.

Too many characters? Too much plot? On balance, no. Sometimes, as you work through the 500+ pages, you wonder, is this getting us anywhere? Does this character contribute anything to the whole? But you keep going and find out that, yes, everything contributes, every character serves a purpose. Plotting is Winslow's dominant skill. He writes well - very well - but holds back from launching into the sort of obscene purple prose that curdles Ellroy's later work. The dialogue is spot on - each character has a distinct voice, and the principals also have individual inner voices.

Did I love this book? No - you can't love a book this dark. Is it brilliant? Does it achieve what it sets out to do? Does it make me want to seek out more of Winslow's extensive catalogue, like for example Savages (2010) which Winslow turned into the script for Oliver Stone's best film in years? Yes, yes, and yes. Apparently there are half-a-dozen Neal Carey mysteries, plus standalone novels including The Death and Life of Bobby Z, The Winter of Frankie Machine, and The Kings of Cool. I mean, the titles alone are enough to spark my interest.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

The Growth of Milk Wood - Douglas Cleverdon

There are several things we all need to know about Under Milk Wood. Let's be clear, I am of the opinion that everybody needs to know Under Milk Wood as a towering slice of mid Twentieth Century verse. That said, there are a couple of factors we should always bear in mind when enjoying it.

First off, it is not a play. It has none of the hallmarks of a play, even experimental plays, which in English-speaking drama it predated. It is, specifically, a dramatic feature for radio, a form invented by the BBC in the 1930s and exported all around the world as the standard audio drama form during and shortly after World War II. American radio drama is in fact drama features. Radio drama in every Commonwealth country is likewise drama features. In every country they took as their model - often, indeed, as the first proper radio drama broadcast - The March of the '45 by D G (Geoffrey) Bridson. Bridson was a features man. He wrote and produced features. The March of the '45 is a feature. Confusingly, he also wrote plays, but that's another story.

Douglas Cleverdon was also a features man. He produced and put together features. He is the man who put together the first script for Under Milk Wood, broadcast in January 1954, two months after the death of its creator Dylan Thomas. Cleverdon also put together other versions for various stage productions. Thomas himself had written other material for Under Milk Wood, which Cleverdon chose not to use but which others have used since, notably the so-called 'Guide Book' section, which featured in the most recent radio revival I know of, directed by Alison Hindell in 2003.

Cleverdon was very much the champion of Under Milk Wood, the standard-bearer, but he was never the final arbiter. Thomas made Dr Daniel Jones his literary executor. Jones wrote the music for the songs but also ruled out some of the bawdier elements that Cleverdon wanted to include and which Thomas himself had included in the readings he gave in America, immediately prior to drinking himself to death. Recordings of the American sessions exist. A version of the BBC broadcast was released by Argos in 1954. A complete recording of that broadcast is available from the BBC itself. Other recordings exist. Dent put out a script which differed from the broadcast, also in 1954. Thomas himself had published extracts before he died.

The point is, Under Milk Wood was never finished. It is my firm conviction that Thomas would never have finished it. It was his drink-ticket (rather than his meal ticket) and even if he had lived to be a well-pickled centenarian he would have continued churning out variants so long as anyone was willing to pay for them. As it is, there are dozens of alternatives in existence - and that is what Cleverdon sets out to describe here.

It is a book for the specialist, granted, but given the status Under Milk Wood enjoys across various aspects of contemporary culture, I believe it is a book every specialist should have in their collection. And most don't - thus we get the ill-informed pontificating about the purity of Thomas's vision which diminishes the sheer generosity of what he actually wrote.

Thomas is the only modern writer for whom, like Shakespeare, we have variants, all of them (unlike Shakespeare) written by Thomas himself and intended to form part of the emerging whole. There is no canonical version - and if anything gets anywhere near a canonical version, I contend it should be the US recordings made after he gave Cleverdon the script upon which the first broadcast was based. Thereafter it is simply a question of personal taste.

Cleverdon also addresses the key question of what differentiates a radio feature from a radio play. It is a question I have to expound on every time I write about classic radio plays and now I can add the producer of the best-known feature to my repertoire.
Nobody outside the BBC (and, indeed, comparatively few inside) can be expected to distinguish between a radio play and a radio feature. A radio play is a dramatic work deriving from the tradition of the theatre, but conceived in terms of radio. A radio feature is, roughly, any constructed programme (that is, other than news bulletins, racing commentaries, and so forth) that derives from the technical apparatus of radio (microphone, control-panel, recording gear, loud-speaker). It can combine any sound elements - words, music, sound effects - in any form or mixture of forms - documentary, actuality, dramatized, poetic, musico-dramatic. It has no rules governing what can or cannot be done. And though it may be in dramatic form, it has no need of a dramatic plot.
In short, Cleverdon maintains that Under Milk Wood began as a radio play called The Village of the Mad but became a feature because Thomas couldn't devise a satisfactory plot.

I should also point out, in closing, that Cleverdon discusses the variants up to 1969, the date of publication. Other variants have arisen since.

Friday, 3 March 2017

One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez

It has to be one of the greatest opening lines in literature: "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice." Superb - and the quality does not diminish over the next 400 pages.

Ostensibly One Hundred Years of Solitude is the saga of seven generations of the Buendias, first family of Macondo. In many ways it is the same story, lived over again by succeeding generations.

The men are always (Jose) Arcadio or Aureliano. The Arcadios tend to be seekers after truth who end up going mad. The Aurelianos are more adventurous but equally monomaniacal.  Several of the women, notably the first matriarch, Ursula Iguaran, live more than a hundred years. Ultimately it all ends in near incest when Amaranta Ursula gives birth to Aureliano, son of her nephew Aureliano. The role of the matriarchs is to keep the house going. The women are either earth goddesses or professional virgins. The first Amaranta is a professional virgin; Renata Remedios, known as Meme, mother of the semi feral Aureliano who sleeps with his aunt, becomes a nun after the father of her child is crippled. Remedios the Beauty is so beautiful that one day she is simply carried off to Heaven. Her brother Aureliano Segunda searches the whole of Colombia for a woman very nearly as beautiful as Remedios. The high-born Fernanda bears him three children, eventually, but nevertheless likes to think of herself as virginal. Fernanda is the matriarch, especially since her husband a is living with his mistress, but in fact the house is maintained by her mother-in-law the long-suffering Santa Sofia de la Piedad. Aureliano Segunda's whore, Petra Cotes, is not the first immoral woman to become involved with the family. The third generation brothers, Aureliano Jose and Arcadio, both have sons by the local wisewoman Pilar Ternera, who outlives every generation, attaining the incredible age of 140. Colonel Aureliano Buendia - he of the opening line - has seventeen sons, all by different women, all called Aureliano, during his pointless military adventures.

Time, in Macondo, is more of a pool than a line. We are never told exactly when the hundred years begins or when it ends. We know that trains and movies ultimately arrive. There is a period of prosperity when the banana company builds a new town opposite the old, but that ends with four-and-a-half years of ceaseless rain, which is followed by a drought. Then the winds come and blow Macondo away into the swirl of history.

Let us return to Remedios the Beauty, the one who was carried off to Heaven. That is not a euphemism - she really is carried off by supernatural powers. One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of the masterpieces of magic realism. Other miracles happen. The gypsies and the carnivals bring real magic to town. The gypsy leader Melquiades dies in the time of the first Jose Arcadio Buendia but keeps visiting the house until the sixth Aureliano finally manages to decipher the sanskrit manuscript Melquiades left behind - the prophecy which foretells the fate of Macondo once its hundred years are up.

Magnificent - indisputably a work of genius. Already I want to read it again.