Sunday, 30 April 2017

Stoner - John Williams

Stoner is the Great American Novel that had to bide its time. Published in 1965, it had to wait more or less fifty years for its classic status to be recognised.

It explores familiar territory - the campus, secluded scholarship, the lost grandeur of the South - and it takes the two World Wars as its chronological frame.

William Stoner exceeds expectations when he gains admittance as a student to the University of Missouri in 1910. He comes from dirt-poor farming stock and initially studies agriculture. Then his eyes are opened to the wonders of English Literature - in his case the late Latin lyricists. Thereafter, he never leaves the university and never really revisits his youth, save to bury his parents and sell the farm. The University is his life, teaching his passion.

Classmates leave to serve in France in 1917. Stoner thinks long and hard and decides to stay. Twenty-four years later, of course, he is too old to serve, a married man with a daughter. And here we really comes to the central issue of the novel. Stoner is a good man, but he is not a good husband and lets himself get sidelined as a father. His life is study but he is a poor student of life. Williams' great gift is the creation of character. Stoner's wife Edith is a fragile Southern beauty and slightly deranged. Stoner loves her and she wants to love him, but they can't manage it, so they eke out an uneasy compromise and over the years they make it work. The daughter, Grace, on whom Stoner dotes, finds teenage pregnancy her only way out. The father of her child, a student at the University, does the right thing by Grace only to be killed in the war. Thereafter Grace takes to drink.

Stoner's great love turns out to be another student, Katherine Driscoll, a free spirit and thoroughly grounded young woman. The only way to keep her is for him to leave Edith and leave the University. As a good man and a dedicated teacher, Stoner can do neither. He becomes embroiled in a feud with his head of department that lasts to the end of his career. And, ultimately, Stoner does what the protagonist in every Great American Novel has to do: he makes his peace and dies. And what a death! Gradually fading away with his long-forgotten text book in his hand. Magnificent. Profoundly moving.

How much of this is autobiographical we do not know. We know that Williams, too, was an academic and, like Stoner, he wrote far too little. Other than that, he is a mystery. His name is about as plain as it gets, and so is his prose style. But what his achieves with simple words is far more than the likes of Henry James achieved with all his frills and flamboyant vocabulary. Williams achieves deep truths and phenomenal beauty.

I'm having luck, recently, finding masterpieces. Stoner is definitely another.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Time for a Tiger - Anthony Burgess

Time for a Tiger was Burgess's first novel, the first in his Malayan Trilogy aka The Long Day Wanes. It was published in 1956 while he was still teaching in Malaya. The novel is a thinly disguised version of Burgess's actual experience. Victor Crabbe teaches in Kuala Hantor; Anthony Burgess taught in Kuala Kangsar; both are/were house masters; both have/had deeply unhappy wives and fractious relationships with their respective headmasters, who they loathe.

Crabbe's counterpoint, the six-foot-eight policeman and fledgling alcoholic is Nabby Adams, a man wholly devoted to expatriate life in the failing empire. He it is who always has time for a Tiger, the bottled beer which is his only sustenance. Nabby owes money to everyone. Where Crabbe might seek to enlighten the multi-national, multi-cultural natives, Nabby takes them absolutely as he finds them. He loves them like he loves his scabby dog Cough. Crabbe cares too, but his way is patronising, accidentally elitist. And this, of course, is the time of the Chinese Communist-inspired Malayan insurgency.

It is, however, an English comic novel in a colonial setting, falling somewhere between Kipling and Paul Scott. It is a long way from the experimental Burgess of the Seventies, or even A Clockwork Orange, which was only six years on from Time for a Tiger. It is, nevertheless, a comic novel that is actually funny, with complex characters and the occasional hint of the linguistic fireworks that were to come.

Everyone who reads later Burgess should also read early Burgess. I was lucky, I suppose, in that I first read the Malayan Trilogy just after I read A Clockwork Orange, which was around the time the Kubrick film came out. Me and a couple of mates went to see the movie, in a rare single showing outside London at the height of the controversy. It's appropriately Burgessian, I think, that what may have been the only time the film was shown in a mainstream provincial picture palace was at the Odeon Rugby. I know it happened 'cos I was there.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Midnight in Peking - Paul French

I can't fathom why I hadn't heard of this book before stumbling upon it in my local library. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was a big hit for John Berendt twenty years ago - they even went on to make a crappy movie - and this book has obvious similarities (real-life murder, cultural bubble, kinky sex and the word midnight in the title). I won't say French's book is better but it is definitely just as good.

It will come as no surprise that the setting here is Peking. The year is (just) 1937. Russian Christmas, January 7. The bubble is the expat community in what was, temporarily, China's second city. Chiang Kai Shek is losing his grip on power and the Japanese are about to invade. A young woman is found butchered in the shadow of the historic Fox Tower. She is Pamela Werner, adopted daughter of E T C Werner, former British consul and leading Sinologist, a man who has devoted his life to understanding Chinese culture.

Unfortunately for Werner, he has fallen from favour with the British Legation, which refuses to permit the Chinese police to investigate in their jurisdiction. A British inspector, Richard Dennis, ex-Scotland Yard, is seconded from another district to assist Inspector Han, but is expressly forbidden to have contact with Werner.

The British, it turns out, have secrets to hide. Pamela, a girl with problems, was still a pupil at Tientsin Grammar School, boarding with headmaster Sydney Yeates who has very recently been sent home because parents, including Werner, complained about his enthusiasm for thrashing. In Peking Pamela likes to be seen as the sophisticated young woman she ought to be - she is twenty years old, after all. She has admirers. On January 7 she goes ice skating with her girlfriends, and disappears on her way home.

The assumption is that it is a very un-Chinese murder. The killer must either be living in one of the many foreign legations or in the Badlands, a red-light district frequented by overseas riff-raff, decandent playboys and hordes of White Russian emigres fallen on hard times.

It is the Badlands, inevitably, which grab our attention. The most useful contact made by any investigator is Shura, a White Russian of indeterminate gender, who alternates as call girl and raffish pimp. One of his sidelines is providing naked girl dance groups for parties in the apartment of a seedy American dentist who also runs a nudist colony in the hills above Peking.

The hero of the book is definitely E T C Warner himself, a dry as dust scholar in his early seventies, who nobody likes. It is French's great achievement that we come to love the old man who doggedly refuses to let the authorities close the file on his dead daughter. When the official investigation runs out of steam, Werner hires his own investigators. When the Japanese come, he presses on alone. Later he is interned in a horrific prison camp. Still he persists. He survives the war - and still he goes on, not resting until he finally expires at the grand age of eighty-nine.

It is Werner's account that forms the basis of French's book but it is the demented cultural hotchpotch of prewar Peking that brings the story alive, and that is all down to French, his massive research and his storytelling flair.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

The Dolly Dolly Spy - Adam Diment

Ah, the Sixties. Sex, pot and spies - all of which feature strongly in Adam Diment's debut novel, published in 1967 when he was only twenty-three and looked - judging by the photo on the back of this paperback - like a handsome, thinner version of Boris Johnson.

To be honest, I had always assumed Diment was a pseudonym and that whoever he was really had simply taken to writing under another nom de plume when the Sixties went sour. But no - I spotted an article in the Guardian about someone trying to crowdfund a reprint of the Diment canon and, lo and behold, we find that Diment is still apparently alive, possibly living in Switzerland, and actually walked away when the film of The Dolly Dolly Spy fell through and his fourth spy novel Think Inc didn't exactly set the book-buying world alight. He does not comment and never has.

The book itself, despite its cheesy title, is actually very good. Diment writes extraordinarily well and takes quite startling liberties with form. For example his hero Philip McAlpine, reluctantly compromised into going undercover with a dodgy air transport company, is listening to his boss drone on about the war and uses this as an excuse to reflect upon his training. This works because McAlpine obviously was there. Later flashbacks, concerning the villain of the piece during the war, do not have that advantage but are nevertheless acceptable because a) it tells us that his war crimes were so appalling that even a young hipster in 1967 is aware of them, and b) that our hero is not so dumb or self-centred as he sometimes makes out.

The joy is period detail - it seems £2000 would buy you a Maserati in '67. The downside is the sexism and casual racism. They are of their time and the saving grace is that Diment, via McAlpine, does not disparage women and black people beyond the use of demeaning terms like 'dolly' and 'spade'. His only interaction with a black person is in the remarkably thrilling prologue, in which his passenger is a black African politician who is sympathetically drawn and whom McAlpine respects. Likewise, although there is lots of talk of promiscuity, and quite a bit of it in practice, McAlpine remains sentimentally attached to girlfriend Veronica Lom.

The spymaster Quine is horrendously camp - but turns out to be happily married to a plain woman who is both intelligent and sexually empowered.

What really dropped my jaw is the amount of reflection and self-scrutiny that is on display. This is something which eludes pretty well all first-time novelists and the vast majority of 23 year-olds. But look at this, from towards the end:

This country [Britain] is, for the time being, a whore. Our Empire has gone and our people remain lazy. We are clever, original, class-ridden and small. The sooner we can get back to being another small country and forget our now useless role of world arbiter the better. Nobody has listened to our advice for years; it is just accepting this fact that is painful. Meanwhile we export fashion and trend to the rest of them, like a good little whore should.

That's how Diment saw it back in '67. Fifty years later you could and paste it into any broadsheet editorial and no one would argue. So who was a very clever boy then? No wonder he was the publishing sensation of '67. They say The Dolly Dolly Spy sold a million. I'm not at all surprised.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Oblivion - Arnaldur Indridason

Of recent times Indridason has taken his detective hero Erlendur Sveinsson back to his youth. In Oblivion he is in his twenties, newly divorced and recently promoted to CID. The time is the 1970s for the main plot - a murder on the US airbase - whilst the secondary plot, which Erlendur pursues in his spare time, concerns the disappearance of a young girl more than twenty years earlier. This, for regular readers, is a reminder of the incident that dogs his entire career, the loss of his brother when he was a child.

A flashback within a story that is itself something of a flashback is clever. The linkage between the periods - the American occupation of Iceland after World War II and the continuing presence of the Americans during the Cold War - is even cleverer, deepening the narrative with acute social and political insight.

I cannot for the life of me see why Indridason agreed to allow the change of title for the translation. The original title was Kamp Knox, which is what the story is about - the original wartime occupation airbase which still dominated the area in the Fifties when it had been turned into emergency housing little better than a ghetto. This is the shadow that hung over the place the missing schoolgirl lived. There were rumours she had a boyfriend who lived on the camp, which made him lower-class, undesirable, inevitably drawing the attention of investigating police at the time.

The replacement for Camp Knox is the Defense Force base at Keflavik. Officially there should be no nuclear weapons stored there, but Keflavik has the biggest hangar anywhere and there are rumours about what might be cached inside. Hangar 885 is also the only spot on the peninsula high enough to have caused the injuries Kristvin sustained when he fell, albeit he was dead before the fall, hence the police interest. Keflavik is officially US territory and the brass won't cooperate with the Icelandic police, even though Kristvin was one of the many Icelanders who worked there, enjoying the fringe benefits of easy access to American consumables. Are the military hiding something or is it simply contempt for the natives?

Indridason gets better with every book. One of the attractions for me is always the horrific foodstuffs regarded as delicacies in Iceland. I was not disappointed in Oblivion - fermented skate in melted lard. Eeek! He seems to me to be well served by translator Victoria Cribb. But why on earth do they saddle his books with meaningless titles like Oblivion that makes them sound like  ghastly action thrillers from the Eighties?

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

The Prague Cemetery - Umberto Eco

The Prague Cemetery is the sixth and penultimate novel by Umberto Eco, who died last year. It came out in 2010, thirty years after his first, The Name of the Rose. Eco the academic was fascinated by conspiracy, ritual and the interlocking or layered nature of hermetic texts. His gift was the ability to turn his obscure themes into potent literature without preaching or treating his readers as idiots. Here he uses the same materials that Dan Brown bowlderised in The Da Vinci Code. The end product is very different and for me much superior.

Eco takes a document like the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He traces its development from earlier similar texts. Everyone has always known that the Protocols are fake, yet they remain the foundation stone of twentieth century anti-Semitism. This is where the great international Jewish conspiracy sprang from. Eco asks the unasked questions: Who wrote it and why?

He gives us our fictional forger, 'Captain' Simone Simonini, an Italian living in France, who began his career forging wills in a lawyer's office. He lives in Paris because France in the 1890s is virulently anti-Semitic. He sells endless versions of the stories told by his half-crazed (real) Italian grandfather and these ultimately become the Protocols.

Simonini brings his talents to bear on many other forgeries and conspiracies, working for the French and Russian secret services. Indeed he becomes involved in every conspiracy in the Age of Conspiracies, not just Jews but Freemasons and Dreyfus and even. as a youth, Garibaldi.

This being Eco, there is a further twist. When Simonini walks the streets of Paris he is always in disguise - he wears a false beard and a wig. Is he really Simononi, we wonder? And who is the mysterious priest who seems to occupy another part of his dwelling? He obviously can't be the real priest of that name, because Simonini killed him in Sicily. He too wears a disguise. They never meet but they correspond by note - an extra textual layer. They both suffer from short term memory loss. Both wonder, are they different aspects of the same person?

The Prague Cemetery - a cemetery, it should be noted, that Simonini has never seen in a country he has never visited - is a magnificent achievement. I am interested in many of the things that fascinated Eco. I already knew some of the things revealed here. I wonder how accessible or enjoyable the book would be to someone less familiar with the topic. I also wonder, I must say, if Robert Harris came across The Prague Cemetery before writing his take on the Dreyfus affair, An Officer and a Spy. There is a passage in the Eco which could almost be a synopsis of Harris. Then again, they are working from the same, well-documented story. So - conspiracy or coincidence? How very Eco.