Thursday, 31 August 2017

White Maa's Saga - Eric Linklater

White-Maa's Saga is Linklater's first published novel. It came out in 1929 but describes events of eight or so years earlier. It reflects Linklater's own experience after the war when he went to Aberdeen University (Inverdoon here) to study medicine. Linklater was slightly younger than his alter-ego Peter Flett - he had lied about his age to enlist in 1916 whereas Peter was of full age in 1914 and served for the duration.

This student generation is not like any other. The university acknowledges the common debt to those who served and makes allowances for men like Peter when they fail their examinations. Peter fails three times but seems set to go back for more until the very end of the novel.

Between spells at Inverdoon Peter returns to Orkney where his sister Martin (yes, Martin) runs the farm Peter inherited from their parents. In both Inverdoon and Orkney Peter's main sphere of activity, when not drinking or boxing, is the pursuit of young women. There are three in the novel, nowhere near as many as the hero encounters in Juan in America, Linklater's breakthrough hit.

I'm sure the descriptions of Aberdeen's student quarter are accurate. They are amusing, too, in a studentish way. But it is Orkney, as ever, where Linklater's language takes flight. The various social strands are laid out: spinster Martin, the rambunctious Sabistons of Redland, the tinkers whose travelling seems to have been confined to the islands for several centuries, and those who work for absentee landlords, among them the villainous Isaac Skea.

The simple pleasures of the Annual Fair and an island wedding contrast with the equally ancient traditions of the university. There is no question which Linklater prefers. The climax, set in the neolithic Ring of Brodgar, is exciting and effective. Linklater, who was thirty when the book came out, came into literature with a highly effective bang. Well worth checking out - and don't let the ugly title put you off: it is actually Peter's Orcadian nickname, the dialect term for a herring-gull.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

The Deepest Grave - Harry Bingham

After reading The Dead House last month, and encountering DS Fiona Griffiths for the first time, I had to have more. Luckily, I found the latest in the series straightaway.

The Deepest Grave starts with the ritual slaying of a Welsh archaeologist. Fiona soon finds herself enmeshed in the weird and not-so-wonderful world of faked antiquities and Arthurian nutjobs. There is a conspiracy afoot; like all conspiracies it is fundamentally silly to everyone on the outside but that doesn't prevent it from doing serious damage to those who stumble where they shouldn't.

There is even more action than there was in The Dead House, with serious jeopardy for Fiona and those she cares about. The climax is downright bloody brilliant, with Fiona's shady but passionate father stepping up to the plate.

In fact the only downside to The Deepest Grave is a totally unnecessary what-happened-next final chapter. Who cares what happens next? Tell us anything we need to know in the next book. If it doesn't add anything to the next instalment it doesn't matter.

But let's be clear, Harry Bingham is as good as it gets in contemporary British crime fiction and I am a confirmed fan.

Friday, 25 August 2017

The Butchers of Berlin - Chris Petit

Having read Petit's 'Troubles' novel, The Psalm Killer, and rating it highly on this blog, I looked forward to reading his latest, especially given it was set in Nazi Germany, which I always find fascinating and repulsive. I am a big fan of Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther series, particularly the ones set during the war.

I finished the book, which says something, but I did not love it. The level of research is impressive. The characterisation is hugely disappointing. I think Petit realised it during the writing, because in a sense we have two protagonists, the mummy's boy cop August and lesbian Jewish seamstress Sybil. The former is a nobody whose only distinguishing characteristic is prematurely white hair, only peremptorily explained, and the latter is a doormat, pushed hither and yon by all and sundry. The most interesting character by far is Morgen, seconded from the SS to investigate a series of murders. Morgen is enigmatic, eccentric and, plotwise, a deus ex machina, dropping in from nowhere to save the day when the boy August finds himself in trouble. Morgen is so thinly sketched that I only found out his first name when I Googled the book. The book's most memorable scene is when Morgen gets together, all too briefly, with his equally eccentric brother. They should have been the odd couple through whose eyes we explore the book. Sadly, they aren't.

The plot itself is a conspiracy of which the murders are only the surface. I should have guessed this when I saw David Peace's gushing blurb on the cover. As with Peace, the conspiracy is so abstruse that I have no idea what it is, save that it involves far too many walk-on characters. Telling us that the Third Reich was dark and depraved is not news. Making us feel the effect of this on ordinary people (as Hans Fallada does) would have been impressive. Petit doesn't, therefore The Butchers of Berlin isn't. Sorry.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

He Who Fears the Wolf - Karin Fossum

I have blogged before about how poorly promoted Karin Fossum is in this country. Since Steig Larsson, anyone with so much as a vaguely Scandinavian name has been snapped up by a publisher and launched with a barrage of ads in the Press, heralding the debut of the new Nesbo. Few have made it to a second contract. But here is Fossum, already a successful series writer before the Girl even thought about getting her Dragon Tattoo and - more importantly - all the signature tropes of the best Scandi Noir: deep, dark secrets; focus on the excluded; and gruesome deaths. Yet where, other than Goodreads and here, do you see her mentioned?

This is the second Inspector Konrad Sejer novel, first published in 1997. The cover is as uninspired as ever; I can only assume she somehow upset the art department at Vintage. Inside, however, is the best of her novels that I have so far read, and I am was already a big admirer. All the action takes place on a single day. An old lady is murdered, a bank is robbed, a hostage taken, and a chubby kid from the boy's home reports seeing the local lunatic who has escaped again. Over the course of twelve hours or so, Sejer investigates and indeed solves all. But Fossum gives equal space to the offenders and the relationship that develops between them. I won't say more for fear of giving the final twist away. It is a very good twist, worthy of Nesbo himself.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Good & A Nightingale Sang... - C P Taylor

C P Taylor was a Glaswegian Jewish Marxist autodidact playwright who lived and worked in Newcastle and who died ridiculously young in 1981. He was only in his early fifties yet had written some 80 plays for stage, TV and radio, in just 20 years.

Good is his masterpiece, a last-minute breakthrough onto the national stage when the RSC staged it  in London just three months before Taylor's death. It is an examination of the axiom generally attributed to Edmund Burke: All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
Halder is a good man, a university professor who supports his scatterbrained wife and dutifully visits his senile mother in the nursing home. But this is Germany 1933 and the Nazis are on the rise. Halder is dismissive, even mildly subversive. He has a Jewish friend, the psychiatrist Maurice, and a taste for 'degenerate' American-style jazz.

No doubt influenced by his mother's distressing condition, Halder has written a book which can be read as advocating euthanasia. This attracts the attention of Nazi racial purists. They make overtures to Halder, gradually drawing him into their circle. He initially resists, but as time goes on his qualms are overridden by the need to earn a living. His mother is now back living with him, his wife is even more hopeless about the house, and Haldane has started an affair with one of his female students. The Nazis understand these things. They are supportive, even seductive. Slowly, Halder starts to distance himself from his friend Maurice...

Taylor had made himself a master of open staging through his association with studio theatres like the Traverse in Glasgow and the Live Theatre Company in Newcastle. He also worked in community drama, and thus was able to handle large casts and overlapping scenes. Good is a fine example of both disciplines. Halder is onstage almost all the time, accompanied by a live jazz band (a very Taylorean device). The other characters effectively come to him. Very unusually, several scenes overlap, with Haldane switching in and out of conversations with different people in different locations and even at significantly different times. Only a writer at the height of his game could pull this off and it takes a very special actor to accomplish it onstage. The late great Alan Howard, a consummate stage actor and the best Hamlet I have ever seen, created the role in London and New York.

If Good is Taylor's take on Brechtian Epic Theatre, the other play in this Methuen edition deploys many of the same techniques on a more domestic scale. And a Nightingale Sang... (1977) is the story of the working class Stott family of Newcastle, from the day World War II broke out (September 3 1939) to VE Day (May 8 1945). Although the action primarily takes place in the family home, it instantly moves elsewhere (chiefly the bench in Eldon Square where lame spinster Helen meets her married lover Norman for illicit purposes). There are times when two things are happening simultaneously, as when Eric is waiting nervously in the parlour while the women are upstairs with Joyce, trying to persuade her to come down and be proposed to. George Stott, the father, bangs away on the upright piano - all the popular songs - while Mam Peggy consoles herself with Catholicism and Peggy's father Andie wanders from one daughter's house to the other, starting with his dead whippet in a bag and ending up hiding from the amorous widow who wants to marry him.

It's a dialect play - a dialect I have always known and liked, though I daresay it limited the play's chances in the South back in Taylor's lifetime. We are now used to the device of setting a scene (and, better, underscoring the action) with period popular music, but it should be noted that A Nightingale Sang... preceded Dennis Potter's Pennies From Heaven by a full year. There is much more breaking down of the fourth wall in Nightingale than in Good, and appropriately so, given that so much of what we hear is Helen's personal inner life. The final scene, in which she dances, not with faithless Norman who has scurried home to mother and wife in the Midlands, but with Joyce's rapscallion hubbie Eric, features both soliloquy and music - the Nightingale finally does dance - and it is heartbreaking.

Not being active in the business these days, I have no real way of assessing where Taylor's reputation stands today. Wherever, it should be higher. I have other plays of his about the house, collected while he was still alive and writing. I must look them out.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

The Caine Mutiny - Herman Wouk

When I saw that Herman Wouk was celebrating his 102nd birthday earlier this year I felt obliged to seek out his best-known work - his bestseller The Caine Mutiny (1951).

Wouk goes to great lengths to assure us that this is not a fictional account of his service during the war, which just happened to be on a minesweeper-destroyer, much like the Caine. Indeed, he certainly isn't Willie Keith, the main character through whose eyes we view the story. Wouk was ten years older, for one thing, and not born wealthy. Wouk tries to show us that the character closest to him is aspiring novelist Tom Keefer, who encourages the mutiny then gives evidence against the mutineers at their court-martial. Wouk, like Keefer, got his publisher's contract whilst serving at sea.

The truth is, Caine is not a true story - there was no ship of that name, and no mutiny - yet the power of the novel comes from its undoubted veracity.

Wouk's service informs every page. He knew exactly what it was like to serve your time aboard a floating hulk like the Caine. He knows full well it is not going to be commanded by premier quality seamen. However, he makes the point repeatedly, they are all of them willing to do their duty. For the ordinary crew it is just another job. For the handful of officers it is a berth in which to learn their craft and hopefully advance up the ranks. The new captain, Philip Francis Queeg, is just such an officer. He joined before the war and is therefore a regular navy man (unlike the wartime 'reserves' like Keith and Keefer); he has nine years' service but this is his first command.

Queeg is unpleasant. Because he knows he can never be friends with his officers, he goes overboard as a disciplinarian. He carries the rulebook to ludicrous extremes, alienating one and all. But he never crosses the line. He never goes beyond the rules. The problem which leads to the 'mutiny' (which is held by those who carry it out to be justifiably relieving the captain of command) is because he seems to be a coward in action and quite possibly deranged.

The trial takes up a huge chunk of the book - so much so that Wouk turned it into a hugely successful play in 1953. The slight downside is that, whilst Willie Keith has been charged with encouraging the mutiny, he was not even on the command deck when it happened. The trial focused on is that of Lieutenant Stephen Maryk, Queeg's executive officer, who actually seized command.

The trial and the mutiny are both truly spellbinding. The novel is long but never drags. Willie Keith is amusing enough - especially in his self-indulgent affair with the nightclub singer May Wynn - and Queeg more than crazy enough to hold our interest. Willie's coming of age and Queeg's psychological collapse are built up through incidental, wholly convincing details.

The Caine Mutiny is a war novel without equal. It does something that most others fail to do in that it spells out the price that every man pays for military service. Never mind the risk - there is little to no risk in minesweeper destroyers; the damage is psychological. Free, intelligent men are prepared to submit themselves to a rule book that is petty and oppressive because they come to realise that those in charge couldn't get them to do such mind-numbing, pointless activities any other way.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Gilgamesh - Derrek Hines

Hines is a Canadian poet who lives in Cornwall. He studied the ancient Near East at university and thus is comfortable in the world of Gilgamesh, hero of the world's oldest epic. It is worth dwelling on the age of this text and the events and people concerned. The historical Gilgamesh lived about 2800 BCE. To use a crude measure, that's half a millennium further away from the birth of Jesus than we are. The text was first written down, in the world's oldest known form of writing, about 500 years after his death. The stories in it, however, were probably circulating in oral form within living memory of his death. In short, it is incredibly - bordering on unimaginably - old. It is so old that is probably not possible to transport the modern reader into the world described. Hines's approach is not to try to. Instead, he uses modern terminology to startle us into accepting the difference of the most ancient of ancient worlds. Again, back to crude measures: we find the world of Tutankhamen alien - Gilgamesh goes back a further millennium and a half.

For an epic, Gilgamesh is surprisingly short, only 61 pages in Hines's version. Yet there is a satisfactory amount of incident. As usual the gods fall out over the humanity project. Gilgamesh is semi-divine and so full of himself. So the gods create another powerful being to set against him. This is Enkidu, the beast-man who lives and communes with the animals. Given the age of this work you have to wonder if this is some sort of race-memory of a time when there were other versions of us wandering about. Enkidu is certainly the earliest surviving instance of a wild man or, as the medieval English called them, wodwoes or green men.

Enkidu annoys the locals by freeing animals from their traps. They opt for one sure way of taming him. They hire the temple prostitute Shamhat to shag some civilisation into Enkidu. This works. Enkidu forgets the language of the animals. The scent of the harlot on him drives the animals away. So, inevitably, he turns up in Gilgamesh's city of Uruk. The two supermen wrestle. Neither can best the other so they end up blood brothers, the closest of friends, inseparable.

Together they defeat the wizard Humbaba and the bull Taurus. It dawns on the gods that they now have two overmighty humans on their hands. They debate which one to kill off. Enkidu sees this in a dream and saves them the bother. He sickens and dies; the suggestion is that he chooses to die rather than risk the gods choosing Gilgamesh.

Gilgamesh is naturally distraught. He roams the land seeking a means to be reunited with Enkidu in the netherworld. The gate-keeper goddess Shiduri suggests he approaches the ferryman Ur-shanabi, the only one allowed to cross the river of death both ways. In most versions Gilgamesh meets the Sumerian Noah - Uta-napishti - in the Underworld, who has been made immortal for surviving the Flood. The text of this meeting is a possibly a later addition - it is certainly a later discovery - and Hines does not give us Uta-napishti's account, which I find a problem. Uta-napishti is the only one who can give Gilgamesh the true price of immortality - not a blessing but a penalty paid by those who defy the gods, living death.

Overall, though, this a great version to introduce Gilgamesh to the modern reader. Overall, the use of modern language and contemporary terms works well. I loved the characterisation of Shamhat as a bar-room tart. I especially enjoyed the squaddie's account of the Humbaba campaign. Wisely, Hines keeps the most poetic, quasi-mystical passages simple and unforced. For example, when Gilgamesh laments for his dead friend:
We stood with the glow of Eden's river
still warm on our backs;
and before us the river of clay
into which men pressed our story...