Friday, 29 September 2017

Even the Dead - Benjamin Black

I was so appalled by The Lemur that I have avoided anything by Black over the last couple of years. I was in two minds when I saw this on the library shelf. Had he cheapened or otherwise banjaxed Quirke, one of the best crime series of recent years? Mercifully not. If anything, I am heartily relieved to say, Quirke continues to get better.

Quirke's drinking has finally caught up with him. He is cloistered at Mal and Rose's house, wondering if he will ever go back to the pathology lab, when his assistant and prospective son-in-law David Sinclair pops in for a second opinion. Leon Corless, son of a notorious Irish communist, has been found dead in a burning car. David thinks young Corless was dead before the car hit the tree. So does Quirke. So does Inspector Hackett.

So the story gets under way. It is full of all the usual tropes - conspiracy, the Church, baby-farming, dark deeds of the recent past, and Joe Costigan, Quirke's equivalent of Professor Moriarty. But as ever with the best of Benjamin Black, it is the storytelling rather than the story that keeps us hooked. The gentle friction between long-established characters, the Byzantine interconnections of the tiny upper middleclass of 1950s Dublin, the steady plod of life's wheel. Malachy is ailing, David is restless, Quirke has a new woman in his life. Evelyn Blake is the perfect match for Quirke because she exemplifies everything familiar about his tight little world: she might be an Austrian psychiatrist but Quirke knew her late husband, a drunken doctor who worked at Quirke's hospital, and Quirke used that connection to get his daughter Phoebe a job as Evelyn's receptionist.

As ever, there is great pleasure to be had in characters who are only passing through: Leon's father Sam, whose politics have cost him everything including perhaps his only child, and the loathsome rent-collector/enforcer Abercrombie. Both men, one of them a widower, the other surely never married, live in ghastly rooms above shabby shops. Black takes obvious glee in forensically detailing the grot.

Monday, 25 September 2017

Moriarty - Anthony Horowitz

I am no great fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories which even as a child struck me as more legerdemain than logic. I am, however, a big fan of John Gardner's Moriarty series from the middle Seventies and, posthumously, 2008. To tell the truth I grabbed this off the library shelf because I thought it was the 2008 instalment.

But no, it is Horowitz, he of Midsomer Murders and Foyle's War and the Alex Rider series of thrillers for Young Adults. I liked Foyle's War, Midsomer Murders was meretricious trash, and I am far too old to have encountered young Master Rider. Still, I'm game. I gave it a good go. I finished it. I enjoyed it .. to an extent.

There can be no doubt that Horowitz is a proficient writer and a master storyteller. His characterisation, here at least, and for a reason I will not go into, is thin and two-dimensional. Briefly, and hopefully without giving too much away, the intricacies of the story rather limit what he can do in terms of character development. There is none; it's all about revelation.

Broadly, the premise is this: Moriarty and Holmes have vanished into the Reichenbach Falls; American gangsters seek to take over Moriarty's British crime empire; Frederick Chase of Pinkerton's and Inspector Athelney Jones of Scotland Yard team up to thwart them.

There are touches which border on genius. For example, Jones has made himself into a Holmes superfan, dedicated to the continuity of his methods. There is a superbly psychopathic teenager. The Holmes/Watson trope is worked for all its worth in the Jones/Chase relationship. But in the end it all depends on the big twist and how you react to it. It is a huge, massive, stupendous twist and I hated it. I considered myself cheated. I'm still offended by it 24 hours after I read it.

Horowitz includes his own Sherlock Holmes short story, "The Three Monarchs", as an extra, which cleverly reflects the main narrative with Inspector Jones. It struck me as very much in the Conan Doyle tradition, so obviously I didn't like it much. On the other hand, at least it didn't rest on a make-or-break twist.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo - George Saunders

Well, what can I say? Where do I start? Lincoln in the Bardo is, quite simply, the most extraordinary book I have read in years. It is experimental, existential and yet profoundly moving. It is, on the face of it, bat-shit-crazy, and yet it never once loses its humanity.

I am kicking myself for not realising up front what the Bardo is. I thought it was perhaps a district in Washington. Obviously, it is Bardo Thodol, the Tibetan version of the Elysian Fields, where the dead go initially, before moving on to an even higher plane. As a writer on the Elysian conversations of Eric Linklater and a researcher into the early work of Ted Hughes, who was deeply immersed in Bardo-based projects which never saw the light of day, I consider myself duly abashed.

We enter the Bardo through many pages of quotations, which as far as I know are genuine, from accounts of the death of 11-year-old Willie Lincoln, son of the President and possibly the first presidential child to die in the White House. These then segue into snatches of speech from people who seem to have nothing whatever to do with Willy or Abe - Roger Bevins III, Hans Vollman and the Reverend Everly Thomas, who we come to realise are our guides to this entry level of the afterlife. They are spirits and make no physical concessions to their former corporeality. Mr Bevins has hundreds of hands and eyes, Mr Vollman a prodigious member. They have come across the new arrival and don't know how to help. Children normally pass through this stage quickly but something is keeping Willie back.

That something is his father, the President the psychopomps have never heard of, already weighed down by the horrors of a civil war they cannot imagine. He comes to Willie's tomb, takes out the body and cuddles it, unaware that everything he loved about his son is looking on. It is young Willie who in the end comforts his father and persuades the spirits of the Bardo (of whom we encounter dozens) to accept what they have thus far been unable to accept - their death. It's a beautiful touch - Saunders creates euphemisms for the Bardo like sick-box instead of coffin. The book ends in a blaze of multiple matterlightblooming phenomena as the Bardo depopulates.

It sounds ridiculous - it looks impossible on the page, with chapters as short as a single line and all the conversation laid out like quotations and no non-speech at all. And yet it works beautifully. Saunders is a well-respected essayist and short story writer but, amazingly, Lincoln in the Bardo is his first novel. Turns out it was well worth waiting for. It's an instant classic of modern American fiction, comfortably up there with Pynchon and Salinger and Jonathan Safran Foer.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

The Hand-Reared Boy - Brian Aldiss

The Hand-Reared Boy, part one of Aldiss's Horatio Stubbs trilogy, purports to be the autobiographical coming-of-age memoir of a sexually-precocious teenager on the eve of World War II. Horatio, we assume, is Aldiss thinly coated. But is it? Aldiss, who died last month at the grand age of 92, is clearly not called Horatio and I doubt very much he had a brother called Nelson. Horatio, it is very clear, was born in 1922; he is seventeen when war breaks out in 1939. Aldiss, however, was born in 1925. So what is going on? What is real personal experience, and what is novelistic construct?

That is essentially what kept me going with this ebook - that, and Aldiss's plain-speaking prose style. What is basically a pubescent marathon of masturbation is rendered extremely readable. I remember reading it when it first came out, when I was Horatio's age, in 1970. It didn't interest me because I had all the usual teenage emotions, hopes and guilt about sex but I didn't have siblings and I didn't attend a public school. In fact, it put me off Aldiss for a considerable period. My feeling at the time was, this is an impossibly middleaged man (who was 45, the same age Horatio declares himself to be as he writes) with a moustache like my dad's, who was trying to cash in on the somewhat sordid British take on the sexual revolution of the Sixties. Reading it now, much older and with much more impressive facial foliage of my own, knee-deep in an age of Neo-Puritanism, I read with more experience, technical knowledge, and compassion.

Is Sister Traven, the school nurse, who relieves the pressure for so many of the boys in her care, based in any way on a real person? Did Aldiss, like Horatio, really interfere with his younger sister? As a senior Youth Magistrate I have sent boys into youth custody for doing exactly that. As a non-family person, now with no relatives whatsoever, what the hell goes on in ostensibly 'normal' families?

I bought the other two volumes in an Amazon Kindle deal on the day Aldiss died, so we shall see what develops.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Conclave - Robert Harris

Robert Harris seems to have set himself a challenge - how to turn the well known or unthrilling into compulsive reading. For An Officer and a Spy he took the Dreyfuss case, which surely at least half his readership must have known, and made it fresh and compelling. In Conclave he has taken a subject which I for one could not care less about, limited it purely to the arcane election process of the new pope - no murders, no espionage, precious little scandal - and made it absolutely thrilling.

I have witnessed many vote counts, even as it happens presided over one just as arcane as the papal system, yet I was 100% enthralled. How does Harris do it? It's not clever literary tricks. It's certainly not wordplay. The plot in Conclave is more or less prescribed by ecclesiastical law and fairly predictable. I guessed who was going to win the moment he showed up and spotted the twist, although I admit I didn't quite get it right, and Harris revealed it really well. I can only conclude it's the honesty of his approach. He actually cares about these elderly men and their ancient task. He has done his research in impressive depth and is not ashamed to tackle the prickly question of faith. It is not, of course, the present pope he is writing about or indeed the last, but the cloistered election takes place against a distant backdrop of an absolutely contemporary Europe.

As an exercise in the craft of storytelling Conclave is a masterclass. I am not religious, couldn't care less about the papacy although I do rather admire the current incumbent, but Harris played with my emotions like a virtuoso. He keeps getting better and better and if he keeps on at this standard I might yet forgive him The Ghost.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Everything Flows - Vasily Grossman

I tried reading Grossman's Life and Fate when Radio 4 did an epic dramatisation a couple of years ago. I failed. I saw this much shorter work and thought it might be a way in to Grossman's work. I finished it, which was good, but I'm not sure I want to commit myself to another go at Life and Fate which is ten times longer.

Don't get me wrong, Everything Flows is a major work, impressive in many ways. It took Grossman eight years to write, his last eight years, and it is obviously unfinished. But there are several problem. It is a story of the Gulag - specifically the challenge facing Ivan Grigoryevich on his release after thirty years - and the atrocity of the Soviet penal system is always interesting. But it is not Grossman's story. Despite being Jewish, intellectual, a writer and opinionated, he was in no way suppressed by the Stalin regime. Indeed, his fame as a war reporter - his account of the extermination camps was used as evidence at the Nuremberg war trials - cushioned him from criticism. Some of his novels and short stories were successful. It was Krushchov rather than Stalin who took against him and the late novels were held up indefinitely as the censors demanded more and more rewrites.

The unfinished nature of the book, no doubt exacerbated by Grossman's stomach cancer, is all too evident. He has no vision for what the novel should be. He has an overarching theme about the Russian people's fetish for totalitarianism but cannot find a way to incorporate it as story. Instead the last quarter of what is only a 220 page book is given over to a historical essay purportedly written by Ivan Grigoryevich after the death of his landlady-lover. The essay is far too long and full of rather convenient aphorisms which strike my inner ear as glib and facile rather than insightful. It suffers especially because it follows a first-person narration of the Ukranian famine by the landlady-lover which is truly heart-rending.

There are other promising strands never followed up on - a widow who is sent to an all-female camp in Siberia and Ivan's cousin Nikolay, who has done rather well out of playing the system and thus feels an appalling burden of guilt. What we are left with, then, is the skeleton of a potentially great novel in progress.

There are, in my view, far too many notes and explanations. There was one thing that struck me, though, in the afterword by Grossman's daughter. When the novel came to light in the Perestroika era no Russian paper would publish it because it wasn't sufficiently Gulag. Are we any different today? An unfinished collection of linked fragments like Everything Flows gets translated and published because it supports our preconceptions about Soviet Russia whilst complete novels of Russian heroism, like Grossman's Stalingrad (For A Just Cause), based on his actual experience, are passed over.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Wheels of Terror - Sven Hassel

Well now. I remember Sven Hassel being very popular in the UK in the mid-Sixties and early Seventies. War books not really being my thing, I never read any, although my dad read them all, and pretty much forgot all about Hassel until I stumbled upon this 2014 Phoenix reprint of his second novel, from 1959, in my local library. I thought, why not? I looked further into the author...

Right, so Sven Hassel was not German, although he certainly fought for the Germans in World War II. Sven Hassel was not his real name but the name he gives to his first-person narrator in his books. Hassel was not even the name he published under in his native Denmark, nor even the name he legally adopted in 1965. Suffice to say, he remains highly controversial in Denmark to this day. Was he hero or traitor or victim of circumstances? That's probably never going to be established to the satisfaction of all. What we can say, more or less for sure, is that he spent the second half of his long life in Barcelona where he died in 2012, and he left a series of fourteen books about a band of misfits (Brigade of Misfits is the alternative title of the only movie version of a Hassel book, which as it happens is an adaptation of this one, Wheels of Terror), the 27th (Penal) Regiment, serving in all the worst battles in all theatres of World War II.

These men are absolutely expendable - all have been convicted of serious crimes and military service is their punishment. They are absolutely brutal but Hassel keeps them human by alternating scenes of appalling violence with the rough humour and downright silliness of men forced to keep unnaturally close company.

The literary style is remarkably original. Each chapter starts with a kind of precis; for example: "They were wounded. You need imagination to get the meaning of that. To go through hospital to understand it." Oddly, none of the core characters are actually wounded or hospitalised in the chapter that follows. You also get an idea of the phraseology in that quotation. It seems somehow oblique, skewed. The sentences are curt, choppy, the paragraphs kept to two or three lines. The dialogue, on the other hand, is florid and grandiloquent. Take this interchange:

"Is that an order, dear Old Un?" asked Porta. "Since you're a sergeant why can't you say in a nice and military fashion: 'I order Obergefreiter Joseph Porta to shut his mouth!'"
 "By God then, it's an order! Shut up, will you!"
 "Now, don't get fresh, you Unteroffizier-crap. When you speak to me you're kindly asked to do so in the regulation army manner addressing me in third person. Full stop."
 "Allright. I, Unteroffizier Willy Beier, 27th (Penal) Panzer Regiment order Obrgefreiter Joseph Porta to shut up!"
"And I, Obergefreiter by God's grace in the Nazi army, Joseph Porta, who's beaten the world record in obstacle-racing, am completely indifferent to Herr Unteroffizier's orders. Amen."
There is no story as such, just a series of adventures or escapades as the Germans advance into and retreat from the USSR. The book ends with an event, not a resolution. It is all highly unusual. I stuck with it but am unclear where I stand on it. Did I like it? Well, I certainly enjoyed some parts and other bits stimulated my imagination. I shall probably have to sample more to try and make up my mind. Perhaps the first in the series, Legion of the Damned, which seems to me to be the best known.