Sunday, 29 September 2019

Tales From Hollywood - Christopher Hampton

This 1983 play is about the emigre German writers who found refuge from the Nazis in Hollywood: Brecht, for example, but mainly the Mann brothers, Thomas and Heinrich. Heinrich was the elder brother and was famous for his novels before Thomas but who was then eclipsed by his more conservative, deeper thinking sibling. By the time war breaks out both are in Hollywood but only Heinrich is reliant on Hollywood. Thomas tours universities and is tipped for the Nobel prize; Heinrich is spendthrift, bibulous and has a younger, lower-class wife, Nelly.

Our guide to this inversion of the Hollywood Dream is the Hungarian playwright Odon von Horvath, who is himself a dream in this story, given that he was killed by a falling tree in the Champs d'Elysees in 1938. But here he befriends Heinrich, pays reverence to Thomas, and responds a little too readily to Nelly's drunken flirting. The play ends badly for Nelly but not for Horvath, because he is already dead and finally, symbolically, realises it.

Hampton is one of the best writers of plays in English of the later Twentieth Century. In the Eighties it was basically between him and Stoppard, and after 1990 neither of them has written anywhere near enough. Both wear their book-learning as a badge of authority and neither has reflected deeply enough on the human condition, having both been successful from an early age. That does rather show in Tales From Hollywood.

What is it about? Displacement? Thomas Mann was permanently displaced; he wrote the bulk of his work outside Germany. Brecht wrote masterpieces like Galileo in exile and Heinrich's fame had already faded by 1940. Hovath, the child of an empire that had vanished during his lifetime, was a resident of nowhere - literally, in the context of the play. The only real displacement here is Nelly, who caught the roving eye of the man who thought up The Blue Angel and rose above her station. Tales of Hollywood is not about the writers who have no tales to tell about Hollywood, but about Nelly, who came to Hollywood with no dreams left and already out of place.

The famous writers are slightly two-dimensional, apart from our narrator, Hovath. He is a fantastic character and the best actors must yearn to play him: witty, self-deprecating, omniscient, playful, charming. And Nelly... a dream part, surely, for an actress just entering middle age. At the National Theatre in 1983 she was played by Billie Whitelaw. Casting that says it all.

Sunday, 22 September 2019

The Triumph of the Spider Monkey - Joyce Carol Oates

Hard Case Crime, my favourite brand of the moment, have really branched out. They now publish Stephen King and, that most literary of American writers, Joyce Carol Oates. I love Joyce Carol Oates and have done since I came across one of her earliest stories (pre-1973) in a collection from the Transatlantic Review..

What we have here is a novella from the same period, when Oates was still experimenting in authorial voice, and a shorter, linked novella from a couple of years later which has only ever been published in a literary journal.

The Spider Monkey is Bobbie Gotteson, abandoned as a new-born in a locker at the bus station. Bobbie is raised in care and detention centres, with the inevitable consequences. Upon release as a man of around thirty, but still looking young if a little monkeyish, he drifts out West with his guitar and vague dreams of becoming a star. Instead he turns into something not unlike Charles Manson, who was still on trial when Oates conceived the story.

It must be stressed, though, that Bobbie is not Charlie. He keeps his mystic powers to himself and his disciples are all in his head. But we know from the start that he is on trial for a series of murders. Among them is a houseful of air stewardesses, only one of whom has escaped. She is Dewaline, who features in the other novella, 'Love, Careless Love,' in which another footloose young drifter, Jules, is hired by persons unknown, to spy on her - for reasons unknown - as she attends to give evidence at Bobbie's trial.

Jules cannot resist approaching her. Dewaline assumes he is the driver hired (again, by persons unknown) to take her north after the trial. On the road, they become as involved as two alienated young people can be.

Oates is always worth reading. These early works are fascinating - experimental, multi-voiced, moving by jump-cuts like a post Easy Rider movie. Together, they are like reading a gonzo report from the frontline of the death of the Sixties dream.

Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Handsome Brute - Sean O'Connor

Probably the best researched book on sex killer Neville Heath, the 'handsome brute' of the title. Heath was brutish only in the way he treated the women he picked up in the transient world of London hotels in the immediate postwar period. He whipped them and he murdered two. But he was obviously debonair and charming - these women weren't idiots - and his wife in South Africa never accused him of violence. They divorced because he had married under a false name and was a convicted minor criminal.

O'Connor takes a critical view of his subject but doesn't really go into his mental state, issues raised at his trial, appeal, and in the Press. How deluded was he, if at all? That is and always was the question. He had a traumatic childhood with the death of a younger brother. He clearly had talent as a pilot and was undoubtedly brave in action. Because of his dishonesty he was court-martialed three times, yet did well in both the RAF and its South African equivalent. He was determined to serve. Was this heroism or a death wish? How do we differentiate between the two?

A book, therefore, that tells the tale thoroughly but leaves questions unanswered, which is not always a bad thing. Well worth looking out for.

(Great cover image BTW.)

Sunday, 15 September 2019

The Secret Rooms - Catherine Bailey

This is a captivating and unusual book. Bailey was granted access to the extensive archive of the Manners family, kept at Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire, home of the Duke of Rutland. Her aim was to research a book on the men of the Belvoir Estate during World War I. The current duke's great grandfather, Henry, had been a noted recruiter of volunteers for the Leicestershire Tigers. He had even offered to pay their usual wages while they were away.

On arrival she discovered the mystery of the secret rooms. This is where Henry's son John, the ninth duke had died in April 1940, aged only 53. More than that, he had locked himself in these humble 'business' rooms - excluding his family and some of the best doctors in the land - in order to work on the vast family archive. Moreover, it wasn't just the Manners papers that were stored there in 1940. The ninth duke had campaigned hard to ensure that huge chunks of the National Archive were secretly moved to Belvoir for safe keeping.

John himself had served in the First War. His father Henry had boasted that his own son - his only remaining son - was serving at the Front like the humblest farm hand. But Bailey soon discovered that the archives had been systematically edited - filleted by John - to remove all mention of certain periods in his life, including the latter part of his war service. Why? And who on Earth broke into the sealed rooms three nights after John's death?

As I say, it is a compelling story of arrogance, cowardice, bereavement and entitlement. Bailey builds the key characters as well as any novelist. Yet she is equally diligent in recording the problems of archival research. She answers the questions she set herself. Some solutions are sad, others downright extraordinary. She doesn't answer the one question I have always had about this truly ghastly family. How did they become dukes in the first place? They weren't warlords, nor royal by-blows. Sure, they owned and amassed inordinate land banks but so did many other families who came over with the Conqueror, and none of them became dukes. Other than pile up - and later lose - unimaginable fortunes, what did any of them ever do?

Thursday, 12 September 2019

Science Fiction Hall of Fame - the Novellas Book Two - (ed) Ben Bova

Another fascinating relic of Sixties and Seventies which I completely ignored at the time. Ben Bova's contribution is insignificant but the four novellas are all engrossing in their own way. Robert A Heinlein's Universe is on the hard side of sci-fi, set in a spaceship so big that is a world in itself, so far into its voyage that it has forgotten there is a universe outside. Vintage Season is by Henry Kuttner and his wife C L Moore (writing as Lawrence O'Donnell). Oliver takes in a family as vacantioners-cum-lodgers; they gradually reveal themselves as aliens on a visit to take in Earth before something happens. It would be crass to reveal what that something is, but it has to be said that the last line (which could easily be the first line of another story) is a stunner. The Ballad of Lost C'mell by Cordwainer Smith is the only novella here not written in the 1940s. It dates from 1962 and is pure Beatnik. It is extreme fantasy, set in a time when science has been sublimated, when "Earthport stood like an enormous wineglass, reaching from the magma to the high atmosphere." Jestocost is a Lord of Instrumentality whereas C'mell is a very girly girl, so girly that she is in fact a human-shaped cat, a homunculus. Yet Jestocost loves C'mell. The question is does she - can she - love him? And finally we have Jack Williamson's With Folded Hands, written in 1947 but still pertinent today because it is about the coming of the super-robots. The Prime Directive, a forerunner of Asimov's Laws, is brilliantly and bleakly enacted. It was for me the most effective novella in the collection, albeit Cordwainer Smith is a better writer.

Monday, 9 September 2019

Biggles Flies East - Captain W E Johns

Biggles Flies East (1935) is the seventh Biggles book, albeit Johns only started to publish them three years earlier. It is, like many of the early installments, a book for young adults rather than merely boys. The plot is complex and there are serious themes. The accurate historical detail, as always with Johns, is laid on good and thick. It is not, however, racist. The Huns are enemies, not crazed loons, and even the nomadic Arabs are portrayed as men of honour. They are, nonetheless, all men. I cannot recall a single female character, let alone a significant one.

Essentially, the plot is this: Biggles is seconded to Palestine where a man known as El Shereef is inciting the locals to rise up against the British. He is sent undercover to the Germans, posing as a British-born German pilot. Here he comes up against the man who is to become his enemy over the coming decades, Erich von Stalhein, whom he soon concludes is another spy. The British equivalent of von Stalhein is Major Sterne, who Biggles glimpses one night as a shadow in a tent.

Meanwhile Biggles's oppo Algy acts as his go-between with Military Intelligence. When Algy comes under fire from the German ace Leffens, Biggles has to save him. The dog-fight which follows is superbly done, genuinely exciting. The plot resolves neatly in the end and all loose ends are tied.

I haven't read Biggles since I was ten years old, though I hoped to dig my old copies out of the attic. Instead I found this brand new reprint by Red Fox on the carousel in my local library. I was very impressed.

Thursday, 5 September 2019

The Fatal Eggs - Mikhail Bulgakov

I love Bulgakov. He is my favourite writer and wrote my favourite book, The Master and Margarita. The Fatal Eggs (1924-5) isn't in that league, but it is seeded through with bits of Bulgakov at his best.

In 1928 (a 'future' four years after it was written) Professor Persikov invents a red ray that speeds up the reproductive process. His invention couldn't be more timely, because a plague has wiped out the poultry of several large provinces. Eggs are hurriedly imported and bathed in the crimson glow of Persikov's ray. Meanwhile the Professor returns to his zoological studies in which his specialism happens to be eggs. Unfortunately, due to a typical bureaucratic blooper, supplies of eggs get mixed up. Poultry farms receive the eggs of amphibians and reptiles while Persikov wonders what he's supposed to do with common or garden chicken eggs.

The outcome - for Bulgakov - is inevitable. Giant predatory reptiles run amok in the provinces and rioting Muscovites attack the scientists. It's all wild, comic and clever. Just as the common cold did for H G Wells' martians, so a premature frost polishes off the tropical monsters. But, being Bulgakov and not Wells, we are reminded that some poor wretches have to dispose of the rotting corpses.

A fine translation by Roger Cockrell perfectly captures the tone.

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

La Bete Humaine - Emile Zola

Zola's naturalism at its most extreme, humanity reduced to its most bestial. La Bete Humaine is really tough going. Everybody is determined to kill everyone else. Roubaud and Severine murder Grandmorin on the train between Paris and Le Havre. This takes place near the signal box run by Misard and the level crossing operated by his stepdaughter Flore. Misard is slowing poisoning his wife for her inheritance and Flore kills a dozen people because she is infatuated with her foster brother Jacques. Jacques's little problem is that he wants to murder every woman who excites him. He thinks that Severine has helped him over this minor difficulty and joins in her plan to murder her husband Roubaud. This is more than a tangled web. This is crazy. Yet Zola's gifts as a storyteller somehow carry the reader forward. It is one of those books you are going to finish, whether you like it or not. Personally, I'm not sure whether I like it. I certainly admire it. And I'm definitely glad I read it.