Saturday, 30 May 2020

Casanova - Stefan Zweig

Originally published with essays on Stendhal and Tolstoy, this long paper on Casanova, from 1928, was part of an envisioned series of such volumes. These three were all auto-biographers or, as Zweig puts it, Adepts in Self-Portraiture. The 'Casanova' was always seen as different because he was not a professional writer; his Life (1798) is his only serious written work. It is also, of course, far and away the best known of the autobiographies considered, in constant demand since it was first found and printed. Zweig therefore sets out to determine what makes it so compulsive. His thesis is, essentially, that Casanova lived the first half of his life in the moment, without planning or reflection. He thus builds up such a mass of experience that, in retirement, it takes him sixteen volumes just to get down the events.

I am not familiar with Zweig's work but I enjoyed this and will certainly read more.

Thursday, 28 May 2020

The Dark Stuff - Nick Kent

Nick Kent was the star reporter of the New Musical Express back when I was an avid reader. The Dark Stuff is a collection of new, old and refurbished items from his vast output, specifically concerning those who have lived the rock 'n' roll lifestyle a little too hard. It begins with a hundred-page account of the Beach Boys, put together over the years, there's then some unsatisfactory stuff about the Stones, Iggy (my personal fave), Lou Reed (my fave back in the day and again, not really up to the mark here.). The best bits for me were an excellent piece about Johnny Cash, who I didn't realise was as addicted as he was; Sly Stone, who I'd forgotten all about; and the penultimate piece about Phil Spector on the eve of his trial for murder.

It's the sort of book you pick up thinking it's perfect for reading in instalments. You are wrong. Kent is a compulsive read and once you start, you're going to finish. It's a window for a time long ago when drugs were either new or rediscovered, and musicians were able to achieve long careers. It's a bubble in history which Kent was uniquely placed to observe and record. A classic in its own right. 

Tuesday, 26 May 2020

The Meaning of Treason - Rebecca West

The Meaning of Treason was originally an account of the trial of William Joyce ('Lord Haw-Haw') in 1945. West sat through the entirety of his trial and appeals. Joyce's defence was a good one: you cannot betray a country you have never been a citizen of. And he had never been British. He was born in America to an Irish father; before he made any broadcasts he had been granted German citizenship. His downfall was, he had accepted a British passport to make his escape to Germany on the eve of World War II. You could argue, of course, that the British should have been more careful who they granted passports to, but it should be remembered that in September 1939 the Irish State was more of a potential danger to the UK than Germany was. In any event, Joyce hadn't committed treason in the sense of betraying secrets to the enemy, because he had never been important enough to have any. He had, without doubt, given comfort to the enemies of Britain by, for example, mocking Churchill and laughing at British defeats. But then how come Norman Baillie Stewart, who had served a sentence for betraying secrets before the war and who was the original Lord Haw-Haw only received a short custodial sentence when he was tried after Joyce had been hanged?

These were the questions West asked in her 1949 book. To the best of my recollection, she came down on the side of common sense. Joyce's trial was a kangaroo court and he wasn't guilty of treason. There were loads of offences he could have been tried for - obtaining a passport he wasn't entitled to was an obvious starting point - and no one would have batted an eyelid had he ended up serving a double-figure sentence of imprisonment.

By 1956 (this edition) West had mellowed. All the anchors of her original argument are still present but so are reams of waffle which she believes entitle her to have changed her mind. They don't. The real problem though is that in 1951 she agreed to add in an account of the atom spy Klaus Fuchs, and by extension his traitorous boss Alan Nunn May. They were undoubtedly guilty; neither man was executed, and both claimed a moral defence - that A-bomb technology was redundant so long as all major countries had access to it. For this further edition in 1956 she added Burgess and Maclean to the mix - paid, long-term Soviet spies whose only excuse was they were lifelong shits. As such, they of course did a runner to Moscow before they could be tried. Furthermore, as we all now know, they were only the tip of a considerable iceberg.

If you want to know about Joyce's trial, read the 1949 Meaning of Treason. Instead of trying to add in the next wave of traitors under what was inevitably a very broad brush, West would have been far better off writing separate volumes using the same technique.

Sunday, 24 May 2020

Screenwriting techniques for success - Jimmy Sangster

Yes, another secrets of screenwriting book but this time with a difference - Jimmy Sangster actually wrote movies. Indeed, he was always more famous for writing movies than anything else he might have written. More incredible still, you actually know his movies. Dracula Prince of Darkness, The Curse of Frankenstein. Yes, for a very productive decade, Sangster was the Hammer house writer. Then he moved to America, and wrote lots and lots of American TV.

Another break with the form - he demonstrates what he means by writing original scripts, two of them, a full-length script for a darkish comedy film and a pilot episode for a sitcom.

For a beginner, what more do you need? For somebody who's read lots of such things, a referesher that's actually … well, refreshing. Great fun - which is exactly what Sangster insists creative writing should be.

Saturday, 23 May 2020

Rupert Brooke - The Splendour and the Pain - John Frayn Turner

This an outlier among the Brooke biographies. Turner, who usually wrote about World War 2, claims to have determined the real Rupert, but what he has actually done is come up with a composite view based on the perceptions of those who knew Brooke but who are ignored in the main biographies, that is to say, the Authorised Version (Hassall, 1964), the sexed up version (Jones, 1999), and the literary/scholarly version (Lehmann, 1980). I include the dates because it matters when we come to consider Turner. This book was published in 1992 but large chunks are what seem to be transcriptions of conversations between the witness and the author. St John Ervine, critic and playwright, for example, gives a key opinion right in the middle of the book - but Ervine died in 1971. How long was Turner working on this remarkably slim volume? He clearly didn't wait long enough before publishing because he plainly wasn't granted access to copyright material by Brooke itself, whereas this was definitely in the public domain by the time Frayn did his Life and Selected Works for Casemate in 2005.

The revelation of this book for me was how close Rupert Brooke was at Cambridge to Hugh Dalton, Labour's future Chancellor of the Exchequer. I think other biographers have overlooked Dalton because he has been largely forgotten whereas Brooke never has. Dalton's autobiography Call Back Yesterday is well worth checking out, I can assure you.

The drawback is, Turner doesn't provide notes. So if you are a scholar who feels obliged to know these things you are left with a Herculean task tracking down the source of his quotations. If you do this, as I did, you find out, uncomfortably, that some parts might not be what they seem. The description of Grantchester, for example, as Brooke might have seen it on an early visit, is in fact a straight uncredited lift from one of Turner's sources. Dangerous, of course, and not at all a good thing. Perhaps Turner put it right in 2005. I'll check it out if I get the chance - if I come across it in a library, because I'm certainly not buying it on the offchance.

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Evil Things - Katja Ivar

Evil Things is Nordic Noir set in Finland in 1952. The date is important because Finland is still defining its identity after the war and borders are somewhat fluid. Hella Mauzer, Finland's first female homicide inspector, has been relegated to the rural north, for reasons not entirely apparent. A report comes in from Lapland, which even in the one-horse town where she is based is considered the boondocks. A child has been found alone in one of the houses there. His grandfather went out almost a week earlier and hasn't been heard from since.

Hella decides to investigate. There is no hotel so far out in the sticks, so she lodges with the local Orthodox priest and his pregnant wife. They have also taken in the child, Kalle.
Hella questions the locals, who say nothing. The old man was a loner, his late daughter a tart who lumbered him with her bastard son. Kalle complains about 'evil things' out in the woods. Hella searches and finds a body, not the missing grandfather but a middleaged woman, who turns out to have been a doctor in the Russian army.

The plot unravels brilliantly. The writing (and translation) is tight and characterful. The characters are three-dimensional and distinct. The historical setting is credible throughout. And the final twist, which I never saw coming, is a real jaw-dropper. The second Hella Mauzer story, Deep as Death, is out next month. I can't wait.

Thursday, 14 May 2020

The Island - Ana Maria Matute

The Island (1959) is a roman a clef novella set on the island of Mallorca during the Spanish Civil War. Teenage Matia is marooned there with her cousin Borja in the home of their domineering grandmother. Matia is there because she has been expelled from her convent school; her mother is dead, her scapegrace father out of the picture, so she has nowhere else to go. Borja's father is a general in the republican army and has lodged his wife and son in her mother's safekeeping. Also in the household is the servant Antonia and her slightly odd son, "Chinky" Lauro who is acting as temporary tutor for the younger children.

The island is new and alien to Matia, who is used to cosmopolitan Madrid. On the island families are still living off the reputations of long-dead ancestors. In the old village is a long abandoned square surrounded by the decaying houses of the Jews who burned to death there half a millennium earlier. The islanders don't know how to respond to outsiders or even those of their own who have been to other places. Up on the hill lives the seldom seen Jorge of Son Major, a sea-farer who some say sailed as far as the Greek Islands. In his seclusion he has become a fantasy for the island women, all of whom hint at having been his lover. Similarly, their sons proudly claim to be Jorge's secret son.

The Island is made out by some critics to be a lost Eden or 'enchanted' in the manner of Prospero's island. The first is certainly lazy tosh; there is nothing paradisiacal about this place. The sun 'wounds', the vegetation cloys. You could make a better case for The Tempest theme, with Jorge as Prospero, Lauro as Caliban, Borja as Ariel and the grandmother as Sycorax, but Matute herself seems to refer to it as Never Never Land. In short, it is a memory of a place seen in childhood which becomes overpowering as childhood edges into maturity.

It is a pure rites of passage piece, beautifully done. Only one thing annoyed me. As mentioned above, Matute is big on light and scents. The light is characterised, coloured, explained and justified. But scents remain just smells. Why? On the other hand, I really enjoyed Matute's use of parentheses for asides and sudden insights. Other readers, apparently, don't.

Saturday, 9 May 2020

The Honourable Schoolboy - John le Carre

The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) is the middle and least-known of le Carre's Smiley Trilogy of the 70s. Framed by Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People, it suffers because it has never been adapted for the screen, but it is every bit as good as the novels which bookend it. This is the operation which will define Smiley's tenure as head of the Circus. Trying to untangle the mess inherited from the mole Bill Haydon, Smiley finds the case of Hong Kong tycoon Drake Ko and his brother Nelson, who might be about to defect from China. Unable to know who he might be able to trust in the field, Smiley sends the Circus 'occasional' Jerry Westerby, son of the Press baron (hence the 'Hon') and himself a journalist.

Jerry is the character involved in most of the action here, and very good he is too. On the face of it a lumbering lazy giant, he is in fact fiercely loyal to his personal code of honour and the mentor who recruited him back in the day, George Smiley. Next to Smiley, Jerry Westerby might just be the best le Carre character ever. The novel also benefits from a meaningful female lead, Lizzie Worthington, who hoped to make her looks her fortune in the East but who has ended up something of a courtesan and a drug mule.

Meanwhile Smiley oversees matters from afar (London, until the last couple of chapters) where he negotiates the delicate politics needed to continue the Circus after the scandal. Connie Sachs is back as one of his key advisers, along with the profoundly eccentric Doc de Salis. Peter Guillam is, of course, Smiley's righthand man, and there is a minder, Fawn, who I don't believe ever reappears but who is darkly memorable here.

The book is immensely long (well over 600 pages) and extraordinarily detailed. It's a long time since I read Tinker Tailor and Smiley's People (a good forty years) but I don't remember them being quite this good. I suppose they have now become something of a stereotype for British spy fiction, whereas the Hong Kong setting and Chinese communists are still a rarity. It is, without doubt, a masterpiece of its genre.