Thursday, 29 April 2021

The Last London - Iain Sinclair


Sinclair's forty-year project to map the soul of London ends here.  The London he started exploring in the 1970s no longer exists; perhaps its soul no longer does, either.  Sinclair certainly struggles to find it.  When he started out London, only recently been rebuilt after the Blitz, was in apparent decline.  Rooms were cheap and plentiful, as were jobs of all kinds.  But a megapolis is always in a state of renewal and decline and Sinclair has documented the cycle.  He ends with the transients being driven from the centre to the furthest outskirts.  He starts here with London's putative great moment, the 2012 Olympics, which was alarmingly transitory, and ends with the vote to leave Europe in 2016.

Along the way he renews old friendships - fellow malcontents and dissenters, fellow psychogeographers.  They recreate former expeditions, revisiting old haunts where they still exist.  The Last London is a work of recollection, scrutiny and foresight, always moving, the synapses always firing, making and remaking connections with deeper history.  Time, for Sinclair and his associates, is not so much a progression as an accumulation.

I found it fascinating, endlessly thought-provoking.

Monday, 26 April 2021

Invasion of the Body Snatchers - Jack Finney


This classic demonstrates the axiom that in sci fi the idea is everything.  'The Body Snatchers' started out as a magazine serial, then it was refined into book form.  Then came the first movie and the book was renamed, then it was updated for a second movie a quarter of a century later, which is this version.  It all makes no difference.  Smalltown USA is infiltrated by pod plants that turn into exact facsimiles of whatever they find themselves close to - other plants, discarded trash, human beings.  It fundamentally similar to The Day of the Triffids but more claustrophobic (the facsimile people can seal off the township).  Another neat twist is that the voices of science and reason - an absolute necessity in alien life form fiction - are themselves facsimiles.  The best part of the movies - when Kevin McCarthy runs up against a speeding car - is here too, and indeed is one of the best-written sections of the novel.  All in all, it's great fun.

Thursday, 22 April 2021

Consequence of Fear - Ted Allbeury

 Ted Allbeury (1917-2005) was that rare thing among spy writers - a real one.  Yes, John le Carre and Ian Fleming were spies but not in the sense that Allbeury was.  Fleming, for example, was never in the field.  Allbeury on the other hand, was SOE, parachuted into France and remaining there until the end of the war.  Le Carre (David Cornwall) was in the field during the Cold War and therefore risked arrest.  Allbeury was actually captured by the Russians in the act of recruiting agents.

As to writing ability, Allbeury is certainly much better than Fleming.  He lacks Fleming's ability to fetishize the trappings of spycraft but perhaps makes up for it with better ideas for world threats.  In Consequence of Fear, for instance, written in 1979 and thus substantially before Chernobyl, the focus is a nuclear disaster which the Russians have covered up for two decades.

James Boyle was a spy in the war.  As such he ran Otto Lemke, a German spy captured in Croydon with a radio set, who for the rest of the war broadcast false material to his homeland in return for a train of young women willing to sleep with him.  Thirty years later Boyle is a QC who has just been offered a judgeship.  Lemke is an East German sports journalist who has somehow got hold of detailed documentation about the nuclear spill.  He is willing to trade this for asylum in the US with his latest teenaged girlfriend.  On one condition - he wants James Boyle to manage his defection.

So, under cover of offering legal advice to a TV company planning to broadcast the Moscow Olympics in 1980, Boyle heads for Russia.

I was impressed with how easily Allbeury guides his reader through the very convincing intricacies of Cold War political posturing.  The story does not develop as would generally be expected (and here Allbeury comes close to the standards of mid-career le Carre) and the end came as a complete surprise.  I shall certainly read more.

Sunday, 18 April 2021

Titus Groan - Mervyn Peake

Re-reading Titus Groan, I was struck by its uniqueness.  I couldn't come up with an English novel quite like it.  Vathek, perhaps, or I was I just associating Beckford's folly at Fonthill with the castle of Gormenghast?  Thomas Love Peacock's Nightmare Abbey then; but that is literary satire and Peake's achievement goes much, much deeper.

If anything, Titus is about the absurdity of traditional ritual.  Within the fantastical confines of Gormenghast life is entirely circumscribed by age-old convention dating back seventy-six generations and now enters a seventy-seventh with the long-awaited birth of the titular male heir.  At the same moment seventeen year-old Steerpike, one of Mr Swelter's kitchen scullions, seizes the moment to begin his own climb to power.  Steerpike is the malevolent agent of change, who grooms the earl's twin sisters to burn down Earl Sepulchrave's beloved library (storehouse of tradition), triggering the mental breakdown which convinces him he is the Owl of Death.

In just over a year Sepulchrave dies and Titus undergoes his 'earling'.  The twist, setting us up for the second instalment (Gormenghast itself), is that Steerpike ends up being appointed deputy keeper of the rituals.

Peake's writing is superb; sumptuous descriptions befitting such a fine visual artist, but also a truly poetic way with words.  Any writer who unearths and uses the word 'spilth' is my kind of writer.  Peake also has the advantage of being darkly funny.

Friday, 9 April 2021

Down There - J K Huysmans


The ultimate fin de siecle degenerate novel, so they say.  In fact La Bas is an academic discussion about the state of French literature at the end of the Nineteenth Century.  It was decadent, certainly, but that does not make a book about it decadent.  Durtal, our unheroic hero, is a middleaged novelist who has followed the naturalism of Zola about as far as it will go and found it lacking substance.  What he misses is the human soul.  So he sets out to bring naturalism and psyche together in a historical study of Gilles de Rais, the notorious 'Bluebeard' of medieval France.

Gilles de Rais interests Durtal because he started out as a pious soldier, the most important ally of Joan of Arc.  But after Joan's execution and the end of the war with England he becomes dissolute, debauched and appallingly depraved.  After he has defiled, butchered and discarded countless young children he is finally brought to book.  At his trial he confesses everything but recovers his Christian faith to such an extent that the parents of his victims escort him to his death, praying for his salvation.

Durtal wants to wallow in faith of the medieval kind.  He befriends the bellringer of St Surplice and through him an eccentric astrologer who claims he is being murdered remotely by a priest who has gone rogue and now celebrates the Black Mass.  It is the Black Mass which Durtal ultimately witnesses that gives the book its reputation.  Actually, this is nothing at all alarming, more childish than satanic.  What really did raise my eyebrows was what startled me a couple of years ago when I read Zola.  It's the sex.  Durtal finds himself being seduced by the wife of another dining companion and sleeps with her only because she can get him admitted to the Black Mass.

The end of the novel is something of an anticlimax.  The rest of it is absolutely fascinating.

Sunday, 4 April 2021

The Kreutzer Sonata - Leo Tolstoy


The Kreutzer Sonata (1889) is a novella, and thus much less daunting than Tolstoy's vast novels.  To be honest, I only chased down the ebook because I had read in Max Nordau's Degeneracy (1892) that it was a degenerate work, which I thought somewhat unlikely.  Now, having read it, I can see where he was coming from.

On one of those interminable Russian railway journeys, our narrator finds himself buttonholed by a second rate count who insists on telling him why he murdered his wife.  The count is called Pozdnyshev; the wife doesn't merit a name.  He explains that like all young men of his class he used prostitutes and other men's wives before marriage.  Because of that he conflated married love with sex and thus became hugely disappointed as early as the honeymoon.  His wife was beautiful and great in bed.  Other than that they had nothing in common.  Nevertheless they had five children.  He liked the bits where she was pregnant and nursing because at those times there was no sex.  After her fifth pregnancy, however, the expensive doctors told her about contraception, thus forcing them back into one another's company.  Under this regime the countess lost weight and recovered her looks.  She regained her prowess at the piano and gave a soiree with a professional violist.  At this, they played Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata.  The count describes how this tune inspired his conviction that his wife and the musician were lovers, hence---

It is very clever how, to all intents and purposes, Tolstoy creates his own soundtrack for the count's descent into murderous madness.  The murder itself is recounted in elaborate, almost excruciating detail.  It is very unlike our expectations of Tolstoy, himself of course a count who was debauched in youth and then married...  We are left wondering how the Countess Tolstoy felt about this work, especially since I'm sure I read somewhere that she untangled his drafts and prepared decent copies for the publisher.

In essence then, it is a longish disquisition on the thesis that men who use prostitutes shouldn't get married, whereas married men should abstain as far as possible from sex, at least until age reduces the urge and obviates the consequences.  This is argument which got Nordau's dander up and, according to him, made Tolstoy's name in Western Europe.  It certainly kept my interest.

Thursday, 1 April 2021

Streets of Darkness - A A Dhand


Bradford is burning.  A A Dhand knows how to set the clock running and amp up the tension.  Detective Harry Virdee is on his early morning run when he finds the crucified man - a pillar of the Asian community, hugely wealthy and the winner of last night's Parliamentary by-election.  Race was the issue in the election - the city was stuffed with BNP activists.  And now Shakeel Ahmed has been murdered in the most brutal, blasphemous way.  Today is Eid.  The Asian community will be celebrating.  The BNP is planning to march...

Harry is suspended but his boss gives him a career-saving mission - to find notorious racist headcase Lucas Dwight, recently released after serving fourteen years - the only nutcase mad enough for a murder like this.  Meanwhile, Harry's wife is about to give birth and wants to celebrate Eid properly.

This is a fascinating read, the best launch of a crime series I've read in ages.  Bradford is Dhand's city, this is his community.  Everything rings true.  Harry is Sikh but has married outside the community - Saima, his wife, is Muslim.  For that, both families have rejected them - all except Harry's businessman brother Ronnie, with whom he shares a dark secret.  The other characters are striking - Dwight, the boxer with a murderous liver punch, has changed in prison.  Taxi driver Bashir Iqbal, ostensibly Dwight's counterpoint in the Asian community, is truly terrifying.  The pace is relentless, the tension at times overwhelming.  You wonder, how much more twisted can this get?  Edge of the seat time.