Monday, 30 August 2021

Abraham Lincoln - John Drinkwater


Abraham Lincoln is the play that made John Drinkwater famous on both sides of the Atlantic.  He produced it at Birmingham Repertory Theatre, which he ran, in October 1918.  It then transferred to London and became an enormous hit, even though - as everyone said at the time - it had none of the usual attributes of commercial theatrical success.  There is no love interest, no jokes.  Any real conflict is either offstage or internal until the very last moment.  There are no surprises.  Barely any continuity.  Instead we jump from Lincoln at home, accepting nomination, to the White House a year later,  then two years later, then Appomattox, April 1865, and finally Ford's Theatre, a few evenings later.

What the play had, however, and what the English public desperately wanted to see as the world's worst war finally ended, was a moral hero who justified the bloodshed and pledged reconciliation.  This, of course, is not what Allied politicians ultimately delivered, but it was absolutely what the public wanted.  And it is beautifully done.  Drinkwater was a minor Georgian poet who dabbled in verse drama before he wrote Lincoln.  He was also a man of the theatre.  His father had walked out on a secure teaching job to go on the stage.  Drinkwater himself had been with Barry Jackson, who had founded and built the Birmingham Rep in 1913, for more than a decade.  He knew what the public wanted and he provided it.

The history is accurate enough, but it is revealed subtly and only when absolutely needed.  Nobody's character develops much except for Lincoln, who undergoes every bit of suffering during the bloody Civil War but keeps on going because do so is the right thing.  He frees the slaves.  He lets the defeated Confederate cavalry keep their horses to till the land.  And as we all know, for this he was shown no mercy.  The assassination, which we all know is coming, is handled in the only way it can still be shocking - in a true coup de theatre, which must have been a nightmare to stage (Barry Jackson himself designed the sets).

Traces of the conventions of the English Arts Theatre movement survive in the poetic chorus of two 'chroniclers'.  These are easily ignored for the modern reader.  We will simply say, this is why Drinkwater was the least successful of the core Georgian poets.  He made up for it by being a much better playwright than any other (and, for those who don't know, all the others wrote plays).

Thursday, 26 August 2021

The Smiling Man - Joseph Knox

OK, I was ambivalent about Knox's debut, Sirens, but I was interested enough to read this, the second Aidan Waits novel.  No reservations now - Knox is up there with the best of his generation of British crime writers.  This is a proper novel, properly original, with the full novelistic strata of interlinked storylines - plus our first real insight into our hero's pitch-black backstory.

Waits is on permanent night duty, paired with the equally toxic DS Peter Sutcliffe, who lives up to his name.  They are investigating the arson of various litter bins when the call comes in from the closed pending sale luxury Palace hotel.  There's a man in room 413.  He's smiling.  He's dead.  The only real clue to his identity is an inscribed copy of the Rubiyat of Omar Khyam.  Waits traces this to a nurse called Amy.  They bring her in to identify the body.  She doesn't need to see his face.  There is obviously one foot too many for it to be her former lover.

Then there's the case of Cherry the streetwalker, whose body is fished out of the canal.  Only Cherry is really Christopher.  The whole plot unravels along these eccentric lines.  Ir's just brilliant.

I was going to end with "I can't wait for the next Waits novel,' but it turns out I can.  Knox's next book is a true crime story, set in Manchester., and called, fittingly, True Crime Story.  That is what I want to read asap.

Saturday, 21 August 2021

V2 - Robert Harris


Harris yet again surprises with his ability to turn quite thin material into a compelling read.  I mean, everyone knows the story of von Braun and his V2 rockets.  We know they didn't win the war and we know they didn't do as much damage - or create as much fear - as the V1 doodlebugs.  Indeed, this story is so thin that Harris actually splits into two narratives - English woman, German man - to stretch it to an acceptable read.  And yet it is great fun, even thrilling at times.  How does he do it?

Well, he has clearly done his research.  That is a given with Harris.  He carefully gives us just about enough to show it is reliable without overburdening us as so many modern authors do.  For example, in order to make us even slightly interested in what happened at Peenemunde he gives us an RAF raid on the site in which Rudi Graf's love interest is killed.  Graf is Harris's German protagonist, a scientist, not a Nazi, and a friend of von Braun, who is an SS officer.  Our English heroine is Kay Caton-Walsh, a WAAF who sleeps with unsuitable men and blags herself into a proper war job, working out the launch site of rockets.  This is perhaps Harris's best device.  As the end of the war draws nearer, the protagonists in this novel are brought physically closer - Graf and the rockets at the Dutch resort of Sheveningen, Kay and the trajectory-trackers a few miles south at Mechelen in Belgium.  The thrilling part of the book comes when the Germans figure out the Allies are there and aim a rocket at them.

There are a couple of interesting characters who go nowhere, which unsettled me, notably a feisty girl who works in the Nazi brothel, and a psychopathic SS man who builds the rocket factory with slave labour.  V2 is a good book, and great fun to read, but with a bit more ambition it could have been outstanding.

Monday, 16 August 2021

The Bird's Nest - Shirley Jackson


I've read a little Shirley Jackson (We Have Always Lived in the Castle is reviewed here) but I had no idea she wrote a novel like this.  The Bird's Nest is the tangled psyche of Elizabeth Richmond, a dull 25 year-old orphan who lives with her aunt.  She suffers from back pain and headaches so her family doctor refers her to starchy old Dr Victor Wright who fancies himself adept at psychotherapy.  Wright isn't an actual psychotherapist, you understand, just an enthusiastic dabbler.

Wright hypnotises Elizabeth and unleashes multiple personalities - Lizzie, Beth, Betsy and Bess, who - rivals with one another - unleash chaos.  The trick Jackson pulls off is to tell her story through different characters.  The mark of her genius is that she doesn't do the obvious and split the narrative through the split personalities.  No, she gives us Elizabeth herself, Betsy (the most active of the alternates), Doctor Wright (twice) and fiesty Aunt Morgen.  Moreover, only the verbose, pontificating Wright narrates in the first person.  It's very clever, beautifully done, and totally engrossing.  No wonder The Bird's Nest is a Penguin Modern Classic.

Thursday, 5 August 2021

In Matto's Realm - Friedrich Glauser


A real discovery!  Friedrich Glauser (1896-1938) is called the Swiss Simenon but is far more interesting.  Here, he sets his story in a Psychiatric Clinic - the director has gone missing as has one of his patients, a self-confessed child killer.  For most writers this would mean a great deal of painful research.  Not for Glauser, a schizophrenic who had spent long periods of time in such clinics.  On top of that he was addicted to morphine and opium, had done time for forging prescriptions, and had served in the Foreign Legion.  He wasn't even Swiss - he was born in Vienna.

So what does a madman make of the madhouse?  He of course has great sympathy for the patients, but also the staff.  The most compelling character in the novel is Dr Ernst Laduner, the deputy director, who has a smile that looks like it's been pasted on, eccentric verbal tics and a taste for sometimes brutal experimentation.  And then there's Glauser's series detective, Sergeant Jakob Studer, formerly an inspector but busted back to sergeant, aged fifty, by his bete noir Colonel Caplaun, whose alcoholic son just happens to be a patient of Dr Laduner.

The story grips like a vice.  We become fully conversant with this alien world and its inhabitants.  The year is 1936.  In Germany radical events are underway but all we hear of them is an unidentified voice ranting on the radio.  This is clearly Hitler, who would have no toleration whatsoever for someone like Glauser.  And this is Glauser's genius - we have to work these things out for ourselves, though we are left in no doubt about Studer's antipathetic views on fascism.  Indeed, Studer does many things we might not expect of a heavily-built German-speaking cop coming up to retirement.

It's a thrilling, fascinating and in many ways beautiful book.  At this halfway stage of the year, it's my favourite read of 2021.