Friday, 28 March 2008

Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold - Malcolm Yorke

Whilst this is a workmanlike biography of Peake, I cannot find it in me to get as excited about it as some readers have. To begin with, it has an annoying layout; it is neither wholly themed nor purely chronological. Instead, each chapter is roughly themed in a roughly chronological manner. Whilst this works all right for Peake’s early life, it gets in the way towards the end as the text is darting back and forth, trying to keep interdependent aspects of his life separate. I found this particularly exasperating during discussion of Peake’s illness as we were offered no insight into how his work and relationships began to break down.

Also annoying was the prissiness. A biographer cannot help but discuss their subject, but any judgements they make should be based on evidence drawn from their subject’s actions and works, not from their own moral fussiness. Goodness knows what Yorke made of Eric Gill in that biography when it is clear he found some of Peake’s work and life distasteful. There are points in the book when you can almost here the rubber gloves go on to avoid too much contamination. Yet none of this springs from Peake.

As an example, we are, on a number of occasions, told that Peake’s writing is cruel and unpleasant. And the imputation seems to be that this is because of something inherent in Peake. Yet other evidence from the same biography seems to refute this. As does a reading of Peake’s work with an open mind. Peake may have drawn, painted, and written of cruel things – it is hardly surprising given the things he saw in China and later in Germany, especially Belsen. You cannot witness such events without them turning up in your creative work, even if indirectly.

Yorke, like many people, seems to confuse the grotesque and the ugly with the unpleasant. He even suggests that Peake was also guilty of this. But I think Peake was far more subtle, knowing that these things are not inherently unpleasant, but that we live in a world where surface ‘beauty’ and fashion are prized above more important values; that such a world distorts and demeans us all. Peake was certainly no stranger to the ways in which fashions in art and literature kept the recognition he deserved from his door.

I make no bones about the fact that I am a Peake enthusiast. I have been since the Penguin paperback editions of the Gormenghast books appeared. They prompted me to search out his paintings and drawings – not an easy task in those days. I have read better biographical studies; his wife and one of his sons have written excellent accounts, John Watney’s early biography is to be treasured. The definitive biography of Peake has yet to be written. In the meantime, and especially if you know nothing of his life and works, this will do.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

The Fall of the Towers – Samuel R Delany

I re-read this as an act of nostalgia. I saw a copy in a charity shop, and it had so many associations that I forked out my 50p and took it home. I remember first reading it in the late 60s, buying it solely because it was (dramatic music) a trilogy. There was something about the idea of a story that needed more than one book to tell that immediately promoted it to the realms of ‘worth reading’. The individual volumes were, for some reason, difficult to track down and even more unfathomable was the fact I then spent hard earned cash on the single volume version. It may have been that the title (deliberately or otherwise) tapped into Lord of the Rings. Perhaps it was love. Not of the book, but of a girlfriend. She read my copy and, I seem to recall, enjoyed it. My memory gets really hazy here, but going by things I do remember and my buying habits at the time, I would probably have bought this in the Unicorn Bookshop in Brighton. So, wrapped up there is enough nostalgia to keep anyone going.

But what of the book itself? The story is a meditation, amongst other things, on how economic factors drive societies into war; that the enemy is not some hostile ‘outside’ force, but ourselves. It is told through a series of characters whose disparate lives are brought together by events, and framed by an altogether unnecessary device. It is one of those (many) science fiction books that has an idea too many, as if the author had no confidence in the central idea and grafted on some aliens just to make sure.

The original books were re-written for this single volume edition. Not having the originals I have no idea what changes were made. Perhaps it was not originally conceived as a trilogy. The first book would stand alone, but may have needed later characters introduced much earlier to tie the books together. It certainly has that feel about it.

The writing is florid, a touch precious in places. In others there is the impression that Delany was, in this early part of his career, undecided about style. There are also examples that suggest Delany is (a) trying to follow ‘the rules’ but getting it slightly wrong and (b) deliberately trying to break the rules. That is, we can see the author at work. In the end, it is altogether too respectful of the genre to break free.

This does not make it a bad book. Rather it shows us there was a time when promising authors were given time to develop. Delany did not really hit his stride until a few years later with Babel 17. And having hit that stride he came back to this trilogy.

Delany is clearly a man of ideas and keen to explore important and fundamental issues. Although this sometimes gets in the way of the story (instead of each element being allowed to enhance the other), it is clear that his work needs to be approached with an eye to its context.

Was my nostalgia trip worth it? Well… yes and no. I enjoyed revisiting the book and certainly want to re-read more of his work, perhaps even look out stuff written after Dhalgren, the last of Delany’s works that I read. As for nostalgia – nothing.

Monday, 10 March 2008

Miracles Of Life: An Autobiography - J G Ballard

This is a curious mixture of a book. Granted that it was written under strained and special circumstances, it is both revealing and concealing in equal measure. If you are familiar with Ballard’s work and have taken an interest in him over the years, you will find nothing new. It is, however, a pleasure to have it in one volume. And for all its apparent superficiality, we learn a great deal about Ballard from the structure and level of content of this work.

Nearly half the book is devoted to Ballard’s first fifteen years, the time he lived in Shanghai and experienced the strange life of an expatriate community as well as internment by the Japanese. This is also the most fluent and vibrant part of the book.

It may well be that writing of his early life in his fiction, especially in Empire of the Sun, means he is well rehearsed. But it is clear these formative years are seared not just into his memory, but also his psyche. The things he saw and experienced have re-appeared time and again in his writings, sometimes filtered, but always from the same roots.

Elsewhere, there is a reticence, a shyness that produces a sketchy feeling, as if we are seeing an early draft. A pioneer of explorations into the sf of ‘inner space’, his own inner space is closely guarded. Yet what he chooses to conceal is revealing in itself. He speaks of family life, for example, but whilst it is clear that his family was the bright sun at the centre of his universe, dimmed for a while by the sudden death of his wife, it is also clear that the rest is nobody’s business but his own and theirs. I find this wonderfully refreshing – we are strangers, after all, those of us who read his books.

As a writer myself, I confess I was disappointed that Ballard did not discuss how he wrote or consider the processes by which developed certain styles, especially his concentrated novels. I would love to have known more of those early days and the discussions he had with other writers of the so-called ‘New Wave’. On the other hand I am not altogether surprised. Whilst undoubtedly a highly intelligent man and a skilled and innovative writer, he has never been one of the ‘literati’, self-dissecting and self-obsessed. His work must (and does) speak for itself – with a voice that is robust, fluent, exciting, innovative, often tackling the controversial, but always worth listening to.

Friday, 7 March 2008

A Book Of Nonsense - Mervyn Peake

If you don’t like nonsense poems, then you will probably think this won’t be for you. Which is a shame. As with everything that Mervyn Peake did, these are prime examples of the form.

Nonsense poetry is often regarded as ephemera. In many cases this is true, they are written simply to amuse. Yet they are sometimes also profound. They are the rainbow in the spray made by waves on the rocks. The rainbow is pretty and gone, but it could not exist without the underlying elemental forces that are at play (in all senses of the word). In this collection of Peake’s nonsense verse, this is highlighted by the illustrations. Grotesque and charming at one and the same time, they deftly encapsulate great warmth and affection as well as a life giving vitality. At the same time, they speak of restless depths and unseen things.

The poems are the same. They may be playful (and skilfully written), but not only do they contain some startling imagery; they are clearly the product of a genius with a unique view of the world. The book contains his notes for the last written work that he conceived (and like the fourth Gormenghast book, never had the opportunity to work on). The notes are a poem in themselves, offering an insight into the way that Peake worked.

So, even if you class yourself amongst those who do not like nonsense poetry, please give this work a try. It is a genius at play and in it you will catch glimpses of wonderful things.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

The Cleft - Doris Lessing

If ever there was a writer who exemplified the desire to improve one’s craft and to explore new ways of working, new ways of expressing ideas, it is Doris Lessing. She takes ideas where many writers would not even think of going, and if they did, would not dare to go. Bold, always questioning and challenging, her books have always delighted and surprised me. The Nobel Prize was well deserved (if somewhat overdue) and accepted in true Lessing style.

The Cleft is no exception to any of the above. It is beautifully written; a fluent narrative that I found difficult to put down. I read it without once being conscious of reading – despite the changes between the story and the narrator and the interpolations. It seemed to slip directly into my consciousness, and there it haunted me.

The narrator is a Roman historian reconstructing a myth from fragments of documents that have come into his possession. The myth tells of the beginning of human society; how women who for generations uncounted have, by parthenogenesis, produced only female offspring suddenly find themselves giving birth to Monsters – children with tubes and lumps instead of clefts.

But this is no feminist utopia destabilised by the appearance of men. That would be the simplistic route. Instead, what unfolds is a complex fable in which we see humanity struggle to come to terms with its own nature; struggle to move forward and search for some accord between apparently disparate elements.

It could have been a turgid and lengthy book, full of portentous argument, but its mythical quality and the fluency of style elevate this work beyond its specific context. It is a brilliant insight into human nature; it is clearly written by someone at the height of their powers as a writer and as a storyteller (and those don’t, sadly, always go together); and it shows the promise of new directions of work. One can but hope that Doris Lessing has more to offer us.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

Finite And Infinite Games - James P Carse

This is an intriguing philosophical treatise that explores the differences between finite and infinite play. To quote the opening of the book: ‘There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other, infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.’ Carse proceeds to expand on this idea, applying it to the everyday world in a way that opens up discussion rather than making choices. Those are left to the reader.

As well as being a work of philosophy this is a work of psychology – inevitable given that it examines the ways in which people conduct their lives. In this it is an invaluable tool for any writer thinking about what motivates their characters and how those motivations and views of the world will come into conflict.

It is a short book, broken down into small sections, but it does require a bit of thought. No bad thing. I found it worth the effort, not so much for the basic thesis (which I know from other sources), but because it does open interesting insights into behaviour – something with which all writers should be concerned.