Sunday, 26 July 2009

A Most Wanted Man - John le Carré

The ‘war on terror’ has sunk many writers – of fiction and non-fiction. We have had all the usual gung-ho garbage with the convenient new villains. We have had endless hand-wringing from non-fiction writers who really have no idea what they are talking about and bought into the world-changed-on-911 rhetoric of the most rightwing government the US has ever had. The result has been a terrible muddying of the waters.

Finally we get a book that knows what it is talking about. John le Carré has always remained relevant and his work has always been well-researched. True, we are on familiar territory, but that is because this new ‘war’ is being fought by people who have yet to adjust to the modern world. They were brought up, taught, and mentored by a generation that thought it won the Cold War and which has since been dazzled by technology.

Yet in the end, the conflicts of today are the same as they have always been. They are about people and the sense that some are bullying others. And when the victims fight back the bullies cry ‘foul’. And in this volatile mix are the psychos – on both sides. This is all presented in a gripping story set in Hamburg when a Chechen refugee arrives illegally in order to claim the contents of a safe deposit box.

The passion and the anger of the author at the absurdities of the world and at the crass assumptions made by some are evident. Yet he presents the story and its background in clear detail and has the courage to allow his readers to make up their own mind.

le Carré’s writing continues to improve. He has always been a good writer, but his work has become increasingly fluent. The writing is simple, spare, and yet it manages to be rich at the same time. His characters may, at times, seem like refugees from earlier works, but that is only because this is a small world affecting only certain types of people. For all that, he manages to create convincing portraits that leave enough uncertainty to make them prey to all the frailties of humanity.

The novel ends on a gloomy and downbeat note, which is perhaps the most telling indication of the author’s feelings of the current situation. It is also a general reflection of the world in which we live and a particular reflection of the shady world in which these events are played out. Nothing is certain. Nothing ends. There is never any opportunity to tie up loose threads.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

The Anglo-Saxon Age - John Blair

This is one of the Oxford University Press ‘A Very Short Introduction’ series. Originally published as the text for an illustrated book, it works very well as a primer for anyone who does not know the period or who, like me, is interested in just how an author is going to encompass five hundred years of history in seventy-five pages.

Of course, this is John Blair writing, so it covers the political, social, religious and cultural history with verve. We are given just enough to form a broad picture and teased just enough to want to go and find out more. Yet for all its brevity, it deals with the subject in an intelligent and interesting way. At no point in reading this did I feel I was rushing through too quickly.

There is a useful bibliography that lists books that will start to fill in the gaps (including the main primary sources); a brief chronology that will help you find your way round the book; and a few maps and illustrations (as one would expect of a history book). If this period of history is a blank to you, I can’t think of a better place to start.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Alien Accounts - John Sladek

Although a collection of short stories, the style and common themes make this very much like a novel. Two hefty stories ‘Masterson and the Clerks’ and ‘The Communicants’ sandwich a number of shorter pieces. The aliens of the collection’s title are human beings, aliens in their own world gone mad. Centring on the usual Sladek pre-occupations, we see ordinary people coping with (and often ground up and spat out by) corporate life.

Of these, ‘Masterson and the Clerks’ is my favourite. Like a child of Beckett and Kafka on acid, we follow Masterson through the surreal permutations of daily life in an office. No one knows what is happening beyond their own small contribution and even then no one truly understands what that is all about. Their lives are bounded by the forms they must process. In later stories we see some of these forms and they are works of genius, horribly prescient in some cases.

In the centre of the collection, there is a story in which a character sets out on a holiday away from the bizarre office life he leads. Yet even here there is no escape. The whole world is a puzzle, there are no edge pieces, no picture to work from, and may of the pieces are blank. After realising that his money doesn’t seem to be getting any less, despite the number of meals he has had en route, Andor begins to suspect that he might have been on the coach and travelling for a lot longer than a day. We have all had journeys like that. Andor’s is still going on.

The final story is Sladek at his most surreal. Several stories interweave, with characters in one suddenly becoming comic book characters in another until it is difficult to know what is real and what is fictional (not that you’re ever sure to begin with).

As ever, it is impossible to synopsise these stories. They have to be read to be appreciated. Not just for the story itself, but for Sladek’s sharp wit, his passionate anger at the idiocies of the modern world, and his compassion for the ordinary person caught in the grinder.

Why this collection was ever brought out under the banner of science fiction is beyond me. Sladek is a satirist. He often uses sci fi tropes as they afforded him the best vehicle with which to construct his stories, but these are highly literate stories and deserve to be more widely known than they are.

A Journal Of The Plague Year - Daniel Defoe

Ironic that I should choose to read this at the same time as Robbe-Grillet’s book. Defoe achieves in the early eighteenth century a lot of what Robbe-Grillet discusses in the mid-twentieth. Defoe, of course, was making it up as he went along – in more ways than one.

To begin with, although this is the best factual account we have of the Great Plague of London in 1665, it is not a history. Presented as an eye-witness account, it contains all the horrifying facts in stark simplicity woven into a journal that plots the progress of the disease through the city. Defoe accumulated a great deal of first hand material and presents it in such a way that it is hard to remember that this is not a history or social documentary.

Interspersed amongst the facts are heart-rending personal stories, recounted with the simplicity and naivety of an ordinary person recounting their adventures. Listen to the testament of the survivors of disaster today and you will get that same mix of emotion and hard fact.

Defoe had no models for this kind of creative non-fiction. Yet he shaped the story to give it a narrative, tension, great characters (even if most are vignettes), and above all a sense of place. Because this book is as much about London as it is about Londoners. The city and its inhabitants are presented with images that are extremely vivid and touching without once becoming falsely sentimental. A terrific and thought-provoking read.

For A New Novel - Alain Robbe-Grillet

A huge amount of literary experimentation took part in the 1960s and 1970s, partly as a result of what Robbe-Grillet was doing with his own work. To some, his work is incomprehensible; to others he showed the way to free the novel from its constraints. I love it.

Be that as it may, what he was trying to achieve eluded many people. He had written various essays about his ideas on literature, and many of those were collected in this book. Seen by some as a manifesto for the nouveau roman, it is a much more interesting work than that. A manifesto will kill a movement at the moment it gives it birth. The strictures are so severely limiting they allow for no creativity or development and invariably end with the original signatories arguing and throwing tantrums.

Robb-Grillet’s book examines his own thinking and, in the process, looks at the way literature has developed and could develop in the future. He lays down no rules, but examines the structure and raison d’être of the novel in a way no critic or theorist had done before (and very few have done since). He also deconstructs the popular image of the nouveau roman and in so doing eloquently makes his case for fresh thinking.

Whilst there was a great deal of interest in these ideas and many new works appeared at the time that were exciting and genuinely innovative, much of the work that was done to lift the novel and move it forward into the twentieth century has been lost. This is not so much that Robbe-Grillet’s ideas do not make sense as it is a failure on the part of many publishers to have the courage to allow experimentation.

It is hard to imagine in the current climate a writer like Robbe-Grillet making any headway, let alone being part of the mainstream. This is not to say I believe everyone should write like this. Far from it. But without pioneers, without people being allowed to push to the limits, break them, and wander into the unknown, the mainstream cuts deeper into its own rut and never has the chance to spread and fertilise broader fields.

You may not agree with everything (or anything) Robbe-Grillet has to say, but the book really should be read by anyone serious about their writing. It is thought provoking, an easy read, and like opening a window on a room shut up all winter to let in a fresh, warm breeze.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

The Old Men At The Zoo - Angus Wilson

Some things don’t change. I was ambivalent about this book when I first read it in the 1970s and I felt the same way this time. There is no doubt that it is well written. Angus Wilson is a really good writer and undeservedly neglected. And given that it is a broad and satirical side-swipe at a number of targets, it has not dated (despite being set in the early 1970s) and the plot is extremely plausible. But…

The story tells of the political infighting of two factions at London Zoo – one that wishes to move forward and offer the animals the limited liberty of a wildlife park and the other that wishes to restore the Zoo to its Victorian glory. The wider political parallels are obvious. This petty bickering is set against a background of deteriorating international politics and eventual nuclear war in Europe.

This is just the sort of story I would normally relish. Petty bickering in the face of annihilation. Beautifully observed characters. A keen and satiric study of social class. But it leaves me unmoved. And it leaves me unmoved because the author has not provided us with a sympathetic character. As a first person narrative, he had the ideal opportunity, but failed to do so. The main character is a cold fish and as unloveable as all those that he constantly mimics and criticises. Indeed, the only character for whom I had any sympathy is killed off about half way through.

This is, of course, a personal reaction to the book. Others may find that Carter, the narrator, is likeable. Had it been a third person narrative, I would have had no problem. But living inside the head of an objectionable snob sullied what might otherwise have been one of my favourite books.