Saturday, 29 August 2009

The Salutation - Sylvia Townsend Warner

Warner finished her 1927 novel, Mr Fortune’s Maggot, with an envoy: ‘My poor Timothy, good-bye! I do not know what will become of you.’ She was clearly very fond of her protagonist. The novel was clearly complete in itself. Yet Timothy Fortune was left a self exile from paradise. It worried her. Indeed, it worried her so much that five years later she sat down and wrote The Salutation.

This novella is a powerful piece of writing. Where the novel had the search for happiness as one of its themes, this self-consciously has the search for sorrow as a central theme. Timothy Fortune, after wandering half the world by taking temporary jobs on ships, makes his way to the pampas of South America (the location never becomes more specific than that).

There, he wanders, much as Beckett’s tramps wandered. He is lost in a metaphysical haze, going on despite knowing that he cannot go on. Looking for a place to die, he finds a place to live. Fevered by infection and exposure to the sun, he fetches up in a large estate house known as The Salutation. Like the rest of the novel the name, and the place itself, is so layered with symbolism (perhaps much of it unconscious) that it would take a book to unpack it all.

Timothy Fortune finds hospitality and healing, but it is not without cost. For as he heals, he remembers his past and the sorrow returns. And he dreams. He dreams of misfortune at the hands of a young boy, grandson to the widow who owns The Salutation. Waking, he supposes, to find he is at the beginning of his dream.

This is a densely written, rich, glorious, and beautiful piece of writing. At the same time it is free of all affectation. There is no attempt by Warner to show off her cleverness, her wonderful use of language and imagery. They are there, clear for all to see, but they are integral to the story, in service of telling us what happened.

The Salutation was the title work of a collection, and like most of her collections of shorter work, is now difficult to find. However, Mr Fortune’s Maggot and The Salutation have now been collected into a single volume as one of the New York Review Books Classics series. Well worth getting hold of.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Collected Stories - Raymond Chandler

In the best traditions of economy, Raymond Chandler recycled his material. When he began work on his novels, he had a growing corpus of shorter works on which to draw. Scenes, ideas, characters, and themes were used again. Indeed, whole stories were woven together to create the novels. This may sound like cheating, but it is not.

If you have read all the short stories (and short is a relative term here, with each of the stories averaging close on 17,000 words), you have not read the novels. Each piece in this collection is complete in itself, a well-crafted story that satisfies on many levels. Excellent plotting balanced well against intriguing characterisation. Wonderful use of language that manages to be economical and lyrical at the same time. And always a sense of being in the presence of someone who takes the craft and the art of writing seriously.

Most of the stories are detective stories and appear in this collection in their original form. Most of the private detectives have names other than Marlowe, although he does make a few appearances. And he was, of course, the protagonist of all the novels.

Reading the whole collection sequentially is intriguing. The bulk of them pre-date the novels and there is a steady progression of sophistication over a six year period. Chandler’s ability to conjure a scene was always good, from the very beginning, but the integration of character with environment becomes more assured, as if Chandler was learning that the two are integral.

There are four forays toward the edge of Chandler’s established territory. In Pearls are a Nuisance, he seems to be trying his hand at something along the lines of Hammett’s The Thin Man. For me, it doesn’t quite work as it feels a little too self-consciously an attempt at humour. Chandler’s writing is already full of wry humour and dark wit. It doesn’t need the levity, largely because he does not seem to handle it well in this situation. Two other stories, The Bronze Door and Professor Bingo’s Snuff work much better. These tackle the mysterious rather than the mystery and are superior tales of the kind that would have been well adapted for something like The Twilight Zone.

And then there is English Summer. Subtitled ‘A Gothic Romance’, it feels like a story that would have worked better had it been set in his more familiar Bay City world. The gothic is not quite gothic enough (perhaps not having time to develop in a short story) and it feels to me overworked. There are some that have suggested it shows potential for a whole new direction for Chandler and it was an area he did express an interest in developing. But circumstance dictated otherwise. For those who believe it shows he might have written a great literary novel, I can only say, he already had. Several of them.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Alice In Sunderland - Bryan Talbot

I had this book on my wish list for a long time before buying it. I was a bit wary. I know the area and the subject matter quite well. The fact that it was constantly referred to as a novel added to that hesitation. But after walking round it for a few years, I finally took the plunge.

There is no doubt that Bryan Talbot is up there with the best. He is an artist of enormous skill and sensitivity. He has a terrific imagination. And this is leavened by a deep interest in the history of the form (some of which we are introduced to in the pages of this book).

What we have, through the graphic artist’s eye, is a history of Sunderland and its connection with Alice Pleasance Liddell and Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. Offered as a kind of variety performance, hundreds of elements are woven into a deeply satisfying exploration of history, social attitudes, art, and much else besides.

I took great delight in revisiting places and bits of history that I knew from my time on Tyne and Wear and was equally delighted by the way in which the story of both Alices and the Revd Dodgson were given a fresh airing. For this was also a book about myth and the places of myth – how some is positive and has a place in our lives and how some grows out of ignorance.

There is a partisan element to the book that colours some of the facts, but these colours are, for the most part, transparent. And I was also left frustrated by the fact that the medium does not allow for deeper exploration of some of the issues (but this does have to be balanced by the fact that it allows those issues to be presented in a vivid way that will, I hope, inspire people to look at them in greater depth – and there is a bibliography for such folk).

And I found a typo (p277, in case anyone is interested, large panel, bottom right).

Reservations aside, there is no doubt that this is groundbreaking stuff. Bryan Talbot has proven without doubt that graphic books are capable of conveying complex, non-fiction narratives (just as he shown with fiction). For anyone who is chary of the claims that graphic works are not just for kids, I would recommend this book.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

The Notebooks Of Raymond Chandler - Frank McShane [ed]

This is a slim volume containing bits and pieces salvaged from Chandler’s few surviving notebooks plus a short story. The bits and pieces are largely brief notes on ideas for stories, a list of possible titles (some of which hint at other directions Chandler may have taken as a writer), and extracts from other writers whose thoughts had clearly struck a chord.

As a writer myself, I find this kind of thing fascinating, especially as there is virtually no editorial comment, no attempt to interpret. Indeed, the few editorial notes there are simply elucidate some of the more obscure aspects of what is presented. What we have is a glimpse into the mind of an artist. Because make no mistake, Chandler was a first class artist. His devotion to both the art and the science of writing is evident here. He worked hard to produce short stories and novels that look simple.

Also evident is Chandler’s sense of humour. This is not, perhaps, the first thing you think of when considering his work, but he does have a keen eye for the absurd and his work is leavened with wit and humour (albeit dark). There are also glimpses of Chandler’s social conscience. It is never made explicit; Chandler is too good a writer for that. But it is clear that he understands what poverty does to people (and not just from first hand experience).

Of greatest interest to me were the snippets where Chandler muses directly about writing. This is not only of interest in terms of his craft: he has carefully copied the thoughts of others on writing and the composition of novels; but also of his own approach: not content with copying these pieces, he analyses them and comments on them. It also further illuminates his humour and wry disposition. Having copied notes on how to write a novel, he adds, ‘The above is all bunk…’

The essay ‘A Qualified Farewell’ is about the time he spent working as a screenwriter in Hollywood. Typically, it is not about the place or the personalities (although a few do get a mention). It is about the way that Hollywood treats writers. The way it treated them then and, sadly, the way it still treats them. Except things are now worse. And again, typically, it is not a whinge about money. It is about how the system in Hollywood crushes the creativity out of writers; about how everyone is considered an expert on scriptwriting except the writer. It was not a happy time for Chandler, yet even in this short and sometimes bitter essay, he uses the experience and description of the negative to suggest a way or ways in which there might be a positive. It is clear from the level of production (and the experiences of other writers since) that Hollywood has yet to find a positive approach to writers and writing.

All in all this is probably a book for Chandler aficionados (which I am) and anyone interested in the craft of writing (which I am). Indeed, if you are interested in writing, this book is worth more than many of the ‘how to’ books on the market.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Lost Stories - Dashiell Hammett

Not so much lost as ‘never before collected’. And Vince Emery is to be congratulated on tracking them down and bringing them together in this way. Because set out in chronological order and with concise and acute observations in between they constitute an excellent record of a writer’s development.

The stories and other pieces range from one page skits to full on stories. Not all of them are crime. Not all of them are pulp. What they all are, however, is inimitable. Hammett was an unpretentious writer. His style matches the content perfectly. The appearance of ease was obviously studiously crafted. And we are given stories at the end of all that hard work which are easy to read, full of inventive and lively language, packed with detail and wonderful characterisation, and which offer more observation on the human condition than many ‘literary’ writers could ever hope to make.

This is, perhaps, brilliantly demonstrated in the short piece ‘The Advertising Man Writes A Love Letter’. Having served his time as a copywriter, Hammett puts his skills to use by transferring the stock phrases and tricks of advertising copy into a love letter, complete with testimonials and reply coupon. On the surface it is a joke, and a funny one at that. But look at it again and it gets to the very heart of contemporary life and relationships whilst making observations of the consumer society in which we live (then and now).

Between the stories there is also a good deal about Hammett’s life, his battle with TB (and the even tougher battles to get and keep his disability pension), his time in Hollywood and what it did to his writing and self-esteem, his politics.

I love Hammett’s writing. This book has shown me how that developed and how the man developed along with it. That made it a double treat.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

The Ministry Of Fear - Graham Greene

It is wartime London. The height of the Blitz. A man weighed down with a guilty conscience attends a small fund-raising fete in the hope of a little distraction. He gets a great deal more than he bargained for. The everyday setting and the great prize of a home made cake (with real eggs) were clearly chosen as a familiar setting from which to launch the adventures that follow.

At a time when Greene was still trying to keep his ‘entertainments’ and his serious works separate (as if there ever should have been a conflict), this feels like two books squeezed between one set of covers. As a result, characters that could have been fascinating portraits of people under extreme duress were sidelined to the story. At the same time, the story is only partly developed with little thought given to the motives of the characters beyond the need to drive the plot.

I can see that Arthur Rowe’s guilty conscience provides a motive for other characters, but it still feels a little contrived, as if Greene were trying to explore an ethical conundrum in the wrong setting. Placing such a character with such a past in the maelstrom of a Blitzed London and allowing him to find redemption or otherwise through events would have made a great novel in itself. Likewise, the thriller with its somewhat coy references to ‘top men’ and the foolishness of leaving documents unattended – twice – does at times feel like it needs a bit of work.

That said, it is still a superior work of its kind and certainly resists the temptation many authors would have had to tie up all the loose ends. It is economically written and even the discursive sections feel genuinely like a peep into Rowe’s head rather than into the mind of an omniscient author. It is certainly a great deal less melodramatic than the Fritz Lang movie based on the book.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Knife - R J Anderson

Starting out as a child’s adventure fairy tale, this book morphs half way through into a romance. It does this without straying from the plot because the development of an emotional life, the development of regard for others no matter what one’s own situation, are major themes of the book.

A closed community of fairies is slowly dying. Amongst their number is one who, through a throwing off of convention, reaches out to provide them with hope for the future. This venture is not without personal cost, which is where the conflict and tension of the story arises.

Any book that depicts fairies treads both a well-worn path and faces the danger not just of cliché but of continuing an image of fairies much corrupted by the Victorians. This book is clearly well aware of that for it contains reference to this. There is talk of an artist who seems to be based on Richard Dadd (with, perhaps, a touch of Richard Doyle thrown in). And whilst the fairies are diminutive, they are by no means twee.

The world of the fairies is well-realised, yet we are spared any explanations beyond those that forward the story. This spares us from long expositions and explanations whilst setting a story in a believably otherworldly fashion.

If you are looking for an intriguing tale that young and old alike can appreciate and which is rooted in genuine fairy tradition, you could do a lot worse than this.