Sunday, 31 January 2010

Vast Alchemies ~ The Life And Work Of Mervyn Peake - G Peter Winnington

I read this when it first appeared ten years ago and was lucky enough to acquire a copy a few weeks ago. The author is someone who knows his Peake inside out, upside down, and probably by touch in a darkened room. His research is meticulous (he went back to source material rather than rely on previous not altogether reliable works), yet he wears it lightly. The book also has the advantage of being comprehensive whilst remaining a sensible length. All of which makes an ideal biography.

This work also has an advantage over others in that it treats its subject with a great deal of sympathy. That is not to say it ignores Peake’s faults and foibles. But a great deal of rubbish was promulgated about Peake, especially during his illness in his final years. Some of his treatment was nothing less than barbaric; his decline was heartbreaking.

If you are a fan of Peake’s art or writing (or both), this is the perfect companion. It not only helps to unlock the source of much of Peake’s style, it provides an interesting insight into the creative process and how the artist interacts with a world that is clearly far more bizarre than anything that Peake created.

Friday, 29 January 2010

The Dark Light Years - Brian Aldiss

Cast as a comic space opera, this is a bleak and deeply disturbing tale of how we treat what we don’t understand. To make this plausible, Aldiss created aliens whose mode of communication was far too complex for inter-species communication to be possible. He also based his aliens on the hippopotamus, large pachyderms who wallow in mud and whose excreta is an integral part of their life. And having made them near impossible to communicate with and abhorrent to ‘civilised’ people, he sets up a tale that explores the bestial nature of human beings.

Aldiss is a fine stylist. The book is dedicated to Harry Harrison and in terms of style, could well have been written by Harrison. Aldiss clearly recognized that using such a stylistic framework (comic pulp science fiction) provides the perfect contrast to the subject matter. The comic approach (although it is by no means a comedy) exposes the visceral nastiness of the humans, the ineptitude of those who have good intentions, their self-absorption, their severance from the natural world (and consequent psychoses).

It is also a novel about morality, exploring through the relationships between the characters what it means to be moral and what it means to lack or disregard them. Deeply philosophical, it posits the Gaia theory in a throwaway line, fifteen years before Lovelock’s first book. All of this in a short, pacy book. A lesser author would have given us something five times as long (probably at the behest of a publishing industry that seems to think bigger is better), and nowhere near as interesting or disturbing. This is the genre being used to best effect.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

The Crack - Emma Tennant

Originally published as The Time of the Crack, this is deceptively light and simple, an intriguing product of the early 1970s. I had read extracts before now (chapters from a work in progress), but this is the first time I’ve read the whole thing – a surreal tale of how the southern part of England breaks away and sinks into the sea.

It is not a disaster story of either the Wyndham or the Ballard schools, but a whimsical, Carrollian, acid-fuelled romp. Set in London, the Thames runs dry and a huge crack appears, hills are thrust up, buildings distort and transform, troops of academics and psychoanalysts roam the streets. The plot, such as it is, hangs around several characters, the most important being Baba, the only bunny left at the Playboy Club.

Beneath the whimsy, however, there is a darker tale at play. There are hints with the fun that is made of trends and types of people, stripped pine kitchens, reversion therapy, capitalism, well-off middle-class eco-warriors, self-absorbed academics who argue about competing theories when reality proves them all to be wrong – all come in for a swift kicking. Yet these vignettes, when taken as a whole, show the very fertile soil into which society has sown the seeds of its own destruction.

As well as a deceptively simple content, there is a style to match. Straightforward, tightly written and constructed, the text goes to prove you can tell a good story and convey deep ideas with the simplest of language. The book is not partisan or polemical. It tells an amusing tale. But like the fairy tales that focus on the jolly goings-on in the sunlit woodland glade, you are also aware of the surrounding darkness of the forest, of the panting of wolves as they wait their chance.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Greenmantle - John Buchan

Greenmantle is interesting on a number of counts. It is an entertaining yarn. It sits in the middle of the transition in the genre. It deals with subjects that are sharply relevant today. Set in the early part of the First World War, Richard Hannay is called from his hospital bed (recovering from a wound received at the Battle of Loos) and asked if he is prepared to undertake a secret mission. After some persuasion he agrees and sets out to neutralise and destroy a German plot to foment Holy War in Turkey.

This has all the potential to be a jingoistic piece of propaganda, especially given its parentage and environment: a British Intelligence officer during the First World War. And whilst it is true there are moments where it approaches the crumbly edge, Buchan always manages to turn what appears to be patriotic fervour on its head. At one point, for example, Hannay takes shelter with a poor German family as he flees from the German military. It is clear that whilst Hannay has no truck with the military ambitions of the upper echelons of German society, he has every sympathy with the ordinary folk of all sides caught up in the conflict. We also get moments of fervour for the conflict. Hannay seems to miss the fighting, but Buchan also makes his character acknowledge that this is, at times, a kind of madness.

The discussion of politics and the social background is what marks this as a transition novel. Most tales of this kind, dealing with adventurers and with intelligence operatives, tended to be straightforward thrillers, much more in the style of The Thirty-nine Steps (although even that was something different to run-of-the-mill ‘shockers’). We also get something of the pattern still used today: operative called in for briefing, discussion of background, disguises, chases, meeting the villain (although we are thankfully spared the idiocy of the villain explaining their plan in full), and a rousing finale.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about this novel, written more than 100 years ago, is the subject matter. It is true we do not go into any great depth, but the very fact that an author could use Islamic Jihad as a credible threat, as well as pointing up the fact that non-Islamic powers have been willing to use it as a weapon in their armoury against other non-Islamic powers, is both interesting and depressing. Buchan was not the first to do this, but clearly recognised the tactical importance and the willingness of ‘western’ powers to interfere in the politics and religions of other nations to achieve their own ends.

I found the novel sagged a bit in the middle, largely because it did not seem at that point to know whether it was meant to be a thriller or a more measured novel of espionage. That aside it was well worth the read.

Friday, 15 January 2010

The Time Machine & Other Stories - H G Wells

Several times whilst reading this I found myself checking the dates of publication, most notably for ‘The Land Ironclads’. The grim prescience of this story is chilling. Published in 1903 it depicts trench warfare and the use of tanks with horrific authenticity. Whilst it is true that Wells was not the only writer to envisage modern warfare in the decade before the First World War, his style (the story is told as if by newspaper reporters) and the sheer authority of his voice add weight to his work. That and the fact he did it time and again with scientific romances.

This is a strong collection of work containing stories and fables that are by turns witty, charming, haunting, and horrifying. ‘The Door In The Wall’ is a poignant tale and Wells is an assured enough writer to allow his readers to draw his own conclusions. Another form of obsession features in ‘The Pearl Of Love’ and demonstrates just how callous a person can become in the grip of an obsession. ‘Empire Of The Ants’ is the forerunner of many such natural disasters, and perhaps the best of them all.

‘The Country Of The Blind’, here in its re-written and longer version, is a sublime piece of writing. It is one of many in which Wells explores alternative societies and how they evolve and develop strategies for coping with the world. Yet this is done without once turning into a sociological or political lecture. It is a human story about the sacrifices we are and are not prepared to make.

And, of course, there is ‘The Time Machine’. Not Wells’ first time travel story, but by far the best from him and rarely bettered by anyone else. The strength of story lies, as it does with many of Wells’ scientific romances, in the matter of fact and straightforward way in which he recounts the tale. From its intriguing opening through to its eerie denouement it catches the imagination and sets the standard for works to follow. Again we are presented with an alternative form of society, one that has evolved to an extreme from the very society of Wells’ own time, yet this is part of the story and never a lecture. As Wells grew older and became more frustrated with the idiocies (as he saw them) of humanity, he did tend to rail, but in the early part of his career he kept that balance in his work. You can read this as a political tract without once having the fun of the story destroyed.

Wells goes in and out of fashion, but there is no doubt that his was an original mind which had the blessing of being coupled with an ability to write clear and precise prose. His work is always worth a visit.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

High-Rise - J G Ballard

The third of Ballard’s informal triptych of social commentary is a bleak picture of total social disintegration. A brand new high-rise development (somewhere close to the river), the first of a number of such blocks, fills with residents. This is not a bog-standard, council built tower block, but a luxury development containing shops, swimming pools, a school, roof gardens, and all modern conveniences. On the evening that the last apartment is occupied, parties take place and immediately the genteel jostling for position begins. The gentility does not last long. Petty tricks and spitefulness degenerate into open hostility. Services are vandalised, electricity cut off, and tribes begin to form.

The early stages of this disintegration are given in greater detail than the later, reflecting the break down in communication. This is also highlighted by the use of different points of view, jumping from one protagonist to another, seemingly at random. Toward the end of the book we are left with descriptions of the building and its few remaining inhabitants without any attempt to explain. This is a far more effective device that a straight narrative would have been. Much is left to the reader to fill in the gaps, although the gaps do not really need filling. No explanation is given for the collapse (although it does seem to follow patterns found in studies of overcrowding in sealed communities).

This is the bleakest of the triptych and perhaps reflects most accurately the inner vision of Ballard’s memories of the Second World War. Whilst the setting is different, the social set-up, the isolated community, the social disintegration – all stem from the same experience. All the familiar motifs (especially the deserted, rubbish strewn swimming pools) are there, heading toward their purest expression in Ballard’s most autobiographical piece of fiction. Along with its eerie ending, this is Ballard at his best.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Jacob's Room - Virginia Woolf

Jacob Flanders. Was there ever a character with a more prophetic name that that? It hangs there throughout the book as a vision of all the things that are left unspoken in the narrative. The elephant, if you like, in Jacob’s Room.

This book is remarkable on two counts. The first is in the story it tells. The scenes dance and skip before our eyes as if we were watching insects flit about a pond on a long, lazy summer’s afternoon – perhaps a hint of thunder in the air (just as Jacob encounters when in Greece). There are moments of whimsy, moments of insight into the lives of the characters who seem mostly self-absorbed, going about their own business with scant attention to the rest of the world. And yet, we become drawn into the lives of these people, perhaps because we meet in much the same way we meet and interact with real people. We come to know them through our encounters, not through an all-seeing eye; the only over-arching vision accorded us is the knowledge of what that thunder implies.

The second remarkable thing about this book is the style. Woolf’s two previous novels were fairly conventional narratives. But she wanted to break away from conventional patterns in order to better express her own view of the world and the way in which she saw characters interacting. The text teases with hints and glimpses, presents impressionistic pictures, flits from one character and one situation to another. It both builds up a portrait of events and the lives involved whilst stripping away, layer by layer, all the surface things that are of no consequence. The language is poetic, rich with imagery, yet never obscure. It reads, at times, like something from Eliot (whose The Waste Land appeared in the same year).

Also interesting about the work is that although it is about Jacob Flanders, we are rarely accorded a direct glimpse into his thoughts. What we learn of him is learned through others. For these are the memories and the memorial to one of the millions whose lives were wasted in the mud of Europe, whose sacrifice was completely in vain.

I have read and re-read Woolf ever since it was pointed out to me as a young teenager that my daily train journey to school passed the spot where she drowned herself. Not once have I been disappointed by a re-reading. Not once have I closed a book without finding whole new layers of meaning and an increased respect for what she accomplished as a writer.