Tuesday, 25 January 2011

The Lunatics Of Terra - John Sladek

Story collections are always difficult to assess unless they revolve around a theme or concern the same characters. Without that connection, you are left with disparate pieces written over a long period (in this case eleven years), often arranged out of chronological order, and placed between one set of covers in order to maximise their earning potential for the writer (and there’s nothing wrong with that).

Despite that, you know when you read a collection of John Sladek short stories, you are in for a treat. Doubly so as he has appended an Afterword to each piece which offers a little bit of context although, with Sladek, you always have to be watching over your shoulder.

The treat with these works is twofold. To begin with, Sladek is an accomplished writer. He knows how to make words work for him, producing work that is easy to read but which can be peeled back layer after layer until you realise there is no end, that this is the work of a sophisticated, brilliant, and slightly skewed imagination. Then there is the other skew. Sladek’s wit. He is a satirist with all the sharpness of acid in a paper cut. Which is to say it is no blunt instrument. Subtle, slight, and deeply biting.

And the range of his targets? Well… everything, really. But it is not an empty, lashing out. He does not suffer fools, especially people who do not use their intelligence. Yet beneath his devastating wit is a warmth often lacking in satire. As an example, Sladek had no time at all for flaky pseudo-science. But he still respected people whose beliefs led them to make or try to make a better world. He sent up all the tropes of science fiction, yet clearly had a love of the genre because he knew it inside out.

Sladek was also a literary writer. These aren’t just funny science fiction stories. They go way beyond that in much the same way Gulliver’s Travels goes beyond being a set of funny science fiction adventures. Human life with all its flaws is laid bare. And for Sladek, human frailty is, in fact, our saving, because ultimately, it is our idiocy that will throw grit into the gears of our plans for world domination.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

The Crock Of Gold - James Stephens

Published in 1912, this is a glorious book. By turns comical, witty, philosophical, spiritual, and whimsical – sometimes in a single sentence – it tells of the train events set in motion when a philosopher gives advice to a farmer that leads to some Leprecauns losing their crock of gold. This flimsy vehicle is what carries what is, essentially, a celebration of Ireland.

We meet philosophers (Druids) and their wives, free-spirited children who play in the woods, Pan (who is sent packing back to his Mediterranean stomping ground), Leprecauns, the Shee, and many of the old gods of Ireland. We also meet an array of mortal characters and, of course, policeman. No story of this nature about Ireland would be complete without its policeman – a race for whom there was, clearly, some affection if not much respect. In that, it is a natural precursor to the work of Flann O’Brien.

So far, it sounds somewhat light. Yet the story is infused with deep philosophical and spiritual insights, offered up in the form of discussion and illustration. And the closer these get to the realities of the modern world (in which this is set), personified by ‘the city’, the more sombre and disturbing they become.

The book is beautifully written. Lyrical, fluid, and highly assured. Stephens was a poet and novelist whose work is steeped in the folklore and mythology of his native land. Although little known these days, his literary worth was recognised in his lifetime, not just by the public, but his contemporaries in the literary world. Indeed, Joyce asked Stephens to complete Finnegans Wake if Joyce was unable to do so.

Stephens work deserves to be better known and if you ever come across his books (probably in a second hand bookshop) I urge you to give them a try. I bought The Crock of Gold forty years ago and it has given me joy and food for thought over the years (not least that my 1931 hardback edition is beautifully produced and cost 2/-).

Saturday, 15 January 2011

The Third Policeman - Flann O'Brien

This is a wonderful novel that delighted me no less on this reading than on any other. There are all sorts of clichés that could apply: quintessentially Irish being but one. That it may be, but it is so much more, because it takes that cliché, turns it outside in and downside up, gives it a bloody good shake, and then proceeds to subvert everything that emerges.

On the surface it is a simple tale. The unnamed protagonist, an unsuccessful farmer and pub owner, is obsessed with a fictional philosopher by the name of de Selby. Having written what he believes to be the definitive critical work on de Selby, he finds he does not have enough money to publish it, the family businesses having been run into the ground by one Divney. Together they plot to rob a wealthy local man called Mathers. During the robbery, the protagonist kills Mathers and buries him in a ditch.

Whilst burying the corpse, Divney makes off with the money and hides it, claiming they need to draw no suspicion on themselves. The protagonist does not let Divney out of his sight for the next three years, finally persuading him to tell him where the money is. Divney tells him it is under the floorboards of Mathers' house.

From this point on the slightly odd, slightly comical tale takes a double left hand turn up and off the wall. Surreal hardly begins to cover the protagonist’s adventures. He finds Mathers still sitting in his own house although the box with the money has gone. Mathers tells him of a police station where the policemen will know where the box has gone.

The police, however, are obsessed with bicycles, putting forward a strange theory about the way in which people riding bicycles swap their substance so that bicycles become more human and human become bicycle-like the more they are together. There are many other oddities and wonders, although none divert from the journey the protagonist makes to the gallows. But even that is not as it seems and the denouement takes us full circle, with the prospect of a large section of the book repeating in a cyclical exploration of absurdities. The text is peppered with footnotes referring to de Selby and his own philosophies creating a whole world beyond the novel.

For all its complexities and absurdities, this is not a difficult book to read. It does, however, repay close attention, because it is one of the great novels of the twentieth century. That claim is often made, but O’Brien ranks with Beckett and Joyce. It is a powerful book that taps the mythology of Ireland as much as it uses the national character (often in comic form) to explore universal verities.

Whilst many hail O’Brien’s first book as a masterpiece, I believe it is this work that consolidates his place as a literary genius and which takes the slightly shambolic form of the first book and creates from it a firmly structured work of modernist form that explores the inner landscape of humanity in a way few other books manage.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Mercier and Camier - Samuel Beckett

The missing link, if you will. Because if you want to know how Beckett went from the likes of Murphy and Watt to the trilogy and How It Is, or from Eleutheria to Waiting for Godot, you have to read this work. In both languages if you can. I no longer have my copy of Mercier et Camier, so must content myself with revisiting this by itself.

Written in French in 1946, Beckett shelved the work when he couldn’t find a publisher and it did not see the light of day again until 1970. It was written after Beckett had a literary revelation (partly expounded upon in Krapp’s Last Tape) about the direction his work should take. Stepping away from the shadow of Joyce, Beckett found his own darkness to inhabit, and his own style with which to explore a world whose boundaries he made ever smaller.

Mercier and Camier still has something of the feel of his earlier works about it, but the language is different and the setting, whilst still very much in the real world, has become a shade more surreal, a shade more abstract.

The book follows the fortunes of Camier and Mercier. They are, ostensibly, private investigators. What they investigate and for whom never enters into the book, although they do meet Watt and claim to have known Murphy. By turns comic and deeply philosophic and imbued with an atmosphere to which Robbe-Grillet owes some debt in The Erasers, this is a stunning work.

The stripped down language, ironic self-referencing, earthy subject matter, and railing against the absurdity of human existence are all present. Although not new to Beckett, they find their first, uniquely Beckettian expression here. The prose shows a promise of what is to come in his later novels and shorter pieces. The characters and conversation, the idle business of everyday life, introduce us almost completely to Vladimir and Estragon.

Mercier and Camier is considerably shorter than Mercier et Camier. Beckett rewrote each work rather than translated them. The original contains much that is uniquely French and which doesn’t move well to English idiom (hence the plea to read both versions if you can). Its brevity, clarity, and precise use of language make it an accessible read, although it does pay close reading to pick out the thematic echoes.

I know many people find Beckett obscure and difficult. He isn’t really. If you keep at the back your mind his love of silent movie stars such as Buster Keaton, if you watch a few Buster Keaton movies, then read some Beckett, you’ll have a taken a long step toward understanding him.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Other books read in 2010

It was an extremely busy year for me. I read less and with the following titles was disinclined to comment, either because they were for research (and I've not included a score or so of titles on museums) or because my views on the authors had been made clear on previous occasions. Although not given to Resolutions in the New Year, I do hope to be able to read more in the coming months.

The City Of Shifting Waters – Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin
Murder – With Love! – Jack Trevor Story
The Late Anglo-Saxon Army - I P Stephenson
Tank Girl Two – Hewlett & Martin
Season of the Skylark – Jack Trevor Story
Lewes Past - Helen Poole
Beginning Theory - Barry
Zones of Chaos – Mick Farren
The Drowning Pool - Ross Macdonald
Violent Ward - Len Deighton
The Way Some People Die - Ross Macdonald
The Ivory Grin - Ross Macdonald
Vacation With Fear - Jack Trevor Story
Protection For A Lady - Jack Trevor Story
Find A Victim - Ross Macdonald
Alexandria - Lindsey Davis
The Barbarous Coast - Ross Macdonald
The Coming of the Terraphiles - Michael Moorcock
Profundis – Richard Cowper
Full Dark House – Christopher Fowler
The Water Room – Christopher Fowler
Seventy-Seven Clocks – Christopher Fowler
Bananas – ed Emma Tennant
The Mind Of J G Reeder – Edgar Wallace