Wednesday, 13 July 2011

The Sunday Books - Mervyn Peake & Michael Moorcock

Perhaps for completists, this is nonetheless a beautiful book containing a selection of the drawings and pictures that Mervyn Peake produced for his two sons while they were living on Sark. These are not finished drawings. They were done on Sundays (hence the title) with his sons sitting either side of him whilst he told stories and conjured fantastical worlds. Peake’s style is distinctive, and even in these quick works we see the start of the path that leads to his paintings and line drawings.

In this work, pirates abound along with fantastic creatures and the occasional cowboy. The stories that went with them were not written down, so the text has been provided by Michael Moorcock, a friend of the Peakes and long time supporter of Mervyn Peake’s work. An introduction puts the illustrations in their family context, and a suitably daffy story ties the selected pictures together into a narrative.

Moorcock has fun, with unobtrusive allusions to aspects of his own work and the wider world of comics and illustrated stories that were Peake’s own inspiration. And the reader of the book will also have fun, because these are pictures you can return to again and again. The line drawings are full of detail, the colour pictures are gloriously vivid, and evoke those childhood picture albums and annuals that I remember with great fondness.

If you can spare the cash, this is well worth it.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Mahu or The Material - Robert Pinget

Back in the day (which was a very long way back) when I was trying to learn French (most of which I have now forgotten for lack of practice), I struggled through a Pinget in the original, text in one hand, a stack of French dictionaries close by the other. That experience, along with Beckett’s wonderful (if somewhat loose) translation of one of his plays, was enough to tell me that Pinget was an author I liked.

And now there are translations of all his works available for me to take the lazy option. I would much prefer to read these in the original as there is (along with Robbe-Grillet, Beckett, and others of that ilk) something about the French language that lends itself to such innovative writing.

Mahu is thoroughly, charmingly and, appropriately (given the Saint Fiducia episode), barking. It is a delight from start to finish. Proof (if proof were needed) that exploratory and innovative fiction can be humorous and fun (which aren’t necessarily one and the same thing). There is serious intent here. Not just an exploration of human relationships and the unique outlook of Mahu, but also a quirky examination of the nature of fiction as this novel is the novel of the central character. Yet the serious examination of these issues and ideas is all the better for its surreal daftness.

It is an aspect of the French I have long admired (and which had me seriously considering a move to Paris at one point) that work ranging from the profundity of a Camus, Sartre, or Pinget sits with equanimity in the same metaphorical pavement café as a Simenon or a Lucky Luke comic and is take with equal measures of seriousness and enjoyment. We had it in the UK for a while in the late 60s, but then literature (like everything else in this benighted land) was seen as a money spinning commodity; a world to be colonised by pompous no-nothings who churn out dull twaddle.

All I can say is, ‘Vive la différence.’

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Wild Nights - Emma Tennant

Occasionally you’ll read a book that is so jaw-droppingly good, you will wonder how someone can take something as prosaic as words and produce such absolute magic. And magic of so many kinds. This is a piece of descriptive writing like no other I have ever read.

On the surface, a novel about family life; the smooth and the rough, the loves and the battles; the present and the past. But that really does not justice to what is a work of mythology as powerful as anything that steps out of the obscuring mists of the past. Indeed, if you want to know what elemental magic feels like, you only need to read this book. It is surreal whilst being grounded in the mundane. It is sumptuous whilst being ordinary. It conjures the most basic of magics out the world around us and casts each character in an elemental role whilst, at the same time, describing the everyday lives of people.

In this it proves that the real dramas, the highs and lows of life, the magic, the wonder, the mystery, are all to be found in the everyday, in the relationships we have with those closest to us and the world in which we live.

To have sustained such powerful and magical writing for page after page, to have served the reader with a rich feast without once faltering, is the mark of a truly great writer. It is a book that sings. It is a book that deserves whatever inadequate praise I can heap upon it. It is a book that has so much more to say about people and life than a dozen other writers could muster over a lifetime of writing. It is a book that deserves to be lauded.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Fremder - Russell Hoban

I was both bemused and amused by a quote on the cover of this that stated the book recalls Orwell’s 1984 and Wells’s The Time Machine. It does neither. If the work is akin to any other work of science fiction it is to Lem’s Solaris or the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic. Because whilst it is set in a dystopian future, the story itself is about the individual and their sense of identity. It is much more about inner space than outer space.

Essentially the book is about Fremder’s quest to discover what it is that makes him unique. It is everyone’s quest who ever gave any thought to who they were and what it is that has shaped them. Hoban has simply used a future setting to accentuate the philosophical questions.

And he does it with his usual assured use of language, constructing a story that perfectly synchronises content and form. Indeed, this is one of those (many) books you can hand to someone who declaims all science fiction to be poorly written pulp about alien invasions. The story is complex, the imagery is striking, and the reader is made to work without ever feeling left behind.

Hoban is vastly under-rated, in my view. He is a fiercely intelligent writer, witty, one who has never settled into a rut or routine. He writes with equal skill for children and adults (in itself a remarkable achievement), and makes no compromise to fashion or the ‘literary’ world. As a result, his books are far more passionate and engaging than many that are lauded.