Saturday, 1 December 2012

Books read in November

The Hound Of The Baskervilles – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Considered by many to be Conan Doyle’s best Sherlock Holmes, it certainly contains all the ingredients and is an efficient enough tale, but it does suffer from a rushed ending and a lot of plot holes (for example, if Holmes’s young helper on the moor was so easily spotted through the telescope, why hadn’t the escaped convict and his helper been seen?). One could also wish that Doyle had taken the time to explore in a little more depth the social side, that it’s the toffs causing the problems and dumping on the lower classes and cast out folk. That said, it is still an intriguing tale and an enjoyable read.

The Valley Of Fear – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Although on the face of a mash-up of two novellas (one as backstory to the other to make it up to novel length), there is more to the structure of this book than first meets the eye. On the face of it, it is much like ‘The Sign Of Four’ and, indeed, has a similar setting, replete with a secretive society part of which has gone to the bad. But in this later novel, Conan Doyle has used the same structure to add a layer of uncertainty. In the first half we have a classic Holmes puzzle which leads to a denouement of some uncertainty. The back story, presented in the second half, compounds that uncertainty to the end. A very clever use of what could have been straightforward and boring kept alive by turning reader assumptions on their head several times.

His Last Bow – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Clearly not, of course, as there is a further collection, but although Conan Doyle later declares that he has been happy writing the Holmes stories it is clear that whilst there may be ideas, there is less enthusiasm for their working out and presentation. One might argue that as Holmes ages his style changes, but as the stories are not chronological it is obviously more to do with the author. There are one or two intriguing stories of the old style, but for the most part they read like reminiscences long after the fact rather than having been written just after the event occurred.

The Case-Book Of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The final collection of Holmes stories is a hotch potch affair. Different view points and approaches, all of which demonstrate Doyle limitations as a writer – it is difficult to tell a narrative by Holmes from a narrative by Watson as well as the fact they characters have not changed or developed over time. But this is not serious literature. The Holmes stories are entertainments and in that they succeed admirably.

The Franklin’s Tale – Geoffrey Chaucer
I did this for A level and as part of a plan to re-read all those A level texts I finally got round to this (it is taking me considerably longer than the original two years – so many other things keep  attracting my attent – SQUIRREL). It is a tribute to my English teacher (Colin Silk, a gentleman and excellent teacher) that I could sit down and read the Chaucer in the original, straight through, with no need to refer to notes. And enjoy it.

A tale of personal sovereignty and of sexual obsession it clearly owes its genesis to the tales of chivalry and courtly love told by the troubadors. I am inspired now to revisit the rest of the Tales which, I am ashamed to say, I have only ever read in a modern English prose version.

The Lost World – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Although not the first work to posit the survival of prehistoric species into the modern day (Verne used the idea years before), Conan Doyle created the most plausible of settings compatible with scientific understanding at the time. A remote, sheer-sided plateau in South America on top of which species have been isolated from the rest of the world. To this he added the memorable and annoying character of Professor Challnger and the small group that makes the journey with him to verify his claims.

It is a fairly straight forward, gung-ho adventure with some (by modern standards) appalling attitudes. Which is instructive as Conan-Doyle was fairly forward thinking for his day. Whilst it is fairly tame adventure by today’s standards (and many of the film adaptations not only muck around with the casting but add incidents to pep the story up), it is remarkable in that it sets up a standard by which many subsequent and far worse stories have been created. It also highlighted the fascination with dinosaurs which exists to this day, creatures that have turned up in all sorts of isolated spots (or been reborn) to cause wonder and havoc.

The Poison Belt – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
A novella that brings together the characters of ‘The Lost World’ at a moment when the Earth passes through a belt of poison gas that affects everyone on the planet. Having had some foresight with regard to the disaster, Professor Challenger has set up a room in which the characters sit through the events, kept alive by oxygen. They witness a train crash and fires and, in the aftermath, drive through a stricken London believing themselves to be the only remaining humans on the planet.

Again, whilst not the first global disaster story (Mary Shelley was an early precursor), it is a remarkable short piece that seems to lay the foundations for works by the likes of John Wyndham. The depictions of the everyday world brought to an end are particularly potent and it is a shame that Conan Doyle did not develop the work into a full-length piece.

Professor Challenger is also an interesting character as he seems to prefigure many of the brilliant, obstinate, and angry scientists beloved of pulp fiction and B movies, perhaps culminating in Professor Quatermass.

The Naked Nuns – Colin Watson
A Flaxborough novel, and if you don’t what that is, shame on you. The Flaxborough novels are some of the finest humorous crime novels of the twentieth century. Superb dry with, wonderful characterization, and a portrait of a provincial town that is both over the top and deadly accurate. Because beneath the respectable surface of Councillors and business owners, their wives and all the the other folk of dubious means of support lies an unpleasant truth: that these people are for the most part criminals, cheats, and liars. And in some cases their actions lead to murder.

In Flaxborough, thankfully, the police have the superb Inspector Purbright who understands exactly what these people are like and what they are capable of. And Colin Watson delivers each of these books with superb writing that looks simple but which is the work of a master.

Pulp – Charles Bukowski
Bukowskis final novel, a pastiche of the kind of noir detective story in which the detective doesn’t detect, just stumbles around getting beaten up until the case resolves itself. A bit like life. Which is pretty much the point of the book. It is also about death and in fact the central character, Nicky Belane, may already be dead when the book opens and this is his rite of passage.

Bukowski substitutes the weird characters of America’s underbelly with weird characters from its fictional psyche. Aliens, Lady Death, a succession of stupid bartenders presiding over bars with one person in them, usually aggressive. The only real character is the man who wants evidence of his wife’s infidelity and then gets angry about it, turning his fear and his ire on the detective he has hired.

The whole thing is written in Bukowski’s tight, unflinching style and is a real joy to read.

The Hour Of The Star – Clarice Lispector
A short, intense, and demaning work that defies comparison (despite attempts through the years). It also, in a number of ways, defies categorisation. This is often described as a portrait of an anti-heroine, but Macabea really is nothing of the sort. Born in a poor region of Brazil and living in a slum of Rio de Janairo she is an everygirl and a nogirl; representing the many tens of thousands who live similar lives, yet unique for she is an absolute innocent, as attached to the world as any star.

For all its intensity and introspection there is a lightness of touch to the style that creates an easy read. The book can be finished in a few hours, but it is a story that will stay a lifetime because inconsequential details and events start to surface long after the covers are closed and Macabea has died.

There is an intriguing subtext as well in that the narrator at one point admits he is her boss (although he also calls himself a writer and speaks of her boss in the third person). The whole thing is also a metatext as we are privy to the thoughts of the (fictional) author not only about the character with whom he is falling in love despite her having no real redeeming features, but about the process of creating her and telling her story.

Definitely a book to return to.

Lonelyheart 4122 – Colin Watson
Lonely women disappear, apparently after making use of a matrimonial service. The police investigate, but the set-up seems to be above board and fool-proof. But it’s not just the police who are investigating and we are introduced to one of the truly enigmatic characters of crime fiction, Lucilla Teatime. From what we learn of her, one suspects she is the type of women who spent the second world war being parachuted into occupied Europe. Whatever her past (which is not altogether on the right side of the law), she develops into a wonderful addition to this series.

As well as all the other praise I could heap on these novels, it is their subtlety I love. Watson does not spend pages telling us about the motives of characters. They are there in front of us. Only once is made explicit in this story and even then if you blink, you miss it. It is that level of respect for the reader, that level of confidence and intelligence in the writer that I really do appreciate in an age when subtlety has become something of a lost art.

Charity Ends At Home – Colin Watson
Another fine example of Watson’s work with a wonderful portrait of a couple gleaned mostly from the people around them and those questioned during the murder investigation. The story is approached obliquely and even the red herring does not look red, smell of fish or swim about.

The Flaxborough Crab – Colin Watson
Goings-on in the world of medicine as seen through the prism of Flaxborough. Watson’s trademark dry wit creates convincing portraits of people and a time. It also dissects social attitudes and finds them wanting.

Plaster Sinners – Colin Watson
This is an altogether more sombre book, despite the ‘guest appearance’ of a London DI whose method of working is to upset people and see what happens. It is sombre because it involves family and the lengths to which some (in this case, landed gentry) will go to cover up past indiscretions. To match the mood we get an excellent story, equally wonderful characters, and Watson’s acidity aimed at the usual targets – very often the institutions that dehumanise us.

The Land Of Mist – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Thirteen years after his last outing, Professor Challenger is revived as a minor character (to Malone’s central role) in this work. Malone, still working for his newspaper is tasked with writing a series of articles (along with Enid Challenger, the Professor’s daughter) about religion. Each week they take a different one and eventually attend a Spiritualist meeting. Thereafter, Malone investigates much more deeply and becomes convinced of the truth that lies behind Spiritualism.

Not so much a novel as a means of presenting a Spiritualist case to the public, this is nonetheless well written and thoughtful (if at times overly sentimental). Doyle’s involvement with Spiritualism is well known and he was clearly well read and well versed. If nothing else this is an interesting fictional documentation of a movement that gripped the public imagination in the aftermath of the First World War.

Blue Murder – Colin Watson
Whilst the humour is still there, this is a much more serious outing and with a much more convoluted (although plausible) plot. The focus here is on a group of outsiders – a team of journalists from a Sunday newspaper intent on digging the dirt on what they have been told is the production of blue films by the local photographic society. As a background, it could not be more relevant as it is clear the newspaper in question is modelled on a newspaper that is mired in sleaze of its own making.

The story itself also grows out of the misery caused by the sanctimonious dirt digging of such newspapers and the collateral damage that ensues. As such it is the most realistic of the Flaxborough novels.

Whatever’s Been Going On At Mumblesby? – Colin Watson
Snobbery with violence. It’s the title of a book by Colin Watson in which he discusses murder mysteries. It can also apply to this, his final novel. Although there is a degree of exaggeration in his character portraits, it is only a degree. He has caught exactly the degree to which certain people think they are (a) above the law and (b) entitled to behave exactly as they wish toward people not in their own feral group. Exactly how that manifests is the fascinating plot of this book.

I was a little disappointed by the device used toward the end (letter left to be opened in the event of death explaining most of the plot), although given that it was a lawyer, not entirely out of character. That aside, a wonderful addition to the Flaxborough series.

In A German Pension – Katherine Mansfield
Considered by Mansfield to be an immature work, this may be true compared with her later stories, but by anyone else’s standards, these are first class. For the most part these are studies of people staying in a German hotel for a ‘cure’. And whilst they veer slightly toward caricature, that is simply a device by which to heighten points of interest rather create grotesques. Indeed, far from being critical of Germans (as some have suggested) it strikes me as being a far more universal critique of the kind of pretentiousness to be found in any upper-middle class group of people who can afford to take a few months away from ‘normal’ life to stay in a hotel and indulge in pampering their bodies.

The narrator/observer is always coy about their own reason for being there and one really only need look at Mansfield’s own life to fill in that background. And even if they are to be regarded as immature works, it is clear that as an author she already has a keen eye and a way with words that builds with assured strokes convincing and sometimes humorous portraits of people.

There are also other stories here which owe more to fiction than observation as they look into events and lives to which Mansfield probably had no direct access. That these are interleaved quite seamlessly with the other works is a testament to her work and they provide a wonderful contrast to the lives of the privileged and their petty concerns.

The Sleeper Awakes – H G Wells
One of Wells’ fictions – a future history in which a man goes into a coma, is left a fortune, and on waking finds he owns half the planet and that those administering in his name have created the kind of society we can see evolving at this very moment. Giant corporations rule, democracy is dead, the workers earn just enough to live in company workhouses and the wealthy migrate to Pleasure Cities.

Unfortunately, fascinating as it is, the story on which this is hung is thin stuff and is clearly a device for Wells’ warning about what the future might hold. If it is read as political tract, it works a lot better, but even then it cannot be considered one of Wells’ better fictions. Neither fish nor fowl, even Wells wasn’t that happy with it. It was written in haste as a serial and he extensively rewrote it when it became a novel. Even then, it is clear the flaw is in the structure and without changing that it was never going to be more than one of his ‘other’ works.

The Mystery Of A Butcher’s Shop – Gladys Mitchell
Superb. Glorious. I have always enjoyed Mitchell’s books. Far superior to Christie in every way in my opinion. Better written. More intriguing plots . A central character far better conceived (and as ageless) as any other detective in fiction. And not afraid to be off the wall. Indeed, it is the battiness and sheer fun of the puzzle in Mitchell’s books that I find so attractive.

In this, a dismembered and headless body is found one morning hanging in a butcher’s shop. Who it is and how it got there takes us back to a fairly stard country house scenario but with a cast of characters that are broadly drawn but intriguing. And one by one they all fall under suspicion and indeed most of them had opportunity. But piecing it all together and always one step ahead of the police with her speculations is Mrs Bradley.

If you enjoy golden age detective fiction then you should give Mitchell a go. Her work is sadly neglected, only about ten of her sixty plus novels are in print. But they can be found if you hunt them out.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Books read in October

The Memoirs Of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
And just as we really start to get to know Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle kills him off.  The paradox, of course, is that the stories are more relaxed and mature as pieces of writing; less enamoured of the tricks of the detective and more concerned with the characters involved (although still not high art). As a result, the puzzles are more intriguing and the stories more satisfying. Indeed, the last story, in which Holmes meets his fate, has none of the detective’s skills on display (apart from one example of disguise) and no crime is solved. We never meet the villain first hand. The story is told simply (some say coldly), and that for me makes it all the more effective. It has a ring of truth about it for here is a man setting the record straight on events and people that are still painful to him.

Edison’s Conquest Of Mars – Garrett P. Serviss
Written in 1898 this unauthorised sequel to Wells’ War of the Worlds is a truly awful book. The author was an astronomer and should really have stuck to that. It is dull (even by late nineteenth century standards), jingoistic, militaristic, and to call it adolescent would be to pay it a compliment. It is an early form of fan fiction, I suppose, in the days before copyright protection. Should copyright go out of the window, this is the level of stuff we can expect in the future.

The reason it still circulates, we are told, is that it came up with some of the staples of science fiction first. In other words later writers have been lazy enough to bump along in the rut left by this clunky cart. When compared with other classics of sf set on Mars, this should really be left in a dark room and forgotten.

The Martians Are Coming! – Alan Gallop
This is the story the of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre Company’s broadcast of H G Wells’ War of the Worlds and the subsequent panic it caused. The book is well researched and well written with a lightness that makes the subject both interesting and entertaining. It gives background to Welles’ career and how he came to be in a position to put on the play and in so doing gives some insight into the character of a man often cited as a genius, yet whose output rarely ever reached that level. We are told how the broadcasts were done, and treated to an overview of the ensuing panic. One could have hoped for a more in-depth look at events and the reasons given, but as an introduction, this is ideal.

The Sword In The Stone – T H White
This book is important to me on so many levels it would be difficult to know where to begin with a full scale appreciation. I won’t attempt that here. Just to say that every time I read it, I enjoy it more (although I do wish someone would sit down with White’s notes and work out the definitive version of the five book sequence). White’s erudition shines through; not just his understanding of natural history, but his understanding of the spiritual underpinning of the Arthurian mythos. Yet it never gets in the way of a beautifully told tale of childhood and growing up, with all the poignancy not just for loss of innocence, but for the loss of an idealised chidhood that many in my generation (even those of us who lived in cities) came close to having. Glorious.

The Witch In The Wood – T H White
The second book of White’s tetralogy is remarkable in that it is both the same and different to the previous book. The tone and style remain the same, with the same unique setting. But where the previous book was clearly about childhood, this is clearly about ‘growing to man’s estate’ and how younger generations overturn the ideas and expectations of the previous generation.

The focus moves away from Arthur and we are introduced to the family that will, with all the inevitability of tragedy, bring ruin down on Arthur’s enterprise. Consequently there are shadows in this book not present before; cruelties that, through the various reactions of Gawain and his brothers, show how complex an issue evil is. No one here is out and out evil. They are all a product of their upbringing and their individual natures against a social background of turmoil and centuries of mythologised enmity. Very much like today, in fact.

Merlyn’s attempts to guide the setting up of the Round Table and all it stands for are flawed and Kay, despite depicted as not very intelligent, often sees these flaws and is puzzled by them. Yet flawed as they are, and dependent on methods Merlyn despises, it is clearly a vision of a more equitable world.

For all it is part of a longer story and was never intended as a work in its own right, White manages to make an entity of it, a complete episode. And all the time he does it with a lightness of touch that allows deep questions about the nature of personal and political power to be aired. More remarkable is that in the almost cartoonish atmosphere of the book walk some complex characters who have, as yet, to reach their full flowering.

Kim – Rudyard Kipling
A curious hybrid of a story that probably wouldn’t get to see the light of day these days. Partly a spiritual quest and partly the story of the training of a spy, it is also often presented as a children’s book. Presumably because the central character is a child. It is of course all these, but most of all it seems to me, it is an affectionate portrait of India. The book is exuberant and loving, a love letter to the sub-continent with all its beauties and faults and idiocies.

For those who enjoy children’s books in which children avoid or fight against the influence of adults to greater or lesser degree, this belongs there with the best (if not rightfully claiming to be the best. For those who enjoy gentle tales of spiritual quest, this belongs with the best, etc. For those who enjoy spy fiction (and have an interest in the history of espionage), this is an essential read. That someone could combine the three seamlessly proves that Kipling, for whatever faults you may perceive him to have, was a genius writer.

Welcome To Alflolol – Mezieres & Christin
The fourth in the Valerian and Laureline series. Yes these are for a youngish audience, and yes they are fairly straightforward, but they are also deeply political, reaching an audience that might otherwise be missed. In this adventure, aspects of colonialism are examined and found desperately wanting. And the framework continues to delight, with Valerian, as ever, coming round to the wisdom of his female partner Laureline. He might be slow, but he gets there in the end.

The graphics, too, are a delight and underpin much in the way of science fiction film since the ‘70s, much of it unacknowledged. Indeed, with proper handling and faithfulness to the stories, these would make excellent movies.

Tarzan Of The Apes – Edgar Rice Burroughs
In celebration of the book’s centenary, I decided to revisit. I can only assume the version I read as a child was bowdlerised as I don’t remember it being anything like as blood-thirsty (and I doubt my Junior school would have had the full version in the library in any case). The tale is so familiar that it is hardly worth repeating; orphaned child raised by great apes of unspecified type, encounters humans, becomes ‘civilized’.

Those bare bones (and many subsequent versions) do not do the story justice. Although there is savagery, Tarzan is a sophisticated character. And although the implausibilities pile up a bit, the book is an enjoyable read and ERB is not above taking a none too subtle swipe at ‘civilized’ man. It may lie firmly within the tradition of pulp, but it is one of the better offerings, far superior to a great deal of writing within that genre.

The Return Of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The observational skills of Holmes are much less on display in these stories. Presumably it is a trick that Conan Doyle could not or did not want to keep up, and whilst there are occasional flashes, the tales focus much less on this and more on the characters involved and the situations in which they find themselves. It makes for a more introspective set of tales which offer a glimpse into late Victorian society.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Books read in September

Deep Water – Debi Gliori
Middle books are always problematic. Most could be dispensed with but we do love a trilogy. The problem is they are usually bridges from book one to book three and very little happens. Those criticisms could be levelled at this book, after all at the end we are pretty much where we were at the beginning. But some writers can do that with such fun and such style, going in a circle is a joy. Needless to say, Debi Gliori is one such writer. We get more of the strangeness that is life at StregSchloss and we learn about the characters - the absence of pretty much any story except an almost accidental search for someone forcing a concentration on those involved. Because of that, the outrageous fantasy characters suddenly become very real people with very real problems. Which puts this series onto a whole new level and sets up intriguing possibilities for the final book.

Near To The Wild Heart – Clarice Lispector
I have only recently ‘discovered’ Claric Lispector. What a joy to think I have all her writing to devour. What a crock to think that I am this old and never once heard mention of her before. But that is how it goes. The same might be said of Dorothy Richardson. I have known of her for decades, but I still talk with well read people who have never heard of her.

Lispector uses powerful writing of weight and depth to create fragile scenes; still lives that, on closer inspection, are a ferment of thought and emotion. The climactic scene between Joana and Otavio in particular is a tour de force. In itself it would have been a fitting end to the work both in terms of content and power of writing, but Lispector then tops it with two truly magnificent chapters – revelatory, stunning.

Lispector has been compared with the likes of Woolf, Joyce, even Kafka. But her work, whilst of comparable skill, takes a different tack. There are certainly great similarities with modernist work from other writers, but there is a unique quality here that has drawn on an unlikely meeting of disparate heritages and transcended any mere melding of these. That it is a first novel, starting where many writers would be pleased to finish, makes it all the more remarkable.

Walk To The End Of The World – Suzy McKee Charnas
The late 60s and 70s saw a flowering of science fiction and fantasy. New doors opened. A lot of new writers saw the potential that had been there (and often realised) all along. As always, much of what was produced was mediocre at best. Some of it stood out as rare and beautiful, orchids that beguiled. This is one such.

Of course, much of sci fi and fantasy has swung back the other way. In that brief, bright period we had work that explored ideas and expanded horizons, that went in as well as out, which weren’t afraid of politics and philosophy on a level of sophistication that made previous efforts look crude. And there were women writers.

There had always been women writers and intelligent books, but you had to look hard to find them. For a while they were everywhere. Now we are back in the ante-diluvian swamps. So what are we missing? Books like this one.

I have so far resisted the portmanteau that would have most people diving for cover, but it now has to be used. Feminist fantasy. There. That didn’t hurt. Now, I know there were some awful feminist works written. Their assumptions and clichés were every bit as dire as you would find in books by non-feminists. But, face it, many of these authors were fighting their way out of a system and they paved a way for the really good writers, let sunlight into gloomy glades to encourage the true and rare flowers to break out.

Charnas writes well and with intelligence. Her future world whilst apparently built on the cliché of sex war very quickly undermines all assumptions by examining (as one of its many themes) the power of myth in underpinning systems of control. The world as it exists is always well realised. But what is most important is that the book is character led. World building, realistic settings, all these count for nothing if you cannot populate them with realistic characters. And that is what we have. A vicious patriarchy on the point of collapse. Sceptical men, most of whom cannot see the lies on which their society is built but who still wish to bring it down. Others with a glimmer of what the world has truly become and what it once might have been. And women, finally breaking free after centuries of the kind of oppression that is nothing less than brute slavery.

I know this has already lost a lot of people. Believe me, this is a far more realistic (in all senses) future than many I have seen. It is also a realistic present in many parts of the world. That Suzy Charnas can take this reality and weave a gripping story through it without it once feeling like a sermon is a credit to her skill as a writer and as a story-teller.

The Wizard Of Oz – L Frank Baum
A classic. Objectively it is not that well written, even for its young audience in the period it was conceived. However, it is not so much the style or craftsmanship for which it is loved as for the characters and the land of Oz itself which to begin with is not so very different from the real world, except it is imbued with the kind of things a child imagines. In that respect it is a great step forward in terms of when it was written. It is certainly much lighter than the film which played fast and loose with the story and its details.

The basic story is too well known to recount and for a long time, Baum resisted writing more. In the end he wrote fourteen Oz books (and there were others after his death). Thanks to the wizardry of electronics, I now have all fourteen and will have great fun reading them all – because that is what they are about. Fun. There may be moral messages in there, but they don’t get in the way of the story.

The Marvellous Land Of Oz – L Frank Baum
An altogether more sophisticated book, perhaps aimed at those readers who had read the first one and had since, of course, grown up a bit. Not only is the language more sophisticated, the story is also more complex. There are also hints of the social questions that were being asked at the time of publication, particularly with regard to women’s rights. Another fun read.

Ozma Of Oz – L Frank Baum
Although perhaps nowehere close to the sophistication of modern children’s books in tackling issues, for its day this was quite advanced. Baum never put issues at the centre of his stories, they were fun entertainments, but they were there for readers to pick up on. On top of this, Baum is wonderfully inventive.

Orlando – Virginia Woolf
I had forgotten how funny this book is. Dry, mocking in a gentle way its own pretensions (or those of biographers – especially of writers), and with wonderfully witty observations of people and life. I had also forgotten just how good the writing is. I knew it was good, it is one of my favourite books, but the final chapter in particular flows with such ease, you know just how much hard work went into it.

The importance of the work lies in its treatment of gender and its view of the world from a woman’s point of view with all the conflicting pressures laid upon one because of gender and status. Although not the first to do this (see Dorothy Richardson), Woolf does so with a light touch that makes the work highly accessible. At the same time, it contains many layers of meaning and reference that repay the reader who revisits. And although not often cited as such, this is a fine example of literary magic realism, fulifilling all the criteria since set out as defining that form of writing.

A Study In Scarlet – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
In some respects this is a dog’s dinner of a book. It breaks off half way through and suddenly presents chapters of detailed backstory that are, in many ways irrelevant to the story. It’s almost as if Conan Doyle wrote his tale and came up short 15000 words. But then, this is the first outing for Sherlock Holmes and despite the odd structure, the tale rattles along in friendly fashion and with an authorial awareness of the form and the competition.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the book these days (and I have read it a number of times) is how one’s image of the original stories is coloured by later film and television portrayals. A lot has transferred, much hasn’t, and plenty that has appeared on screen has little to do with the originals which, when all is said and done, are rather wonderful tales with superb characters at their heart.

The Sign Of Four – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
An altogether more sophisticated outing for Sherlock Holmes and one that is much better written. To modern sensibilities, the long explanations at the end can seem a little overdone, but that is how it was done in those days. Nowadays an editor would blue pencil most of that and tell you to work into the text, but Conan Doyle creates a wonderful atmosphere so that, in a sense, you get two stories for the price of one. Because whilst the book initially concentrates on the solving of a mystery and subsequent crime – showcasing Sherlock Holmes – we are then presented with the story of the villain of the piece and the story suddenly goes from black & white to a much more complex level of story-telling. At the heart of this is a man who, once forced into making a pledge to save his life, stays true to that pledge as he sees it. Indeed, the one-legged man becomes by far the most interesting character as Homes and Watson have yet to develop.

The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
It is in the short stories that we finally see the characters being given a chance to breathe. Although Watson stays very much in the background (and the stories are out of chronological order), we get to see very much more of the character of Holmes than was presented in the novels. In those, he was shown as he tends to consider himself – a problem solving machine that uses logic applied to fact. The short stories, however, revolve around character. Most of the puzzles, even if intriguing, are slight. Around them we have a parade of representatives of various late Victorian social classes bumping up against a Holmes who becomes ever more interesting the more we learn of him. Because we do learn more – his habits, his prejudices, his compassion (which he would probably deny), and the things which drive him.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Books read in August

The Entropy Tango – Michael Moorcock
I think this is my favourite of the Cornelius books, or perhaps it is the peak of an otherwise exceptional collection of novels and stories. It has all the familiar ingredients and characters presented without any explanation or backstory, yet it is written with an unforced maturity and has an air of melancholy that chimes with my own natural temperament. The ending, in particular, is heart rending without any attempt at false sentimentality. Plus it centres on Una Persson. If ever there was a fictional character I would like to meet...

Gold Diggers of 1977 – Michael Moorcock
Originally titled ‘The Great Rock n Roll Swindle’ to tie in with the movie of the same name. This is Moorcock’s own anarchic view of things (and probably closer, in its own way, to the truth). Although it it uses the punk band as a platform for the story, it takes a wider look at the music business (Mo Collier, a burned out musician forever in search of his wages with everyone else telling hime no money has been made) and the way in those who died young have become idols both adored and exploited long after they are dust.

Muddle Earth Too – Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell
Gentle fun at the expense of every childhood favourite fantasy. Enough of a story to hold interest, excellent illustrations (as ever) from Chris Riddell (some quite subversive if you start looking for likenesses), the occasional fart joke, and general mayhem. And a flower fairy called Pesticide. How can it go wrong. Very different from some of Paul Stewart’s earlier darker work for older children, but no less worthy for that.

Roadside Picnic – Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (tr Olena Bormashenko)
Quite possibly my all time favourite ‘science fiction’ novel (sf being in inverted commas because whilst the premiss is science-fictional, it is a book about ordinary people). When it was first written, in Soviet Russia, the authors had terrible trouble with the censors. Not because of political subversiveness (although the text certainly has its fair share of that which goes to show how dumb some of those censors were), but because of moral questions (too much swearing, not a good example to Soviet youth, apparently). As a result the version that appeared in print and was later translated was a much watered down version.

This new edition is the Director’s cut, as it were. Not all ‘author’s versions’ are better than the version that was edited by another hand, but in this case the book, even though the changes are subtle, is far better than the original (which I read alongside this. This version is harder, rougher and, as a consequence, bleaker. It is also far more realistic.

The background to the story is that the Earth is visited by aliens who land, ignore us as if we were harmless insects, and then take off again. They leave behind them (in the only human aspect of them) a whole load of junk – as if they had stopped, cleaned out their garbage cans, and then moved on.

The places in which they landed are deadly to people although there are some who risk the perils to bring out artefacts to sell. These Stalkers work illegally in an uneasy relationship with the scientists who study the sites. The book follows the fortunes of one Stalker through eight years of his life and is about the effects of the Zone on him, his family, and the people he knows, mirroring all the implications for society as a whole.

There are no heroes, no super-scientists solving every problem, there is no resolution. What we have, caught in the brilliant spotlight of the Strugatskys’ writing, is a sad tale of how what could otherwise have been the most remarkable event in human history is turned, like everything else, into an excuse for exploitation and criminal behaviour. It is also about how we make myths for ourselves, even in the darkest of situations.

It is a mystery to me that the works of the Strugatskys, along with Stanislaw Lem, are not more widely known and are not readily available in new translations like this volume. They certainly deserve to be better known.

The Alchemist’s Question – Michael Moorcock
A Jerry Cornelius novel with a different feel. Subtitled as ‘being the final episode in the career of the English Assassin’, it seemed unlikely even at the time. Be that as it may, this book tapped into a different kind of 1984 (the year it was published) in which the gentle anarchy and alchemy of the hippy spirit of the west overcomes the beautifully satirised vision of what Thatcherism was in danger of doing to the country (and which project has since been revived).

Tapping into Celtic mythology the novel draws a battleground where one side tries to tap into a mythos of Arthurian/Gloriania in the form of Brigantia and the other simply opens themselves to whatever form the powers of the land decide is right to defeat the cynical misappropriation of values they know nothing of. Merrie England with its mock tudor frontage is demolished by those who have always lived off that particular grid in a wilder world. The ending is ambiguous, although the forces of stagnation, the lovers of nuclear winter, are confounded.

Whilst this does not capture the immediacy  of the earlier novels, it is good to go back and see how they develop this far. The underlying ideas are still there: the playfulness, the exploration of alternatives, and so on. However, the form and the characters have matured and in the end it is a fitting end to a major cycle of work.

Maigret Sets A Trap – Georges Simenon
On the track of a serial killer, this is about how failure and success go hand in hand, about the pyschology of killing, about the effects of the police. All wrapped up in 140 pages with Simenon’s usual economy of style and the ability to leave his readers feeling they have read a much longer book.

Maigret And The Madwoman – Georges Simenon
Pragmatism and compassion in equal measure drive this story. As with every traumatic disruption of personal life, things emerge that both horrify us and make us look to ourselves. In this case, a small old lady plucks up courage to approach the one policeman she admires and trusts to say that things in her flat have been moved while she is out. Maigret promises to go and see her, but puts it off (it is just a mad old woman) until it is too late and she is found murdered.

What is exposed is a series of lonely lives, people lost in an existential bleakness and clutching at whatever straws they think might keep them afloat. Justice is served on several levels and the one who seems to have come to terms with life, despite all that he sees and deals with, is Maigret himself.

The Pillars Of Eternity – Barrington J Bayley
When it comes to Barry Bayley, I am biased. I was introduced to him by Mike Moorcock [enough name dropping – ed] and went drinking with him back in the late ‘70s. He was witty, charming, frighteningly intelligent, but most of all was kind to a young and not at all successful writer. It has always been a mystery to me why his work has not been lauded and reprinted until book shop shelves are groaning under the weight (as they do for lesser writers).

I’m not a great fan of science fiction because it is generally devoid of interesting characters or the kind of issues I find interesting. Bayley, however, never fails to satisfy. He wrote using space opera as form for the most part. There is no lack of spacecraft, planets, exotic civilisations, and so on. These, however, are the means by which he explores some very deep philosophical, ethical, and psychological questions: the nature of and our relationship with reality, time, human nature, ethics.

Like any great writer he makes his story work these explorations out. Whilst characters may have philosophical discussions, they are always in character, essential to the plot, and never go on for too long. Bayley knew something about the readership of science fiction books. They are, for the most part, extremely intelligent. They don’t need things to be spelled out for them. In The Pillars of Eternity there is a whole background that you see glimpses of – it is a coherent and complex whole, but time is not wasted telling us about it. Where it touches the story it is relevant, otherwise, like real life, it just gets on with itself in the background.

The Pillars of Wisdom concerns some of the things that Bayley was most interested in – the nature of time, predestination, what it is that makes us and how (and if) we can alter that. The central character (who names himself Joachim Boaz) has undergone a physical and psychological trauma unmatched by anyone else in the universe (the why and how are beautifully integral to the overall metaphysical basis of the story) and he is searching for a way to undo it so that he does not have to experience it in his future lives. He is convinced the answer lies in the manipulation of time so that he can focus on a pre-ordained event and change it.

Tightly written, brimful of ideas that were way ahead of their time (in fact and in fiction) and never afraid to stray into areas others would feel uncomfortable even admitting they were interested in (the Tarot, for example). A number of his books have been revived as e-books, but it is a great shame to me that all his works are not still in print.

Sleep Has His House – Anna Kavan
Unique. In my experience. I can think of no other novel that I have read that comes anywhere near this. Based in part on her own life and withdrawal from the world, it is a truly surreal journey from day into night, from reality into dreams, from normality into a world of symbolism that is cut off from the mainstream. Yet it manages at the same to imply that, in fact, the night and the dreams and the symbols are a much more fundamental reality underlying the chaotic world in which we are expected to live.

Taking epsiodes from her own life which are used to introduce each episode, we see how that is converted into dream, how the real world is painful and desolate place. Each surreal flight, each dream is an escape, not from but to. The language and the episode offer new perspectives. And even where events are chilling (the brief visions of nuclear war are horrific) there is always a sense that somewhere in the twisted cosmos there is a way out.

For Anna Kavan, the struggle to escape was lifelong. She wrestled with addiction and mental illness. Her writing proves that sometimes she won, if for no other reason than that she made the world a better place for the rest of us through the very words she put on paper. Because in those words is not just a record of the struggle, but a glimpse of beauty and hope.

Deep Trouble – Debi Gliori
We are back at StregaSchloss with all the old crew. Outrageous, revolting, anarchic and truly wonderful. This one does get a bit dark but where an adult book would end, this one has a last chapter that offers a glimmer of hope. Quality writing for kids that treats them as intelligent beings (albeit with a penchant for stickiness, goo, vomit and other nauseating substances).

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Books read in July

Snuff – Terry Pratchett
Almost a return to form. The subject matter certainly lines up with the best that he has done – the way in which a wealthy elite regards the law as something to be ignored in pursuit of greed whilst at the same time demonising those least able to defend themselves. However, the edge is a little dull and yet again there is no feeling of jeopardy. Yes, this is Sam Vimes. But at no point in the book did I feel the he or his family would suffer. And when there is no uncertainty the story lacks the tension it needs.

The English Assassin – Michael Moorcock
Third in the original Cornelius Quartet and more layers of the story are peeled away. In the end of course there is no conventional narrative, which is somewhat the point of the book. Life isn’t like a novel; the world doesn’t unfold to a plan; our psyches are not built to deal with everything in a linear fashion.

So much for the structure. The content is a sharp observation of twentieth century culture from a ‘western’ perspective. Examining a number of possible realities (none of them all that appealing), Cornelius does what we all do: search for the best possible outcome amongst the detritus heaped on us by politicians, warlords, and greed-crazed industrialists (who are very often one and the same).

At all times this is done with erudition and with humour. As Mrs C says, just after her latest husband has been shot dead: “Yer gotta larf, aintcha?”

The Condition Of Muzak – Michael Moorcock
The title is a take on Pater: ‘All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.’ Muzak, of course, is the pap you hear in lifts and other public places. As ever, an erudite commentary on pop culture with the many story strands of the entire quartet being given some kind of resolution (with many dropping into the start position of the first book).

There is a point toward the end of this book I always find the commedia del’arte references become a bit forced, as if the book is playing to that rather than the other way round, but this is more than redeemed by the fantasy Christmas which is then capped by the devastating finale – the death of Honoria Cornelius. Knowing what she has been (and you have to go to the Pyat quartet to find out more of that) plus the feeling that of them all she is the one that will live forever, a bawdy goddess, the simply told demise is both shocking and extremely touching.

For me the Cornelius quartet is the quintessential chronicle of the pantomime that was the 1960s. A bright, gaudy, bawdy show where for a while everyone could be what they wanted and dream of a brighter, cleaner world whilst all the time the money men are waiting in the wings to dismember the whole thing and sell on those bits from which they might hope to make a profit.

The Adventures Of Una Persson And Catherine Cornelius In The Twentieth Century – Michael Moorcock
A continuation of the Cornelius quartet but from the perspective of two of the main female protagonists. Although lovers, their lives expose certain disastrous extremes of the twentieth century – an inward looking self-pleasuring disregard for everything else; and the constant desire to meddle in the affairs of at the other end of the spectrum. Both tore the world apart, scavenging on the corpses left by the major conflicts of the time.

There is a weariness about the book. The characters are all tired of the parts they have been playing. The text also feels as if it is something that has to be side but that the author, like Una Persson, is tired of having to go over the same arguments, wondering if anyone is listening.

Despite that, it is a fine piece of social observation, especially the backstage stuff covering the 60s music scene.

Scrivener’s Moon – Philip Reeve
Back on form after the previous book in the series (which was not bad and probably a set-up for future events, but felt slow and something of a non-sequitor). Fever Crumb returns to London to find that progress into creating the first traction city is well under way. And that forces are massing to stop this step into municipal darwinism.

Exciting, fast paced, and suitably open ended, a great addition to Mortal Engines series.

Artemis Fowl And The Last Guardian – Eoin Colfer
One of the better (and possibly last) entries in the series, despite the bad copy editing. Come on Puffin, readers deserve better than this. Colfer has delivered his usual fast paced story. Nothing new, but a great read.

Maigret Goes Home – Georges Simenon
Intrigued by a message that arrives via a provincial police station stating that a crime will be committed during first Mass on a given date in a certain church, Maigret decides to be present. That the church is in the village where was born and where he was once a choir boy intrigues him further. And it is there, during first Mass, that the ageing Comtess keels over dead.

There follows a chilly psychological portrait of an inward looking society that is crumbling, a half dead institution pick at by vultures not waiting for it to die. And it is also Maigret’s memories that are savaged, leaving him almost powerless to act.

A spectator on the past, a spectator on the present, he watches as eveything unfolds in an almost gothic climax. And whilst it sounds melodramatic, Simenon as ever, through a barebones economy of language and plot, focusses on what really matters in the story and carries it through with great style.

The Theatre: A Concise History – Phyllis Hartnoll
A standard text on the subject and a set text for me when I was at college. It is exactly what it says on the cover – a concise history. It is however extremely informative, heavily illustrated, and has a short but very useful bibliography.

Recollections Of The Golden Triangle – Alain Robbe-Grillet
Set in an unspecified South American country, this is a typical Robbe-Grillet maze. A very simple linear exposition is told from different viewpoints and without regard to to any of the normal conventions of narrative. We move back and forth in time, the narrators change without any warning, symbols are discussed, not just by characters but by the author, and yet what sounds like it would be an unholy mess flows smoothly and, eventually, tells a story.

Of course, it is not the story set out at the end in a chronology of events. One point of the text is to demonstrate that a narrative is not necessarily (and probably never is outside a book or film) a chronology of cause and effect. Paths cross and re-cross building up a picture in much the way something is woven. Individual strands mean nothing. Follow a thread to its end and you see nothing. Stand back and let the process do its work and in the end you have a picture that makes sense. The beauty of a Robbe-Grillet is that the finished picture is merely a surface effect. He weaves in four dimensions, using colours that go well beyond the visible spectrum. Whilst we admire the picture, beneath it and deep within ourselves, doors have been unlocked...

The True Heart – Sylvia Townsend Warner
A modern fairy tale transposing Cupid and Psyche into late 19th century Essex. Sukey Bond is a beautifully drawn character who floats through life in what is an exceedingly deceptive novel. It seems simple and light (and the writing style suits this perfectly), but there are many layers to this. To begin with, it is rare for writing to convey both the sparkle in the author’s eye as well as the occasional flicker of a wink. And if you know your late nineteenth century slang there are more than few outrageous statements made in the guise of innocence (not least when Sukey finds herself in a brothel). And beneath that is an essay on the power of love that is uplifting and quite glorious.

Empty Space – M John Harrison
A beautifully written continuation of Light and Nova Swing. An experience such as this is difficult to express as a review. Nominally a work of science fiction, it is actually a work that explores metaphysics as well as physics, inner space as well as outer space (and, indeed, recognises that these are false distinctions), and the dynamics of personal relationships. The whole thing is a glorious feast of symbolism that will provide generations of students material for their theses, none of which will ever come close to exhausting the deep veins of meaning – although like the aliens who gave up trying to understand the Tract, the universe will be littered with these long abandoned and forgotten experiments in understanding whilst the thing itself will still provide pleasure and a rich metaphorical background.

Harrison (even in his earliest works) has always been a writer able to find ways of discussing ideas through action and events. And not content with that skill, he writes with a confidence, wit, and intelligence that leaves a lot of other writers gibbering incoherently on the starting blocks. Literate, entertaining, and clearly working at his craft in order to enhance his art. One could wish that we could say as much of many of our so-called literary authors.

Despite having written ‘straight’ novels, there is a perception that Harrison is a science fiction writer (or worse, a writer of fantasy). But like all good writers, he transcends that. For one thing, he always manages to turn any genre tropes he uses inside out and upside down. At the heart of his work are human beings trying to come to terms with being human. People who dismiss his work because of the way he chooses to explore these fundamental ideas are missing not just a treat, but work that leaves shadowy forms flickering just out of range of your internal sensors, teasing you to leave the gaudy neon life of the surface to explore the darker alleyways of your psyche where the real you is probably lost.

Snapshots – Alain Robbe-Grillet
A collection of short fictions. Not so much snapshots as short films lacking all context but that which can be derived from within. Children walking on a beach, people in the Metro, and so on. They are vivid and described in minute detail, but lacking that broader context it is initially difficult to decide what, if anything, is important. We are simply given a surface – a series of events and actions. Yet even this is illusion, because each reader brings their own context, creating a largely unconscious set of connections that create a story beneath the surface (we are a storytelling species). This may, in part, defeat the object of the author’s purpose, but it does demonstrate what an important contribution that Robbe-Grillet has made to an understanding and development of literary work.

Arsène Lupin Versus Holmlock Shears – Maurice Leblance
So glad to see this (along with three other volumes) in an omnibus from Wordsworth. Arsène Lupin is one of the all time great creations of crime fiction and deserves to be much better known. And not only are they significant in terms of the history of crime fiction, they are great fun. Written with tongue firmly in cheek, yet always presenting an excellent story, Lupin stands with Sherlock Holmes, Raffles, and Zenith the Albino – more the latter two than the former.

Lupin is the ‘Prince of Thieves’. A dashing Parisian who finds a challenge in the most difficult of robberies and whose humour and conceit make him both difficult to catch and a supreme annoyance to the authorities. Even Sherlock Holmes (her thinly disguised as Holmlock Shears as Conan Doyle was less than happy to see his detective made fun of) has trouble with Lupin.

Yet Lupin is not just a thief. He is, in his own way (as the second of the two stories in this volume demonstrates), a man of honour who will put himself at considerable risk to save the honour of someone else. For someone like me who enjoys French literature, who enjoys crime stories with a bit of flair, who enjoys something well-written and entertaining, this is a real feast. I hope Wordsworth can, over time, collect more of Leblanc’s wonderful stories and present them in their equally wonderful (and deliciously cheap) editions.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Books read in June

The Leaping Hare – George Ewart Evans & David Thomson
First published in 1972 and recently re-issued, this is a classic work. It gathers together what was known of the natural history and mythology of the hare at the time. Of the natural history, little was known as no systematic study of the hare in the wild by scientists had been undertaken. Enough was known to give a concise and informative overview of the different types of hare, their habitats and their habits. The bulk of the book of the book is given over to folklore and mythology. At all times, references are given which provides plenty of material for follow-up reading. Fascinating as the book is (and I love hares dearly) it is a terrible indictment that the bulk of the information in the book is about hunting the hare and provided by poachers and gamekeepers, those well-known ‘guardians’ of life in the countryside. Amongst all this are moments of wonder, usually when a hare has taken refuge beneath the skirts of woman – itself a telling addition to the mythos of such a beautiful creature.

The Futurological Congress – Stanislaw Lem
Think New Wave (this was written in 1971) and you’ll get some idea of the book, not so much the style as the content. Think also a mix of Sladek, Dick, Moorcock, and Aldiss and you’ll begin to get some idea of the books’ flavour. If it were to be filmed, it would have to be Terry Gilliam. Throw in the sensibility of a writer who is a master of satire, delivered with wit, and you have this book – one that imagines a future where the vast population of the planet is controlled and kept happy by ever increasingly complex cocktails of hallucinogenic and mood altering drugs.

On the surface, it is a comic novel. The situations that Ijon Tichy finds himself in are funny, outrageous, and wicked. The names of many of the drugs and their uses are wonderful plays on words (and hats off to the translator Michael Kandel). The situations stray into the absurd and one is never certain about the degree of reality, especially given that mind-altering drugs are involved.

As with all good comic novels, there is a serious side. You are not hammered with it. Lem is far too good a writer for that. Yet you cannot read the book without considering the moral questions posed – about population levels, about systems for living peacefully, about corruption, about how companies have so subverted the world to their own ends that they effectively control what happens. Except, of course, they are no more in control than anyone else. And the other big question is about how much we can rely on science and technology to solve what are not scientific or technological problems.

Dimple Hill – Dorothy Richardson
This and the following, last, book of Richardson’s Pilgrimage cycle is shorter, more compact, and much more self-assured than her previous works. Her personal circumstances were altogether uncertain and it is something of a miracle she managed these last two volumes at all. Yet she is by now clearly a writer at home with her method and with the world she has shaped out of her own.

Dimple Hill marks the moment when Miriam is told by her doctor that she is so near physical (and possibly mental) collapse that she must get away for six months. Having lived all her life with financial insecurity and with all the distractions of London, there seems no more danger in this than in any other enterprise of her life. And she exults at the chance so long denied, time for herself and time to devote to a project that has been growing in her mind – to write a novel that expresses the true nature of the feminine.

Her first move is to Dimple Hill (Windmill Hill in Sussex) to stay with a Quaker family. Whilst the book marks her (Miriam and Dorothy) first foray into the writing of fiction, the act barely warrants a few pages – that she tries and that she is deeply disappointed with her first effort. Instead, life with the Quaker family (all that is said and left unsaid) is examined as one might a rare and beautiful flower.

The writing is relaxed, open, and exquisitely captures a moment in rural life before the destructive forces of ‘agribusiness’ begin to erode a whole culture. One is left wondering what would have happened had the agricultural revolution of the time been based on a gentle Socialism rather than the voracious needs of the nascent military-industrial complex.

That aside, the novel as a whole is a triumph of atmosphere and emotional enlightenment, of a feeling of old ways passing with a new and uncertain future emerging in the dawn. For whilst Miriam returns to London it is with a different perspective and a certainty that a new language must be found to express herself in her writing and leave us a lasting legacy by which to carry forward literary culture.

Light Thickens – Ngaio Marsh
As an exposition on the playing of Macbeth, this is much better than many non-fiction works on the subject. As a detective story, it is as thin as you can get and still legitimately claim it as one. In a sense it is a short(ish) detective story (based on which cast member has the opportunity in the staging of a play to kill another cast member) tacked onto the end of the description of the rehearsal and performance of that play. It is all skilfully done. Marsh knows and loves the theatre and those who work in it (even the monsters). One suspects, given the dedication, that much of the staging was based in fact (or an idealised version thereof). Having played the Thane myself, I found this fascinating. I’m not sure how devotees of Inspector Alleyn come to it if they don’t have such a specific interest as my own.

Solaris – Stanislaw Lem
Arguably Lem’s best novel in which all his preoccupations are brought to bear. The concept is simple. A research station hovers above the surface of the planet Solaris. The planet is mostly ‘ocean’, a single, fluid entity that may or may not be intelligent but which is so alien that all attempts to make contact with it have failed. Or not. Because one of the ideas explored is just how do you know if something that alien is even aware of your presence?

The question seems to be answered when a psychologist called Kelvin is sent to the station. There he finds his mentor has committed suicide and the other two inhabitants are coping as best they can with the ‘visitors’. Each visitor manifests itself in a different way. For Kelvin it is the woman he loved, a woman who committed suicide many years before. Clearly a creation of the planet below, the visitors seem to serve no purpose. They have no message and seem not to know their own origin. But then nothing is as it seems in a Lem novel. Because this is a book about what it is to be human.

It is haunting, lyrical, and conveys a sense of alien-ness that most science fiction never comes close to. No literary equivalent of actors in rubber suits. No battles. No spectacular scenes (unless you count the descriptions of the planet). No monsters trying to eat anyone’s brains. Just human beings in an isolated world; humanity taking its early steps out of the nursery.

Freshwater – Virginia Woolf
A comedic sketch written for private performance. The subject matter is Woolf’s great-aunt Julia Margaret Cameron and the artists with which she was acquainted. There are two versions of the play, one a heavy revision of the other. Both, however, are funny and at times almost savage in their mockery of the figures involved (principally Cameron, Tennyson, Watts and Ellen Terry). Whatever else it may be, it shows that Woolf had a light side and a sense of the absurd that went hand in hand with her sense of humour.

Repetition – Alain Robbe-Grillet
An aptly named book as the author returns once more to scenes and ideas that have featured in earlier novels, not least childhood memories. The overall theme of the book, that of identity, is also a repetition. In this case the framework on which these issues are hung is that of a spy novel set in post-war Berlin. It does not flinch from the sleaze that afflicted the city, although the obsession with adolescent girls does make for uncomfortable reading. And whilst Robbe-Grillet tackles his themes with all his usual form, he never quite hits the mark. Perhaps because he has done it before (and better in something like The Erasers) or because in using the tropes of the spy novel he fails to come close to the sense of alienation and displacement that is to be found in works by the likes of le Carré and Deighton. Not uninteresting, but in the end unsatisfying.

The Final Programme – Michael Moorcock
The first Jerry Cornelius novel. A bit rough round the edges, an indication of the speed with which it was written, it is nonetheless strikingly prescient. A Europe in financial chaos and on the verge of collapse, America (as always) with global ambitions, greed rampant... one might think the author had access to newspapers from the early twenty-first century. The actual story is thin, but with Jerry Cornelius it has never been about the story, it is about the mood. This captures the mood of when it was written (which is probably why it made such an impact on me then) and so very little has changed. I always enjoy this one and always find something new.

March Moonlight – Dorothy Richardson
The final book written by Richardson during extremely difficult circumstances, yet still managing to be the most accomplished. She never stopped developing as an author, refining her techniques and improving her presentation. The brevity, of course, is probably down to her circumstances, but she makes a virtue of it and the narrative that underlies her work moves forward to the goal she had, perhaps, intended to reach at a more leisurely pace.

It is an intriguing question to wonder whether her writing would have been better or worse had she had to worry less about external factors. She chose a life of poverty to gain freedom, yet she and her husband were abysmally served by the world. But the world is always suspicious of such pioneers.

Having reached the end, I feel an immense sadness. The sequence of novels is an immense achievement and it is such a shame that compared with those who followed (like Woolf and Joyce), Richardson is neglected.

A Cure For Cancer – Michael Moorcock
The second Cornelius novel and a far more sophisticated piece of work than its predecessor. Less story but a greater evocation of mood; the arrival of characters who grow in importance in the Moorcock multiverse; and a much stronger sense that Moorcock had his finger on the pulse more firmly and accurately than any other writer then or since.

Revived from the dead, Jerry Cornelius searches for a way to revive his dead sister, Catherine. That’s the story. Along the way we seen an America (Amerika) that now shows every sign of becoming a reality; tap into the most basic myths of Britain (the story begins at Tintagel with Jerry washed ashore); and are treated to a lexicon of all that was cool in the late ‘60s.

Very tasty.

The Investigation – Stanislaw Lem
This is the sort of book that baffles blurb writers. It uses the framework of a police mystery set in southern England, but that is where the likeness ends as this is much more akin to a Robbe-Grillet or a Pinget than anything else. The framework and the metaphysical theories are the means by which a mood is created and we are able to study the sense of alienation felt by the central character. Lem does this in his science fiction as well, another genre that provides ample opportunity for psychological study.

It is an intriguing book and one I found fascinating, despite all the faults (of which more in a moment). The bewilderment leading to anger and back, the weariness that drives Gregory on, the dreamlike quality of events and places, are all wonderfully drawn and make best use of the ironic qualities inherent in the noirish tropes. But always the flaws.

The first level of these can be forgiven. Lem wrote the book in mid-1950s. His grasp of English geography was a trifle hazy; as was his understanding of the structure of the British police (he seems to have used a Polish model). I have no problem with that as they are incidental to the story and could easily have been rectified by a decent translation and translator’s note. Sadly, this book has not had a decent translation. This is the second level. Knowing Lem’s writing from before and after this book, it can only be the translation that is at fault (it is a different translator to those other books). It is dull and the translator’s grasp of English is faulty. Again, I can forgive that, because the translator should not be the final arbiter of the word on the page. What has really let this work down is the appalling editing. Whoever did it must have been asleep at the time or had an equally poor grasp of English culture and language. As an example, we several times have: ‘He shined his torch into the dark room.’ we have American makes of car, we a police Lieutenant, uniformed constables carrying pistols... It goes on and on. It made me itch to rewrite it in a way that kept to the text but simply made it sit comfortably in an English landscape.

I have gone on at some length about this simply because it demonstrates that an author’s work can be made to suffer by the ineptness or laziness of others in the process. And as a plea if anyone out there with the necessary clout is reading this to have a whole new and improved collection of Lem’s work in new (and better) translations into English.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Books read in May

Clear Horizon – Dorothy Richardson
Although perhaps the most understated of the novels so far, this is where Miriam finally makes a break and begins the process that will lead to her writing her first novel. That is in the future, however, and she has no inkling, as yet, that this will be the outcome. Instead she finds new (and sometimes uncomfortable) truth in the world, experience that begins to ripen the nascent writer.

That Richardson manages to capture her own past with such clarity is remarkable. That she sees herself with such honesty (perhaps even harshness given what others say she was like), is doubly so. And it is all carried of in such remarkable prose that has never justified the oft-repeated male critics’ assertion that it is ‘difficult’. The more I read, the more I love these books. There are just two novels left now and I’m torn between devouring them and taking them slowly.

Passacaglia – Robert Pinget
Like the music for which it is named, this piece rings the changes on a simple story. Variation after variation is given, creating a complex picture of an event; as if we were presented with hundreds of witness statements and photographs all from different perspectives and produced with different motives. Yet far from becoming a meaningless hodgepodge, what emerges is a vibrant picture, as if layers of coloured glass were used to build up a rich, deep and complex picture. What is more, toward the end, the piece seems to become self-aware. It reaches a point where the accumulation of the parts (each in themselves meaningless) begin to present enough information in which to see the whole. At that point, the piece changes direction and emphasis.

For all its concentration on a very specific event in a very specific place, there is a sense of timelessness, of dream, of the ultimate verities that inhabit the everyday. Pinget is, of course, a master of this kind of writing and this is perhaps his most concentrated work. The imagery is sparse, yet haunting; the language is simple, yet profound. There is enormous intelligence at work here. And it is clear that it is also, at one and the same time, an intelligence at play.

The Invention Of Morel – Adolfo Bioy Casares
Another short work of intense writing. Written in 1940 it uses a science fiction trope as a vehicle to consider notions of immortality, love and obsession. I won’t discuss the details of the plot as that cannot be done without spoiling the book. And it is a story that needs to be read for the first time in ignorance of what is happening.

However, it is possible to discuss the presentation, and Casares is a writer who uses the simplest of language to convey the most complex of ideas and emotions. A series of short chapters draw us through the strange events and echo, as well, another island, that of Dr Moreau. One of a great tradition of surreal writing to emerged from South America, this is worthy of Jorge Luis Borges opening comments.

Last Ditch – Ngaio Marsh
A book that almost manages to shuck off the feeling that the author has once again gone to the same cast of characters. And it is all the better for it. Whilst the new actors have, as yet, to settle into their roles, there is a feeling that Marsh may have been starting a new phase in her writing career. The interlinked story lines work well together – there is a genuine whodunnit working alongside an acceptable thriller, and the end is sufficiently downbeat to match the age in which it was written.

The Wings Of The Sphinx – Andrea Camilleri
Having watched the TV versions of the Inspector Montalbano stories, I thought I’d boorw one of the books from the library. I suspect this is a case of preferring the one you come to first. The writing is good (although I suspect not easy to translate and it does suffer from the attempts to convey Catarelli’s unusual approach to language), but the characters do not shine through as they do on television where there is the bonus of having a quality cast to watch. I will probably read more, but I doubt this is an author I would buy.

The Land Without Stars – Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin
The third adventure of Valerian and Laureline, this is comic par excellence. Inventive storyline (remembering this first appeared 40 years ago), great graphics, and some wonderful characters. And for all those of you who think steampunk was just invented or that Stars Wars was innovative, just take a look at these to see where it all began (and from where some of it was stolen).

Le Labyrinthe Infernal – Jacques Tardi
The ninth installment of the adventures of Adèle Blanc-sec. Witty, touching, and completely bonkers (more mummies, monsters, secret societies, and a handful of clones - even though it is only 1923). And Adèle remains as beautiful as ever, with a whole cast of wonderfully strange characters weaving through all the interconnected storylines. As ever, the city of Paris is a main character, lovingly drawn.

Grave Mistake – Ngaio Marsh
Marsh really hit her stride with this. It is clear from the writing that she was enjoying it. The whole thing is very relaxed, unforced and moves along at a smooth pace. The style is slightly different to earlier offerings. You are more conscious of being invited into the world she has created without it once compromising the fourth wall. The settings are familiar and the characters are still from the same repertory, but they are fresh enough to be believable.

The Glass Bees – Ernst Jünger
A subtle work that requires a lot of the reader. On the surface, the novel is about an unusual (if not altogether surreal) job interview. Down on his luck, an ex cavalry officer goes to an old colleague for help and is recommended for a post working in security at the headquarters of an industrialist whose work is a mix of that of Walt Disney and Bill Gates with a good measure of Tyrell thrown in. Given that this was written in the mid 1950s it is remarkably prescient in its view of society and its treatment of technology.

But this is no piece of pulp sci fi. There are no chases, fights, thrills or spills. It is, rather, a philosophical discourse following the thoughts of Captain Richard as he goes through his interview and watches the glass bees of the title. A discourse on technological process, on warfare, on what makes us human. In that sense it parallels the work being produced by Philip K Dick, which shares the same concerns.

Of the two, Jünger is the greater stylist, although he probably had more time (he lived to be 102 whereas Dick died at the age of 53). It is perhaps inevitable that a German who served in both wars and whose work displays a nostalgia for martial orderliness should be accused of Fascism, even Nazism. But he was on the losing side. Britons or Americans who have written in the same nostalgic vein have escaped (for the most part) such accusations. He was a soldier who accepted the discipline of military life. He was also dismissed from the German army for his closeness to those who attempted to assassinate Hitler.

Whatever the case, his perspective has allowed him, in this book, to see the future and to see it accurately enough to make you wonder if the parts that seem still to be fictional are not, in fact, already taking place behind the scenes.

Maigret In Montmartre – Georges Simenon
On the surface a typical Maigret; beneath is the paradox of easy-going French life and the seedy underbelly that seems to flourish when the weight of society means the beast can no longer lift itself and sores accummulate and fester. Drug addiction, runaways, those they run away from, those they end running into. A sad tale and as fine a piece of social commentary as you will find anywhere.

Maigret’s Mistake – Georges Simenon
A little puzzled at the English title. More accurately it should be ‘Maigret’s self-deception’, and even then... Again a very French situation. Prominent man keeps mistress in apartment below where he lives with his wife. Mistress found murdered. Less of a whodunnit than a psychological examination of the abuse of power and its effects on those involved.

Tales Of Pirx The Pilot – Stanislaw lem
A perfect blend of outer space and inner space, delivered with a gentle humour. If taken as pure science fiction, these short stories have dated badly (cathode ray tubes, bags full of books being lugged around, and so on). At the same time they could be taken as a glimpse into an alternative universe, because the pictures that Lem paints of these things are entirely plausible (think of the computer consoles in the movie ‘Brazil’). Where the stories do stand up is in the soft science, the inner space. Pirx himself ages and matures as the stories progress and the situations he encounters are a realistic mix of humour, mystery and heartbreak. Some of the situations are haunting in the simplicity of their tragedy and told with dignity and reserve.

The Space Merchants – Frederick Pohl & C M Kornbluth
Although now a familiar trope, the idea that the future would be run by big business, itself in thrall to the advertising agencies was new when this work appeared. And because it is written in a fairly downbeat way, it has not dated. Indeed, although we have some way to go yet to achieve the future envisaged here, we are already 75% of the way along the road.

Tightly written, understated, free of exposition whilst still painting a comprehensive picture of a particular dystopia, this well deserves its reputation as a classic of science fiction. The only thing that lets it down for me is the over sentimental kiss-and-make-up ending. It doesn’t quite ring true, which in a book that is otherwise a carillon of veracity makes it stick out like the proverbial sore digit.

Photo-Finish – Ngaio Marsh
Her penultimate book is set in her native New Zealand with a classic isolated house mystery. Well plotted and reasonably well written it nonetheless feels like the work of someone who is tired. No pace. No peril. Very little mystery.

Memoirs Found In A Bathtub – Stanislaw Lem
Although set in a future America, one suspects the framework is there to carry what would otherwise never have been approved by a Soviet censor. The story tells of a manuscript discovered by archaeologists, one of the very few paper documents that survived the papyralysis – a phage that destroyed all paper and thus brought society to its knees. The document was found in the remains of a vast, sealed, underground complex and recounts... well, ostensibly a secret mission by an agent. But here the book steps from science fiction into a Kafkaesque nightmare of convoluted bureaucracy and a society based on secrets that has slumped into a monstrous pit of its own creation.

The unnamed protagonist is given a secret mission so secret that he never learns what it is. Instead he becomes entangled in a web created by all the doctrines of secrecy. To put it another way, he descends into madness. And this satirical allegory portrays that insanity with an intensity that makes this a frightening read. Not only locked in a sealed building (inside a mountain), we find ourselves locked inside a sealed system, perhaps inside the head of the one who descends into the madness from which he seeks an escape, knowing more and more that he is doomed to failure.

Like other science fiction novels that deal with inner space, it rarely reaches a wider audience. This is a shame because when they are as well written as this, they deserve to be placed next to any work in the so-called ‘literary canon’. And if you have an aversion to science fiction, simply skip the Introduction (although it is an amusing piece in its own right) and skip to the main text which is timeless and placeless. Then prepare to be astounded.