Monday, 30 April 2012

Books read in April

A Clutch Of Constables – Ngaio Marsh
Interesting premiss, but sadly lacking in any real tension which is a shame as that would have made it a first class novel rather than the run-of-the-mill example it turned out to be. But this is Marsh and even her also-ran efforts are well written and well constructed.

A Storm Of Wings – M John Harrison
The second novel set in and around Viriconium, a long life-time after the events of The Pastel City. There is a nod, here, to Wells and to Kneale with the insect-like aliens and their psychic effect, but viewed through Harrison’s inimitable lens.

Dorothy Richardson The Genius They Forgot – John Rosenberg
A concise biography of Dorothy Miller Richardson (and given the way she guarded her private life, it is remarkable there is as much material as there is) which displays how abysmally artists and writers can be treated in the UK. DRM and her husband Alan Odle were both amongst the best in their respective fields, yet they lived in abject poverty all their lives. Interwoven with the biography is a literary appreciation of DRM’s life work. As this is largely autobiographical it is interesting to compare the fiction with the fact. A desperately sad book, yet I couldn’t help feeling I wanted to know more.

Peter Pan – J M Barrie
The bittersweet tale of the boy who didn’t want to grow up. The final chapter gives me shivers every time I read it. And the whole book delivers on so many levels it is always worth a re-read.

When In Rome – Ngaio Marsh
Efficient, but ultimately there is the feeling this was written to fit an intriguing location rather than because the story came first.

Tied Up In Tinsel – Ngaio Marsh
Perhaps reading the books in quick succession makes them easier to ‘read’. The particular tricks of the author are easier to spot. However, the book is well-written, the puzzle is genuine and well thought out if under-developed.

Black As He’s Painted – Ngaio Marsh
Marsh hits form here with an intriguing thriller/whodunnit. She sticks well within the bounds expected of her genre, but nonetheless manages (with its setting and its nod to the after effects of colonialism) to convey a whole other novel lurking just beneath the surface.

50 Literature Ideas You Really Need To Know – John Sutherland
Part of a series of ‘50 Ideas...’ this would probably be a useful teaching tool for A level students – each chapter the basis for discussion. It starts well and clearly, if with a somewhat random approach. And it never clearly makes its mind up about whether it is a primer on literary criticism, analysis, and theory or whether it is about the creative processes involved in writing.

It is also a book that suffers all the problems associated with writing to someone else’s formula. Despite starting strongly, Sutherland clearly ran out of ideas or steam before he got to the fifty. He seems to have packed the end with some pretty trite observations on modern trends that are, perhaps, intended to make the book up to date whereas they just make it look silly.

It further suffers from the fact that the author cannot keep his opinions (offered as snide little asides) to himself; and sometimes it is difficult to know whether they are his opinions or those of the theorists he is discussing. Clarity here is essential and it fades the further you get into the book, as if perhaps the author didn’t quite understand his later topics.

All in all an entertaining read, but if you want something with depth, clarity, and a clear structure, this is not the book to go to.

The Letter Killers Club – Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
It is a real joy to discover an author for one’s self, especially one who wrote work that is so in tune with the kind of thing one likes best. Heartbreaking as well to learn of his life of rejection (hardly surprising in Stalinist Russia) and of how his life ended. At least he had good friends who preserved his work and saw to its eventual publication. And thus, the world of letters is a better place.

This novella grew out of an incident in Krzhizhanovsky’s early life. Living in poverty in Moscow he received word of his mother’s death. The only way he could afford to travel the hundreds of miles back home was to sell his only possessions – his books. Having gone through a period of my own when nearly all my books were sold, I can begin (but only begin) to imagine what that meant.

In the novella, this is the starting point. It tells of someone who has to sell their books and who then, on trying and failing to recall the contents of the books, populates their shelves with imaginary tomes. This, in turn, provides the material for many successful books of their own – something that had previously eluded them. Later in life, however, this author has become convinced that committing things to paper destroys the purity of their conceptions and starts a secret society where authors meet to speak their ideas to the air and fill a set of empty shelves so that their ideas remain pure and untainted by the interpretations of others.

The stories told at the club are philosophical, surreal, and exceedingly rich. Yet this is Russia in the 1920s. What, on the surface, appears to be a slightly offbeat conceit has much darker under currents. The notion that one must gather in secret to share thoughts, that one dare not commit them to public scrutiny, that the club itself begins to mirror the external world... all this and more is both a comment on the construction of fiction and its place in the world as well as casting a sharp eye on the political environment in which the novella was written.

The translation is well made and what we know of Krzhizhanovsky through his life is apparent in the writing. He was clearly widely read and had a unique eye with which to view the world. And although he is at times biting in his criticism of the world in which he lived, it never becomes polemical. He makes the stories serve his purpose.

I loved this so much I have just ordered another volume of his work and look forward to the day that his other writings appear in English. If you like modernist writing, if you like sharp writing, if you like to see how a writer can be subversive, how surrealism works, if you want a great example of outright good writing, you could do a lot worse than this.

Tous Des Monstres! – Jacques Tardi
An old adversary returns in another beautifully drawn adventure. Post WWI Paris is lovingly recreated and populated with the usual cast of bizarre characters (including clowns ) and a whole host of monsters. Adèle now sports a suitably ‘20s hairstyle and is still as lovably acid as ever.

Le Mystère Des Profondeurs – Jacques Tardi
More favourite characters return along with a female assassin who turns out to be... Well, I’m not giving that away. Monsters and criminals still infest a Paris unremittingly bleak beneath rainy skies.  

Poetics – Aristotle
A classic, in so many ways. Aristotle analyses tragedy and throws in a side dish on epic poetry. The result is a concise account of the elements of plot, character, and presentation and how they are best combined with other aspects to create the best drama. Although the text is short (less than fifty pages in my edition), Aristotle’s analysis is key to the understanding of literature. It introduces key ideas (such as mimesis and katharsis) that have informed literature ever since. And although many of the ideas have since been deliberately overturned, inverted, and subverted, one can only really understand that in light of the Poetics.

The Shape Of Things To Come – H G Wells
Wells’s classic history of the future. Presented as a history book published in 2106, HG blends reality and fiction with ease and to great effect. As people never tire of pointing out, Wells got a lot of the detail wrong (although if you look at it, he wasn’t that far out, and a damned site more accurate than a lot of predictions from the period). What he got frighteningly right are the underlying trends and causes. Even in the first section of this book that deals with events in Wells’s immediate past, he cuts through all the crap and goes right to the heart of the matter. His description of the First World War is chilling; his analysis of the outcome of the Treaty of Versailles spot on. He told the world what would happen. True, he wasn’t alone, but it’s no wonder his last years were bitter ones.

There are other aspects of the book that are less easy to decipher, although one suspects there is very little but Wells shining through. And it is a flawed lamp. He never really got to grips with the idea that social equality should include women. His views on eugenics, although common at the time, are nonetheless difficult for a modern audience. Which is why it is important to know something (if not a lot) about the times in which the book was written, about the arguments that raged, and how ultimately they were used to bury the essential message of socialism (just as a tasty bit of scandal today is leapt on by politicians and press alike to divert the public’s eye from the more fundamental problems of society).

As for the press, everyone should read Wells’s analysis of the role of the press. Goodness alone knows what he would make of it today. Wrap his corpse in copper wire and you could light a city at the rate he must be turning in his grave.

I have read this a number of times, now, and in common with reading Ruskin and Morris, Shaw and the Webbs, Nesbit and all the others associated with the birth of British socialism through politics, science, and the arts, it makes me mourn for the way in which was systematically destroyed from without and within by all the greedy hypocrites that ever lay claim to socialist principles.  

Kipling’s Science Fiction – Rudyard Kipling
A collection of nine short stories. The definition of science fiction is stretched a bit here. Some of these are what I would term ‘wonder tales’, but that is by-the-by. I bought this principally to have ‘With The Night Mail’ and ‘As Easy As A. B. C.’ together in a single volume. These two tales set in the same future world are, ostensibly about a utopian future when the world is largely at peace under the aegis of a benign dictatorship – a company called the Aerial Board of Control. In the first story we are treated to a report of the mail being taken across the Atlantic by airship. Yet the subtext, combined with all the extra bits (which purport to be from the same magazine in which the report appeared – advertisements, notices, answers to letters, and the like) sketch a different picture; one that is given in more detail in the sequel. In essence it tells us that there are no single, simple solutions; that there will always be malcontents; that this may, in fact, be healthy.

On a different point, it is a shame this volume had no information on when the stories were published or any background to their composition or reception. It is also a shame that the text was clearly not proofread before going to print. It is riddled with the sort of errors one would expect of a text that has been scanned and converted electronically. It doesn’t take long to go through a text of this length. To neglect such a thing is unprofessional and makes me wary of buying any other books from the same publisher (despite them having some very interesting titles).