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.