Friday, 1 February 2013

Books read in January

Ice – Anna Kavan
An unnamed narrator undertakes an obsessive search for a girl he has known. She is frail, timid, and thin and she has long white hair. His pursuit puts him at odds with a man known only as the ‘warden’ whose pursuit of the girl is equally obsessive. Between them they chase across a dying landscape as ice coats the planet.

On the surface it does not sound too promising – a sadomasochistic science fantasy of the sort that is all too common these days. But this was written in the mid 1960s and it was written by Anna Kavan. The actual story is a simple metaphor for all the obsessions and addictions that our flesh is heir to, yet it is the telling of the story that elevates this work. The language is simple, the forward narrative almost relentless with the periods of calm enforced on the characters but never the reader.

Kavan was addicted to heroin for many years. She took it originally to relieve the excrutiating pain of a spinal disease. In the end, it took her. We should not imagine her as the frail woman of the book, hiding away and waiting. Anna Kavan was active beyond her writing. But her inner world if not directly portrayed here must surely have contributed. The encroaching ice – seen both as a disaster and as a means of ending all troubles – is psychological, it is the past catching up, it is metaphysical, it is the result of passing that tipping point when the addict can do nothing to save themselves.

It is a grim tale of dissolution and war, of cruelty and destruction. Yet there are also acts of kindness struggling through the suspicion, revelations that surprise yet which are entirely believable. And in the end, there is a kind of peace, even if it is not the conventionally cosy happy ending.

All of Kavan’s work is worth reading. It is poetic and surreal and in that it is starkly simple and so real it hurts. There is nothing fussy about her work. It is sharp and disturbing, yet it is entirely human and there is always a real person beneath and behind the words. One could only have wished she had been better regarded as a writer during her lifetime. One could wish she were better regarded now.

The Kindness Of Women – J G Ballard
This book is a crucial turning point in Ballard’s writing. It marks the point where he seems to realise that the real world now easily outstrips his surreal imagination. There are those who claim this for Empire of the Sun but that still contains many elements of his earlier works (indeed it is an exposition of the source material of those works) and it is only the setting that anchors it in the real world. For all the events are ‘real’ (that is, a fictional rendition of real events), the world is still seen through the filter of a boy’s imagination.

In The Kindness of Women, Jim has grown up, gradually leaving behind the trauma of his early life, slowly waking from the dream, jolted on the way by very real and very personal events that begin chipping away at the carapace. And whilst the book focuses on the more bizarre and unsettling aspects of his life (some more thinly veiled than others, some strangely changed), at heart is revealed a very ordinary man who has witnessed extraordinary things and found a unique way of articulating how these have skewed his vision of the world.

Anyone expecting the kind of writing Ballard used at his most exploratory stage will be disappointed. This is fairly straightforward narrative. But Ballard’s use of language is highly cinematic. There are cuts, fades, flashbacks, close-ups, pans, and he can even go into slow motion. And it is a novel. He has arranged real events to create a satisfying emergence of a butterfly from its pupal stage, something that does not happen so readily in the real world for humans.

It is also a mark of Ballard’s maturity as a writer that he moves on, not just in terms of style, but also in terms of content. He never completely leaves behind his major concerns, but he has learned enough as a person to know that there are other and more relevant ways to express them as he does in his later novels.

The Rising Of The Moon – Gladys Mitchell
Ostensibly a Mrs Bradley mystery this book centres on the exploits of two young brothers (aged 11 and 13) when their town is visited by a series of murders. It sounds clichéd now, but this example (from 1945) was an early version of an a book for adults about children. It captures the two central characters with great accuracy and affection, makes their exploits feel believable, delivers a good crime novel (not much of an actual mystery as it is fairly obvious who is doing the killing), and covers the psychological aspects with Mitchell’s usual insight.

In addition this is wrtten through the eyes of the thirteen year old and captures that slight formality one might expect from a youngster tasked with telling the story as accurately as they could. And to leave her great detective in little more than a cameo role was also a brave move. All in all, Mitchell at her very best in which much is left unsaid and makes all the more impact for it.

A Blink Of The Screen – Terry Pratchett
Collected shorter fiction and nothing much that anyone who likes Pratchett’s work hasn’t seen before. Even his juvenilia is good, although it is juvenilia. Sadly it feels like a tidying up of a life, especially the extremely poignant photograph on the back flap.

The Inquisitory – Robert Pinget
A monumental work in which his fictional district of France is examined in the minutest detail through the questioning of an elderly, deaf servant. Buildings, rooms, inhabitants and events are all subject to the inquisitorial gaze in a work that is so hypnotic I found myself going back over sections to make sure I hadn’t dreamed bits (I had). Yet beneath this encyclopaedic surface (the sort of thing one would expect of Robbe-Grillet) lies the human stories of the place, principally that of the old servant.

We learn of the goings-on amongst the landed gentry, the tax evasion, sexual romps, and other less specified unpleasantnesses that those who believe they are above the law get up to. And on a more subtle level we learn of the lives of the ordinary working people and how they get caught up in the nets of the wealthy. And at the heart are two parallel tragedies. At the very centre is the death of the servant’s child and wife and the people he blames for his loss. Running along side are three connected murders.

Throughout the inquisition we are left wondering just what is being investigated. It has the hall marks of a detective novel, of a suspect or witness being questioned, but in the end we know it is about an old man reviewing his life, trying to make sense of things and realisng the absurdity of it all.

The remarkable thing is that such a dense compendium with pages and pages of minute description and listing can be so absorbing and reveal so much about what is going on. Layers of things hidden are revealed, layers of things that are important are discovered and ends with the truly poignant dream of the old man of a world where he is reunited with wife and child and can talk about the stars with an elusive resident and find peace and rest. And so say we all.

The Innocence Of Father Brown – G K Chesterton
Chesterton liked detective stories. He wrote quite a few. And he never much paid attention to the conventions (of the form or anything else for that matter). Rather, he knew the conventions inside out and the showed you could work outside them.

It is true that Father Brown is not a detective in the modern sense of the word. He is an observer and makes intuitive leaps from what he has seen to create solutions to enigmas. There is a moral edge to the stories and they may have been the reason they were written, but Chesterton is far too good and far too sensible a writer to hit his readers over the head with that. Instead, he presents intriguing puzzles solved by an equally intriguing character (who seems to have an awful lot of time on his hands for a priest).

One of the attractions of the stories is their setting, not just in time, but also in place. Why anyone would think that turning them into sunny, 1950s, west country, feelgood tales enhances them is anyone’s guess. Give me the grimy backstreets and the rough edges where poverty rubs up against wealth. Indeed, if you have to update it for television, the present day would be a far better setting.

That aside, these are the epitome of well-written, intelligent entertainment. And having been prompted to read the first collection, I have no doubt that GKC will be getting a major revisit this year.

We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea – Arthur Ransome
I’ve been a fan of Arthur Ransome’s books ever since I was acquainted with grasshopper’s kneecaps. So being objective is not easy. So I won’t bother. I first read this at night, uner the blankets, with a torch, in a friend’s house where I was staying for a week. Where he lived was something of an adventure in itself – a flat behind the cinema (his father was chief projectionist) that had all sorts of levels and an open space with a metal bridge over a four storey light well.

In this, the Walker children, waiting for their father to return from the farEast, befriend a sailor and go aboard his yacht as crew for a few days to sail up and down the rivers Stour and Orwell. Because of a mishap, the boat slips its mooring in fog and drifts out to sea on the tide, minus its captain. With a storm at their heels they guide the boat across the southern end of the North Sea and end up in Flushing. There they meet up with their father and sail back again.

It sounds boring when put like that, but this is pure adventure all the way, with the Goblin (just a different name for Ransome’s own boat the Nancy Blackett) a fifth character. There is nothing fantastical here. Everything is realistic. Yet it is never boring and we see the Walker children as we have never really seen them before (unless you count Peter Duck which is a fantasy). Seasickness and arguments, mistakes through lack of experience, and the serious possibility of a falling out with their parents.

Everything works out in the end (and that’s no bad thing – life isn’t all crises and misery), but there was a real sense of peril during the story, and the satisfaction of getting to know his characters at a deeper level. And even if none of that were true, it is still marvellous comfort reading.

Lady Audley’s Secret – Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Being a Talboys, this is almost compulsory reading. It wasn’t much to my taste when I first tried it many many years ago, but people change. This time round I thoroughly enjoyed it. I suspect last time it was a case of being told I ought to read it and I automatically take against books I’m told I ought to read. It’s in my nature.

What struck me about this reading is that Mary Braddon has a dry sense of humour. It’s like a fine white wine and acts as the perfect accompaniment to this tale. Described as a novel of sensation, one can only wonder at how sheltered the reading public must have been to class this book in such a way. By today’s standards (putting the coincidences and occaisonal slips of language aside) it is rather insightful work that succeeds to make a sympathetic character out of a reprehensible villain. She is not evil, simply using a particular strategy to survive and to avoid the kind of life her maid ended with.

The sympathy evoked in the reader for Lady Audley makes everyone else’s actions all the more difficult and credible. And whilst it is not a novel that out and out condemns aspects of society that deserve condemnation, it does raise a lot of questions about the status quo. In addition to all that, it is a fascinating read and succeeds in moving the story along with sufficient suspense to keep the reader to the very last page.

The Leavenworth Case – Anna Katharine Green
Published in 1878, this is one of the earliest detective novels and is marked by its special attention to gathering sufficient evidence for a legal case to be made (rather than relying on purely circumstantial evidence). As a precursor to the police procedural (only a precursor because the methods of the police and their organisation are not really touched on) it also introduces other elements of crime fiction with which we are now all too familiar.

There is a form of locked room mystery at the heart of the story which itself is an isolated house mystery. However, the work of the investigating lawyer begins to pick away at the stories offered by those present in the house and the mystery of the missing servant becomes a sub-plot of equal intrigue to the main. It is also the first of a series of books featuring the same detectives, each with their idiosyncracies that lift them above the normal.

None of which would be of much interest if the book itself were not also lively and satisfying. Which rather sets up the question as to why it and its sequels are not better known.

A Strange Disappearance – Anna Katharine Green
A little more melodramatic (with nods to the gothic) than its predecessor, this is, nonetheless, an entertaining read. Although Gryce and Q reappear from the previous book, this one is a tale of a case as told by Q to some of his colleagues. With the shift in perspective, we have a different feel to the tale and a different investment by the central character in the events and outcome.

The story centres round a member of the household staff of a wealthy New Yorker who goes missing, possibly abducted. Mystery surrounds her and the circumstances of her disappearance and Gryce puts Q on the case. After mch following of the principles and a hair-raising jaunt into the wilds of the countryside, matters begin to fall into place.

If you can accept certain conventions of this type of tale (which I cannot discuss without spoiling the book), it is a great book that succeeds in painting more of a picture of life in the city than was the case in the earlier book. Great fun.