Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Books read in March

The Zen Gun – Barrington J Bayley
This book has it all. Vast galactic empire on the edge of collapse, space battles, aliens, space pirates, rebellions, philosophy, plausible pseudoscience, traction cities (decades before Reeve) that roam the dried up sea beds of Earth, escape pods followed down to a planet where storm troopers go in search of fugitives (sound familiar?), great helpings of satire (along with pigs taking over the empire decades before Angry Birds), all wrapped inside 55,000 words.

Bayley is really good at this sort of thing. He knows his pulp sci fi inside out and squeezes every last drop out of it to build familiar landscapes with a few deft sentences so he can get on with the meat of the story. And what precisely is that? ‘Nothing moves. Where would it go?’

Bayley didn’t write conventional stories. He pulled dense handfuls out of alternate universes and arrayed them before us for our amusement and edification. He takes ideas and examines them (almost like the aliens in this book), turning them upside down and inside out, pulling them apart, reassembling them in different ways, mixing them, so that by the time you get to the end of your 150 pages you feel like you have read 1500. This was his skill as a writer. Something we could do with more of these days because I would rather read this than some bloated space opera that goes on and on with ideas as rare as atoms of hydrogen in deep space.

As well as being able to condense his work in this phenomenal way, Bayley was also a master at creating atmosphere and strangeness. His aliens are truly alien, even those that share our universe. His future cities are not just bigger, taller versions of our own, his technology is well thought out and does not feel dated, and he has a sense of fun. There is a smile in his work that is so often missing from a lot of writing.

I went drinking with Bayley back in the late ‘70s, so I’m probably biased, because he was a great bloke. His work always deserved to be better known. At least it is now (most of it) available in ebook form. Take a look.

Maigret And The Flea – Georges Simenon
A standard Maigret, but none the worse for that. These are not about convoluted plots (most real-life murders are straightforward), but about the people involved. In this case small time gangsters who are so cocky they think they are untouchable but who crack once the pressure is applied. The characterisations are superbly done and it is always a joy to read Simenon because he packs so much in to so few words.

Foam Of The Daze (L’Écume des jours) – Boris Vian
To get an understanding of this book you have to go and watch some old black and white Betty Boop cartoons – Jazz, surrealism, and bizarre storylines. Indeed, you have to wonder what the artists were taking. The same goes for this book. Indeed, reads as if it were a treatment for just such a cartoon. The characters live in a world that has no real connection with reality other than as a strating point for people, places, and events that in a cartoon would make you smile, but as words on the page seem truly unusual and at times macabre.

That, on its own, would not be enough to sustain an entire novel. Here we have a number of layers, at the heart of which is a tragic love story. This too is surreal in the extreme, yet nonetheless touching for that (and in some ways, because it is stripped of the usual for of sentiment, it is far more poignant than it would have been if presented as a straightforward narrative). There is also a sustained expose of obsession and the industries that grow up to feed those offlicted (in this case it is the obsessive cult growing up around a philosopher named Jean-Sol Partre, with devotees scrabbling about trying to buy every last publication, every last recording, even used underpants).

I struggled through a battered copy of the original with dictionaries at hand, back in early 80s. I also came across a translation  (which these days is almost impossible to find unless, ironically, you are prepared to pay over huge sums of money). I wish I had kept that early translation because although it has been good to read this again, this new version is crap. It might be technically accurate and based on a revised version of the original, but it has no soul and the thing I remember about the original and the translation I read was how gripping it was. The excuse given for the dullness and for the endless notes is that Vian used a lot of puns and obscure references. But a good translator will be able to reproduce all the vitality and playfulness of the original. For all that, it is still worth a read if only to remind ourselves that there are forms of literature that rarely get a look in these days.

Maigret And The Lazy Burglar – Georges Simenon
A fascinating character study built up of a murder victim, the lazy burglar of the title. A man who never hurt anyone, who was never violent, who led a secret life, and who was such an expert he never left signs of having been in the houses he had burgled. Except for the last time when something goes wrong.

Maigret uncovers what happened and knows from the slender evidence he has collected (he is not even officially on the case) that an arrest will never be made. The investigation into the murder (paralleled by an official investigation into a series of robberies) is also a look at the ways in which policing was changing. Maigret was getting close to retirement and all around him, the bureaucrats and lawyers were taking over, people who have no idea of how policing works, who have no knowledge of the streets, who have devised a penal code in which murder is not considered until all the crimes against property and money.

Although the law cannot serve the lazy burglar, someone with whom Maigret felt an affinity, justice does. Maigret makes sure of that in his own quiet way.

Maigret And The Millionaires – Georges Simenon
Maigret is rarely comfortable around the wealthy or the elite, even though he grew up on a large estate. Or maybe because he grew up on a large estate. The problem is, as a working man from a working background, he finds it difficult to understand people whose lives are spent filling in the time, moving restlessly from place to place, living in hotels, helpless as babies as everything is done for them. In the end, however, that turns out to be the key, and after travelling across half of western Europe Maigret returns to the scene of the crime and more familiar haunts where he starts afresh and solves the case.

Once again this a pyschological study of privilege, of infantilism, and of the low esteem in which life is held when compared with money. Atmospheric, it captures both sides of the door in the grand hotels in which the privileged live and strips away all the pretensions of the rich to show them as being exactly the same as everyone else.

Maigret And The Gangsters – Georges Simenon
More action than is normal for a Maigret, this is about a collision of cultures. An American criminal is on the run having witnessed a gang murder. The gangsters send hit men to get to the witness before he can be persuaded to return and give evidence. This happens on Maigret’s patch and he is less than pleased that the Americans assume they can play out their domestic squabbles in another country without so much as a hint as to what is going on. The result is to harden Maigret’s resolve and to bring down the gangsters, which he does in style.

Maigret’s Christmas – Georges Simenon
A collection of short stories. This being Simenon, ‘short’ is a relative term. Most of his Maigret novels were about 40,000 words in length. And in fact one of the short stories in this collection is in fact a novel. But length is immaterial. Simenon can pack more into a short story than most writers can fit into a 100,000 word book. And all of these stories are Simenon at his best.

Even the story in which Maigret does not appear (it is set in the Police Emergency Control Room with a number of secondary characters and forms a companion piece to the title story) has Simenon’s trademark melding of an intriguing story with a detailed character portrait, all done through the medium of telephone calls and meetings in the one room.

Through his stories and through his character studies, an intimate picture of Paris is slowly built up, layer on layer until you are convinced you could walk down any Paris street and know what is going on behind the doors and windows. It is a fiction, of course, but only insofar as any life is a work of fiction, told and retold to bring some narrative sense to where none exists other than in brief flashes.

Popular writing at its very best. Accessible and insightful.

Maigret And Monsieur Charles – Georges Simenon
It is clear by now that I’m a Simenon fan. More specifically a Maigret fan, although I do like his other work. This involves a missing high society solicitor whose body is eventually fished out of the Seine. As with many other Maigret’s there is no convoluted twisting. As in real life, the solution is fairly simple; it is the finding of the evidence and the studying of those involved in the case that Simenon does so well. His portraits of people, especially their inner lives which are so often at odds with their material existence, are always pin sharp. And in this we see how the expectations of one person and the refusal to accept responsibility on the part of another lead to the tragic downfall of a woman. Heartbreaking. And perhaps a fitting last Maigret novel.

Maigret And The Dosser – Georges Simenon
Much like the previous book there is an element of protecting what one loves, of going beyond the limits to fight for what one values. In this case, a dosser, one of the ones who sleeps under the bridges that cross the Seine is attacked and thrown in the river. His cries for help rouse some bargees and he is rescued. Uncovering the identity of the dosser and how that links with the attack is a prime example of what makes Simenon’s work so good. The fact that this character is a down and out does not obscure his very real story and the wholly credible reasons for him being where he is and behaving as he does.

Although Maigret ends up knowing why he was attacked and the crimes that lie behind it, there is not enough evidence to arrest anyone. The attacker goes free, yet in the end there is a sense of a bond between Maigret and the victim as well as a sense of understanding that Maigret feels is more than compensation for the loss of an arrest.

Maigret And The Hotel Majestic – Georges Simenon

Notes From The Underground – Fyodor Dostoevsky
The whining of a miserable scrote. Waste of an evening’s reading.

Maigret And The Ghost – Georges Simenon

Factotum – Charles Bukowski
Harder edged than Post Office, some of those edges jagged. There are parts of the book that make you step back, that make you laugh, but most of all they make you cry. This kind of life is a reality for so many people. Bukowski skillfully portrays the tedium and pointlessness of most work; of the destruction of the soul and how it drags down everything else as it crumbles. That he was able to turn this into such a brutal and lyrical portrait is writing at its very best. That he survived such a life to be able to write about it is a blessing.

The Star Virus – Barrington J Bayley
Space opera at its best. But that’s what you expect from Bayley. And as always he packs more into 120 pages than most other writers could squeeze into a twenty volume series. Action, philosophy, ideas (no, the two are not the same), two colliding ‘empires’ and an ancient race long since gone but still affecting the lives of everyone in the galaxy. And characters. Real ones, with whole lives as ghostly afterimages trailing out behind them. Even the slave singer toward the end who appears for just a few pages. In that very brief encounter, there is so much backstory without the slightest hiccup in the forward story. And the central concept, that humans are a virus, sounds hackneyed now, but it was new back than and is used here with subtlety. Bayley might easily have made a longer novel of this, but it would all have been padding, and he was far too good a writer ever to do that.

Maigret’s Revolver – Georges Simenon
Spot on. And one of those novels in which Maigret does not get his ‘man’.

The Song Of Phaid The Gambler – Mick Farren
Farren is an original. His writing can be unusual and it is no surprise some of it is now out of print (although it really shouldn’t be – he was doing modern vampires long before Rice and Whedon). This is a post-apocalyptic fantasy, a road novel, a picaresque. Less way out than the DNA Cowboys, it offers a unique and dirty vision of the future.