Saturday, August 27, 2011
Soon after the collapse of the Wall, a young journalist travels across Europe researching the life and work of a famous but elusive Eastern European philosopher.
'Old-fashioned' is a word that comes to mind often when reading this book, and indeed I think a LibraryThing reviewer uses it in his first sentence. What exactly gives it the old-fashioned feel is very interesting: I believe it's the fact that the author does not try to be clever about his subject - even when at his funniest or most ironic - and that he remains straightforward about it all the time, not aiming to disguise his not being clever. In other words, the book is as simple - perhaps naïve - as its narrator is meant to be, without winking to itself postmodernistically all the time. The narrator is slightly problematic: his voice, in its simplicity, is quite a bit older than his apparent age, and his big introductory scene, hilarious, at the Booker Prize ceremony, sets him up as a sort of enfant terrible which he certainly is anything but for the rest of the book (one almost expects the whole thing to disintegrate into a Holden Caulfieldish drivel after the first chapter). But there is something endearing about this mismatch of personality and narrative voice: the book comes from a time when a young man could afford to have a serious voice, at least about some things. Aside from that, it destroys any possibility of a realistic approach, quite in line with the novel's treatment of Europe as a fictional, transitional never-never land.
The novel's philosophic insights may not be profound, but they are not insignificant. Bradbury is a rare author who can be funny without losing sight of serious things. It's not quite effortless - one can see the construction elements all the time (and this is curiously in common with Bradbury's two famous students, McEwan and Ishiguro, who also seem to share some rhythmic similarities with him). But Bradbury's general likeability overcomes this (as it sometimes does not with Ishiguro and never does with McEwan). It reads a bit like a cross between Iris Murdoch and David Lodge, with perhaps a dash of the 'magical realism' that is explicitly referenced in the book when the narrator goes to a cultural conference in Argentina, re-reading the major 'magical realists' on the plane and then stepping into the literary community of Buenos Aires where everybody talks about Borges and every woman is a former mistress of his. I use quotation marks because I detest the term and much of what goes under it, but the technique works well for Bradbury who uses it sparingly, wittily and firmly within the European tradition. 'Magical realism' gets to be too much when it's smothered by exotic local colour (and flowery language), but Europe seems just the right setting for it. The fact that scores of actual and living public figures are mentioned and encountered in the pages of the book somehow only adds to the fictional haze enveloping the continent which Bradbury makes a character in his book. His non-judgemental, ironic, but also rather sober view of Europe as a network of corruption (in which East and West are symbiotic partners) may have been taken as jaundiced poetic license in 1992, but is mild stuff by today's standards. Yet when one considers the atmosphere of international jubilation in which the book was written, it must have taken quite a bit of clearheadedness to be so bleak about the underlying fabric of history.
Criminale, the brilliant intellectual allowed to travel freely between the East and the West during the Cold War years, betraying a little bit of each side to the other, must have had quite a few real life models. Yevtushenko comes insistently to mind - not that he could be called an intellectual - because so fêted in the West while at the same time so obviously an informer - also because, like Criminale, he managed to convert his public fame rather mysteriously into a very comfortable retirement package in the healthy climes. George Steiner and Georgy Lucacs must have also contributed to the character, both explicitly mentioned. What puzzles me is why Bradbury chose this name for his antihero, with all its blunt connotations.
Another and more general complaint is Bradbury's old habit - affectation? - of squeezing his conversations into long single paragraphs, so that it's sometimes a headache to keep track of who's saying what, especially if more than two persons are participating.
Among the curiosities that struck me on a personal level: the book has an epigraph from Freud, and as early as page 4 seems to get weirdly prescient about this reader's historical background:
There was budget crisis in Washington, high-street recession in Britain, the fiscal jitters in Tokyo, and bank fraud all over the place. In Brussels Napoleonic dreamers were reinventing Europe, if they could just find out where its edges started and stopped. There was conflict in Yugoslavia, ethnic and tribal tension everywhere. Over the European fringes, Saddam Hussein (former Takriti street-fighter, and BBC World Service man of the year), thinking it was passing brave to be a king and ride in triumph through Persepolis, had sent a genocidal army to murder, rape and pillage in nearby friendly Kuwait.
Etc, etc. Insert other names, reverse the roles here and there, and does anything ever change?
Saturday, August 20, 2011
An eminent scientist working on the development of bacteriological weapons disappears without a trace, and his identical twin, a school headmaster, is enlisted to impersonate the man while John Appleby conducts a countrywide search (as usual, almost single-handedly, and by personal request from the Prime Minister).
This hare is a curious beast in the Innes menagerie. Touching as it does on the disturbing subject of the possible self-destruction of the human race, the book adopts an almost serious tone - not quite above a joke, but miles apart from Innes's usual levity. Not that the subject is particularly deeply penetrated. In fact, the usual farcical plot elements are all here, so the story and the tone do not quite fit together. Perhaps for this reason, the first half is slow going. Things pick up a bit towards the end. The main twist is easily guessed, but it's a neat twist, and perhaps more fun could have been had with it in a less topical story.
The ending itself is rather messy. A new and highly superfluous character is introduced very late in the day with the specific purpose of becoming the instrument of justice - although justice in this case is an overstatement. Innes, curiously for a mystery writer, disliked murder, but even more than that he disliked surrendering his criminals to the courts (very probably because he objected to capital punishment). So most of his villains either commit suicide or get their comeuppance through accidental means. In Hare Sitting Up, as in many of his books, Innes manages to have a mystery without a murder, but then he deals out to his likable and eccentric criminal a gruesomely detailed and very sticky end; go figure. Perhaps he considered it preferable to Broadmoor - and it certainly is, but still it's strange that he could not leave the eventual punishment altogether out of his stories. It appears that redemption à la Raskolnikov did not seem to him a probable event, for all his interest in psychology. Perhaps he really was a Freudian rather than a Jungian. Incidentally, his evident interest in sibling relationships, so prominent in this and many other books, both by Innes and by J. I. M. Stewart, doubtless springs from the same source.
Sunday, August 14, 2011
A prudish High Court judge criticises a colleague for an indiscretion, and explains how he himself, once appointed to the High Court, stopped even going to a pub for lunch to avoid the slightest possibility of doubt as to his moral character. The very same evening a combination of circumstances forces him to accept the hospitality of a prostitute. Five days later he finds her murdered and himself holding the murder weapon. This is a classic Hitchcock situation of the wrong man framed for murder and an innocent man being punished for tempting Fate with thoughtless words or actions. The story also develops in the typical Hitchcock fashion, with the mystery element discarded early on and the suspense tightened by the uncertainty of how, or if, the truth is going to triumph in the end. No wonder, then, that Hitchcock was planning to film this novel in the late 50s, with John Williams as the judge, Audrey Hepburn as his daughter and Laurence Harvey as the gentleman thief she hires to prove her father's innocence. The project is famous for its attempted rape scene involving Hepburn, which is not in the novel but which, one hardly doubts, Hitch would have made the centrepiece of the film. The whole thing would have been a curious reversal of the situation in Dial M for Murder, where John Williams comes to the rescue of Grace Kelly, falsely convicted of murder. One can't help regretting this was never filmed.
Cecil's books (I've read two so far) are popular entertainments with some simple lessons to teach about the principles of law and the legal justice system. The way their plots and narratives are put together may seem almost perfunctory: the author avoids anything like character development and following a coherent train of events to drive the story forward. What he goes for are long stretches of quirky or sometimes hilarious dialogue and brief, virtually inconsequential episodes of character interactions which seem like vignettes very obliquely related - or even totally unrelated - to the main story. Here's an example with a minor character picking up a prostitute:
'Hullo, lambkin,' he said, 'would you be all by yourself?'
'I would not,' she said, 'but I am.'
'That can be remedied. What about a drink?'
'I should love one.'
They walked down Bond Street. She stopped at one of the windows.
'That's a nice Utrillo,' she said.
Both such episodes and the dialogues sometimes manage to create for a moment a sense of atmosphere or character that seems almost an incidental by-product of the narrative. This approach may create the impression that the author does not really care about what he's doing (and certainly not about literary art). However, on consideration, the episodic and seemingly inconsequential structure of the story must be very similar to the way that a trial judge pieces together the strands of the often disjointed evidence in a legal case, reconstructing the events and the patrticipants' characters from a limited and tendentiously arranged amount of factual data. And Henry Cecil, of course, was himself a County Court judge, so it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to suggest that perhaps the curious way he constructed his narratives was related to what might be termed his legalistic worldview. And this would mean that such constructions are not arbitrary but, on the contrary, rather original. Be that as it may, I find his stories intensely readable, and the sense of a higher moral order they imply is a comfort and an encouragement, even if it highlights a conspicuous absence of same in the world around us.
Saturday, August 13, 2011
Another of Innes's family gatherings in an old baronial hall, or baronet's mansion in this case, around a strangely half-hearted crime - not murder, but only attempted murder this time. The house and park are surrounded by an industrial estate, with vast neon signs, factory sirens and traffic noises intruding all the time upon the pastimes of the upper classes. This creates a curious atmosphere, but the book is a curiosity in many other respects as well. This is an early Innes - only his 6th novel - which reads like a late one: it's short, under-characterized, and the ending is more whimsical than satisfying.
Borges speaks of the Ellery Queen mystery structure, in which two solutions are proposed, a convincing but false one, and the even more convincing true solution. Innes seems to have made a speciality of discarding as many solutions as he can manage. In this particular case, there are solutions implicating by turns every member of the house party, with increasingly bizarre motives and murder methods involved. The book is overflowing with extravagantly stressed details which are only too obviously clues planted by a clumsy author - but they are so varied and puzzling that it seems impossible to sort out the direction in which they should be pointing. From this material, a full collection of Father Brown stories might have been produced. After going over a dozen promising if overcomplicated versions of the crime - involving anything from fancy shooting methods to dextrocardia - we arrive finally at the true solution, which uses one and only one clue, completely missed by the reader in the very first pages of the book and connected with the quotation in the title. This is both neat and infuriating; infuriating because there is no real logic substantiating any of the versions, including the final one; the choice between them is made just on the author's say-so. Appleby does not put in five minutes of honest detection here, while at one point going to the length of knocking out an innocent man with a stone for the sake of an anatomical experiment. At another point he falsely reports a man to his family as having been killed by an industrial press and leaving remains 'no more than a few millimetres thick' - which probably gave Innes an idea for a later novel, but which is also a rather shocking instance of black comedy even for this author.
As usual with Innes, there are multiple diversions in this unsatisfactory chronicle. The characters are surprisingly entertaining despite being underdeveloped due to the short length of the book. The narration is in the first person (unusually for Innes), and the narrator, a slightly pompous elderly author perhaps in the Henry James mould, has some priceless exchanges on the craft of literature with his cousin, a scatterbrained mystery writer in the Agatha Christie vein. There is also a parlour game of Shakespeare's bells and a lovely false clue quotation from Yeats:
Bolt and bar the shutter,
For the foul winds blow:
Our minds are at their best this night,
And I seem to know
That everything outside us is
Mad as the mist and snow.
Wednesday, August 10, 2011
A curious little novel, one of those which fall between the cracks of literature and never get rediscovered. It chronicles a few days from the life of a young copywriter who reads Raymond Chandler and goes to see samurai movies in between his social engagements. The thin plot has a lot to do with life's little treacheries, and can be seen, if one wants to look at it that way, as an extension of Chandler's big theme: what is an honourable man to do in a dishonourable world? It is interesting how the same kinds of treachery are treated as a big tragic subject in the early 20th century - say, by Henry James or Ford Madox Ford, - and how by the 50s they become the everyday form, as illustrated in this book or in something by Pamela Hansford Johnson or Roy Fuller. The account of the office intrigue directed at unseating the protagonist's obnoxious boss could be written today - or perhaps indeed at any point of time as long as offices exist. Today, however, this sort of thing is taken for granted. It was only for a brief period that such things were at all considered by literature - precisely that kind of literature that got sidelined later as irrelevant. Perhaps the authors themselves were only semi-conscious of this commonplace villainy as symptomatic of something bigger and deeper and going wrong with the human nature. But this is not to suggest that this particular book tries to be very serious. However, when Henry, the protagonist, goes to visit his fallen boss at home, we discover something very different about the man from what could be expected. The style is perhaps a conscious borrowing from Evelyn Waugh - with pages and pages of absurdist but lifelike dialogue - but whereas in Waugh everybody was either ridiculous or Catholic, here the effect, or the outcome, is rather less straightforward. Ultimately, the protagonist is more puzzled than anything else - by the way people act, by the way things turn out, and even, to an extent, by his own motives. That puzzlement is perhaps the most valuable thing about this flimsy, easily likeable novel. Among the incidental pleasures are some turns of phrase which could be pure Chandler, or sometimes the definitely British vintage of the chandleresque idiom: Askew like an evil Brazil-nut behind his big shiny desk; or Leaning forward with a pathetic air of eager bafflement, like an English child at a French gangster film; or He grinned at me charmingly from the fireplace, up the side of which he was growing like a vine.
Monday, August 08, 2011
Julia Strachey, a niece of Lytton, seems to have been a junior satellite of the Bloomsbury Group and written only two novels over the course of her long life. The first of these is a novella-length affair, set on a March day in a country-house where a modest wedding is taking place. The matter-of-fact opening is very good, promising all sorts of comic possibilities. From then on, however, the going is pretty uneven. The absurdity of the characters and their interactions in the chaos of the wedding day is well done and often very funny, somewhat in the Evelyn Waugh manner. The bride is swigging rum to deal with nerves, there is an escaped tortoise about and the bride's mother is not quite all there at the best of times. But the purely descriptive passages, attempts at creating a different mood somehow clash with this and bog the thing down. There is a twist at the end which retroactively sort of justifies the sombre intimations... but the story still fails to achieve a unity of tone and purpose that might make it memorable. It's not unlike Chekhov (doubtless revered even in Bloomsbury, and quite possibly a direct influence): snatches of humour do not dispel the underlying dreariness.
Saturday, August 06, 2011
Five longish short stories linked together by their supernatural subjects, their misanthropy and the recurring motif of losing control.
Du Maurier's gift, if any, seems to be for inventing incident, but decidedly not for character, detail, or language. Her writing is adequate at best, dreary and banal at worst, with some clumsy turns of phrase here and there suggesting a one-draft writer (this last abortive ten days that ended so abruptly, or the murderers for whom the police sought). Her characters are cardboard cut-outs, defined in the most general terms, in crude strokes. But the famous twist at the end of the title story is probably no fluke: the author does seem to know how to create, at times, a striking scene, a haunting turn of events. That is certainly not enough to lift her into the first rank of literature, but sometimes enough for her subjects to linger in memory.
The story I liked best is The Way of the Cross, in which a group of English tourists from the middle and upper-middle class find themselves in Jerusalem during Passover. Through a combination of external circumstances and their own character flaws, all of them are put to a test and find themselves frustrated and failing in the performance of their social function. All have to re-examine their self-images which prove to be distinctly separated from reality. Perhaps the most striking - even bizarre - portrayal is that of the substitute vicar, who is inexperienced at guiding this sort of party, and thus completely inefficient, yet highly arrogant with his democratic ideal of a working-class parish where the 'lads' may be rough but closer to a communal Christian spirit than the more-or-less leisured Jerusalem lot. The hint of latent homosexuality is not the most disturbing thing here: the vicar suffers a man's ultimate humiliation in the Temple of the Holy Sepulchre, shitting himself due to some acute bowel disorder, and thereafter reflects that perhaps Jesus on the Cross, in his fear and loneliness, suffered it, too - and this sort of not unsubtle but certainly misanthropic black humour seems to be characteristic of Du Maurier.
Not After Midnight is an interesting story with a rather Aickmanesque subject, but resolved a little clumsily, perhaps, with the reader being told simultaneously too much and not enough. A Border-Line Case is a female sexual fantasy of sorts; it links sexuality with some darker aspects of the human nature in a curious way which does not quite work dramatically and leaves an unpleasant aftertaste, but definitely disturbs as must have been the author's intention. The last story in the book, The Breakthrough, is the most overtly fantastic - almost sci-fi - and at the same time the most conventional, with a plot which might have been borrowed from a 60s TV episode.
The title story makes a shocking impression in comparison to the film - in the sense of being shockingly inferior. It is the least atmospheric of the lot, despite being set in Venice, and its prose is commonplace even for Du Maurier. But more strikingly, it turns out that most of the incidents that fill the film are interpolations by the screenwriters. Virtually nothing of the film is present in the original: the early scene in the restaurant, much curtailed - the visit to the police - the walk back to the two sisters' pensione - and the final twist, of course, but that's it. Much of the story - and it's not a particularly short one - is filled with John's quite tedious thoughts and perceptions and with inconsequential exchanges like the long discussion of possible ways of travelling back to England. There are no visual patterns of any kind, or thematic patterns, for that matter, either. Why is a frozen pond flat? has the touch of brilliant obliqueness totally lacking in Du Maurier. Two other vital elements are missing from the story: the love and the tragedy. The death of John and Laura's daughter is only treated in retrospect, and the trauma of it is not an overwhelming presence. There is even an implication that John is not too seriously affected by the loss. Neither the love between the couple nor their love for the dead girl is in evidence; in fact, based on the story, it is not even clear that the couple have enough imagination to suffer much. What happens in the story is just a supernatural muddle, or at most a macabre joke of the misanthropic sort. In retrospect, after the other stories have been read, a certain crudeness in Du Maurier is obvious, and being stabbed by a grotesque dwarf mistaken for a child becomes an incident of the same sort as shitting oneself in church. Indeed, in the story's last line John perceives his death as a humiliation, in the same way as the vicar in the other story takes his own bizarre ordeal. The story's ending is the final insult to the film, the crowning disappointment. Instead of a rhythmical bang, a transcendence of language, such as one expects from the masters of the form, the text of the story dwindles into inconsequence just as John's life does.
Wednesday, August 03, 2011
The book reads like a cross between H. G. Wells and Michael Innes on tranquilizers. The writing is decent, but the plot too simple and repetitive, and the characters rather less than two-dimensional. On the whole, precious little meat here.
Tuesday, August 02, 2011
Published as a 'novel', this book has the length of a novella, but in point of fact it is a very long short story, being concerned with a small group of a characters and a very circumscribed part of their lives and relationships. So publishing this on its own may have been a disservice: one expects novelistic qualities, and perhaps judges the thing too harshly for their absence.
However, even as a short story, much of this is pretentious tripe. When the author calls one of his characters a Genius and another a Goddess, and proceeds to treat them as such (even if with a touch of irony, which may or may not be the case here), somehow one knows from the start that the author cheats, because his business is to flesh out a character first, and then, if appropriate, to give that character symbolic or allegoric attributes. Huxley neither bothers with the characters nor properly tells a story here: it boils down to an anecdote. But an anecdote full of philosophical comment, generalisation and would-be important ideas. Rivers, the character telling the story, practically in monologue, barely can report a line of dialogue before launching on an insightful interpretation of what the speaker meant, felt and thought. Instead of describing people's actions, he describes - at length - their presumed inner states, with a lot of fancy twaddle like She was a goddess, and the silence of goddesses is genuinely golden, or She experienced the creative otherness of love and sleep. And he is nothing if not maddeningly didactic, very sure of the profound value of what he has to impart.
Another thing that I found peculiarly annoying was the taking for granted that Maartens, the quantum physicist and Nobel Prize winner, was in fact a genius by virtue of those facts alone. Now, almost 100 years on (the story is set in the 20s), we realize that humanity would hardly notice a quantum physicist more or less. Moreover, we know that all scientists produce their most important work when young, and then the quality of their output declines quickly. Maartens is an old man, but the whole purport of the story is predicated on the assumed fact of his enormous value to humanity and the need to keep him going at any cost.
The only interesting aspect of the book was the Man Ray photograph of the young Huxley, who is absolutely indistinguishable from the young Robert Aickman. I would have constructed a conspiracy theory around this fact - suggesting they might have been the same person - if I could believe Aickman capable of writing such unmitigated rubbish, not worth the three paragraphs I spent on it. Actually, the young Huxley seems to have been a decent writer, and one can't help wondering if it had been his LSD and mescaline experiments which enfeebled his mind and his literary capacities so dramatically.
Monday, August 01, 2011
I have sometimes reflected on how often authors are unreliable judges of their own work. This is a case in point: The Journeying Boy was Innes's own favourite among his novels. One can only suppose that something in its tone (Boy's Own Adventure from an adult perspective) somehow particularly resonated with his inner child's idea of perfect fictional entertainment. To be fair, most contemporary critics concurred and praised the book extravagantly.
An eminent nuclear scientist busy with work essential for national security engages a tutor to take his teenaged son, the journeying boy of the title, on an Irish vacation. Next day, the tutor sends a telegram, regretting that a death in the family prevented him from taking up the job. Promptly it turns out that the death was his own. Another tutor is quickly hired and the boy despatched to his destination, where kidnappers roam, greedy both for money and for nuclear secrets. So far, so good.
The big problem with this one is that for some reason Innes decided to write it as a 'serious' novel. Not that laughter is completely excluded, but Innes does not treat the situation as an extravagant fantasy, an eccentric joke. The effect is most curious. Where in his less ambitious thrillers the tone and pathos often rise to Stevensonian heights, here - where the author aspires consciously to that level - the result is definitely riddled with flaws that one more readily associates with Buchan or Edgar Wallace.
The use of coincidence borders on the outrageous. At one point, the boy Humphrey by pure chance finds himself sitting in a cinema next to another boy impersonating him to a misled tutor. In a separate thread of the plot, the police investigating the tutor's murder gain vital knowledge through the chance happening of a blackmailer having been hit by a bus and, before dying, lucidly revealing some timely information which he pieced together apparently by a mix of divine revelation and superhuman insight. Part of his communication is that there is not one, but two gangs of kidnappers breathing down the boy's neck. And at the very end of the book, as one gang makes its escape by plane and the other by boat, how do they get their comeuppance if not by plane dropping from the sky to hit boat? If this sounds utterly bizarre, it is. Other characters are just left as blanks and drift out without any explanation: we never learn anything about the obviosuly talented and very nasty teenaged impersonator or the woman who accompanied him at the film theatre. Much of the conspiracy is finally exposed not through detection or action but through the clumsy device of revealing at some point the thoughts of the villain.
In contrast with this rampage of melodramatic convention, the writing is involved, donnish, sometimes precious - or, in Innes's own term, polysyllabic. The intricate syntax is all very well when a bunch of Oxford professors are plotting and intriguing to Byzantine and ludicrous effect. But in an action story, there are inevitably some climaxes where more direct writing is clearly better suited to the needs of the narrative. And, unfortunately, this book has the longest stretches of pure tedium ever encountered in an Innes novel. It takes the boy and his tutor about 100 pages to get from Euston to Ireland, and very little happens during the whole stretch of the journey, aside from some sneaking to and fro along the length of the train and an encounter with a travelling freak show out of The Lady Vanishes. The bulk of the trip is taken up with the tutor's reflections and feelings. Jacques Barzun thought that 'the long-winded analyses of feeling and action are intolerable almost from the start', being thus one of the few critics who dissented. There is another episode later in the book when the tutor, roused at night, investigates some suspicious sounds and movements in complete darkness. Another critic noted, approvingly, that it was 'the longest passage of straight narrative, without dialogue, covering a moment or two of time, which I know of in the literature'. Indeed, it takes up about two dozen pages. What might have been fine in a Robbe-Grillet novel, is unfortunately rather tiresome in an Innes one. And generally, for all the (needless) complexity of the plot, there is very little actually happening all along. There is a lack of construction here that the alleged 'serious' approach does not seem to justify.
There are some entertaining or funny or even exciting passages in the book, in the true Innes spirit, but they are few and far between. Also on the positive side, the motive which prompts the boy to act as he does is interesting and perhaps rather original - but that motive is only revealed late in the book, and much of the narative up to then just does not work dramatically. Roy Fuller's With My Little Eye, which I recently read, another thriller with a teenaged protagonist, and written just a year earlier, is a perfect example of how high moral and emotional stakes drive forward a story of this kind and make one largely overlook the deficiencies of plotting. In The Journeying Boy, for the most part of it, there is just nothing much to care about, either in terms of story or character or any underlying issues. While Fuller's protagonist is also his own story's narrator, in the Innes book we mostly see the boy through the eyes of his tutor, Mr Thewless - who is himself one of Innes's palest creations.
At one point in the book, Innes pokes fun at Brideshead Revisited. The title comes from a poem by Thomas Hardy.