Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Flaw in the Crystal (1954) by Godfrey Smith

Flaw in the CrystalGod knows why this was published in Penguin's green crime series. The book does deal with espionage, but at such remove that the fact only becomes clear in the last 60 pages or so. The protagonist, Roger Meredith, works at a nameless government office and is asked by his superiors to befriend an exceptionally gifted and remarkable man called Graham Several, and evaluate his soundness and reliability. It is not made clear until very late in the book that Several is considered for a dangerous mission behind the Iron Curtain. Precisely nothing of note happens as Meredith is wined and dined by Several, visits his haunts, establishes relationships with his friends and generally muddles on with his assignment without revealing much insight into character or any particularly interesting aspects of his own personality. The premise has potential - the very understatedness of the problem is intriguing: what is it exactly that makes a man 'sound' or otherwise? Little is suggested by way of an answer, and less action takes place by the time when at the very end a simple but effective twist looms: Several had been vetted long ago - can it be that Meredith is the one under the microscope? Alas, this is discarded in favour of another development. It is a not unworthwhile book, mainly because it is rather different from what one expects of this genre and period, and it’s decently written, but mostly less than compelling and ultimately unsatisfying.

It is reviewed more favourably here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Flush As May (1963) by P. M. Hubbard

Flush As MayOn May Morning Margaret Canting stumbles on a dead body just outside the small village of Lodstone where she has been staying. She goes to get the village constable, who behaves suspiciously, and when they reach the place together, the body is no longer to be found. The same morning she meets a man, Garrod, who will become her partner in a long private investigation aimed at discovering what exactly happened, why, and to whom.

This is Hubbard's first crime novel for adult readers, and it starts, on the surface of it, conventionally enough. Indeed, a vanishing body is one of the staples of the genre. But Hubbard started as he meant to go on, and the book takes an abrupt turn into otherness with about 40 pages left to go. The brief review available on a couple of web pages dedicated to the author contains in fact a very bad spoiler, because Hubbard takes some serious pains not to hint at the true nature of the Lodstone mystery before the time comes to unravel it. Therein lies a problem, for the long middle stretch of the book is full of cross-country walks and chases which seem to get the protagonists nowhere, and the only major twist is saved until the very end. The weakest part of the novel is the character of Garrod, whose admiration of Margaret, while fully justified, is expressed rather repetitiously. He does not seem to grow any interesting traits of his own, and the ending excludes him altogether. With the knowledge of what was to come, one misses Hubbard's later, obsessed, slow-burning protagonists.

Flush As May 2To sum up, we have an excellent early part, Margaret's stay with a weak and sympathetic vicar, when a low laughter in the churchyard at night promises more horror than a threat of explicit violence. Then the investigation itself is only sporadically involving, and Hubbard's extensive descriptions of topography and landscape are, surprisingly, not very visual, perhaps because they are over-complicated. Unlike some later novels, there is no single striking natural feature that centres the plot on itself, acting almost as a catalyst of events, although natural elements overall play an important part, as one expects from this author. Finally, the ending is again excellent, although I suspect that some readers may find it difficult to accept, coming out of the left field as it does. I am not really surprised that Hubbard is a forgotten author, and that outside a small circle of enthusiasts few people seem to 'get' him. Flush As May starts, roughly speaking, in John Buchan territory and ends with a nod to a very different author who, like Hubbard, shortened his Christian names to initials. Hubbard does not seem to allow his readers to settle with the comfortably expected, like popular crime fiction tends to do.

One of the most curious aspect of Hubbard is his treatment of villains. First, they seldom seem to get any comeuppance, nor is it usually implied that they deserve any. In Hubbard's books they simply are, very much like the menacing or destructive forces in nature. The police constable who gives Margaret some uneasy moments at the start of the book, overshadows the rest of it, but never in fact reappears. Another and even nastier antagonist provides some tense situations but remains in essence a bit player, because the violence he represents is not a personal force but rather something that is acted out through him as an elemental phenomenon, a force of nature. This may sound obscure but makes sense after reading the book. The brief final flash of danger comes from a totally unexpected source - a man who is not violent in himself (just like in The Holm Oaks - it may well be one of Hubbard's recurring motifs). The implication seems to be that violence is not so much a personal trait in a flawed character as something dissolved in nature and finding its outlet in humans just as impersonally as it does in a thunderstorm. Neither the author nor his heroine feel that any retribution is warranted.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Skios (2012) by Michael Frayn

Oliver Fox – charming but prone to extravagantly irresponsible behaviour – passes himself off as a famous visiting lecturer at an international event for the ultra-rich on the Greek island of the title. Three girls vie for his meagre attention span and are variously disappointed, while the real lecturer is frustrated in his rationalistic worldview which turns out to be ill suited to dealing with the unpredictable chain of events sparked by Oliver’s vagary. This is a very mild farce stretching the events of a day and a half over a couple hundred pages and reading a bit like a slowed-down movie, given the script-like sketchiness of description and characterization. It’s fitfully amusing, but never gels into a real novel. Frayn inserts some bits of post-modernist speculation on identity and predetermination but the flimsy material is not compelling enough to throw any new light on these rather tired subjects. A lot of the characters seem introduced on the off-chance of them being useful to the plot at a later stage, but no such need arises, and they are discarded without remorse. The ending draws a particularly shaky line under the whole effort: it reads almost like a declaration of failure. All the plot strands fizzle out in a single monumentally anticlimactic non-sequitur. Skios leaves the impression of a terribly lazy first draft, something that the author of Noises Off could have thrown together in a dentist’s waiting room.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

The Teleportation Accident (2012) by Ned Beauman

I never expected to enjoy a work of fiction published in 2012 and, horror of horrors, long-listed for the Booker prize – and yet, here we are. Ned Beauman rehabilitates himself after the disappointing ending that spoiled his otherwise near-brilliant first novel, Boxer, Beetle, by dispensing with plot resolution altogether: instead of resolving, he dissolves. It jars at first, but on closer inspection works rather beautifully.

The book follows Egon Loeser, first a theatre set designer in 1931 Berlin, through an unlikely odyssey which takes him to Paris and then Los Angeles in pursuit of his former pupil, the deliriously fuckable Adele Hitler (no relation). Egon has foolishly missed a very narrow window of opportunity when Adele was his for the asking, and so he becomes obsessed with getting another chance. Adele remains out of reach as, year by year, his sexual deprivation mounts to monumental proportions, all the while gathering tangential subplots which range from surrealist to bizarre.

Loeser (for which read ‘loser’, obviously) and his journey have a lot in common with characters from Barth and Pynchon, except that Beauman has a much lighter touch: being British, he does not have to do the American thing and prove his intellectual credentials by using longer words and more convoluted syntax than strictly necessary. That said, the scope of his research for the book is impressive, and his writing, full of extravagant similes that only rarely misfire, owes more to another American, Raymond Chandler (There was enough ice in her voice for a serviceable daiquiri – a definite wink here). The effect is almost always amusing, sometimes dazzling.

An unlikely subject that’s obviously important (Beauman brings it across from his debut novel) is city planning and (this time) public transport. It boils down, of course, to where the hell this civilization is going, and strangely enough (for a man who writes for The Guardian) Beauman is pessimistic on that account. In an epilogue (there are four of them), the much older Loeser sums up, in reference to his book on Nazi death transports: If you leave an Enlightenment running for long enough, eventually, one way or another, it will become preoccupied with the moving around of large numbers of people. It is a curious echo of Aickman or at least Priestley. The implication is that there is not that much difference between rush hour subway and the Belsen trains. If this seems a far-fetched conclusion, the book is nothing if not far-fetched: events behind the scenes are stage managed by Roosevelt’s sinister Secretary of State Cordell Hull who never appears in person but is known to take H. P. Lovecraft for a chronicler of facts. I wonder if Hull’s obsession with Lovecraft can have any basis in reality or if – much more likely – this reflects the author’s symbolical perception of that scoundrelly figure. Beauman is presumably Jewish, and both his novels are highly oblique treatments of the Holocaust, among other things.

The already numerous readers’ reviews, while mostly raving or strongly positive, often seem to run down to a sort of bafflement as to what the book is actually about. To the extent that such a multi-faceted novel could be ‘about’ any one thing, I would say it was about the chthonic forces lurking just outside the Euclidean plane and breaking through every so often in one form or another. In one of the L.A.-set chapters, Professor Bailey’s youthful experiences form what seems to be the most intrusive and irrelevant subplot in the book, introduced jarringly out of the blue. I choose to see this rough handling as an intentional shift into borderline otherness. Curiously, Bailey’s father, who delivers him into the void, reminded me of Aickman’s father in The Attempted Rescue. Bailey’s insane credo – There is a void in things – is as close to defining the subject of the novel as Beauman can explicitly take us.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

A Thirsty Evil (1974) by P. M. Hubbard

Thirsty EvilIn a letter to a fellow novelist, Hubbard described this book as not one I'm very keen on myself, so you don't have even to say you like it. This may be sincere, or the extreme modesty of someone who seems to have been a rather retiring, solitary person. I do, however, have to say that I liked it very much - as much as, if not more than, the tour-de-force of The Holm Oaks. This present novel is a more restrained affair - no gothic thunderstorms, virtually no violence until the last few pages, and no blood whatsoever. There are some major similarities, though.

In the first paragraph the narrator, a young writer, Ian Mackellar, sees a girl on a train and states immediately that no other woman will ever do for him. There is no attempt to explain what it is exactly that makes him fall so hard for Julia. It is implied that she is not a rare beauty, but there is no description of her looks. This is very similar to Jake's unexplained obsession with Carol Wainwright in The Holm Oaks. It is, in fact, very similar to some situations that everyone's found himself in at one time or another: there are people or faces, met by chance, that haunt us, but we seldom do much about it, unlike the teller of this tale. That is perhaps one of the reasons that Hubbard is so easy to respond to: he starts with a sort of psychological commonplace - in this case, love as a thunderbolt, - and then takes it in a direction we would perhaps never follow in 'real life' but would be only too eager to trace vicariously. But his subject, of course, is not love at first sight; it is obsession that he studies. He invites the reader to witness what self-destruction is really like.

As fate would have it, Ian finds a way to track Julia down to a farm that she owns. She has a sister and a brother, and the brother has something wrong with him: the 'something' is hereditary, but there are no further details. The way Charlie's behaviour rolls out, coupled with the fact that the exact nature of his deficiency is left obscure, produces an oddly chilling effect - which is the definition of Hubbard's writing. Again, as in The Holm Oaks, there is the central metaphor for the subconscious - a magnetic and sinister artificial pond around which much of the book is set, with something yet more frightening just below its surface. As usual, Hubbard creates an unforgettable mood and sense of place, but very little actually happens. Ian is the usual driven Hubbard protagonist whose plain statements sometimes sound a little disingenuous. Charlie, his antagonist, is in some sense the mirror image - or, in Jungian terms, Shadow, - of Ian.

Ian pursues Julia, but Julia is burdened - or armed - with an obsession of her own. In fact, there seem to be very few characters in Hubbard who aren't. The intensity of all those emotions meeting at cross-purpose and just out of grasp is what gives the book its unsettling quality. There is, of course, also that Shakespearean leitmotif (Hubbard is a master at linking his plots or situations to the more obscure but striking quotes from the Bard):

Our natures do pursue,
Like rats that ravin down their proper bane,
A thirsty evil; and when we drink, we die.

The book may be less powerful than The Holm Oaks, but it gets under your skin more, and more insidiously.

The Rousseauesque cover has a story attached to it.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Girls: A Story of Village Life (1986) by John Bowen


Jan and Sue live together outside a small English village where they keep a shop. They are lovers; Jan is the older by 10 years and thus something of a mother figure to Sue. After seven years of this quiet Lesbian domesticity, Sue is unsure whether her life is on the right track. She goes to Crete for a holiday to ‘find herself’, leaving Jan unhappy and lonely. Jan goes to an Inland Waterways meeting (this is 1975, and Robert Aickman may well be around) and meets Alan who is younger but just as lonely. They have a one night stand which is pretty much a fiasco as far as Alan’s skills are concerned, but it is enough to leave Jan pregnant. Sue returns tearfully home more than ever needing Jan’s care. When Jan gives birth to Butch, they plan to bring him up together in blissful harmony. But then Alan turns up, and from here things take a sticky turn.

The book is neither a mystery nor a thriller, so it won’t be a spoiler (especially given that no one’s ever going to read it) to say that it turns out to be a paraphrase and/or inversion of… Hitchcock’s Psycho, of all things. The parallels are hidden so skillfully that it’s only towards the very end, after an explicit reference, that this becomes clear. Unfortunately, it reads like a Ruth Rendell thriller written by Hope Mirrlees: almost like a fantasy from a never-never land. It’s an interesting approach which possibly could be made to work, but somehow didn’t. The writing often gets too precious, while uncomfortable or horrific details are stated matter-of-factly in a jarring counterpoint; the effect is artificial and tiresome. Yet this language is obviously a conscious choice, so at least the author knew what he was doing. The experiment might have been more successful in less mannered prose.

But then there is one further twist, of sorts, on the very last page of the book, which shakes up the picture and introduces an unexpected angle. They are a haunting couple of paragraphs, and though I read the book mostly longing for it to be over, its bittersweet aftertaste will linger in memory. It’s like there was another, completely different book in there, which the author elected not to write; a reference to a gap on a library shelf.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Aura (1965) by Carlos Fuentes


This somewhat famous novella by Carlos Fuentes made enough impression on the literary world to be translated into English, published in a very slim separate edition, reprinted in a dual-language version, and to elicit from the author an explanatory essay on its creation. To this reader, it is an unreadable mess of unbearably florid, purple language bogged down with junk metaphors, pretentiously monotonous prose rhythm and the unnecessary gimmick of narrating the whole in the second person singular. It is one of those books which make me wonder if their admirers hail from some other planet where different criteria of literary taste hold sway. As for the story, it is about a young historian hired to edit the memoirs of a long-dead general by his decrepit, dying widow who lives with a young niece whose eyes "are sea green and... surge, break to foam, grow calm again, then surge again like a wave". Given that this comes under the grotesquely overrated label of 'magical realism', you've probably already guessed the ending. It's a bit like an Aickman story gone horribly wrong.

The Sabre Squadron (1966) by Simon Raven


Sabre Squadron

In the third volume of Alms for Oblivion Simon Raven does something rather unexpected. Events take place in 1952 in a quiet West German town of Göttingen where a young Cambridge mathematician, Daniel Mond, is trying to decipher the papers of a German colleague who died in the 1930s while working on something which may or may not have been a revolutionary new mathematical method. Mond is obsessed with (or tormented by) his Jewishness in a country which has not yet come to terms with murdering six million Jews. Lonely and depressed, he makes friends with some Dragoon officers from a nearby British base, among whom is Raven's alter ego Fielding Gray, last seen volunteering into the Army at the end of the eponymous novel, and the equivocal figure of Giles Glastonbury who played a major if mostly backstage part in the events of the previous book in the series.

Somewhat despite its straightforward title, and unlike any other British Army novel that I know, The Sabre Squadron gives an outsider's view of soldiers and soldiering, as in an outlandish turn of events Daniel is forced to assume the role of a private under the short-tempered command of his friend Gray. Then little by little the book turns into a spy story, acquiring along the way some of the ambiguities if not the deviousness of an Anthony Price plot. The ending is a bolt out of the blue, yet essentially simple and fully logical, so more satisfying than the contrived scheming at the end of Sound the Retreat (the second book in the sequence but written five years after the third). It is also rather abrupt, so one hopes to come across some development or reflection on it in further books - and, knowing Raven, this might cast the events in a totally different light. In fact, this is one of the most interesting aspects of Raven's sequence: not having a single narrator (like Powell's Nick Jenkins), it can present its characters ambiguously, as capable of both honourable and dishonourable behaviour, depending on the network of relationships within which that behaviour is enacted. Incidentally, honour is a hugely important concept in Raven - which is most likely why he became so unfashionable towards the end of his life. His famous cynicism was largely misunderstood and probably exaggerated, not without some help from the author himself. The fact that honour in his world was a fluid notion never reflected his rejection of it, but only the complexity of his outlook. It seems to be generally agreed among reviewers that The Sabre Squadron is a weaker link in the Oblivion chain. I would say, instead, that it is a key to Raven the moralist - a quality which is not usually noted by his fans. It is commonplace to consider Raven amoral, but a good amoral writer by necessity reflects the opposite quality, and usually to more significant effect than someone who merely sets out to uphold the traditional viewpoint.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Sound the Retreat (1971) by Simon Raven

Sound the Retreat
    In this, the second volume of Simon Raven's addictive Alms for Oblivion sequence, the story follows Peter Morrison as he travels with 300 other officer cadets to India which will shortly be handed over to the Inidians and therefore does not need them. The description of life in an army training camp is as good as anything in Waugh or Powell. The platoon to which Morrison belongs is entrusted, as an experiment, to a Moslem officer, Gilzai Khan - one of the great characters of literature, if only Raven were still read by anybody. The first half of the book is breathtakingly good. My only complaint is that this novel, written fairly late in the sequence (Raven did not write them in chronological order of events in the series), seems to indulge in pornographic excess, thanks to the newly won relaxation of censorship laws. It's not so much a matter of bad taste as the usual rule of more being less. It is in the nature of pornography to be mechanical and superficial, which produces a jarring effect. Instead of being 'racy', the outrageous sex duel between Mortleman and Gilzai Khan actually stops the narrative dead in its tracks and takes a while to live (or read) down.

Towards the end of the book Morrison is faced with an impossible decision and extricates himself in an unexpected way, especially if one is familiar with some of his later story from other books in the series. The way he deals with his predicament may be contrived but rings true to life in its essentials: it presages what remains just outside the scope of the novel, Mountbatten's shameful withdrawal from India leaving millions to be slaughtered.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Holm Oaks (1965) by P. M. Hubbard

P. M. Hubbard may well be to the psychological thriller what Robert Aickman is to the ghost story: a brilliant original with a pessimistic worldview and an oblique style, weaving a note of despair into baroque and sometimes violent imagery with flashes of subliminal horror.

A married couple, Jake and Elizabeth, move from London to a remote coastal area where Jake's recently deceased uncle left him a house. The house used to go with a nearby wood of the eponymous holm oaks, but shortly before his death the uncle had sold the wood to a neighbour living on the other side of it, Dennis Wainwright. Dennis is the epitome of inarticulate menace, a kind of evil Sterling Hayden character who says nothing, smiles thinly and carries a large stick. At first sight, Jake falls in love with his wife Carol. But even before that both Jake and Elizabeth fall in love with the wood, although for different reasons.

Hubbard never plotted his books in advance, and this shows here, but not to the novel's detriment. For about half the book's length nothing much happens while it's clear that something is bound to. Hubbard lays on the atmosphere, mood and sense of place layer after layer so that the overall effect is like a particularly vivid landscape painting, sticking in the mind forever together with the drama that's set to play out in the foreground. Dennis gets some wind of his wife's secret assignations in the wood and plans to cut the trees down. The long set-up lulls the reader even as it prepares him for the inevitable violence. When this comes, it is so out of the left field that the shock is almost transcendental.

But the horror alone would have made the book an effective little chiller and nothing more. What ultimately disturbs more than any external turn of events is Hubbard's trick - closely reminiscent of Aickman's - of implying things just out of the reader's grasp. To give a very brief example, Stella tells Jake at a certain point, meaning Dennis and Carol: He is an odd kind of monster, anyway - she won't be any good to you, not after him. The implied power of relationships to shape people, whether physically, emotionally, or psychologically, is what Hubbard seems to be all about, without much overt reference to anything specific, but with a strong sense that the shaping is mostly done into twisted forms. Jake is, of course, in a relationship himself, and his wife, just like Carol, is also tramping the woods alone. How much are the two couples mirror images of each other? Would Carol be attracted to Jake if he hadn't, in some respects at least, been a throwback to what initially brought her together with Dennis? Hubbard never makes such questions explicit - rather, his narrator buries them very deep in his subconscious mind, of which the wood of the title is an oblique metaphor. Jake's word for anything cannot be taken not because he's out to deceive, but simply because he is, like so many people, heavily invested in a deceptive self-image. The self-deception becomes palpable once, at the final climax, when a special relationship with guns has to be invented (or hastily introduced) to justify a fatal but most convenient turn of events. But throughout his narrative the reader is subtly made to doubt and wonder.

Like Aickman, Hubbard finds a lurking otherness in everyday things, but where in Aickman the otherness is ghostly or uncanny, in Hubbard it is closely related to character and its flaws. Freud, of course, has much to do with both kinds. The strong elemental background in Hubbard puts emphasis on human weaknesses: his elements are always cold, distant, overpowering, inimical to man. Hubbard was a Scorpio, and serves almost as a textbook illustration of plutonic polarities when compared with that other great scorpionic thriller writer, Dick Francis: the latter writes of the limits of strength, endurance and achievement while the former is concerned with the destructive power of (mostly male) weakness (based on the two books I've read so far). Artistically, though, Hubbard is in a different league.

This would have made a great - potentially brilliant - Robert Hossein film, with Hossein himself playing Jake, Sterling Hayden (in a dream cast) as Dennis, Marie-France Pisier as Carol, Catherine Deneuve as Elizabeth and, in an inspired bit of imaginary casting that almost takes my breath away, Alexandra Stewart as Stella.