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.