Sunday, 18 February 2018

The Razor's Edge - Somerset Maugham

The sharp edge of a razor is hard to pass over; thus the wise say the road to salvation is hard." (Upanishad)

The Razor's Edge (1944) is said to be Maugham's last great novel. It came as a shock to me, who remembers Maugham's death being announced on the BBC News in 1965, to realise that by 1944 he had been a novelist for almost half a century. No wonder then that his prose is beautiful yet simple, utterly devoid of cliche. What is more remarkable is the structure, which borders on the experimental. In the very first section he tells us that this is a novel, based on fact, that will not have a conventional ending. He - Maugham - remains the narrator and makes it very clear that this is a close approximation of the real Maugham and (just once) he is even called Maugham by one of the other characters. Who they really are, beneath the false names he has given them, is neither explained nor hinted at; he tells us we would not know them, they are not famous people.

They are however glamorous people, as Maugham himself was supremely glamorous by that point. He starts just after World War I in America. Maugham is already famous and wealthy enough to roam the world at will.  Through his friend Elliott Templeton, a snobbish, effete American ex-pat, he is introduced to the Bradley family. Mrs Bradley is Elliott's sister, the widow of a middling US diplomat. Her daughter Isabel is a coltish adolescent hopelessly in love with Larry Darrell, who lied about his age to fly in the war. Isabel is doted on by Gray Maturin whose father is a millionaire stock broker. Also present is a younger girl, Sophie Macdonald.

And that is basically it. Maugham narrates his encounters with these people over the next twenty years. He tells us when he is reconstructing conversations and events he only heard about but did not witness. There is a vast amount of travel and a hell of a lot of conversation. Elliott becomes increasingly flamboyant and ridiculous but is always saved by fundamental goodness of heart. Isabel almost marries Larry but ends up marrying Gray, whose fortunes rise and fall with the Crash of '29. Larry almost marries Sophie but doesn't.

So what is it all about? Maugham, of course, witnessed the war and the human damage first hand with the Ambulance Corps. He understands something of the lost generation but is too old and too British to understand the repercussions for the American Dream. This is what he explores. Larry never recovers; he avoids all responsibility, professes no ambition, commercial or academic, but instead wanders the world in menial jobs in the search for 'meaning'. Isabel meanwhile clings to the battered remnants of the Dream like a tigress. Sophie lets it all overwhelm her. In the end, nothing is resolved. Elliott and Sophie die, Gray gets back into business, and Larry vanishes, his quest unresolved. Maugham is the only one left in Europe.

One key section towards the end is an interminable evening in a French cafe in which Larry tells Maugham about his time spent on the ashram of an Indian mystic. This is in fact Maugham's own story. It was he who really visited the ashram of the enlightened guru Sri Ramana Maharshi. Did he find meaning or peace? He doesn't say. This is a novel, not autobiography. And it is a wonderful novel, surely a Twentieth Century classic. It encompasses that quest for meaning in the face of mechanized war and unrestrained capitalism which was surely the driving force of all art in the last century.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Henry: Virtuous Prince - David Starkey

The contrast with the earlier Starkey, also reviewed here this month, is (pun unavoidable) stark. The first, Personalities and Politics was short but deep; this - half a two-volume life of Henry VIII, published in tandem with a Channel 4 TV series in 2008, is chunky but feels very slight. Everything is in half-page segments, like the novelisation of a TV script.

I didn't see the series, so I can't tell if this is in fact the case. However, the sense of slightness is misleading. There is a great deal of information here that I haven't encountered anywhere else. For example, there is detail on the treasonable behaviour of the Duke of Suffolk, Edmund de la Pole, in 1501. Similarly, though of less interest to me personally, Starkey provides lots of information about Prince Henry's nurses and an early favourite, Lord Mountjoy. On the other hand, there is far too much - in my view - about Henry's love of the joust. I suspect Starkey is laying the groundwork for an argument in the second half that jousting accidents turned Henry into a tyrant. It's a weak argument which we will never know the truth about. Severe injuries, especially to the head, have unpredictable outcomes. Both of mine, for example, have been largely beneficial.

The real problem, though, is that nobody really cares about the young Henry VIII. He was vain, self-indulgent, and lazy. He achieved very little in the first half of his reign and, equally, hardly any harm. Everything of interest - five of the wives, the Break with Rome, the Pilgrimage of Grace and the elephantine weight - comes in the second half. Still, if you're stuck with writing a life, doing so in two volumes is a reasonable way out, though the first half will inevitably be padded. I'm about to request the second instalment (Henry: The Mind of a Tyrant) from my local library.

Finally, the notes and references here are better, but still nowhere near good enough for the serious student. There is again no bibliography whatever. And to think - they may have been axed to make room for the awful author interview which takes up twelve unwanted and unnecessary pages at the end.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Seven Gothic Tales - Isak Dinesen

Isak Dinesen was the pen name of Karen Blixen, best known, I suppose, for Out of Africa, which was ruined for many of us by the stultifying movie with Streep and Redford. Seven Gothic Tales was her first book, written in English and published in 1934 when she was nudging 40.

The term 'gothic' has come to be synonymous with horror, but Dinesen reminds us that it need not be so. These tales are not horror but they are complex, fantastical, and very dark. Gothic, for Blixen, hovers on the boundary between fantasy and madness. They take as their starting point a sort of northern European upper class respectability and then, piece by piece, reveal the transgressive passions lurking beneath.

'The Roads Round Pisa' hinges on cross dressing, "The Old Chevalier" still fantasizes about the free-spirited woman he met in Paris in his youth, the unbridled sex they enjoyed together in the age of crinolines and corsets. "The Monkey" has a strong tint of voyeurism. Survivors of "The Deluge at Norderney" confide their dark and shameful secrets as they wait to be rescued from the flood. Sisters n "The Supper at Elsinore" maintain the fiction that they are still the local belles they were in youth. "The Dreamers" begins as a tale told on an Arab dhow off Zanzibar but becomes a trans-European quest for a prima donna who has lost her voice in a deliberate fire. And the final, shortest of the tales, "The Poet" begins with charity and goodwill before turning to passion and ultimately murder.

The tales are all very long - "The Dreamers" is nearly 90 pages and even "The Poet" is more than 50. They are tales within tales, layers within layers, and even on occasion refer to other tales within the septet. The writing is simply magnificent. Blixen spoke several languages but the fact that English was not her first means that, like Conrad, she creates new and often startling phrases that play up the falseness of the poses struck by her outwardly respectable protagonists. I see influences - Conrad, obviously, and stars of the original gothic craze like Beckford and Mrs Radcliffe; and of course you cannot think of a gothicmonkey without thinking of le Fanu and "Green Tea"- but even so the result is something so original that I cannot think of a comparison.

Sheer brilliance.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Germinal - Emile Zola

Yes, here we are – another classic writer I have not read until late in life. Another I wish I had found earlier, though Zola wasn’t as prolific as many and there may yet be time.
I remember watching a BBC adaptation of Germinal back when I was a teenager, with Michael Bryant, I think, and maybe Rosemary Leach. Having read the book I now understand why nothing similar is offered today. For a book published in 1885 Germinal is tract for today – about the exploitation and progressive impoverishment of the poor by international capitalism. What struck me is that Zola is explicit – he uses those terms – and is equally open about the appeal of pure communism. This translation is by the first sexologist, Havelock Ellis, and he naturally does not seek to sanitise or euphemise Zola’s vocabulary for dealing with sex and nudity, of which there is plenty.

Zola was apparently criticised at the time for his lack of flowery description and for his unsentimental characterisation. For me the semi-journalistic style worked fine and the characterisation was plenty good enough to distinguish who people are among the huge cast. The main character is Etienne, who pitches up jobless and becomes leader of an all-out strike. The main female is the truck-puller Catherine, who Etienne should have taken up with to begin with. The ending, with the two of them trapped for days in the flooding mine, took my breath away. Superb.  

Monday, 5 February 2018

The Reign of Henry VIII, Personalities and Politics - David Starkey

This deceptively slim volume is Starkey at his best, one of his earliest books (written in 1995, republished in this form in 2002), before he became a TV character, cartoonish contraversialist and fawning royalist.

The attitude here is what made his name - that Henry VIII was the source of political power, not powerful in himself, and that his court was driven - and riven - by faction.
Because Starkey here is not aiming for sales but for reputation, he does not shy away from explaining his thesis and discussing the views of others. That gives tremendous life to the text. He also paints vivid pen portraits of the key players, not only Wolsey and Cromwell but figures like Anthony Denny, Groom of the Stool and absolute controller of access to the king. Likewise he offers assessments of the court women, especially the queens, that are fresh and which invite debate.

Essential reading, then, for both those new to the idea of court politics and those who simply want a vigorous and invigorating refresher. This Vintage paperback, however, sorely needs a better bibliography. A discursive one is not good enough for a thesis so heavily reliant on court papers of the time.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

American Gods - Neil Gaiman

American Gods is Gaiman's big hit, the core of Amazon Prime's drama strand and the centrepiece of what is referred to in the end papers of this tie-in paperback as "The American Gods Quartet". Turns out I have now read three of the four, I have read the novella Black Dog, which is definitely part of the Gods sequence, and I have read Anansi Boys, which I suspect really isn't. Both are reviewed on this blog. In a nutshell, I loved Black Dog (and particularly relished the illustration by Daniel Egneus) and enjoyed Anansi Boys though I thought it was a bit superficial in places.

The good news is, I loved American Gods. The writing was never superficial and the core idea - immigrants bring their gods with them to America, then forget about them, so what happens to the gods - was brilliant enough and deep enough to sustain the narrative. That said, there seems to have been an earlier version - this, Gaiman tells us, is a manuscript put together with the aid of Pete Atkins. It includes cuts made in the original manuscript and some new bits. All I can say is that any mashing together is expertly done and doesn't show.

Our hero is Shadow, about whom we don't learn much save that he went to prison for his wife, who has now died but still feels obliged to repay the favour. Shadow falls in with Wednesday, who is a bit of a flimflam man, and comes up against a digital agency where agents have names like Town and World. Lots of modern writers who have been taught the Joseph Campbell hero theory make it a subtext. Gaiman, being a natural storyteller and inspiringly disinhibited, gives us the full hero ordeal of death and rebirth.

Yet through it all the characters remain real, rounded, and largely likeable, even the worst of them. I also enjoyed the immigrant stories, tales of 'coming to America' which show us how the gods and supernatural entities made it across the Atlantic. These really deepen the text and at the same time preview much of what is to come.

American Gods is, in a nutshell again, magnificent.

NOTE: This particular edition contains a lot of extra material, none of which held my attention. It also includes the full text of the other novella, The Monarch of the Glen. I already have it on my KIndle and am saving it as a treat for later.

Monday, 29 January 2018

The Revenge of Dracula - Peter Tremayne

Revenge is the second of Tremayne's trilogy Dracula Lives! Some years ago I reviewed the first, Dracula Unborn, on this blog.

Each novel comes at Dracula from a different angle. Unborn was the story of the dynasty in the 16th century; Revenge moves us on three hundred years to the foundation of modern Romania in the mid 19th century. Upton Welsford, like Jonathan Harker in Stoker's original, has gone mad and is writing his story from an asylum. In 1861 Welsford is private secretary to a permanent secretary at the Foreign Office. As such he will go with the official party to the independence day celebrations in Bucharest. This could be the making of his career ... but before he goes he buys a quaint jade dragon in a junk shop and starts suffering nightmares in which he is part of an ancient Egyptian cult worshipping the said dragon. In these dreams he is sacrificed by a beautiful priestess, who soon appears in London, suffering exactly the same dreams. Welsford and Clara fall in love, then Clara is abducted and taken to, of all places, Romania - specifically the land beyond the trees, Transylvania.

Tremayne writes popular adventure fiction of the highest standard. He is very much in the tradition of Bram Stoker and Rider Haggard (of whom he has written a biography). The Dracula trilogy dates from the Seventies, around the time the author turned 30. The Signet omnibus, which I own, seems to hint at a TV or film tie-in, but I know of no movie versions. They are simultaneously of their era and faithful to Stoker's original. They expand the lore and are well worth checking out.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

The Call of the Wild - Jack London

What exactly is The Call of the Wild? Well, for a start it's not a novel. It's a novella, barely half the length of a full-length novel. Is it a book for a children like, say, Black Beauty? I don't believe so. The wild element is just too gruesome. Like Black Beauty, though, it is anthropomorphic - our protagonist is the dog Buck, who reacts to things as we think a dog might. That said, London goes much further than Sewell and Kipling. His dog hero is also aware of his ancient bloodline, all the way back to a common ancestor with the wolves and back to the first co-operation with man - startlingly, a sub-human primitive, probably a Neanderthal.

Then there is the actual call. To start off with Buck is a family pet in the Southland. Then he is stolen and sold because the Klondike Gold Rush at its frenzied height and there is serious money to be had for a dog as big and strong and buck. He is brutally broken by a man in a red shirt. Once above the snowline, it is the other sled dogs who teach him his craft. They too have personalities - the evil Spitz, lazy Pike, and so on. There comes a time when Buck knows it is kill or be killed with Spitz, so they fight a bloody battle and Buck becomes lead dog. He is sold on again and ends up with an ill-fated threesome who have no idea what they are doing. Fortune takes him into the camp of John Thornton, the perfect owner. Yet Buck cannot settle. He literally hears the call of the wild - a wolf howling at the moon - and before long he is the leader of the wolf pack, totally at home in the ancestral life of a wild dog.

I really loved The Call of the Wild. Handily this Vintage edition comes with White Fang, so I'll be onto that within a week or so. If it is half as good as The Call of the Wild it will be very good indeed.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Dead Lions - Mick Herron

Dead Lions is the second of Mick Herron's splendidly warped Jackson Lamb thrillers. I have previously read and reviewed the fourth, Spook Street. It really doesn't matter what order you read them in. The plots are standalone and the premise is always the same: Slough House is where MI5 buries the second rate spooks who are too young to pension off; Jackson Lamb, in charge of Slough House, is a loose cannon whose appalling behaviour is redeemed by his single principle in life, unswerving loyalty.

Dickie Bow, had he been younger, would have been marooned at Slough House. He was certainly a slow horse. But he was in Berlin with Jackson Lamb, and when Dickie meets his maker on a replacement bus from Reading station, Lamb feels honour-bound to stick his nose in. This leads to the death of one of Lamb's own, seconded to nursemaid a visiting Russian oligarch. River Cartwright, meanwhile, grandson of a legendary spook, uncovers what looks like a plot to crash a light aircraft into the City's latest skyscraper by a nest of long-entrenched Cold War agents.

Herron's plotting is second to none. As in Spook Street he manages to walk the delicate tightrope between comedy and suspense. The action sequences are truly thrilling, the black humour of the dialogue always amusing, often laugh-out-loud. Surely somebody has to adapt the series for TV?

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Deep Blue - Alan Judd

Alan Judd is an author who took his time to find his genre. He has been writing a long time - he won the Winifred Holtby Prize as long ago as 1981 - but has not been prolific until now, in his retirement from other professions.

His main character, Charles Thoroghgood, is now C, the Chief of MI6 but first appeared many years ago in a novel about the Irish Troubles, as a soldier, which Judd was in the late Sixties and Seventies. Here, Thoroughgood becomes embroiled in one of his earlier cases, a anarchist plot to steal a lump of radioactive cobalt to make an anti-nuclear point. Such things were big in the Eighties, when Charles failed to catch those he knew to be responsible. Now extreme leftwing views are again current, with the SNP threatening the break the Union and swivel-eyed Tories imposing intolerable austerity on the working classes. We have no enemies to blast with nuclear missiles but still we persist in paying untold billions for a deterrent that probably won't work anyway.

I must stress that much of the last paragraph reflects my views, not Judd's or Charles Thoroughgood's. Yes, I am that leftie whereas Judd, career soldier and diplomat, is plainly of the right. That doesn't and never should prevent him being a supremely skilled writer with a particular gift for plotting. Despite the cover blurb from his employers at the Telegraph, Judd is not anywhere near John le Carre as a writer of spy fiction, nor indeed Charles Cumming. Where Judd excels is in the depicting the world in which senior spies have to operate, hedged in by transitory ministers and their SPADs. The SPADs trope is brilliantly worked here in Deep Blue.

Having stumbled on Judd by accident I am keen to explore more of his work. Many of his titles appeal to me. There's one about Shakespeare's sword, a couple about Nazi Germany, and a new Thoroughgood called The Accidental Spy. Now he has turned seventy Judd is clearly knocking them out at an increased rate - Deep Blue was published in 2017 and we're only three weeks into 2018. His non-fiction seems especially important. He is the biographer of Ford Madox Ford, a writer with whom he would seem to have much in common, and the definitive biography of MI6's first C, Mansfield Cumming.