June 30, 2011

Margaret Drabble: A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman

Posted in Drabble Margaret, Penguin Modern Classics at 8:00 am by John Self

Why is it that I’ve never read Margaret Drabble before? Probably through some expectation of her as a dull, middlebrow producer of ‘Hampstead novels’; her status as a member of the literary establishment (sister of A.S. Byatt, wife of Michael Holroyd); and frankly, the fact that her name sounds like a cross between drab and drivel. So here I break my duck with her complete short fiction, new from Penguin Modern Classics (ahead of their publication of some of her novels later this year).

A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman is subtitled The Collected Stories, which makes it sound rather more epic than it is. It consists of thirteen stories in 220 pages: Drabble’s entire published short fiction output since 1966. (The US edition, subtitled The Complete Stories, includes one, ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses’, which is not included here.) A collection of stories covering a writer’s entire career – though the most recent story is eleven years old – might be a good introduction to her work, though it does present problems. First, what busy reader can justify taking two weeks over a slim volume like this, which is what would be required to satisfy Mavis Gallant’s injunction that one should read only one story per day? Second, in a collection such as this, where there is an identifiable authorial style in many of the stories, that style may come to seem overfamiliar or tiresome when the stories are read together. Moreover, this might be quite the reverse of the experience for the Drabble fan reading them as they were published over four decades: they may experience comfort and delight in settling back into the author’s familiar voice. Finally, any collected stories like this wickedly invites the reviewer to forge connections or emphasise contrasts to give the review coherence, or to trace a line of development that can only be imposed retrospectively.

Nonetheless there are similarities to some of the stories. All writers revisit the same themes throughout their career – ‘the perspective is like a shadow moving across a lawn,’ Martin Amis said of Graham Greene. Drabble explores social changes affecting predominantly middle-class characters (they are playwrights, TV presenters, Nobel laureates: she is the female Ian McEwan). What’s most interesting about the way she approaches social change is that her stories both embody and challenge it. In the earliest story here, ‘Hassan’s Tower’ – the book presents them in chronological order – modern marriage is viewed starkly by a honeymooning husband who is already regretting his wedding (“he was no more able to refuse the temptations of pity than he had been able, earlier, to refuse those of an envious admiration”). His wife, a figure of boredom and contempt to him, has no voice in the story, though there is no imbalance of empathy. This in fact is the only story from a man’s point of view – elsewhere, it is the men who are off-stage or recounted in rueful memory: a bully (‘The Merry Widow’), a lech (‘A Success Story’, and the introduction by José Francisco Fernández tells us that this poor example of masculinity was based on Saul Bellow). In ‘The Merry Widow’, the resistance to social norms is even more marked: the central character is “bored” with family life, her children and grandchildren and seeks only to be “divinely, enchantingly, rapturously alone.” (“Writers, most alive when alone:” Amis again.) She decides to go alone on a holiday planned to be taken with her recently dead husband, and finds a new richness through discovery of both the English countryside and the landscape of her own personality.

Drabble’s style remains similar through many of the stories: a subjective third person narrative which comes close to stream of consciousness in its detail and absorption of the characters’ thoughts (at times I was reminded of Mrs Dalloway). This enables her to impart her characters’ histories and impressions together, in a way which can tip from showing to telling, so that the experience is like flying over a landscape rather than walking through it. The narrative style expands a little in second half of book, as though Drabble has begun to experiment. ‘A Success Story’ and the title story have an omniscient narrator – the author, or an author – talking directly to the reader in a playful way (“Perhaps I shouldn’t write [this story], perhaps it’s a bad move to write it”), though they both settle into something very like the directed internal monologue of the early stories. Later, there are a couple of first person narratives, though one of them, ‘Homework’, fell flat for me as it was too obvious an example of a classical unreliable narrator – the sort who thinks they are revealing information about someone else when in fact they are revealing slowly information about themselves. This seems tricksy against Drabble’s usually more straightforward approach, and it is clear that a social realist style is where she remains most comfortable.

Happy liaisons in these stories are a rarity. People fail to connect, or their only connection is a memory; when they do meet it is by accident, or ends unsatisfactorily. In ‘A Voyage to Cythera’, a single woman who loves to travel because she dreams of meeting a lover in every new place she visits (“Oh messages from a foreign country, oh, disquieting glimpses of brightness”), becomes obsessed with the lover of a man she helps on a train. In ‘Faithful Lovers’, former partners in an extra-marital affair encounter one another by chance in an old secret meeting place; though it is not quite by chance. The woman accidentally tells the man that she no longer sleeps with her husband, then is grateful when food arrives to enable the subject to drop. But when it does, she regrets it, and wants to tell him more. Of such astute character insights is great fiction made. The stories are not entirely gloomy, though they do cast a cynical eye in particular on social expectations of women and the masks society imposes. In ‘A Success Story’, a young woman playwright finds herself more pleased by a man’s lechery than any interest he shows in her work (“It’s an awful thing to say, but that’s how some women are,” nods the author to the reader). In ‘A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman’, there is something like a fairy story tone, including the darkness that we tend to forget about fairy stories, which Drabble brings into an account of a woman losing the will to mask her true self:

And she thought, What has happened to me is that some little mechanism in me has broken. There used to be, till yesterday, a little knob that one twisted until these people came into focus as nice, harmless, well-meaning people. And it’s broken, it won’t twist any more.

Even in the darker stories, we are rewarded with an inkling of optimism toward the end, as an agent of change comes into focus. In ‘Hassan’s Tower’, the husband who “had been afraid for years that he had come to the end of the new and interesting in life,” starts to see his marriage as a beginning rather than an ending. In ‘The Caves of God’, a woman who has never recovered from a relationship ending finds that going back is a possibility, if only for temporary relief. In the later stories, the landscape of England becomes a source of succour.

The stories collected here cover four decades, and it is possible to see the phases of life reflected in them when reading chronologically. Yearning turns to love and settlement; later, children are a subject; finally bereavement, illness and fear of death. Anxiety in the earlier stories turns to calm in the last ones. There is a shift, too, from foreign places, to English cities, to the rural landscape. There need not be any strongly autobiographical element for it to be clear that these are the subjects that preoccupied Drabble as she herself aged. In that sense, what we have here is a document of existence; a life in writing.

February 17, 2011

Saul Bellow: Him With His Foot in His Mouth

Posted in Bellow Saul, Penguin Modern Classics at 8:00 am by John Self

My main gripe with Saul Bellow, even while recognising his greatness, is that there’s so damn much of him. It’s facile but unavoidable. With a hungry blog to feed and a couple of other minor draws on my time (oh yes: family and work), I’ve never been able to clear the couple of months that frankly I would need to really ingest the 496 pages of Humboldt’s Gift. All hail, then, Penguin Mini Modern Classics, the latest series of single-shot fiction miniatures from Penguin. (Decrepit readers will remember the Penguin 60s and Pocket Penguins from 1995 and 2005, and indeed the Great Loves. This new set celebrates half a century of Penguin Modern Classics.)

‘Him With His Foot in His Mouth’ is the title story from Bellow’s 1984 collection. It appears here in a standalone volume – the story is the whole book – which is by far the most satisfying way of doing it. (Many of the fifty titles in the Mini Modern Classics collect two or more stories together, which seems to me somehow to be cheating.) Needless to say, there is enough in its slim extent to fill the reader up as a whole novel by another author might.

Bellow’s style is there from the title: the carefully casual repetition, the self-regard, the demotic idiom. The story takes the form of a letter to “Miss Rose” from Shawmut, a sort-of retired professor, where he apologises for an off-the-cuff jibe he made to her some thirty-five years ago. Partly this is because he has been reminded of his crime by an old friend, partly because he fears that “there is a life to come – wait and see – and that in the life to come we will feel the pains that we inflicted on others.” I said ‘sort-of retired’ because although Shawmut is of a certain age, he is in no position to rest up:

The death of my brother leaves me in a deep legal-financial hole. I won’t molest you with the facts of the case, garbled in the newspapers. Enough to say that his felonies and my own faults or vices have wiped me out. On bad legal advice I took refuge in Canada, and the courts will be rough because I tried to escape. I may not be sent to prison, but I will have to work for the rest of my life, will die in harness, and damn queer harness, hauling my load to a peculiar peak.

Shawmut comes not just to make amends to Miss Rose for his “stupid wisecrack” (adding, “Allow me to presume that you are old-fashioned enough not to be furious at having led a useful life”), but to wallow in his own downfall – to say, look, I got my just deserts! Really, the letter is his document to himself, a self-critique, which is emphasised early on when we discover that what we are reading is not the final form, but a draft (“I will say it all and then revise, send Miss Rose only the suitable parts“). This being Bellow, ‘I will say it all’ seems like a challenge to himself that he can’t resist.

Shawmut has been warned to make amends by his old friend Eddie Walish, who was with him on the dangerous day. Bellow reminds us how he can do a novelist’s turn – how he could, if he wanted, be just a really good novelist – with just-so imagery (“absorbent-cotton bread”) and descriptions of characters so tight that they snap:

Our Ed, who suffered from curvature of the spine, would not carry a stick, much less wear a built-up shoe. He behaved with sporting nonchalance and defied the orthopedists when they warned that his spinal column would collapse like a stack of dominoes. His style was to be free and limber. You had to take him as he came, no concessions offered. I admired him for that.

(Eddie Walish sounds a little like Augie March introducing himself.) Shawmut laments Walish’s attack on him, the demand that provoked this letter of apology. “All the while that he was making the gestures of a close and precious friend, he was fattening my soul in a coop till it was ready for killing.” So beleaguered does Shawmut appear in his account – swindled by lawyers and family members, betrayed by his oldest pal – that it soon becomes clear that he wants to make Miss Rose feel sorry for him, to become the victim and leach her pity even as he purports to apologise. The simplest reason to apologise – feeling guilt – doesn’t come high on his list.

He is topsy-turvy, but what isn’t? “The world’s grandeur is fading.” He feels himself to be “not in the right state, the state of vision I was meant or destined to be in. … Until this ends there can only be errors.” He connects this to his financial troubles, the swindlings he has been on the wrong end of, and his disorientation in America, the money capital of the world. Shawmut, reversing his creator’s steps, leaves Chicago and goes to Canada. “It’s no easy thing to share a border with the USA. Canada’s chief entertainment – it has no choice – is to watch (from a gorgeous setting) what happens in our country.” A short journey, but on the way Bellow seems to cover – and uncover – a multitude, the whole man, and more besides; to take us around the world in eighty pages.

June 10, 2010

Karel Čapek: War with the Newts

Posted in Capek Karel, Penguin Modern Classics at 8:00 am by John Self

Every so often a book comes along that leaves you dizzy with wonder that you haven’t read it before.  Why haven’t people been pressing Karel Čapek’s War with the Newts on me since I was old enough to read?  (Yes, you see: it’s all your fault.)  In fairness, people who did know the book were enthusiastic when I said I was reading it.  Now I’m doing my bit.

War with the Newts (1936; tr. M and R Weatherall, 1937) is published as part of Penguin’s Central European Classics series.  And what a series it is! Three hits out of three so far makes me sound like a bit of an uncritical fanboy, so I had better point out that I was disappointed by the lack of introductions or other critical apparatus to the ten books in the series, and the fact that most had not been reset but used the old type from earlier editions.  (Contrast with the Penguin Decades, all reset and with new introductions.)  No doubt cost control is a part of this, and I’d rather have the books like this than not at all. However the absence of the first contents page in this volume seemed to go beyond quirky.

‘Quirky’ – wash my mouth out – is probably how a committee of studio executives would describe a major motion picture adaptation of War with the Newts.  Dammit, it is quirky, but by that I mean funny, satirical, unexpected, pithy and possessing the strange quality of being both precisely of its time and bang up to date.  It keeps the reader on their toes by introducing new characters, and a new narrative style, in almost every chapter, with only a mischievously satirical air uniting them.

The plot of the book, the conclusion of which is revealed in the title, takes us through a history of man’s discovery of an advanced species of newt on an island “right on the equator, a bit to the west of Sumatra,” a species whose ability to learn quickly and use tools makes them ideal workers for the global pearl industry.  Čapek shows – shows off, I suppose – his dazzling range, in chapters which lampoon everything pop-cultural from Hollywood starlets to the modern media: “It was a newspaper man’s dog days when nothing, absolutely nothing, happens, when there are no politics, and not even a European crisis.”  It is through the agency of a motley range of these characters – the desperate, the ruthless and the lazy – that the newts come to be used around the world as cheap labour.  Throughout the book, underneath the stylistic tricks (typeface switches, footnotes, people who speak in newspaper headlines, fake academic articles), the real subject of Čapek’s scorn is modern commerce and capitalism.

Today we simply cannot wait some hundreds of years for something either good or bad to happen in the world.  For instance, the migration of peoples, which used to drag on for ages, can now be managed with the organised transport of today and be all completed in three years; otherwise there is no money in it.  It was the same situation with the liquidation of the Roman Empire and the colonization of the continents, the killing off of the Red Indians, and so on.  All that could be accomplished today in an incomparably shorter stretch of time if it were entrusted to contractors with plenty of capital behind them.

(75 years ago? It might have been written next week.)  To preserve the lives of this valuable commodity while they carry out their pearl fishing, the businesses have come up with a brilliant solution.  “Certain inevitable losses which the Newts used to suffer from sharks ceased almost completely when the Newts were provided with underwater revolvers shooting dum-dum bullets for defence against rapacious fish.”  See?  Čapek is even giving us a bit of dramatic irony and foreshadowing.

The deluded humans blunder on toward their self-inflicted disaster, even as some speculate that “our history has already been played … and we shift our figures with the same moves to the same checks as in times long past.” Sure enough, there are direct references to black slavery.  This seems not to trust the reader to pick up such parallels for himself, but there is good reason for it.  War with the Newts was written in central Europe in the 1930s, and the obviously and dominating analogy, with hindsight engaged, is with the plight of the Jewish people. Yet the book is broad enough to be open to numerous, and even contradictory, interpretations. (See here [PDF link], where the editor of Penguin’s Central European Classics series, emphasises the equally powerful impression of the Newts representing the Nazis.) Enthusiasm for the Newts, this imported species – these immigrants providing cheap labour – does not last.

As soon as the Newts became a collective and commonplace phenomenon, what we may term their problems altered.  The truth is that soon the great Newt sensation passed off to make way for something else, and to some extent something more substantial, that is the Newt problem.

So it’s science fiction, comedy, satire, social commentary, warning, a scrapbook of pastiche – War with the Newts has pretty much everything.  I even wondered, when reading the Newt leader’s address to the the human population (“Let us know your price for the south part of Lincolnshire along with Wash”), if Douglas Adams had been inspired by it before writing the Vogons’ “People of Earth, your attention please” speech in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s a book which contains multitudes, and should be read by multitudes.

May 19, 2010

Thomas Bernhard: Old Masters

Posted in Bernhard Thomas, Penguin Modern Classics at 8:00 am by John Self

I approached Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters with trepidation.  His reputation precedes him: long sentences; long paragraphs (no paragraphs!); a relentless assault of misery on the reader.  Penguin, in repackaging the novel for their Central European Classics series, have sought to lighten the reader’s expectations with a jaunty cover by gray318.  It’s an appropriate decision, highlighting the qualities of a book which is subtitled A Comedy, but might otherwise be named A Tragicomedy in Two Acts (and No Paragraphs).

If Old Masters (1985; tr. 1989 by Ewald Osers) can indeed be likened to a play, it is one with three interlocking sets.  It takes place simultaneously in the Bordone Room of Vienna’s Kunsthistorische Museum, in the pages written by its narrator Atzbacher, and in the mind of his friend Reger, who has visited the room every other day for thirty years, to contemplate Tintoretto’s Portrait of a White-Bearded Man.  Bernhard’s narrative slips and swoops so that we move between the three smoothly, each nestled inside another, so the first half of the book in essence is Atzbacher’s account of Reger’s thoughts and memories as he watches him unobserved in the Bordone Room.  The time lines are loose but never confusing. (What is at times confusing is the use of italics in the book, which do not always follow obvious emphasis.  Apparently this is an editorial decision taken by Bernhard’s publishers, based on words and phrases which were heavily underlined in his manuscripts.)

As a reader I have always had a weakness for a first person narrative which draws the reader through its story seamlessly – chapterlessly – from the first page to the last, books which flow from the first word, and I have found much to delight me in examples such as Dr Haggard’s Disease and The Waters of Thirst. But Old Masters takes this to new heights: it flows, yes; it floods, in one unbroken block of text for 250 pages (albeit of large print in this new edition). Fears of this format are unfounded: rather than acting as a block to the reader, the unbroken text dragged me on, resistant to stopping, and I emerged from it like a man resurfacing, gasping and disoriented but invigorated.

Bernhard’s prose, like Reger’s thoughts, circles the reader, spiralling around, returning unexpectedly and reinforcing its effect.  And what of Reger’s thoughts? These are, seemingly, typical Bernhard “rants” against Austrian society, against nature, against much (though not all) art.

Just as I have always been far happier in art than in nature, nature has, all my life, been uncanny to me, while in art I have always felt secure.

For Reger, who “slipped into art to get away from life,” the tragedy of art is that “at first all young people are receptive to everything, hence also to art, but the teachers thoroughly drive the art out of them.”  It is a self-replicating process, just as Bernhard seems at times to have discovered the secret of perpetual motion with his spiralling sentences that divide and recur, whittling away at Reger’s obsessions.  And we should not be surprised by contradiction; despite his preference for art over nature, Reger observes that “even the most extraordinary work of art is only a pitiful, totally senseless and pointless effort to imitate nature, indeed to ape it.”  Respect for the ‘old masters’ for having more integrity than today’s “kitschy and sentimental” artists is misplaced, because

these people, after all, only painted in order to survive and for money and in order to end up in heaven and not in hell…

The use of three adjectives in the excerpt above (“pitiful, totally senseless and pointless”) is key to the delight I took in Reger’s – in Bernhard’s – rage in Old Masters.  The venom is applied with equal force – turned up to eleven – to everything, from the condition of Vienna’s public toilets (“Vienna is quite superficially famous for its opera, but in fact it is feared and detested for its scandalous lavatories”) to Heidegger, Bruckner and Adalbert Stifter.  Reger’s catalogue of criticism for the last is one of the high points of the book: an hilarious broadside which builds with perfect rhythm and timing for page after page, detonating once or twice in moments that made me laugh aloud (“The fact that the man, towards the end of his life, killed himself changes nothing about his absolute mediocrity.”  That towards the end of his life is perfect and brilliant). And the subtitle A Comedy is not misleading, with wonderful scenes such as the one where an Englishman visiting the museum explains how he has the real White-Bearded Man at home (an heirloom “from the Glasgow aunt”).

There are other traditional novelistic concerns at work here too, and Bernhard sparsely and then fully reveals one aspect of Reger’s life which may explain his disappointment with the world.  He is drawn back again and again to those things which are insufficient to console him.  It also reveals his own limitations even as he roars about the limitations of everything else: just as he abhors his relatives while accepting that “within myself I am all those relatives combined,” so he is a character in a book while acknowledging that “we only love those books which are not a whole, which are chaotic, which are helpless.”   The whole and the perfect, he says, are intolerable. Similarly, “art is the most sublime and the most revolting thing simultaneously,” and Reger himself is a part of the line of humanity which he rails against so energetically.  But, contradictory again, he points out that “I am, you might say, a fanatic for human beings, naturally not a fanatic for humanity but a fanatic for human beings.” While we digest that, the punchline comes: “I have always only been interested in human beings, he said, because in the nature of things they repelled me.”

Many of Reger’s agonies sit well with the reader: his views on cultural philistinism in Austria might apply to any country, and who can deny twinges of “what I call art selfishness: where art is concerned I wish to have everything for myself alone … I can scarcely bear the thought that someone else, apart from me, possesses and enjoys the products of these geniuses.”  But it is an unalloyed pleasure that Old Masters will be possessed and enjoyed by others – including me – because of this reissue.  Bernhard, it turns out, is not so hard – and the horrified passion which he and his characters bring to the page in fact is a perfect partner for such high and low comedy.  “The terrible, after all, is always ridiculous.”

May 6, 2010

Sławomir Mrożek: The Elephant

Posted in Mrozek Slawomir, Penguin Modern Classics at 8:00 am by John Self

I’ve always been a fan of those publishers who carry out the often thankless task of bringing us European classics in translation, from Pushkin Press and Melville House to NYRB.  But in the UK at least, the only publisher with the clout to really bring these titles to a wide audience is Penguin.  Cheers, cheers then for their series of Central European Classics, ten primary-coloured volumes of – based on my reading so far – unadulterated bliss.


The series incorporates novels, memoirs, essays and short stories.  It was with only a little shame that I decided to begin my reading with one of the shortest titles in the series, and one which made me smile with its opening paragraph:

In this remote village of ours we are in the grip of terrible ignorance and superstition.  Here I am, wanting to go outside to relieve myself, but at this moment hordes of bats are flying about, like leaves blown by an October wind, their wings knocking against the window panes, and I am afraid one of them will get into my hair and I will never be able to get it out.  So I am sitting here, comrades, instead of going out, repressing my need, and writing this report for you.

Sławomir Mrożek‘s The Elephant (1957, tr. Konrad Syrop) is a collection of very short stories and sketches – more than 40 in 160 pages – offering parody and satire of Poland under a totalitarian regime.  Mrożek is predominantly known as a playwright, but these stories, written in his mid-20s, show a full talent for prose.  His writing is described by one critic as “grotesque-philosophical”, which is another way of saying that it combines comedy with (sometimes brutal) satirical intent.  In ‘Birthday’, a wealthy couple keep “a live progressive” as a pet:

“Perhaps he’s longing for freedom, or action…” I suggested timidly.  “After all, he’s a progressive.”

“Come, now.  He’s never had it so good,” objected the lawyer.  “He has a roof over his head and assured food, peace, no trouble whatsoever. We’ve trained him to eat out of our hands – you saw for yourself.  He isn’t dangerous.  We let him out for the National Day celebrations and for the anniversary of the Revolution, so that he can get some exercise.  But he always comes back.  Anyhow, this is a small town; there’s nowhere for him to hide.”

In the title story, the director of a zoo decides, as his “modest contribution to the common task and struggle,” that “we can make an elephant out of rubber, fill it with air, and place it behind railings.  … In the notice on the railings we can state that this particular elephant is exceptionally sluggish. The money saved in this way can be turned to the purchase of a jet plane or the conservation of some church monument.”  We are in a topsy-turvy world where children are questioned by officials about the political intentions behind the snowman they built, where meteorologists are made to lie about the weather (“We shan’t tolerate any defeatism!”), and where orderliness (of a sort) reigns:

[A]uthors have been put into uniform and awarded suitable ranks and distinctions.  In this way, chaos, lack of criteria, unhealthy artistic tendencies and the obscurity and ambiguity of art have been removed once and for all.

It’s not always subtle, but it is highly entertaining, and the stories are so short that if you don’t like one, there’ll be another along in a minute.  The rules of Mrożek’s world extend beyond 20th century Poland: ‘The Lion’ takes us back to the Roman Empire, where a lion explains to its keeper why the rulers rely on his kind to kill Christians instead of doing it themselves:

“Because of the new truth that is gaining ground.  One has always to watch what’s new and growing.  Has it never crossed your mind that the Christians could come to power?”

“They – to power?”

“Yes.  One has got to be able to read between the lines.  It looks to me as if Constantine the Great is likely to come to terms with them sooner or later.  And then what? Investigations and rehabilitations.  Then those up there in the amphitheatre will be able to say: ‘It wasn’t us, it was the lions.’”

These stories frankly lack traditional literary qualities such as characterisation, and are all the better for it.  Instead, Mrożek’s stories come on, get on with it, and get off without overstaying their welcome or oversaying their piece. However, cumulatively, richer qualities do build up: the pathos of the ordinary man against the party machine, the sadness of lives limited.  Sometimes the surreal elements are curiously touching, as in ‘Spring in Poland’, when hundreds of civil servants are overtaken by the urge to leap from their office windows and fly around the city.  In the last, and longest, story, ‘Chronicle of a Besieged City’, when the narrator offers the following exhausted plea, he is really calling for change more fundamental than his immediate surroundings.

Life in the city tires me.  I feel that it is time to make an excursion, to lie somewhere on the grass, with only clouds above my head.

Books like this face such natural opposition from our worst instincts as bookshop browsers: the odd name, the ‘bitty’ structure, the feeling that a book about life under the regime cannot be entertaining.  But The Elephant is entertaining, it is a riot, and did I mention that it is beautifully illustrated by Daniel Mroz too?  There is no question that, if the day comes when writers really are “put in uniform and awarded suitable ranks and distinctions,” that Sławomir Mrożek will be ranked a General.  I just hope the power doesn’t corrupt him.

March 4, 2010

Stephen Vizinczey: In Praise of Older Women

Posted in Penguin Modern Classics, Vizinczey Stephen at 11:33 am by John Self

Here is further proof that the books which tend to delight me most are not new titles but reissued editions of lesser-spotted works.  As with Emanuel Litvinoff’s Journey Through a Small Planet, here we have a skinny book with a funny name, a title I didn’t know by an author I’d never heard of, which turns out to be just wonderful.  This book, Vizinczey’s first novel, was initially self-published, but went on to become such a success that when it was first translated into French in 2001, it stayed in the bestseller charts for over a year – but hey, let’s not be put off.  Maybe the French have better taste than we do.

In Praise of Older Women (1965) begins, “This book is addressed to young men and dedicated to older women — and the connection between the two is my proposition.”  It is subtitled The Amorous Recollections of András Vajda, though the background details of the narrator’s childhood in Hungary match Vizinczey’s own.

Given than Vajda’s interest in women seems to begin “at the age of three or four,” it’s perhaps inevitable that they were always destined to be older.  One of his earliest memories at this age is of refusing to go to bed while family members were visiting.  The relatives came to his room while his mother put him to bed, and “she smacked my bottom and kissed it, and promised that they would all kiss it if I would go to sleep afterwards without any more fuss.”

I still remember lying on my stomach and looking over my shoulder to see all those grownups lined up waiting their turn to kiss my bottom.

All this may account for the fact that I became an open-hearted and affectionate boy and a conceited brat.  Taking it for granted that everyone would love me, I found it natural to love and admire everyone I met or heard about.

Vajda’s interest in women is, it seems, entirely open-hearted: not only does he love them, but he also loves them.  It is an early involvement in the church — “I already viewed myself as a great saint, temporarily stranded in childhood” — which “taught me to experience elation and awe.”  To this he attributes his sense and love of “elusive mystery — an inclination that women are born with and men may acquire, if they are lucky.”

In Praise of Older Women therefore walks a fine line between the twin risks of sentimentality and misogynist objectification.  It avoids both not least through the clear, calm prose and the sheer charm which Vizinczey manages to pull off in the telling.  He – or Vajda – also warns readers that “although I hope this memoir will be instructive, I have to confess that it won’t help you to make women more attracted to you than you are to them.  If deep down you hate them, if you dream of humiliating them, if you enjoy ordering them around, then you are likely to be paid back in kind.”

In fact before Vajda can become a lover of older women (“I knew!  I knew you were a nibbler!”) he arranges it for others, becoming “a whoremaster for the American army before my twelfth birthday”.  Respectable women were reduced to approaching Vajda, where “they would ask me – blushing, but often in front of their silent husbands and children – whether the soldiers had venereal disease and what they had to offer.”  But Vajda himself remained uninvolved in the transactions, “a virgin pimp”, however much he wished otherwise.  He attempted in vain to seduce a Countess who “would only go with an officer, and only for two or three times the usual rate.”

The mentions of the American army remind the reader that Hungary in the early 20th century was at the centre of world events, and the book digresses from time to time to address the political background.  Parties at Vajda’s school (where he failed to succeed with girls his own age) “were sponsored not only by the PTA but by the Communist Youth Organisation.  Our modern gym was decorated for the dance not only with crêpe paper and balloons but with huge pictures of Marx, Lenin and Stalin, who glared down at us from the top of the climbing ropes.”  Vizinczey doesn’t seek to draw parallels between the central thread of the book and the political ruminations (“The worst thing about this whole rotten colonial police state isn’t what they do to you but what they might do if only they happen to think of it!”).  Instead he emphasises that throughout upheaval and revolution, life, lust and love go on.

Vajda, encouraged by French and Russian novelists that “women were often attracted by a young man’s awkwardness and inexperience,” eventually breaks his duck and embarks upon his erotic journey, initially with a neighbour’s wife.  “Trying to make love with someone who is as unskilled as you are seems to me about as sensible as going into deep water with a person who doesn’t know how to swim either.”  He finds compatibility with older women, but some differences too.  One tells him: “It’s wonderful that you can still feel sorry for yourself.  It means that you’re still at the stage where you think you deserve to be happy.”  Another brings home to him the truth of his serial attachments: “This idea that you can only love one person is the reason why most people live in confusion.”  It’s a maxim that Vajda will ultimately adopt as his own:

We hang on to the hope of eternal love by denying even its temporary validity.  It’s less painful to think ‘I’m shallow’, ‘She’s self-centred’, ‘We couldn’t communicate’, ‘It was all just physical’, than to accept the simple fact that love is a passing sensation, for reasons beyond our control and even beyond our personalities.

But even this pessimistic – or realistic – conclusion doesn’t tarnish the gleam of Vizinczey’s little gem.  It’s rare enough to find a book which pursues its subject matter with such single-mindedness, rarer still to find one which executes it so well.  Really, with my fetish for titles from revivalist imprints such as Penguin Modern Classics, NYRB Classics and Pushkin Press, perhaps this blog should be renamed In Praise of Older Books.

August 27, 2009

Walter Tevis: The Hustler

Posted in Penguin Modern Classics, Tevis Walter at 8:00 am by John Self

Penguin’s Modern Classics imprint has often delved into popular and genre fiction for its reissues, but rarely has it covered so many with one author. Walter Tevis’s first two books, The Hustler and The Man Who Fell to Earth, are best remembered for the films they inspired. Both have been reissued this month, along with Tevis’s last novel The Queen’s Gambit, to submit to the test of literary longevity too. (An aside at this early stage. Which Tevis to read next? He wrote just five novels, three reissued here. A friend cites another, Mockingbird, as a favourite in her home. That leaves The Steps of the Sun, about which I know less than nothing.)

Walter Tevis: The Hustler

The Hustler (1959) introduces Eddie Felson (‘Fast Eddie’), a pool hustler whose reputation precedes – and possibly exceeds – him. “They say he’s the best. They say he’s got talent,” says one player in Bennington’s pool hall in Chicago. “Guys who seen him play say he’s the best there is.” “I heard that before,” says his companion. “I heard that before about a lot of second-rate hustlers.” “Sure. But everybody says he pushed over Johnny Varges out in LA.” “Did you see the game?” “No, but…” “Who did? You ever see anybody who ever saw Eddie Felson shoot pool?”

But Eddie Felson is real, and does shoot pool like nobody else, except perhaps Minnesota Fats. He comes to Bennington’s with his ‘manager’ Charlie to play Fats, reputedly the best pool shooter in the country. Their match lasts for 40 hours, and the chapter that relates it is as long as all the previous chapters in the book together. Tevis doesn’t so much build tension – he defuses it with blunt statements on who will win or lose the games he’s about to describe – as deal the reader in on Eddie’s gruelling experience.

Then someone turned off all the lights except those over the table that they were playing on and the background of Bennington’s vanished, leaving only the faces of the crowd around the table, the green of the cloth of the table, and the now sharply-etched, clean, black-shadowed balls, brilliant against the green. The balls had sharp, jeweled edges; the cue ball itself was a milk-white jewel and it was a magnificent thing to watch the balls roll and to know beforehand where they were going to roll. Nothing could be so clear or so simple or so excellent to do.

There is not much artistry in Tevis’s writing but there is some style. He leaves the reader in no doubt as to Eddie’s feelings and thoughts as he moves on from the game with Fats, encounters a girl, and gets involved with some (more) doubtful characters. What interested me about The Hustler was not the prose but the portrayal of a character so apparently unsympathetic. Eddie appears arrogant, if aware of it. Tevis doesn’t present us with a broken background to justify Eddie’s overcompensating hubris; are we supposed to like him, to root for him? Does it matter?

Eddie becomes a sort of proto-male archetype, determined to “find out his position” in the pool world, pushed by some kind of macho determination to challenge himself. It’s a character type I find fascinating probably because it differs so much from my own. (Where Eddie takes on a contest after being accused of being ‘chicken’, my response would have been, ‘Yes I am chicken. I’m afraid I might lose’. The same applies to my failure to understand why a boxer who wins a title fight would agree to a rematch. In that case of course, it’s the economics, stupid.) Only when Eddie establishes a relationship and has “something to go home to” does his hunger for success on the green baize begin to diminish. He is a complex character only in the sense that everyone is a complex character.

For a hustler such as Eddie, everyone is a hustler. (Though he dislikes being called a ‘shark’). Even radio ads are “hustles”. He can trust nobody, which turns out to be a wise move, as the book gives us a bold climax to Eddie’s fall and rise. It’s quite a brave ending, and fortunately Tevis resisted the temptation to write a sequel [no he didn't! See below].  The sequel was also filmed, starring Paul Newman again, though the only thing it retained from Tevis’s book was its title, from the closing pages of The Hustler.  There, the pool table is “the rectangle of lovely, mystical green, the color of money.”

August 6, 2009

Dalton Trumbo: Johnny Got His Gun

Posted in Penguin Modern Classics, Trumbo Dalton at 8:00 am by John Self

Dalton Trumbo is not a name you forget easily. I knew of him as a Hollywood screenwriter blacklisted in 1947 after he refused to give information to Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee. He later wrote many screenplays under pseudonym, and contributed to Spartacus; it was after Kirk Douglas publicised Trumbo’s involvement that his blacklisting was finally lifted. In fact, if McCarthy was looking for Reds under the bed, he had come to the right person: Trumbo was a member of the Communist Party in the mid-1940s, and a supporter long before. Although screenwriting was his major creative outlet, he also wrote a handful of novels, which he was unafraid to use as platforms for his political views.

Dalton Trumbo: Johnny Got His GunJohnny Got His Gun (1939) is not explicitly communist but leaves little doubt as to where Trumbo’s sympathies lie: with the little man, and against the machinery of government, particularly when one calls upon the other to fight wars on its behalf. The risk for a novel with a political message is that it will turn out to be a lot of political message and not much novel, but Trumbo has a few tricks to show us.

First, the narrative comprises a fractured internal monologue which leaves the reader to flail around in search of fixed points. On page one the telephone rings. On page two:

“Hello.”

“Hello son. Come on home now.”

“All right mother I’ll be right there.”

He went into the lean-to office with the wide glass front where Jody Simmons the night foreman kept a close watch on his crew.

“Jody I got to go home. My father just died.”

“Died? Gosh kid that’s too bad. Sure kid you run along. Rudy. Hey Rudy. Grab a truck and drive Joe home. His old – his father just died. Sure kid go on home. I’ll have one of the boys punch you out. That’s tough kid. Go home.”

Now that’s economy. The telling is not always so uncompromising, and when Trumbo has a point to make he’s as clear as can be. We learn that the things described are not happening to Joe but are, rather, his memories: “He was a sick man. He was a sick man and he was remembering things.” Sick is one way of putting it. Pain is “all over his body like electricity,” and it is only gradually that we find out just how sick he is. (“They had picked him up quickly and hauled him back to a base hospital and all of them had rolled up their sleeves and rubbed their hands together and said well boys here’s a very interesting problem let’s see what we can do.”) The true nature of Joe’s condition is a risky conceit, and one which (largely because it brings to mind some unedifying schoolboy jokes) threatens to tip over into crazy caricature: which Trumbo defuses with black humour of his own.

It does, however, give Trumbo another creative challenge: how to occupy a 250 page novel when the central character – really the only character – cannot communicate with the rest of the world. One way of dealing with this is with stream of consciousness. Here Trumbo achieves some truly powerful effects, particularly at the end of each part of the book, when Joe’s repetitive raving against war becomes poetic, hypnotic and almost symphonic.

By war the book means the First World War, though in the end it was published two days after the Second broke out. Its pacifist message was initially a rallying point for the left, but it fell from favour when America was under attack at Pearl Harbour, and Trumbo in a 1959 afterword says that he was not unhappy when the book fell out of print. “There are times when it may be needful for certain private rights to give way to the requirements of a larger public good. I know that’s a dangerous thought, and I shouldn’t wish to carry it too far, but World War II was not a romantic war.” The book was celebrated again during the Vietnam war, and this new edition may indicate that there’s another war or two now which might require some scrutiny and consideration.

Johnny Got His Gun is sometimes sentimental and obvious. The irony is pretty heavy-handed in passages such as this, when Joe recalls a school trip to see one of the first aviators:

The airplane said Mr Hargreaves would cut down the distance between nations and peoples. The airplane would be a great instrument in making people understand one another in making people love one another. The airplane said Mr Hargreaves was ushering in a new era of peace and prosperity and mutual understanding.

Still, there is significant satisfaction to be had in the narrative, which carries out some form of escapology on its self-restricting conceit and manages to become urgent and exciting in the second half. In addition, Trumbo’s message, which may be a simple or even facile one, is delivered with such passion in its varying forms that the book ends up a success artistically as well as politically.

He lay and thought oh Joe Joe this is no place for you. This was no war for you. This thing wasn’t any of your business. What do you care about making the world safe for democracy? All you wanted to do Joe was to live. … Yet here you are and it was none of your affair. Here you are Joe and you’re hurt worse than you think. You’re hurt bad. Maybe it would be a lot better if you were dead and buried on the hill across the river from Shale City. Maybe there are more things wrong with you than you suspect Joe. Oh why the hell did you ever get into this mess anyhow? Because it wasn’t your fight Joe. You never really knew what the fight was all about.

June 17, 2009

Eric Ambler: Journey into Fear

Posted in Ambler Eric, Penguin Modern Classics at 8:00 am by John Self

I always feel a little uncomfortable when I read a review which calls a book (something like) “not great literature, but a good thriller.” I’ve probably done it myself. Why the defensiveness? Hardly anything is great literature, and we can judge everything else on how well it meets its intentions, or surpasses its limitations. In addition, thinking a book might be ‘just a good thriller’ can helpfully lower expectations. So it was when I read Eric Ambler’s Journey into Fear (1940), recently reissued by Penguin Modern Classics along with four other early novels, to coincide with the centenary last month of Ambler’s birth.

Eric Ambler: Journey into Fear

Journey into Fear seems almost a self-parodic title for a thriller, but it’s perfectly apt: the first two-thirds of the book is all about the fear rather than the facts. Mr Graham, an engineer for an armaments manufacturer, is about to return to England from Turkey when he is injured. Returning to his hotel room, he finds an intruder, who fires shots at him as he escapes, grazing Graham’s hand.

He felt only as if he had lost something valuable. In fact, he had lost nothing of any value but a sliver of skin and cartilage from the back of his right hand. All that had happened to him was that he had discovered the fear of death.

Graham is informed by the local intelligence chief that this was no botched burglary, but an attempt to kill him: he is told that the Germans want him dead so that his company’s work on Turkish army equipment will be delayed. Graham is incredulous (he has “the growing conviction that he was involved in a nightmare and that he would presently wake up to find himself at his dentist’s”) – as is the reader. Is there a threat to Graham’s life or not?

He told himself that he was behaving like a schoolboy. A man had fired three shots at him. What difference did it make whether the man had been a thief or an intending murderer? He had fired three shots, and that was that. But all the same, it did somehow make a difference…

This was my favourite aspect of the book – the acute understanding of how awareness conditions our response to a situation.  (To quote Terry Pratchett, perhaps for the only time on this blog: “One problem is that I’ve got Alzheimer’s.  The other problem is that I know I’ve got Alzheimer’s.”)  Graham, as the archetypal ‘man caught up in’, is inactive and reactive until forced to do otherwise.  Ultimately the effect of the fear is almost as dramatic as any physical threat to him, though the latter does surface more directly in the last third of the book, when the plot and more traditional thriller elements take over.  In some cases what seem to be conventions of the genre were newly-minted when Ambler presented them here.

Beside this, Journey into Fear has some bold – given the year of its publication – anti-establishment views fed through characters, from a prescient retort to the high status of bankers and financial institutions, to unexpected sentiments for wartime such as “when a ruling class wishes a people to do something which that people does not want to do, it appeals to patriotism. And of course, one of the things that people most dislike is allowing themselves to be killed.”  Ambler even has room for some unexpectedly nihilistic words when Graham is under immediate threat:

To suppose that the lopping of thirty years or so from a normal span of life was a disaster was to pretend to an importance which no man possessed. Living wasn’t even so very pleasant. Mostly it was a matter of getting from the cradle to the grave with the least possible discomfort, of satisfying the body’s needs, and of slowing down the process of its decay. Why make such a fuss about abandoning so dreary a business? Why, indeed! And yet you did make a fuss…

Journey into Fear is both satisfying as a thriller and surprising enough to draw in readers – like me – who didn’t know they liked that kind of thing.  Penguin have reissued four other Amblers from the late 1930s: Uncommon Danger, Epitaph for a Spy, Cause for Alarm, and The Mask of Dimitrios (US title A Coffin for Dimitrios, and said by some to be his finest novel).  A decent gap before revisiting is probably called for, but I will definitely be returning to Amblerland.

May 14, 2009

Penguin Magnum Collection

Posted in Penguin Modern Classics, Tosches Nick at 7:25 am by John Self

Whenever Penguin bring out one of their enticing new series, I feel like Homer Simpson (sans sarcasm).

Marge: We don’t think you’re slow, but on the other hand it’s not like you go to museums or read books or anything.

Homer: You think I don’t want to? It’s those TV networks, Marge: they won’t let me. One quality show after another, each one fresher and more brilliant than the last. If they only stumbled once, just gave us thirty minutes to ourselves, but they won’t! They won’t let me live!

Yes, it’s Penguin’s fault: they won’t let me live. But these series are one of the best ways to give older books new life – particularly to magpies like me – which is in part what this blog is supposed to be about anyway. So now, after Gothic Reds, English Journeys, extravagant Bill Amberg leather-bound classics and more, we have the Penguin Magnum Collection. These are six titles of 20th century reportage by American authors: A Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, The Fight by Norman Mailer, Hiroshima by John Hersey, Hell’s Angels by Hunter S. Thompson, and Hellfire by Nick Tosches.

At least three or four of these titles hardly need new promotion, but the USP here is the wraparound covers from the Magnum photo agency. Click for larger versions.

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The title are stickered on, so when removed, the brilliance of the design takes effect. The reader looks on a wordless front cover, with an image which draws the eye around the spine – an apparently bare piano and mike stand on Hellfire, say, or a series of telegraph poles on Hell’s Angels – and suddenly the focus of the image is there – Jerry Lee Lewis talking to the audience, a phalanx of bikers roaring into the distance – on top of which the words appear like an explosion. It’s a narrative cover, like a cinematic trailer for the content of the book, and it’s bold and beautifully executed. There are further Magnum images on the inside covers. You need to see them to appreciate it – though of course then you would have to buy the books so you could peel off the stickers and really experience it. What can you do?

It is not all good. The barcodes on the spines are, for a series where cover design is their raison d’etre, a disaster. They transform the books from the most desirable paperbacks I’ve seen in some time, to ones I would be reluctant to display on my shelves. Why couldn’t the barcode be discreetly printed on the inside cover, or even on a removable sticker (as Penguin have done before on clothbound hardbacks or the Bill Amberg collection)? Also, the type has not been reset, so we are left with whatever font was considered fashionable when the paperback was first published. This detracts from the series as a matching set.

And what of the books themselves? I wanted to try them, but In Cold Blood, Hiroshima and The Fight were already familiar to me (and the first two I recommend without reservation, if I need to). I didn’t fancy 600-odd pages of Apollo missions. So I opted for Hell’s Angels and Hellfire. The former I admit I haven’t opened yet, due to a horrible prejudice that Hunter S. Thompson was a self-regarding berk to whom no encouragement (even posthumous) should be offered. So the stylish reissue has not quite worked the magic of winning a new reader in this case. (I would welcome responses on whether I am completely wrong about Thompson; I really hope I am.)

That leaves Nick Tosches’ Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story. I am ashamed to admit that before reading it, I had only a faint idea who Jerry Lee Lewis was. After discounting the possibility that he was the one who chummed about with Dean Martin, I nailed him as the man who gave us ‘Great Balls of Fire’ and ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On’. Truth be told, after reading his story, that seems still to be pretty much the summit of his contribution to the world, but what a story, and what a journey he takes to and from that summit. The Killer:

I hated that damn name ever since I was a kid, but I been stuck with it. I don’t think they meant it killer like, like I’d kill people. I think they meant it music’ly speaking. But I am one mean sonofabitch.

We begin long before his birth, with a warning from history. The settlement in Louisiana which would become Lewis’s birthplace was formed by what one of its own pioneers called “the scum of all sorts of nations. They excel in all the vices. The women are as vicious as the men. The savages, though savages, who have occasion to see them, hold them in contempt.” They were prone to inbreeding too, “this whole queer-living, breathing, cotton-farming, marrying, multiplying mess of Chinee arithmetic.” Yet from this would come a strange musical genius who, at the age of ten, sat at the piano and “took a whip” to the tunes of the Depression and “shook them down to boogie-woogie.” By the age of 21, he had had his two biggest hits (“distinctly smart wax” – Billboard) and was on his third marriage and second bigamy: to his thirteen-year-old cousin. That sort of thing ended no better for him than it had for Edgar Allan Poe, with Lewis forced to abandon his UK tour after the story got out. “BABY-SNATCHER QUITS”, cried the Daily Herald (precursor to The Sun) while back home the New York Herald Tribune offered, “The Jerry Lee Lewises are going to have an addition to the family. He bought her a new doll.”

Hellfire is flamboyantly overwritten, consciously biblical and portentous when describing Lewis’s religion-soaked origins, and high-octane and spectacular when reaching the heights of his excesses. (“He was taken away and made to blow into an Intoximeter. He registered .15. The police at the station were impressed, for many of them had never known the device to register beyond .10.”) The model here seems to be Tom Wolfe, whose compelling if not comprehensive The Right Stuff is one of the reasons I’m putting off Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon. Tosches brings Lewis’s bewitching contradictions not only to light but to life. It’s a sizzler, a blast and a breeze. A Magnum of champagne for this reissue.

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