Month: May 2007

John Wyndham: Chocky

John Wyndham, who was so posh he had six names (John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris: he permed two from six almost at random to create pseudonyms for his work: Lucas Parkes, John Beynon), has been derided by other science fiction writers such as Brian Aldiss, for his ‘cosy catastrophes.’ But they missed the point. Wyndham wasn’t really a science fiction writer at all, and was much less interested in future technologies and alien life forms than he was in how people deal with one another, be it through the mob and the media (in The Kraken Wakes), at the ends of our tethers (The Day of the Triffids), or with prejudice and fundmentalism (in his masterpiece The Chrysalids).

But the cosy thing really comes from Wyndham’s impeccably middle-class setting, and this is present in Chocky in full flood. It was published in 1968, a year before his death and a long silent gap after his four great novels of the 1950s, but the writing often has a quaint and dated feel (“An agitated counsel resulted in the sending of an urgent telegram”). This is also brought out in the lack of empathy in and with female characters (“I don’t understand women. Nobody does. Least of all themselves”), which is surprising in an author whose work otherwise is positively socially progressive. But get past these quibbles and the ideas are there, at least in part strength, to remind us of Wyndham’s best work.

The Gore family have a visitor: adopted son Matthew has an imaginary friend called Chocky, with whom he has long conversations. At first David and Mary Gore don’t worry, as their daughter Polly had one too. But Chocky seems to instill all sorts of ideas in Matthew and urges him to ask questions that a young boy couldn’t come up with by himself, about the limits of intelligence, and the need for two sexes, and where exactly is this planet you call Earth…

The story proceeds in a not entirely surprising way, and in a sense is a bit of a long tease like The Kraken Wakes, but there is a clear (perhaps too clear) conclusion and turning the page after what you think is the last line brings out something surprisingly moving. In between Wyndham manages some surprisingly prescient stuff about one of our current obsessions:

[Your fuels] are your capital. When they are spent you will be back where you were before you found them. This is not progress, it is profligacy. … It is true you have an elementary form of atomic power which you will no doubt improve. But that is almost your only investment for your future. Most of your power is being used to build machines to consume power faster and faster, while your sources of power remain finite. There can only be one end to that.

Chocky, despite its ongoing renown among thirtysomethings who remember the three TV series which sprang from it in the 1980s, is destined to remain listed as ‘other work’ in the Wyndham canon. But that’s no faint praise, when the best of it is so good.

George Monbiot: Heat

George Monbiot – Guardian columnist, environmentalist – is probably not the man to persuade the doubters of the existence, and emergency, of global warming.  But then, anyone not persuaded by now – when the governments of even the most carbon-puffing countries recognise the importance of taking action immediately – simply doesn’t want to be.  Perhaps this is why Penguin have issued the paperback of Monbiot’s Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning in a jaunty, cheesy, eye-catching cover, which looks more like an advert for a book than a book itself.

And although Monbiot’s main case is to show how we can reasonably and relatively painlessly make a 90% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 – the figure he calculates is needed to prevent significant climatic catastrophe – he does use the first two chapters to hammer home the argument for action once again.  All the old deniers’ myths – atmospheric cooling, advancing glaciers, mini ice ages – are exploded, and Monbiot sums the position up as follows:

If you reject this explanation for planetary warming, you should ask yourself the following questions:

1.  Does the atmosphere contain carbon dioxide?

2.  Does atmospheric carbon dioxide raise the average global temperature?

3.  Will this influence be enhanced by the addition of more carbon dioxide?

4.  Have human activities led to a net emission of carbon dioxide?

If you are able to answer ‘no’ to any of them, you should put yourself forward for a Nobel prize.  You will have turned science on its head.

He also reminds us that the link between manmade carbon emissions and global warming is as well established as the links between smoking and cancer, and HIV and Aids, and we learn that the former is relevant, as it was the tobacco industry in the early 1990s, seeking to disguise its funding of ‘junk science’ organisations by broadening their scope, which was in the vanguard of climate change denial.

But the majority of the book is a number-crunching attempt to evaluate which, if any, alternatives to our current lifestyle choices will best meet his target of 90% carbon reduction.  The fields he covers (and his general conclusions) are:

  • Home energy (jerry-builders bad, passivhauses good, but while we’re waiting for them, pay attention to energy ratings)
  • Electricity generation (offshore wind good, domestic turbines pointless – are you listening, David Cameron? – and a qualified approval for gas-fuelled power stations provided they use carbon capture and storage technology)
  • Transport (luxury coaches like on-road Tube trains approved, biodiesel bad, hydrogen fuel cells nice idea but not anytime soon: the essence of the problem is that “When you drive, society becomes an obstacle”)
  • Air travel (a lot of flailing around – “Becoming rather desperate now, I have looked into airships…” – before concluding that there is no simple answer.  We must simply stop flying “unless you believe that these activities are worth the sacrifice of the biosphere and the lives of the poor.  But I urge you to remember that these privations affect a tiny proportion of the world’s people. The reason they seem so harsh is that this tiny proportion almost certainly includes you”)
  • Retail waste (online shopping, combined with local produce, reduces packaging and the need for brightly lit and vigorously heated/refrigerated superstores)
  • Organisation and activism: www.stopclimatechaos.org, www.coinet.org.uk, www.campaigncc.org and other better known environmental groups

Monbiot is not wide-eyed with innocence, and never hesitates to dismiss an otherwise attractive scheme when he encounters problems with it.  And the book is furiously researched, with over 1,000 references in the 200 or so pages of the body of the text.

Nonetheless there are moments of either oversight or doubtful intention, such as his reliance on per-capita emissions where elsewhere he derides others who use relative measurements, insisting that absolute figures are the only appropriate ones to use.  Still, if this isn’t the most enjoyable or aesthetically thrilling book you read all year, it might well be the most important.  “For,” as Monbiot concludes, “the campaign against climate change is an odd one.  Unlike almost all the public protests which have preceded it, it is a campaign not for abundance but for austerity.  It is a campaign not for more freedom but for less.  Strangest of all, it is a campaign not just against other people, but also against ourselves.”

Raymond Chandler: The Big Sleep

Just over a year ago, I had never read any Raymond Chandler, largely on the basis that he was just another crime author. Then a friend recommended The Long Good-bye to me, and I had my prejudices thoroughly shamed by this staggering masterpiece. After that I got through, with almost as much pleasure, Farewell, My Lovely and The Lady in the Lake. Now I decided to go back to the beginning with Chandler’s 1939 debut, The Big Sleep, a book as famous for the film it spawned as for its own qualities.

From the start (though he was over 50 when it was published, so hardly an immature new author), the book displays Chandler’s beautifully wrought language.  The expectation is that this consists of mere wisecracks, but even the jokes are usually rather richer than one-offs about blondes to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window:

The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two storeys high.  Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armour rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree who didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair.  The knight had pushed the visor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere.  I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him.  He didn’t seem to be really trying.

There is the obvious humour here, the sly lewdness which portrays Chandler’s narrator Philip Marlowe as a certain type of man; but there is subtlety too, and the best elements are those which control the colour rather than the volume – the visor raised “to be sociable,” the lovely wry coda.

But as well as the humour there is an absorbing sense of place and atmosphere which Chandler achieves in part by soaking the whole place – we’re in Hollywood, California – in unaccustomed rain.  We open in “mid-October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the foothills.”  Later the foothills are “darkening.  It was going to rain soon.  There was pressure in the air already.”  When it breaks, it breaks beautifully:

Rain filled the gutters and splashed knee-high off the pavement.  Big cops in slickers that shone like gun-barrels had a lot of fun carrying giggling girls across the bad places.  … It got dark and the rain-clouded lights of the stores were soaked up by the black street.  … Sodden trees dripped all over the landscape.

There is a poetry in the prose that is entirely unexpected unless – well, unless you’ve already read Chandler.  A mind that can conjure the image of “thinning fog [that] curled and creamed, almost without sound, like a thought trying to form itself on the edge of consciousness,” one might think is fit for better things than detective stories.  But the mystery element suits itself well to Chandler’s extraordinary linguistic skills: it affords him all sorts of darkness to control and conquer, and reflects a distrust in human nature which drips through Marlowe like the ever-present rain.

Despite the assured writing, there are elements which mark the book out, while not remotely unformed, as less complete than the later books (and The Long Good-bye in particular).  Marlowe exhibits unusual violence; he has a hardness toward women which makes him seem more like a traditional hard-boiled private eye than the nuanced character he was to become; and there’s a half-hearted tendency toward what we would now call homophobia, with fairy, fag and pansy dropping easily from Marlowe’s lips.

Of the plot I have said nothing so far, not just to avoid spoiling it, but also because I didn’t precisely follow it all the way through.  But then who ever has?  It’s well recorded that when scripting the film, William Faulkner contacted Chandler to ask how a certain character died, and Chandler discovered that he didn’t know either.  It did seem to me that a fairly complete and comprehensible story ended around halfway through the book, and everything after that muddied things, perhaps deliberately.  But plot is not the reason for reading Chandler: it’s the words, the weather, the deftly drawn characters, and the setting of the city, a city where “mustard-coloured” buildings house seedy tenants: “painless dentists, shyster detective agencies, small sick businesses that had crawled there to die.”

Graham Greene: The Quiet American

I read most of Graham Greene’s novels a decade or more ago, in my early 20s, and ended with great admiration for his extraordinary fertile period from the late 1930s to 1950s, when he produced a string of masterpieces, the best being also the most well known: The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair. One that escaped me was The Quiet American, so when I wanted to take a break from new books, it was back to Greeneland that I turned.

The Quiet American is a book which keeps you turning back to the copyright page as you read, suspecting the publishers of some conjuring trick. 1955? Really? The setting of a civil war in Vietnam makes me want to place it 15 years later. And the subject matter of American involvement in foreign wars makes it no older than 15 minutes ago. In fact, like all great literature, it’s news that stays news, and (as Ezra Pound didn’t say) it’s good anytime.

The book is narrated by Fowler, an English reporter on the conflict, who is telling the story of the war and the parts played by himself, his American friend Pyle, and Phuong, a local woman who has been lover to both.  Fowler thinks himself detached:

‘You can rule me out,’ I said. ‘I’m not involved. Not involved,’ I repeated. It had been an article of my creed. The human condition being what it was, let them fight, let them love, let them murder, I would not be involved. My fellow journalists call themselves correspondents; I preferred the title of reporter. I wrote what I saw. I took no action – even an opinion is a kind of action.

But his view of himself is no more complete than his opinion of Pyle, as a ‘quiet American.’

On what did he relax? I found his light reading on another shelf: a portable Thomas Wolfe and a mysterious anthology called The Triumph of Life and a selection of American poetry. There was also a book of chess problems. It didn’t seem much for the end of the working day, but, after all, he had Phuong. Tucked away behind the anthology there was a paper-backed book called The Physiology of Marriage. Perhaps he was studying sex, as he had studied the East, on paper. And the keyword was marriage. Pyle believed in being involved.

Pyle’s involvement goes deeper than Fowler believes, and the whole book can be read as a succinct (it’s 180 pages) depiction of how the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  And speaking of hell, it contains relatively little religious angst for a Greene novel, though he can’t resist the occasional burst of world-class nihilism:

Death was the only absolute value in my world. Lose life and one would lose nothing again for ever. I envied those who believed in a God and I distrusted them. I felt they were keeping their courage up with a fable of the changeless and the permanent. Death was far more certain than God, and with death there would no longer be the daily possibility of love dying. The nightmare of a future of boredom and indifference would lift. I could never have been a pacifist. To kill a man was surely to grant him an immeasurable benefit. Oh yes, people always, everywhere, loved their enemies. It was their friends they preserved for pain and vacuity.

Which is what you get with Greene: in fact, these lines could have come from Bendrix in The End of the Affair, or Scobie in The Heart of the Matter.   And if you find this sort of thing dreary rather than bracing (and I admit it’s less seductive to me than it was a decade ago), then Greene’s books are probably not the pastures for you.  But there is much more to him than that anyway, of course.  Aside from his impeccable dialogue (and one of the surprises of The Quiet American is how funny it is, particularly in the cynical responses Fowler makes to Pyle when discussing Phoung’s future), he has an almost peerless ability to merge a dramatic, exotic storyline with the most sombre and penetrating of human insights.  But for me one of his greatest attractions has always been the apparent messiness of his books, his refusal to allow you to get a clear grip on moral certainties and straight polarities of character: “we all get involved in a moment of emotion and then we can’t get out.”  They’re something to get your teeth into, less fresh fields than a jungle.

James Salter: The Hunters

Another stop in my journey through James Salter’s sparse output: two novels and a collection of stories down, two novels and a memoir to go. Not much to show for 82 years, you might think, but Salter’s words are so carefully chosen and polished – such quality raw materials – that each book carries more weight than others, and sinks in more slowly, and stays longer afterward. His novels are either about men and women – A Sport and a Pastime, Light Years – or about men and themselves – Cassada, Solo Faces. The Hunters, his debut from 1956, is in this latter category.

In The Hunters, Cleve Connell is battling not only himself but other men: friend and foe. He is a flight commander in the US Air Force in the Korean War, a breed “with that contagious passion peculiar to hunters,” where all that matters to a pilot is getting his first ‘kill’ – bringing down one of the opposing Soviet MIG aircraft. Once he has done that, all that matters then is getting his next four, so that he can become one of the ‘Aces’ with five kills under his belt (and marked on his craft’s fuselage in red stars). This special score would give an Ace

something he never possessed, a hard luster for his assurance. He had become full grown, immutable. If he had seemed frail, he was no sturdier, but that flicking slightness now had an infrangible quality, like cable. He was established. If still shadowed by the ordinary perils, there was one at least he was now fully beyond: disregard.

For others, like Connell himself, the first kill is still elusive. “All a man has to do is want to find them,” they are told. “The desire… that’s all it takes.” But Connell wants them badly, and resists the temptation to curse his luck. “Luck? There’s no luck involved.” To Connell, success in the air battles is a measure of his worth as a man, and his self-respect is dependent on the atrophying respect of his colleagues. How hard it is to take, then, when success clings to others, particularly the conceited – and talented – Pell (“but everybody calls me Doctor”). He despises Pell but dreads becoming like Abbott, who “had been a hero once, in Europe in another war, but the years had worked in irreversible chemistry. He was heavier now, older, and somewhere along the way he had run out of compulsion.” Even now, Connell, an experienced flight commander trying to learn how not to be the freshest and best any more,

had reached the point where a sense of lost time weighed on him. There was a constant counting of tomorrows he had once been so prodigal with. And he found himself thinking too much of unfortunate things. He was frequently conscious of not wanting to die. That was not the same as wanting to live. It was a black disease, a fixation that could ultimately corrode the soul.

As you can see from all the above, the great temptation when writing about Salter is just to let him do the writing. Although much less rich and luminous in its prose than Light Years, The Hunters is nonetheless relentlessly quotable, and addresses masculine concerns – of purpose, of place – that most literature passes over, without being macho or indelicate. He controls the pace expertly, from the rushes of battle to the doldrums of time in between. The dialogue is peppery and vigorous; the ending is perfect and satisfying. Even in his first novel, Salter achieves with lightness of touch and final weightiness the sort of invisible immortality his fighter pilots dream of: “The way to go is in an instant, reaching for that highest one of the stars and then falling away, disappearing, against the earth. I wouldn’t mind that, would you?”

Charlotte Mendelson: When We Were Bad

Charlotte Mendelson would not mind, I hope, being described as a Jewish novelist. Not because she is a novelist who happens to be Jewish, but because Jewishness is the subject matter in which her wonderful third novel When We Were Bad richly revels. Howard Jacobson last year published Kalooki Nights, which he described as “the most Jewish novel that has ever been written by anybody, anywhere,” and it’s a model that Mendelson might have had in mind.

Which is not to say that When We Were Bad is offputting or excluding to us goyisher readers. It is an embracing, romping, all-consuming balm of a book. And Jacobson is not a bad comparison overall, although what we have here is a dilute version: it has much of his wit and guile but maintains a much steadier pace, with more respect for good straightforward storytelling, than Jacobson’s otherwise terrific books like The Making of Henry and Who’s Sorry Now? (Marina Lewycka is another comparison some might see, but Mendelson is a far greater stylist than that suggests.)

And the story it tells is one of family: the Rubins, headed by Claudia – rabbi, voluptuous celebrity, “schtuppable pioneer” – and her husband Norman. Norman’s career has been so restricted of life in the shadow of Claudia’s that he is not sure what it is any more. But he rediscovers his passion, between sheets of one sort or another, and fears he is about to betray his wife. All of which is to say nothing of the children.

We have Leo (“he is a lawyer. No one expects them to be handsome”), whose wedding day opens the proceedings. Em, “plump-skinned and shining-haired as a French king’s mistress, not a modern girl at all.” Simeon, “thick-lashed as a baby, his dark dreadlocks tied in a topknot for the occasion like a bandit prince pretending to be tame.” And Frances, the roundest character in the book, whose sympathy and self-discovery hold it all together, even as she herself is falling apart. Her storyline – like most of the storylines in a book about secrets and transformations, it would be wrong to reveal it – grounds the book in a seriousness of purpose just when it risks flying off into breathless farce.

What shines through every line – and I do mean every line – of When We Were Bad is a vivid joy in language that cannot be faked. Rather than making you laugh intermittently, it makes you smile more or less constantly: at the cleverness of the writing or the aptness of the imagery even when it’s not being funny. In particular Mendelson has a way of turning the story (and characters) in ways that are surprising but plausible, and she does a good line in the betrayals of the body:

The fluttering feeling in Frances’s chest was giving way to felty deadness, as if she were filling with cement…

The butterflies in her stomach turn to alligators…

Her brain feels icy and exposed, as if Jay has sliced off the top of her skull and plunged her hand in…

Of all the body parts, however, it’s the heart that makes When We Were Bad so good. Opened in the right mood, it could be a source of almost guilt-inducing pure reading pleasure. Not Jewish guilt. The other one.

Stefan Zweig: Chess

Stefan Zweig is one of those names which has been tapping at my literary consciousness for a while now. His books earn Paperback of the Week status in newspaper reviews. His dinky little volumes are displayed in my local bookstore with unusual prominence for a dead early 20th century Austrian short story writer. And when the ever-reliable Penguin relaunched some classics with jazzy modern covers last year, in among the Gatsbys and the Sensibilitys and the Confederacys, was this slim and mysterious volume.

At 76 pages, Chess is less a novella than a story, and its unbroken paragraphs and frankly gripping style encourage reading it at one sitting. It was Zweig’s last work, written shortly before his suicide in 1942, and his hatred of the Nazis – he and his wife killed themselves in despair at the future of Europe – is well established and allegorized within these pages. Which is not to say that Chess is a solemn or offputting book. Zweig’s ability to carry the reader along through summarised lives, stories within stories and long monologues is remarkable, and it becomes an urgent, passionate read.

The story begins on board ship from New York to Buenos Aires, where the narrator discovers that among the passengers is Mirko Czentovic, the world’s leading chess player. We learn of his life – raised by a priest, devoid of social graces, for a time it seems as though the book is going to be the Perfume of chess – and the passengers challenge him to a game, but soon the plot turns and we find that Czentovic is not the main character after all. There are highly immersive scenes of solitary imprisonment which reminded me of William Boyd’s The New Confessions, and a psychological richness which leaks all the way through the story to the bizarre but plausible end.

Chess is also available as The Royal Game in another translation, published by Pushkin Press, who over the last few years have put much of Zweig’s work back in print. I’ll be heading to their shelves shortly for more from this compelling writer.