Penguin Modern Classics

Thomas Bernhard: Old Masters

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.”

Sławomir Mrożek: The Elephant

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.

Stephen Vizinczey: In Praise of Older Women

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.

Walter Tevis: The Hustler

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.”

Dalton Trumbo: Johnny Got His Gun

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.

Eric Ambler: Journey into Fear

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.

Penguin Magnum Collection

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.

Norman Lewis: Naples ’44 / J.R. Ackerley: Hindoo Holiday

Chain bookstores come in for a lot of stick, often justified, but one initiative I applaud wholeheartedly is the Writer’s Table series by Waterstone’s. Here, authors select favourite books which are then promoted across the chain. Philip Pullman’s selection from last year included some very interesting choices: and in a world where prize shortlists and sofa chatshows deal in new titles only, where else would old books get nationwide promotion? The latest Writer’s Table was chosen by Nick Hornby, a writer often looked down upon but whose novel How to Be Good I thought surprisingly worthwhile. One of his choices is by Norman Lewis, whom my brother-in-law Will Self calls “one of the greatest of twentieth century British writers,” adding, for the avoidance of doubt, that “Naples ’44 is his masterpiece”.

Norman Lewis, Naples '44

Norman Lewis, Naples '44

Naples ’44 (1978) is subtitled An Intelligence Officer in the Italian Labyrinth: say what you see, Norm. It’s presented in diary form, covering September 1943 to October 1944. Lewis arrived shortly after the armistice with Italy was signed, and was involved in the considerable task of trying to maintain order after the collapse of the fascist structures. Part of this is the busy invigilation of mail and telephone calls by misguided busybodies:

The prize example so far is one solemnly headed ‘Illegal use of telescope’. This referred to a passage in an overheard conversation between two lovers in which the girl had said, ‘I can’t see you today because my husband will be here, but I’ll admire you, as ever, through love’s telescope.’ … In one case we had to make an entry for a suspect about whom nothing is known but his possession of three teats on the left breast, while another was described as ‘having the face of a hypocrite’.

A recurring theme is the grinding poverty under which the Italians are living, where limpets are prised from rocks and boiled “to add some faint, fishy flavour to a broth produced from any edible odds and ends.” The odds and ends include chickens’ heads and calves’ windpipes. Also “there is a persistent rumour of a decline in the cat population of the city”. We meet characters such as Vincente Lattarullo:

one of the four-thousand lawyers of Naples, ninety per cent of whom had never practised, and who for the most part lived in extreme penury. There are estimated to be at least as many medical doctors in a similar situation; these famished professionals being the end-product of the determination of every middle-class Neapolitan family to have a uselessly qualified son. The parents are prepared to go hungry so long as the son is entitled to be addressed with respect as avvocato, or dottore.

The adjective here is ‘colourful’, as Lewis details the intricacies and eccentricities of Neapolitan life, from the near-riot situations which develop as townspeople await the propitious liquefaction of a saint’s blood, to the legendary criminal defence lawyer, who once “delivered a speech lasting two and a half days, in which Browning and Shakespeare were quoted, and the proceedings at one point were held up to allow the judge and jury to regain emotional control.” Throughout, however, Lewis comes across – he would, wouldn’t he? – as sympathetic and gentlemanly, expressing disgust for abuses by British troops and general love for the people and the place he is battling to restore.

The book ends somewhat suddenly – Lewis discovers with a day’s notice that he is to leave Naples – which supports the veracity of the journal format (though no doubt there was a deal of polishing and editing before publication) but does leave the reader lacking a sense of closure of the story arc. Naples ’44 is nonetheless a fascinating and addictive read, and I’m delighted to see that several other titles by Lewis are available from the same publisher, Eland Books. I can see them become a new favourite of mine, with their qualities of elegant type, smooth creamy paper, and pages properly stitched like granny used to make.

Another favourite imprint of mine, needing no introduction on this blog, is Penguin Modern Classics. Recently they reissued J.R. Ackerley’s Hindoo Holiday (1932), which, like Naples ’44, is a travel memoir in diary form. The book is already available as an NYRB Classic, and I thought Ackerley’s novel We Think the World of You a little gem, so for all these reliable reasons my expectations were high. Inevitably, I was disappointed.

Ackerley writes beautifully about himself – his other two books are also memoirs, and the novel is considered strongly autobiographical – but for the most part here he is writing about others. He opens well with an elegant and effective introduction (“An Explanation”) detailing what led him to become Private Secretary to the Maharajah of Chhokrapur (“He wanted someone to love him – His Highness, I mean; that was his real need, I think” – the punctuation alone had me drumming my heels in delight). However, we quickly become bogged down in a repetitive tale featuring indistinguishable characters (a problem perhaps foreseen by the publishers, who provide a dramatis personae at the start by way of a key), some temperamental Indians, some ridiculous British. The latter do provide amusing dialogue for Ackerley to recount.

‘What nice hands you’ve got; too nice for a man. I hate effeminacy in a man.’

‘Yes, they are nice hands,’ I said, looking at them. They were quite clean and I had given up biting their nails. I was genuinely pleased with them.

‘Of course you’re frightfully conceited,’ she observed. ‘That’s such a pity. I hate conceit in a man.’

‘Do you mean about my hands?’

‘Oh no, lots of things. I’ve been watching you. I rather hate you.’

I did not say anything; there seemed nothing to say, and it was perhaps lucky that I didn’t, for shortly afterwards she said:

‘I love you now. You don’t mind me saying so, do you? I always make a point of telling people if I change my opinion of them. I think it’s only fair.’

‘But why have you changed your opinion?’ I asked.

‘I’ve been observing you. Yes, I love you now. You’re a dear. So you must like me too – do you?’

‘Yes, rather!’ I said enthusiastically. But perhaps I overdid it.

‘Well, anyway, you’ve done me good – not making love to me. Every other man I’ve met has. But I’m not conceited. I’m not, am I? I’m nice really, as you’d find out if you knew me better. You don’t know me very well, do you?’

‘Very well enough,’ I couldn’t help saying.

‘You’re the rudest man I ever met!’ she exclaimed. ‘Bar none!’

Otherwise, however, great swathes of conversation and activity passed without catching on my brain, and I’m afraid that by halfway through its 280 pages I felt that I was skimming the book. For that reason I append my comments on it here, shamefaced and secondary, rather than attempt to dignify them with a post of their own. But it is worth bringing to attention, because Ackerley is an interesting writer – I still intend to read his other books, My Father and Myself, and My Dog Tulip – and I expect others will get more out of Hindoo Holiday if they give it a better reading than I did.

Hans Fallada: Alone in Berlin / Every Man Dies Alone

Midway through Hans Fallada’s 1947 novel Alone in Berlin (US title: Every Man Dies Alone), a character gives up on reading a book. He’s asked if he isn’t enjoying it.

Ach, you know, not really … They’re all such terribly good people, and I get bored. It’s too much like a proper book. Not a book that a man can sink his teeth into. I’m looking for something with a bit more excitement, you know.

How kind of Fallada to incorporate that passage to make it easy for people like me to say: he should have read Alone in Berlin then. Here there is plenty of excitement to sink your teeth into – even though it is very much like a proper book.

Hans Fallada, Alone in Berlin

And the beauty of it is that most of the characters are not “terribly good people”: and we’re not even talking about the Nazis. Alone in Berlin is “the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis” (Primo Levi), but it is its open-eyed realism which makes it shine. The characters are venal, selfish, chaotic, not types but real people. (Indeed, the book is based on true events.) There is the ineffectual and emotionally incontinent Enno Kluge; Emil Borkhausen, whose loyalty lies with the highest bidder; Karl Hergesell, former resistance organiser who gave up for the comforts of a secure home life (“My happiness doesn’t cost anyone else a thing”). Even the heroes of the story, the Quangels, are deluded about the scope of their resistance campaign.

As the book opens, Otto and Anna Quangel, living in an apartment block in Jablonski Strasse, Berlin, in 1940, have just learned that their son has been killed when fighting for Hitler in the war. It’s a merciful release, in a way, from the ever-present fear for him (“After each letter from the front you felt better for a day or two, then you counted back how many days had passed since it was sent, and then your fear began again”). When Anna, distraught, blames Otto – “you and that Führer of yours!” – this sets off an emotional journey in Otto which leads him to undertake a modest but life-threatening resistance campaign across the city. This, incidentally, is where I began to see more sense in the UK cover design, which initially seemed to be a dramatic lapse in the normally good taste of Penguin (if I didn’t know better, I’d swear that was Comic Sans). I still have my doubts, however, about the UK title. On the one hand, aloneness, as discussed below, is a central theme; on the other, the US title, Every Man Dies Alone, is a closer translation of the original German (Jeder stirbt für sich allein) and has a brutal relevance, as a chaplain points out to Otto Quangel when he doubts the value of the resistance.

Of course, it would have been a hundred times better if we’d had someone who could have told us. Such and such is what you have to do; our plan is this and this. But if there had been such a man in Germany, then Hitler would never have come to power in 1933. As it was, we all acted alone, we were caught alone, and every one of us will have to die alone. But that doesn’t mean that we are alone, or that our deaths will be in vain.

In fact the UK title and cover – and quotes on the back, where Alan Furst and Philip Kerr get precedence over Primo Levi – make clear that here, Alone in Berlin is being sold as a thriller. And it is: there is an excellent control of pace (over 570 pages), good and not-so-good guys in all shades of grey, and some genuinely thrilling moments such as the showdown between Escherich and Kluge at the end of part two.

Hans Fallada, Every Man Dies Alone

Beyond that, Fallada displays an acute understanding of motivations. When Enno Kluge is being interrogated by a Gestapo man, he is so psychologically beaten by the experience that he offers a false confession as a “favour” – “he was terrified of antagonizing this nice inspector”. The inspector himself, knowing the confession is false, nonetheless comes to believe in Kluge’s guilt because “too many curious coincidences clustered round the fellow.” Fallada efficiently shows that of such illogical (in)humanity are life and death decisions made.

The book is not perfect. Fallada wrote it in less than a month, and it is an astonishing achievement with or without that knowledge. But sometimes his haste shows – tenses change mid-scene with alarming frequency – and too often his thumb is on the scales, with melodramatic chapter endings and authorial intervention. Even translator Michael Hofmann, never knowingly underpraised on this blog, makes a few odd choices, such as using words like “mate” which give the impression that the book has been translated not into English but into British. Curiously, the rough edges seem to enhance rather than detract, neatly meeting the book’s promoted status as an unearthed relic, written on the hoof (Fallada died shortly after completing it, having been incarcerated in a Nazi insane asylum during the war). We should be grateful to have it in translation at last. It’s hard not to see Alone in Berlin becoming a widely read modern classic.

Solitude – being alone, in Berlin or anywhere else – is foremost in the minds of many of the characters. One character longs for it – “perhaps when she’s alone she will amount to more: she’ll have some time to herself, she won’t need to put herself last”, while wondering when facing time alone, “what will I discover about myself that I never knew?” In a Germany “jam-packed with uniforms”, all the resistance volunteers are made to feel alone together. “No amount of reticence could change the fact that every individual German belonged to the generality of Germans and must share in the general destiny of Germany, even as more and more bombs were falling on the just and unjust alike.” The sense of oppression is well done, and all the better for its contemporaneity, which gives it the essence of reportage and the ring of truth. “Danger’s not on the doorstep,” Otto Quangel tells his wife. “Danger is somewhere else, but I can’t think where. We’ll wake up one day and know it was always there, but we never saw it. And then it’ll be too late.”

Penguin English Journeys

I can’t help fearing that in financial hard times, the lowest common denominator will win out, and that mainstream publishers will abandon their more interesting and imaginative projects. Well, Penguin Books recently reported record profits in the teeth of a recession, so they must be doing something right. And fortunately, it seems that they intend to keep on doing it. Over the past few years, they have given us several series of slim, small-format paperbacks with beautiful covers and meaty content: three runs of Great Ideas from thinkers through the millennia, as well as Great Journeys and Great Loves. Now they narrow their sights with English Journeys, a series of elegantly designed volumes containing literary celebrations of the English countryside, heritage and regions.

It is a rich selection, which contains cultural compilations (Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard and other poems, Country Lore and Legends, English Folk Songs), famous literary lights (Henry James on Cathedrals and Churches, Vita Sackville-West’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Gardens, the Wordsworths on Life at Grasmere), regional reviews (William Cobbett’s From Dover to the Wen, Francis Kilvert’s A Wiltshire Diary), special interests (L.T.C. Rolt’s The Clouded Mirror on narrowboating, Simon Jenkins’ Country Churches, Alan Davidson’s The Pleasures of English Food), and even the odd title which I always thought was a Victoria Wood joke (Celia Fiennes’ Through England on a Side-Saddle).

It does risk seeming parochial, however, and unless you’re going to buy all twenty books (I did that with the first two Great Ideas and Great Journeys, but a shelf space recession has long since hammered that completist impulse out of me), it’s difficult to know which titles to try. On the one hand, this is a serendipitous selection: I want to read them because they’re there, and would never have known about them without this series, and because I trust the judgement of the editors at Penguin Classics. On the other hand, I need some stars to steer by, and I ended up selecting three to sample based on knowledge of the authors’ names.

Many of the titles in the English Journeys series, like the Great Loves and others, are extracts from larger works, which I obscurely feel somehow to be cheating. One book which appears complete is A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. I risk expulsion from polite literary society by admitting that I had never read it before now. Yet what a revelation, not just for its inspiration to other authors for titles and epigraphs (I spotted phrases lifted by James Ellroy, Dennis Potter and J.L. Carr at a glance), but its perfect rendition of celebration, remembrance and elegy.

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

It is bucolic without being sentimental. If, like me, you’re foolish enough to have got to here without reading it, correct that imbalance now.

James Lees-Milne was a name familiar to me as a prolific diarist; fifty years of his journals have been published in several volumes. For much of his life he worked for the National Trust, and Some Country Houses and their Owners brings together his diary entries dealing with his work on the Trust’s Country Houses Scheme, where the government offered incentives for owners to donate their properties to the Trust. In the 1940s Lees-Milne travelled the country trying to persuade them to sign up. His informative, gossipy entries speak as much of the owners as of their houses (“Poor Tom, he should not have lived in this age. He cannot drive a car, ride a bicycle, fish or shoot. He would have stepped in and out of a sedan chair so beautifully”. Another is “a common, waspish woman, who got where she is through persistence and money”) and even more of Lees-Milne himself: his love of the aristocratic homes (“I am blissfully happy this afternoon. I write this at my table on the raised platform at the south-east end of the Gallery…”) and his snobbish despair at their passing:

This evening the whole tragedy of England impressed itself upon me. This small, not very important seat, in the heart of our secluded country, is now deprived of its last squire. A whole social system has broken down. What will replace it beyond government by the masses, uncultivated, rancorous, savage, philistine, the enemies of all things beautiful?

Despite this, Lees-Milne is an affable and amusing diarist, relating how he “kept nodding off” as one owner read his interminable will to him, or another took him into her confidence (“She denied that the Germans had committed atrocities, and declared that the Jews were the root of all evil. Oh dear!”). But he never forgets his first passion: “my loyalties are first to the houses, second to their owners, and third to the National Trust.”

One book which has stared down at me from the unread shelves for some time is Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield. Its damned small type has been the main thing putting me off what I understand – and now know – to be a masterpiece of oral history. I know this because one of the English Journeys is a condensed version, Voices of Akenfield.

Akenfield is a fictional place, a putative village in Suffolk which Blythe has constructed from the words of rural workers in the 1960s. Voices abridges these, leaves out many (30 of the 50 in the original Akenfield are omitted) and does not include any of Blythe’s commentary. Nonetheless it is a exceptional work. Many of the people we hear are elderly, the last of a dying culture (sometimes dying literally: “they worked and lived, and kind of toppled over at the end”), who remember how things used to be. “People believed in religion then,” says Leonard Thompson, a farm worker, “which I think was a good thing because if they hadn’t got religion there would have been a revolution. Nobody would have stuck it.” This notion of belief bringing people together recurs. During the War (the First), “we believed the fighting had got to be done. We were fighting for England. You only had to say ‘England’ to stop any argument.” This notion seems to distance us from the times spoken of more than any material details. Even those who are younger seem to be of another time. Christopher Falconer, gardener:

I am a young man who has got caught in the old ways. I am thirty-nine and I am a Victorian gardener, and this is why the world is strange to me.

What comes out repeatedly is the sense of limitation of life, where people are not only happy with their restricted lot (“Nobody would have stuck it”) but view with suspicion any attempt at self-improvement.

Should there be a boy or girl with initiative and a bright intelligence, he or she is soon frustrated. With most of them it is, ‘We know quite enough for what we have to do, thank you very much.’ … A market gardener I know, who is now about twenty, is a lonely person because he went to the grammar school and the village women say, ‘Didn’t get him far, did it? All that schooling and he’s still on the land!’

Voices of Akenfield shows that everyone has something to say which is worth hearing, or at least that they do with Ronald Blythe as editor. It is essential reading.

All three books I read here make the pastoral vision of England appealing largely because it is portrayed as being in decline. The English Journey in question is not only through the geography of England, but through time also. Even when there is a sense of loss, there is a balancing impression of reassurance – probably because the past cannot spring up and unpleasantly surprise us as the present so often does. Perhaps that makes such an admirable project as this ideal for pressing, recessing times after all.