Saturday, March 29, 2008

A Gun For Sale by Graham Greene

On the face of it, A Gun For Sale by Graham Greene is a genre thriller, featuring a crime committed by a confessed and declared villain, followed by a police pursuit. In the hands of a great writer, however, even clichés such as this can be transformed into thoroughly satisfying novels.

First published in 1936, A Gun For Sale is set in a Europe over which war looms constantly and threateningly, casting a shadow of fear and even depression over all human interaction. Graham Greene appears to use this context to allow the book to make a significant, yet very subtle point, an assertion that conflicts, even grand conflicts like wars, are pursued by interests, instigated by an intention to profit. The grander the conflict, the greater the potential gain.

As individuals vie for influence, prominence, control and dominance, so do societies, groups, companies, even countries. And some of the protagonists play dirty, rarely receiving the comeuppance of justice. When they do, we are gratified, sensing the same rightness that a happy ending might provoke.

A Gun For Sale has several important characters, more than a review can list. Raven is the first we meet, the blackness of his name immediately suggesting a functionality for the plot, for he is the anti-hero, the hired gun who completes the bloody assignment in the book’s first pages. Hare-lipped and ever resentful of his disfigurement, both physical and, as a result of a painful upbringing, psychological, he suggests a figure that the reader might be invited to despise, perhaps a pantomime bogeyman of genre fiction, always accompanied by a threatening, trademark fanfare. 

But Graham Greene is not that mundane a writer. We eventually come to know Raven well. Though we are never actually invited to like him, we eventually sympathise with his plight, if only by virtue of the fact that there are some apparent social heroes who in reality are a darned sight more deserving of our contempt. Raven is double-crossed and sets out to track down the perpetrator of his humiliation. Raven leaves a trail and a policeman, Mather, takes up the pursuit. By chance Mather’s girlfriend, Anne, boards the same train as Raven from London to Nottwich, an industrial town were she will appear in the chorus line of a pantomime. Raven and Anne meet and, viewed from the distance of the pursuer, become accomplices. Mather’s fellow copper, Sanders, is an interesting foil to Raven. Both are disfigured. Raven’s problem is with appearance and he yearns to be rid of the hare-lip that disfigures his face, a disfigurement that Anne plays down, thus engendering his trust.

The policeman Sanders, on the other hand, stammers. He is quick of wit, but not of voice, and is aware that his impediment has cost him promotion. Mr Davis, also known as Cholmondley, amongst other things, is the greasy lackey employed by Sir Marcus. The latter is an industrialist, owner of a steelworks in Nottwich, a business that has seen better times. Mr Davis is a right cad, regarding theatre girls as fair game, regularly picking them up and persuading them into the grubby room he rents from a truly surreal couple in order to protect his reputation.

The freemason Sir Marcus is barely clinging to life, but he retains sufficient pride, or malice, perhaps, to inflict untold suffering on others, merely to retain his own status in a future he does not have. And so Raven pursues Cholmondley, who answers to Marcus. Mather and Saunders pursue Raven, and Anne seems to be on everyone’s side. And it all works out. But Graham Greene does much more than tell a tale. Through simple language and structure, and via a plot that would grace a b-movie at best, he penetrates his characters’ psyches, locates them in social class and history, and manages with a deft lightness of touch to convey a remarkably strong sense of place, setting and context. Through his simply constructed prose, we see people, places and events from a multiplicity of perspectives and are left with a complexity of associations with every character. And that, precisely, is why cliché is left far behind.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

After These Things by Jenny Diski

In After These things Jenny Diski accomplishes an almost impossible task. She starts with a well known story, and thus a plot ready declared, a story that claims history and yet is read as myth. She reworks it, gives shape, form and thought to characters we think we might already know, and then puts words in their mouths. She finally presents the whole as an original work, a novel of deception, love and the intricacies of family life in a culture now perceived as alien. And she succeeds brilliantly, creating a new experience in a new world for the reader within a familiarity that her approach reinterprets.

After These Things is born of the Old Testament. Abraham and Isaac, then Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah and finally Joseph and his half brothers, all face one another in head-to-head rivalry. There is trickery and deception, bullying and exploitation, politics and self-interest. Individual battles are fought, private wars are waged, all in the name of family. For instance, Jacob profits through his trickery, but is later himself the victim of Leah’s coup. And so within each rivalry there are characters with stratagems, strategies and aims, goals that are often justified via claims to occupying a special position in relation to God. And yet all the characters have to live with the consequences of their individual ruthlessness. Together they pursue individual goals that eventually add up to a dynastic success, but perhaps not for any of the reasons that they themselves planned. 

And After These Things thus grows into a finely-drawn psychological thriller and political intrigue. Characters whose interests coincide cooperate, albeit often only pragmatically, despite their partners’ clearly stated and obvious cultural and religious differences. A tangled web of deceit, compromise, antagonism and truce eventually casts Jacob as the successful instigator of a bloodline, despite its having been constructed via four separate mothers, two of them wives and two others their maids, and all of them in conflict. He experiences true love only with the wife he does not himself love, and then refuses to countenance repeating the emotion. But she provides him with the children he needs to secure his ambition. His true love, meanwhile, does not conceive and becomes so racked with self-doubt and destructive jealousy that she can express little feeling and certainly no love for her husband.

Thus Jenny Diski achieves her own goal of creating drama out of a well-known story and thereby creates characters that are rounded, real people, their obvious humanity belying their myth. What she does not do is attempt to generate a sense or feeling of place. Though we travel with the semi-nomadic action and live alongside shepherds and specialist livestock breeders, we are never allowed to taste the foods they eat, smell the homesteads they inhabit, or walk the hills, deserts or plains with them. Jenny Diski keeps us within their minds, their motives and their fears. This is not a shortcoming of After These Things, merely an observation of a limit the author no doubt consciously placed on its scope.

After These Things is already a novel with breadth of story and depth of analysis. To have made it also a descriptive, deliberately sensory portrayal of a time and place would have been a gargantuan and ultimately self-destructive task. It would have detracted from the books focus on human relationships and also, crucially, sited the events in a particular time and place, thus undermining their continued mythical status. And when confronted with an editor who must keep pace and plot in place, it was probably a potential aspect of the book that had to give. After all, in the end there is always the Great Editor, the one true opinion that demands both first and last word. calls the tune, pays the piper and laughs last. And so via an Old Testament myth presented as history, or even vice-versa, Jenny Diski creates a thoroughly modern drama of relationships, ambitions, resentment and fulfillment. Driven people do things they feel are demanded of them both by history and identity. And everything is underpinned by an eventual morality and justice, a restatement of human failing and vulnerability. He who tricks his way to wealth is himself tricked into marriage and then, at last, by his own sons, who themselves resent the favouritism bestowed on a brother. They offer the father the son’s bloodstained coat of many colours and thus, in their own way, get their own way. Some things do not change, cannot be edited. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

On The Yankee Station by William Boyd

On The Yankee Station by William Boyd is a series of short stories, the longest of which provides the title for the set. This particular story is a superb piece of short fiction, much more than a short story, confronting, in less than twenty-five pages, several big issues and, at the same time, drawing its characters in considerable, complex detail. Set on an aircraft carrier in the South China Sea during the Vietnam War, it describes the antagonistic relationship between two crew members.

Pfitz is a pilot, conscious of and grateful for his perceived and actual status, a status he does not hesitate to assert to his advantage. But this tendency is sometimes exercised to excess. It is as if he needs to feel the elevation of his status in order to bolster his own self image. In short, he is a bully. This characteristic begins to dominate his thoughts and actions when events conspires to question his own competence, his right to that nourishing status.

Lydecker is a member of Pfitz’s ground crew. Suffice it to say that Lydecker is not at the intellectual end of the fighting machine. Neither does he hail from privilege. Quite the contrary, in fact. Lydecker, had he not joined the navy, would probably have grown into a complete bum, at best one step up from a down-and-out. Even in the armed forces he can only aspire to the most menial of tasks, but he is at least thorough and tries to keep his nose clean. But for Lydecker events conspire to heap suspicion on his competence, a suspicion constantly fuelled by a torrent of abuse and accusation that flows from Pfitz, the pilot it remains his responsibility to service.

Pfitz likes his job. That much is clear. He takes a particular liking to napalm and delights at the idea of heaping tons of the stuff from his jet onto the population of rural Vietnam. He takes involved interest in technical improvements to his preferred weapon, improvements that ensure the fireball sticks firmly to anything it encounters, thus guaranteeing that it will burn right through. If he were closer to the action, one feels that Pfitz would delight in the smell, the mixture of burning organics saucing the suggestion of roast pork emanating from oxidised human flesh. He takes that kind of pride in a job well done. Lydecker is demoted, effectively humiliated by the time he gets an opportunity for some shore leave.

During his week in Saigon he remorselessly pursues two forms of recreation, one out of a bottle, the other between whatever sheets are on offer. But there is one girl who is different, staying remote from the business of others, busying herself about her own affairs. She is treated with apparently universal and complete contempt and she alone amongst the bar hangers-on is never on the menu, her meat not for sale. Bullied himself in the workplace, one might expect Lydecker to sympathise with her plight. But he treats her with as much – if not more – disdain than the rest and, eventually, it is more out of spite than either sympathy or desire that he insists on a session with her, forces himself on her merely to underline his right to assert assumed control.

What Lydecker subsequently experiences with that girl changes his view of the world just a little, but enough to influence events elsewhere, his new-found conscience constructing a plan he might employ back on board. In a short story, William Boyd illustrates class systems embedded in the USA’s professedly classless society. He confronts the so-called clinical nature of modern warfare by identifying the blunderbuss of terror that maims everything in its indiscriminating line of fire. He characterises sadism, vengeance, conscience and retribution. He draws sketches of exploitation, both economic and social, and illustrates how communities, even whole societies, can be seen as built on a crass and ruthless assertion of domination for domination’s sake. And all of this happens in less than twenty-five pages. Other stories in the set are also of a very high standard. To review them all would reproduce the book, no less, for they are succinct, often surprising, sometimes humorous pieces which together form a supreme achievement. 
View this book on amazon On the Yankee Station

Monday, March 24, 2008

Fatelessness by Imre Kertesz

Some writers try to shock. At least it often seems that they embark upon a novel with that in mind. They create books set in times of conflict, amid war or pestilence, where the context is vivid, horrific or even repulsive. And often it is so well known that we engage with the setting, the context or scenario, rather than the plight of the characters. Or sometimes writers deliberately try to portray the unsavoury, often attempting to present sadistic brainlessness in a form that suggests anti-hero, ignoring the requirement that such a character needs at least some aspect of the heroic to deserve the name. These bite-sized pieces of nastiness are thus presented in a form that is easily digested in the end, the product usually attaining only triteness. Meanwhile others try to deliver blood and guts, their raison d’etre, as a means of eliciting revulsion and shock in the reader.

And then sometimes – rarely, in fact - we are presented with the truly shocking in a matter of fact way. Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich might fall into this category. The narrative just about never asks why anything happens; it just does and we, the readers, along with the subject of the story go along with whatever is demanded. We are invited to experience the unacceptable alongside and along with the characters, and in doing so we are invited to confront what we ourselves might have done in such circumstances.

These books locate the reader within the experience, never merely tell us about it. In Fatelessness by Imre Kertesz the writer elevates this form to another level. Not only are we presented with an inexplicable, an unrationalisable concentration camp experience of a fourteen-year-old Jewish boy, we are also presented with a character who apparently can neither feel nor express malice. As he wastes away, we are constantly confronted with an empathetic version of ourselves. Would we have reacted in this way? Would we have merely gone along with things, cooperatively, like this? Or would we have rebelled? Would we have had the guts to stand up? And what would have happened if we did? Could we have watched ourselves starve to death? And if we were to find ourselves required to do it, would we then react? Would we rebel? And if so to what purpose? And would we have survived?

Fatelessness is the story of Georg Koves, a Jewish boy from Budapest, who, one day, is diverted from his journey to work along with his mates. No-one bothers to tell the group what might be happening or where they might be going. Georg, however, goes carefully and cooperatively along with everything his directors ask. He makes train journeys, works in concentration camps, falls sick, recovers and survives, though perhaps his society does not. Names do not matter where he goes. Numbers identify, provide a pecking order of privilege that offers no more than survival into another day. But to be merely near one such survivor endows real kudos, if only by proximity of association. Throughout Fatelessness one is confronted with a question. How might I have coped? Would I have done the same as this ultimately trusting, suffering lad? Would I have survived? And if I did, or even if I did not, would I have used the same or similar resources as this hero?

Fatelessness is a harrowing read, though it never sets out to shock. Life takes you where it goes, irrespective of whether it starts in a privileged family in New York or a ghettoed Jewish confine in 1940s Budapest. One makes of life what it presents, be it wealth, riches, starvation or death. And that’s that. It’s the detail along the way that makes the journey, however.

View this book on amazon Fateless

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Sometimes, when reading a big book, one gets the feeling that the author set out to achieve size, as if that in itself might suggest certain adjectives from a reader or reviewer – weighty, significant, deep, serious, complex, extensive, perhaps. Sometimes – rarely, in fact – one reads a big book and becomes lost in its size, lost in the sense that one ceases to notice the hundreds passing by, as the work creates its own time, defines its own experience, shares its own world. Even then, reaching the end can often be merely trite, just a running out of steam, the process thoroughly engaging, the product, however, something of a let down. Rarely, very rarely indeed, one reads a big book that actually needs its size, justifies itself, continues to surprise as well as enchant and then, finally, stuns. Margaret Atwood’s Blind Assassin is such a book, a giant in every sense, a masterpiece beyond question. 

Blind Assassin was awarded the Booker Prize in 2000 and charts intersecting histories of two well-to-do Canadian families, Chase and Griffen. The two Chase sisters, Iris and Laura, are quite different people. Born into the relative opulence of a Canadian manufacturing family, they have a private education of sorts, experienced throughout and yet alongside something vaguely like a childhood. Various aspects of twentieth century history impinge upon their lives and eventually force their family to reassess its status. Economic downturn, war and family tragedy take their toll on the father, who becomes less able to manage either his own life or his business. Something has to give. Ways of coping must be found. 

Iris, the elder sister, is the first person narrator of about half of the book, the other half being devoted to a book within a book, a novel in the name of Laura, the younger sister. This novel, entitled The Blind Assassin, is an eclectic mix of experience, sex, fantasy and politics. It has made a name for Laura and retains a significant cult following many years after its publication. Laura, herself, died in a car accident. She drove off a bridge into a ravine. The car belonged to Iris. 

There was never any real explanation for the event. Iris, meanwhile, has been married off to an older man, a Griffen, who seems to treat her like so much chattel. But then he is an industrialist with the wherewithal, not to mention capital, to assist the bride’s family business in its time of need. Iris, therefore, experiences the Canadian equivalent of an arranged marriage. 

Perhaps the word marriage is a little overstated. The partnership could be better described as a merger, or a union, if that were not a dirty word because of its political connotation. And so the octogenarian Iris, clearly anticipating the end of her days, embarks upon a cathartic outpouring of personal and family history in the hope that an estranged granddaughter might just understand a little about other peoples’ motives. 

The book takes us through Canada and north America, across to Europe, via an imagined universe, to political commitment, direct action and its inevitable reaction. Iris needs to write it all down. And so she works her story out, constructing it, perhaps reconstructing it, maybe inventing it from memory and relived experience against a backdrop of contemporary Canada and her own failing health. Her vulnerability, in the end, is our debt, our penance, perhaps. She is a wise old woman with much to hide, but her acerbic wit is undiminished by age, her observations of others stunningly perspicacious. It is not often that a novel, a mere flight of another’s fancy, achieves the subtle, stunning and surely enduring power of the Blind Assassin. 

View this book on amazon The Blind Assassin

Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Millstone by Margaret Drabble

Rosamund Stacey is the first person narrator of her own story in the Millstone by Margaret Drabble. Rosamund is a single mother – nothing strange about that, perhaps, at least in a twenty-first century Britain where now half of births are outside of marriage. But in the early 1960s, when The Millstone was written, unmarried mothers were not so common and it was a status to which considerable stigma was attached. Consequently, when Rosamund visits hospital for her regular check-ups, she is summoned from the waiting room with a call of Mrs. Stacey in an attempt to maintain the privacy of her status. She longs for the day – and not too distant – when her thesis on Elizabethan poetry will be complete and she can prefix her name with Dr., thereby avoiding the deception.

The Millstone is written in Margaret Drabble’s conversational, yet dense style. The characters are highly complex and seem to live their lives with a devotion to intricacy. Not much happens to them, however, and events are few and far between. Rosamund’s life is a case in point. It was Cambridge, of course, followed by the relative comfort of a flat in central London, an apartment provided by her parents calculatedly close to the British Museum, where she does most of her research.

She is definitely not the run-of-the-mill young lass who attends university nowadays, our Rosamund. She has a boyfriend at college, of course, but they never sleep together, not even on the occasion they jointly plan to accomplish the act. Rosamund is not really into sex, she thinks. She has a tendency to see herself as an object from without, and her observation of the absurdity of various aspects of being human lead her to a life slightly removed from reality, lived apparently at arm’s length from experience. Though she sees quite a lot of Joe and Roger – both quite different but eligible males – the idea of anything other than a chat and a drink appalls her. Each of the two men, of course, think that the other is the boyfriend and so are loath to raise the subject.

Then, for some reason hardly known to herself, she takes up with George, a gay radio presenter, and sleeps with him. Just once. And yes, Rosamund is definitively pregnant. As ever, she cannot decide what to do and, even when she eventually plans her course, she is blown off onto a different tack. She has read that drinking a bottle of gin in a hot bath might do the trick. She sets an evening aside. And then, just as the bottle is opened, friends turn up, she offers them a drink and they share the otherwise-ntended gin between them. Rosamund is thus never really in control, despite appearing to have a strangle hold on her life. Circumstances always seem to conspire to prevent her getting precisely what she wants.

But this is eventually seen as an illusion. Perhaps she does get precisely what she wants, but does not tell us, or herself. And so Octavia is born. The baby is a life that Rosamund contemplated ending, but when the child is ill, the thought of her coming to harm is too painful to admit. A friend, Lydia, moves in, shares the costs and sets about writing a novel. When this is complete, an unsupervised Octavia tears much of it up, though perhaps not disastrously. Rosamund reminds us that babies are persistent, not thorough, so most of the pages are preserved. It becomes the mother’s trauma, however. Rosamund could be described as measured, always apparently in control, yet always feeling she is swept along with the tide. Passionate she is not.

When George, who still does not know he is Octavia’s father, says she might do well with a husband, Rosamund agrees, but only because it would be nice to have someone who could help to fill in the tax return. George is no better, since for his the purpose of marriage seems to be to provide someone to iron his shirts. It’s all terribly British. But the characters are beautifully drawn, expertly pitched against themselves and their relationships. The Millstone, thus, explores motivation and achievement, and the relationship between selfishness and selflessness. In the end, we are who we are.
View this book on amazon The Millstone