Archive for October, 2011

October 30, 2011

Flann O’Brien, The Best of Myles

I am continuing (slowly and delightedly) with my Flann O’Brien read/reread and used the opportunity to talk about this collection of Cruiskeen Lawn columns in last week’s Left of Cool. I utterly failed to explain why The Plain People of Ireland bits are hilarious and finally gave up trying; despite this I hope some will be intrigued enough to seek O’Brien out.

 

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This month marks the birth centenary of the Irish writer Brian O’Nolan, who is best known for the brilliant, absurd novels he wrote under the name Flann O’Brien. At Swin-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman are well-known and justifiably so. But some of O’ Nolan’s best writing is to be found in the “Cruiskeen Lawn” column he wrote for The Irish Times for more than twenty-five years under the name of Myles na gCopaleen.

My collection (from Harper Perennial, 2007) of the best of these columns confuses the naming issue further by attributing The Best of Myles to “Flann O’Brien”*. This is presumably done for the benefit of people who are likely to be familiar with the name from the novels. This edition also sorts the various columns into categories, rather than arranging them chronologically. Myles had various themes to which he often returned – his own status as an inventor and entrepreneur; conversations with the sibling of “the Brother”, apparently a man of suspiciously great ability; his adventures with the WAAMA (Writers, Actors, Artists, Musicians Association). There are fantastic shaggy dog stories featuring the unlikely comic duo of Keats and Chapman, each leading up to an awful (or glorious) pun. So Keats, tracking down his runaway chestnut gelding is “dogging a fled horse”, and the schoolboy Chapman, glued in unusual circumstances to his headmaster is “a man who sticks to his principals”.

The Myles na gCopaleen Catechism of Cliché sections are less innocent. In these columns the author exposes the number of clichés in daily use through a sort of question and answer format.

Is a man ever hurt in a motor crash?

No. He sustains an injury.

Does such a man ever die of his injuries?

No. He succumbs to them.

Or

From what sort of time does a custom date?

Time immemorial.

To what serious things does an epidemic sometimes attain?

Proportions.

A number of these clichés are to be found in newspapers and magazines even today, and I wonder how Myles’  fellow Irish Times columnists and reporters felt about being thus exposed.

Besides the Keats and Chapman stories, Cruiskeen Lawn is perhaps best known for its Plain People of Ireland (also something of a cliché) sections, which parody the supposed common people of the country.

My favourite columns involved Myles’  involvement with WAAMA, particularly a subplot in which the author has hit on a clever new enterprise. He offers insecure consumers of culture the hire of a ventriloquist for the evening. This ventriloquist will be attractive and well-dressed, will attend an event (a play or the opera, for example) with you, and will cover both sides of the conversation, making you look sophisticated and culturally aware. The scheme falls apart when rogue ventriloquists infiltrate the theatres, blackmailing the customers and threatening to make them say all manner of terrible things.

The useful division of these columns by subject does make them easier to read – and considering that we’re reading newspaper columns (about as topical a form of writing as can exist) decades after they were written, we need all the context we can get. The division isn’t complete – Myles will occasionally touch on more than one of his broader subjects within the same column. Yet having my reading made this easy has made me wonder how it must have been to have read this column on a regular basis through the years of its publication. The Best of Myles, extensive though it is, doesn’t even contain all of the columns. And it leaves out (understandably) the many Irish language columns. To follow these columns for twenty-six years, in two languages (and Myles was not averse to throwing in some Latin or German when it seemed like a good idea) and not in a conveniently arranged order seems to me rather daunting, yet it seems not to have appeared so to the Irish Times readers who followed Cruiskeen Lawn for that incredible length of time. I can only assume that this was because O’Nolan was a genius, and somehow (despite the multiple languages and the intimidatingly clever books) an accessible genius.

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* Which is why I decided to do the same in the title of this piece.
October 30, 2011

The Booker and ‘readability’ and similar imbecilities

I really, really meant to ignore the Man Booker prize this year. But then people said stupid things, and other people said stupid things, and I was this guy and it was unavoidable. I ended up writing a short piece on the particular stupid things around this year’s award for last week’s Sunday Guardian.

(On rereading I do feel I was harsher on Sense of an Ending than I really feel: I enjoyed it, if I thought less of it than some of his previous work.)

 

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This is one of those great and obvious universal truths: the Man Booker prize never satisfies everyone.

The point at which it all began to go downhill this year was at the announcing of the shortlist. This was not because the books selected were shockingly inferior – at this point very few had read all of those chosen anyway – but for external reasons. One was widespread surprise that Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child had been left out. Hollinghurst is a previous Booker winner,and was among the favourites for this year. But there are always surprising omissions from the shortlist (I was deeply annoyed last year when Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies failed to make it) and needn’t have been any reflection on the judges or the books that did get shortlisted. Julian Barnes, who had been been shortlisted thrice before, was the only ‘expected’ name to make it onto the list. Barnes’ Sense Of An Ending would be the eventual winner.

Unfortunately, the judges chose to come out and explain their criteria for selecting the books. Dame Stella Rimington, the head of the panel, claimed that she wanted people to “buy these books and read them, not buy them and admire them”– implying that this (being bought and not read) was the usual fate of Booker-shortlisted books. Her fellow judge Chris Mullin claimed that a major factor for him was that the book should “zip along”.

The furore around these comments shifted the debate entirely. It is obvious that the ability to “zip along” is not the primary factor for which the Booker judges should be looking– or if it is, perhaps we should see about getting our Mr Bhagat a nomination next year*. Literariness is an intangible quality, and one that is hard to defend against the more easily counted factors of sales and popularity, but the very existence of literary prizes rests upon the assumption that some books are better written than others. The question of “readability” is a strange one. Even ignoring the silliness of the term – most books can be read – the Booker hardly has a history of promoting difficult experimental fiction.

In all of this discussion, the books themselves seemed to be forgotten. There were plenty of mutterings about the quality of the shortlist, but very little about the actual books on it. The author Philip Hensher described the list as “disappointing” and the result of a deliberate shift towards the more popular, but did not elaborate on which books were unworthy, or why. Soon after the shortlist had been released a new literary award (The Literature Prize) was announced, backed by John Banville and David Mitchell among others. The launch statement hit out directly at the older prize, claiming that there was a place for this new award since the Booker “now prioritises a notion of ‘readability’ over artistic achievement”.

What emerged from all this was a vague sense that this year’s list of shortlisted books was subpar, the result of populist judges; yet apart from some discontent over AD Miller’s Snowdrops (and there is always at least one book on a shortlist that most people feel doesn’t belong there) there was a near complete lack of criticism that called out specific books and asserted that they did not deserve to be there. It can’t have been much fun for the authors – any winner other than Barnes would be dogged by the assumption that this year’s prize had been all wrong anyway.

Oddly enough, of the shortlisted books I read (there were two in which I had no particular interest) Barnes’ was the one that seemed to “zip along” the most. It took much more time and effort to read Patrick DeWitt’s deceptively simple The Sisters Brothers, which was my own choice for the award. It contains elements of the Western (straying close to genre fiction and the sort of horrifying populism critics of this year’s shortlist are so upset by). But it’s also a fantastically clever piece of absurdist fiction (the Western as written by Samuel Beckett?) and in many ways veers closer to the sort of high-brow experimental fiction in which the Booker rarely displays an interest.

The Man Booker prize is often considered the literary award of a genre too easily stereotyped as middle-aged men navel gazing. It’s an unfair categorisation on the whole, and it’s only slightly ironic that Barnes book is about a middle-aged man reflecting upon his past. Having provided such an unusual shortlist this year’s judges could have treated this as a way of opening up the award. Instead, they chose to paint themselves into a corner. Barnes is a great writer, even if this is one of his lesser works. It’s a pity that in the year in which he finally won the award things should have gone this way.

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 *Though is he readable? Many people seem to find him so, at least.

 

 

October 22, 2011

Michael Ondaatje, The Cat’s Table

New Ondaatje. Subtle, lovely, lacking in actual plot but who would seriously complain about that?

A version of this was published in last Saturday’s Indian Express.

 

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At some point in the 1950s Michael (or “Mynah”) travels from Colombo to England on the liner Oronsay. Aboard the ship, Michael dines each night of his three week voyage at the “Cat’s Table”; the table furthest in importance from the captain’s table. With him are two boys of his own age, a tailor who never speaks, a musician, a botanist, and the unassuming Miss Lansqueti who turns out to have the most exciting story of all.

Also on the ship are Michael’s beautiful cousin Emily, her mysterious, half-deaf friend Asuntha, a famous man dying of a curse and a ‘Baron’ who lures Michael into a life of crime. Most exciting of all is the dangerous prisoner with the unlikely name of ‘Niemeyer’ who is escorted onto the deck late at night but spends the rest of his time in captivity down below. Michael and his companions lurk in the shadows every night to watch him go past. He is rumoured to have murdered an English judge, and is being taken to England to stand trial.

The Cat’s Table has very little in the way of a traditional plot, but what there is focuses on this prisoner and an attempt to help him escape. That there isn’t more attention paid to this plot (or to Michael’s criminal activities, or to Miss Lansqueti’s political connections) has everything to do with how this novel is narrated.

There are at least two Michaels telling this story – the eleven-year-old boy who undertakes the journey and the grown man whom he becomes. The larger story of Michael’s future life is revealed in glimpses of moments as they relate to events on board the Oronsay. And so we know about the dissolution of his marriage before we are introduced to the woman who becomes his wife; we know that a character will die before we hear the story of his death; we know about the future career of one of Michael’s companions aboard the ship and that the two will never meet again. Gradually the details of the adult Michael’s life come together, though it is never a complete picture.

Yet the fact that young Michael is a child is perhaps the most compelling thing about his account of his shipboard experiences. There’s a sense of time passing slowly – the three weeks stretch out (much like school summer holidays) into lifetimes worth of experiences. Any writer would make much of the notion of a group of people cut off from the rest of the world by the vastness of the ocean. Ondaatje doesn’t dwell on it, but for “Mynah” and his companions, Ramadhin and Cassius, the rules of normal life have been entirely suspended.

I had no family responsibilities. I could go anywhere, do anything. And Ramadhin, Cassius and I had already established one rule. Each day we had to do at least one thing that was forbidden. The day had barely begun, and we still had hours ahead of us to perform this task.

And so they throw valuable objects overboard, commit occasional acts of hooliganism, and inadvertently cause the death of another passenger aboard the ship. They completely ignore the divisions between first class and the rest of the ship. They become involved in other people’s crimes and other people’s romances. On one memorable occasion they lash themselves, Odysseus-style, to the deck of the ship during a storm so that they can watch it from “the best seat in the house”.

What is impressive here is what Ondaatje chooses not to do. Young Michael is just about beginning to put together his experiences into a cohesive view of the world, but much of the time he experiences events in isolation. And so the text does not attempt to put together grand narratives of race and class, say, though markers of both show up multiple times. Readers of the book are presumably capable of putting these things together for themselves. It’s taken for granted, almost, that these stories will be incomplete; after all, we’re on a ship with characters who Michael may never hear from again. (“So we came to understand that small and important thing, that our lives could be large with interesting strangers who would pass us without any personal involvement.”) Some stories are fleshed out – notably those of Miss Lansqueti and Asuntha. Others trail off or end abruptly. Mr Fonseka, a passenger whom the three boys befriend “welcomed me with unusual and interesting stories, stopping abruptly in mid-tale and saying that someday I should find out what happened after that.” In a way, Ondaatje is doing something similar.

There is a third Michael present –  the narrator. Ondaatje also travelled to England from  Sri Lanka at around the same age. The Michael of the book is revealed to be a writer who eventually moves from England to Canada. In the afterword, Ondaatje specifies that this is not an autobiography. The cover has “a novel” printed under the title to drive the point home further. Given all this, when the adult Michael speaks of how Emily “read my books, and that whenever she browsed through she spent her time putting two and two together – some fictional incident with the original drama that had happened in her presence”. Ondaatje’s voice is clearly present here. In a novel which manages to inhabit both of its narratorial voices so thoroughly, this is a useful reminder that there is an author behind the scenes and completely in control of it all.

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October 18, 2011

C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength

I’ve spoken before on this blog about the weirdness of the third of Lewis’ space trilogy books. To people who have read those earlier pieces my most recent Left of Cool will contain nothing new. But here it is, for the sake of completion.

 

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Most people know C.S. Lewis as the author of the Narnia series of children’s books. Many are also aware that he and J.R.R. Tolkien were friends, and that the two belonged to an Oxford writing group called The Inklings.

Some of Lewis’ strangest work is a direct result of this friendship. The story goes that Tolkien and Lewis had a bet, according to which one of them would write a space-travel story and one a time-travel story. Tolkien got the time-travel assignment – his “The Lost Road” was never completed. Lewis more than made up for this by writing an entire trilogy; Out of the Silent PlanetPerelandra and That Hideous Strength.

All three contain a strong religious element. The first is closest to a conventional science-fictional novel – it is a voyage to Mars which draws much of its inspiration from Wells’ The First Men in the Moon. With its sense of the vast, unknown history of the planet it is occasionally magnificent despite its preachiness. Perelandra has Lewis’ protagonist Ransom (an Oxford philologist – probably a nod to Tolkien himself) travel to Venus, where he is called upon to avert the Fall. He must do this by arguing his case with the Venusian version of Eve. Unfortunately, the arguments are only particularly stimulating if you believe the forces of evil to be colossal idiots.

It is in That Hideous Strength, the final book in the trilogy, that Lewis touches the heights of strangeness. Unlike the first two books, this one is set on Earth. Like them it is concerned with evil scientists overreaching – the title is a reference to the Tower of Babel. Lewis’ villains keep alive the head of an executed murderer (with mysterious wires- Lewis doesn’t dwell much on the actual science) creating a horrendous abomination. Meanwhile there are college politics, an Orwellian organisation called N.I.C.E., a domesticated bear, and a butch, chain-smoking policewoman. There’s also the resurrection of Merlin, come to save Britain in her hour of need. Lewis completely mixes his interplanetary mythology with Arthurian legend, turning Ransom into the new Pendragon. As if this were not enough he also drags in references to Numénor, Tolkien’s take on the Atlantis myth. Since none of Tolkien’s writings on Numénor had been published at the time, it’s difficult to imagine what readers thought. Tolkien himself was reportedly displeased.

A major concern of That Hideous Strength is gender. Jane, half of the couple around whom the story is centred, has been ruined by such things as higher education and feminism. Her marriage is falling apart, and her failures as a wife have left her husband susceptible to negative influences. Worse, the couple have been using birth control! Merlin stigmatises Jane as ‘wicked’ when he meets her. Apparently she and her husband had been destined to conceive the child who would save England; thanks to contraception (evil science again!) that child was never born. It’s not the strongest argument against family planning that you will ever hear.

These are not the only delights afforded by That Hideous Strength. There’s the revelation that the dark side of the moon is actually a place of beauty and fertility (the barren side facing us is due to evil lunar scientists). There is a hilarious case of mistaken identity in which everyone talks in Latin to a confused homeless man. There’s a scene in which, in another reference to the Tower of Babel, all the guests at a formal dinner lose control over language and begin to speak gibberish. The bear kills and (I think) eats a villain. At one point, as the spirit of Venus descends to the earth, all the animals in the area begin to have sex, while the humans feel elevated and aroused.

My enjoyment of That Hideous Strength is of a sort that would probably lead Lewis to lump me in with the evil scientists. But for all its perversity, this enjoyment is vast and sincere. If only Lewis had given up academia (and religion) for a career in pulp SFF.

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October 15, 2011

Nayana Currimbhoy, Miss Timmins’ School for Girls

I wanted very much to like this more but it felt like a bunch of disparate elements thrown together without enough commitment to really explore any of them. Reviewed for TSG here.

 

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Charulata Apte’s most noticeable feature is a prominent, disfiguring “blot” on her face. She’s also from a seemingly-conservative Marathi family, has a strong “vernacular” accent and is the only Hindu on the staff – all qualities that make her something of an outsider at the very English Miss Timmins’ School in Panchgani. She sets herself even further apart from the rest of the staff when she befriends the other outsider in the school, the games teacher Moira Prince and her bohemian friends.

Then one teacher from the school is thrown off a cliff and another disappears, and the residents of Panchgani find themselves drawn into a bizarre murder mystery.

The story is divided into sections narrated by Charu herself and Nandita, a student at Miss Timmins’.  Nandita’s sections have a familiarity to them that suggests that both the author and her narrator have been reading their Enid Blyton. Most of the time this is deftly done – there is breaking out of bounds, forming of clubs, nicknames for teachers; their crime-solving involves a lot of wild theorising and roaming around hunting for clues. This being boarding school, there are also attempts to use planchette to find the real criminal. Yet all of this has the air of something vaguely alien, taken out of books, just as English isn’t really the first language of either of the narrators. So the nicknames for teachers are never quite clever enough to suggest complete control of the language and Nandita in particular is often guilty of awkward phrasing- “Akhila, Ramona, and I, Nandita, decided to skinge together”. Sometimes it’s not entirely clear whether the awkwardness is that of the characters or that of Currimbhoy herself – but when the author occasionally comes up with the perfect metaphor (“we kissed each other like two penguins”) one must give her the benefit of the doubt.

But there is a lot more going on in the novel than an unsolved crime. Charu discovers unpleasant family secrets – concerning both her own family and those of her fellow teachers. Broken and dysfunctional families are something of a recurring theme here. Upon discovering that the avuncular local police inspector has marital problems of his own, Charu is forced to wonder if there are “deep dark secrets lodged in the laps of all… families”. If the novel is to be believed, there are.

References to Shakespeare’s  Macbeth are another recurring event in the novel. Charulata is teaching the play to her students, and frequently the landscape of Panchgani is compared to the setting of the play, with one particular set of rocks called the “Witches’ Needle”, and lots of suitably eerie dark and stormy nights.

Much is made of the absurdity of Miss Timmins’ School. It is an anachronism in the seventies, with its emphasis on Scottish dancing, elasticated bloomers and correct skirt length, as well as the preoccupation ‘proper’ English. But while this is all true, the incongruity of such a school in such a context is lessened by the book’s need to tell us why it is absurd.

Currimbhoy’s Panchgani is the real star of this book. The town, with its scandals, rivalries, restaurants and local drug dealer, feels far more real than the school itself. Currimbhoy is gently funny in her depiction of the local inhabitants, for example Mr Blind Irani and Mr Dubash, elderly men who have long, polite arguments using the letters page of the Poona Herald as conduit. Or the local entrepreneur who decides to branch out into making honey and spends eight months trying to get an American magazine on the subject. When it arrives, the magazine Honey is not at all what he expects.

Currimbhoy never falls into the trap of making Charu too wide-eyed or innocent; her experiments with drugs are described in a matter-of-fact manner that is a relief. She chooses not to overplay the contrast between Charu’s comparatively sheltered (from sex and drugs, if not from sordid family secrets) background and the world of her new friends. Perhaps the only moment where this portrayal falters is in the moment where she discovers that she is bisexual and rather tediously insists that she must be “a wanton woman”.

Miss Timmins’  School For Girls’ one great failure is that it touches on multiple genres while failing to take advantage of them. Currimbhoy has all the weight of the mystery, the school story and the coming-of-age novel to draw upon. There’s even the considerable power of Macbeth, should she have chosen to strengthen that connection. She does not. The result is a novel that is almost one of many genres, but somehow falls in the middle to be nothing in particular. Currimbhoy is a good writer, and parts of her novel are fantastic. But a boarding school murder mystery with a lesbian love affair should never be in danger of becoming boring, and this oneoccasionally comes close.

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October 9, 2011

On Dahl

By now most people have probably read this brilliant Maurice Sendak interview in the Guardian. In between talking about his own work and life, Sendak also opines on other writers: Blake (he likes him), Stephen King, Salman Rushdie and Roald Dahl (he does not). Of Dahl, he says that “The cruelty in his books is off-putting. Scary guy. I know he’s very popular but what’s nice about this guy? He’s dead, that’s what’s nice about him.”

It’s a fair point – Dahl’s work can be very cruel. But coincidentally I had a Dahl tribute piece out (in the Sunday Guardian, no relation) on the same day. Here it is:

 

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The most heroic moment in Roald Dahl’s Matilda is not the one where Matilda finally takes her revenge on the evil Miss Trunchbull. It’s one that happens quite early in the book, when the greedy Bruce Bogtrotter is accused of stealing a piece of the headmistress’ chocolate cake. To punish him for his crime he is given a whole cake (“fully eighteen inches in diameter”!) for his own – but he must eat all of it, now, with the entire school as audience. It is a physically impossible task.

But Bogtrotter does it. With the whole school cheering him on (silently at first, openly as the Trunchbull’s defeat becomes inevitable) the cake is consumed, the headmistress beaten. It’s a victory that the entire student body is complicit in, and this is what makes it a revolution.

Growing up reading Dahl did involve feeling like a revolutionary. In part it was the books themselves, always a little more dangerous than people realised. Matilda was absolutely the sort of book many adults like to see children reading – the heroine is a little girl who loves to read and is brilliant at schoolwork. Focus on that (the cover with the adorable Quentin Blake heroine surrounded by books) and it’s easy not to pay attention to the overthrowing of the principal, or the idea that you can be cleverer and better than the adults around you. James and the Giant Peach has a boy escape his oppressive aunts.The title characters of The Fantastic Mr Fox (not a child, admittedly) and Danny the Champion of the World get away with poaching and theft. George (of George’s Marvellous Medicine) puts an end to his unpleasant grandmother. There are no children in The Twits (though the oppressed Muggle-wumps could stand in) but the adults are bratty, awful and without dignity. The Revolting Rhymes, by reinterpreting stories we already knew, let us feel like we were in on the joke. Were we really reading a book filled with fart jokes (The BFG) with the approval of our parents and teachers? We were, and I’m still not sure how.

Then there was the fact that Dahl also wrote for adults. Not every parent or librarian knew this, or was quite clear on which books were which, so that sometimes one found oneself reading morbid tales of sex and death while the world looked benevolently on.

Roald Dahl day is celebrated every September on the author’s birthday (the 13th), and it’s worth remembering that he is the author who introduced many of us to the macabre and the darkly funny. This year is also the 50th anniversary of James and the Giant Peach, which despite being populated with giant insects seems never to have traumatised anyone.

The blog “Better Book Titles”  recently suggested that James and the Giant Peach be retitled “It’s OK if giant fruit kills your aunts as long as they were bitches”.  For all their subversiveness, Dahl’s books never seem particularly subtle; good and bad characters are immediately obvious, and the bad ones are usually ugly. They die or are punished in horrible ways, and the general implication is that they deserve it. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is probably the most famous of Dahl’s works. There’s didacticism here (the children deemed unworthy are punished out of all proportion for their faults) but the punishments were bizarre enough to make this enjoyable. Most people are unaware that a chapter of this book was removed for possibly being too awful –it contains implications of cannibalism. There’s an undercurrent of nastiness to much of Dahl’s work, and reading as an adult I’m a little alarmed at how acceptable I found this.

Not all of the nasty aspects of Dahl’s work are made acceptable by his brilliance. In my head, thanks to the Gene Wilder film, the Oompa-Loompahs of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are orange, green-haired people. In the version originally published they were dark-skinned, wore skins and grass-skirts, and were paid in cacao beans. In her essay “Fabling to the Near Night” children’s author Jane Yolen describes working as a junior editor at Knopf in the 60s, when Dahl refused to acknowledge this troubling aspect of the book because “Racism [was] an American problem”. Though the book was later changed, as Yolen notes, it “only slightly mitigated the p[roblem of a different-skinned people being held in semi-benign captivity for the reward of food and a place to live”*.

Dahl’s interactions with his editors must have been fierce – a number of the books were extensively rewritten and argued over before they could be published. Dahl’s biographer Jeremy Treglown** quotes a letter sent to Dahl by Knopf editor Robert Gottlieb, warning him that unless he could be more civil they would no longer publish him. The author moved to another publisher (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) instead.

Nothing that I read about Dahl makes him sound like anyone I’d like to meet – the most charitable descriptions have him come off as abrasive at the very least. And yet. To completely separate artist from art is as glib as to completely conflate the two. Dahl is all over these works – all rudeness and deep nastiness and genius. And he has had a hand in shaping our childhoods, and that is somehow okay.

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* Yolen, Jane. “Fabling to the Near Night.” In Touch Magic. New York: Philomel, 1981.

** Treglown, Jeremy. Roald Dahl: A Biography. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1994.
October 7, 2011

Maurice LeBlanc, The Blonde Lady (Arsène Lupin Contre Herlock Sholmès)

And the water was rising. It reached the soles of their boots. It covered their feet; they did not move.

It came above their ankles: the Englishman took his tobacco-pouch, rolled a cigarette and lit it.

Lupin continued:

“And, in all this, my dear maître, you must not see anything more than the humble confession of my powerlessness in face of you. It is tantamount to yielding to you, when I accept only those contests in which my victory is assured, in order to avoid those of which I shall not have selected the field. It is tantamount to recognizing that Holmlock Shears is the only enemy whom I fear and proclaiming my anxiety as long as Shears is not removed from my path. This, my dear maître, is what I wished to tell you, on this one occasion when fate has allowed me the honour of a conversation with you. I regret only one thing, which is that this conversation should take place while we are having a foot-bath … a position lacking in dignity, I must confess…. And what was I saying?… A foot-bath!… A hip-bath rather!”

The water, in fact, had reached the seat on which they were sitting and the boat sank lower and lower in the water.

Shears sat imperturbable, his cigarette at his lips, apparently wrapped in contemplation of the sky. For nothing in the world, in the face of that man surrounded by dangers, hemmed in by the crowd, hunted down by a posse of police and yet always retaining his good humour, for nothing in the world would he have consented to display the least sign of agitation.

“What!” they both seemed to be saying. “Do people get excited about such trifles? Is it not a daily occurrence to get drowned in a river? Is this the sort of event that deserves to be noticed?”

And the one chattered and the other mused, while both concealed under the same mask of indifference the formidable clash of their respective prides.

Another minute and they would sink.

 

 

My Kindle column for this month is about Maurice LeBlanc writing what amounts to fanfiction using his own characters and other people’s. I suspect if he’d lived in the age of the internet he’d be writing slash. The H. Richard Boehm translation is available here. A version of my review is below.

 

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As writers of fanfiction in particular know, there’s a certain joy in bringing together iconic characters from different series/movies/authors and imagining their interactions. Perhaps the published author most famous for doing this is Alan Moore, whose League of Extraordinary Gentleman series of comics picks up a bunch of classic figures from Victorian literature and gives them new adventures.

The classic Victorian icon is of course Sherlock Holmes. Moore may have chosen not to use him in the series (though at least one other important Conan Doyle character appears), but more than a century ago another major writer did. Maurice LeBlanc, creator of the French gentleman thief Arsène Lupin, had the two face off in Arsène Lupin Contre Herlock Sholmès – the detective’s name slightly changed because Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had objected. This collection of two related short stories was published in America under the title The Blonde Lady, and Herlock Sholmès was further changed to Holmlock Shears.

Chief-Inspector Ganimard invites Shears and his colleague, “the unspeakable Wilson” to Paris to solve the theft of a diamond ring in which Lupin and a mysterious blonde woman seem to be involved. Lupin is thrilled; Shears is a worthy adversary. This leads to a prolonged cat-and-mouse game, with the two men working to outwit each other and occasionally (though briefly) succeeding.

Traditionally, if  Holmes has a nemesis it is Professor Moriarty. Yet for me perhaps the most engaging villain in Conan Doyle’s stories was Irene Adler – not because she was a woman (though beautiful adventuresses are always welcome in Victorian fiction) but because the two of them seemed to enjoy the game so much. Holmes presumably respects Moriarty as an adversary, but there’s an underlying grimness- when it comes to it, these men are willing to kill each other. Whereas Holmes may be angry at being bested by Adler, but there’s always the sense that it’s all an elegant bit of play and they’d get along quite well under different circumstances. It makes a difference, of course, that Adler’s crime in the one story in which she appears is not particularly serious. Lupin is more of an Adler than a Moriarty.

LeBlanc’s hero is always amazing – rakish, charming and forever one step ahead of everyone else. Every encounter between him and Shears is a delight in this book. On the occasion of their first confrontation the two sit down to whiskeys-and-sodas. They often compliment each other, and in the second story, “The Jewish Lamp”, engage in a showdown that is quite a spectacular mutual admiration society. Of course there’s a bit of France vs England going on, and Lupin leaves Shears furious and humiliated more than once. But there is still the feeling that they could have been friends (or even lovers, though I highly doubt LeBlanc meant us to read it this way). Of course it helps that (as with Adler) Lupin isn’t totally morally repugnant – he tends to steal only from the rich and does not commit murder (as well as being witty and attractive). It’s much easier to like him than it would be with a more hardened criminal.

If there’s one thing over which this odd crossover book can be faulted it is its treatment of poor Wilson. Conan Doyle’s Watson is a perfectly ordinary, intelligent man; LeBlanc’s Wilson is an idiot. In a way it foreshadows the idiot sidekick trope in fiction – Wilson is closer to Agatha Christie’s Captain Hastings than to our favourite army doctor – but it seems unfair to a character who really doesn’t get enough love. Perhaps if LeBlanc had been allowed to use the original Conan Doyle characters this would have been different – and what a great novel that would have been.

 

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October 3, 2011

Amal El-Mohtar, The Honey Month

I think as a reviewer I’m hardest of all on those writers and poets who like excess. I choose to believe that this is not because I’m an unfeeling beast who can only appreciate spartan prose, but because some of my favourite writers do that sort of thing so well that seeing it done badly irritates me more. This may be a sad attempt at justifying my own prejudices, I’m not sure.

What I’m trying to get at, though, is that I could easily have disliked Amal El-Mohtar’s collection of short pieces inspired by different sorts of honey. And instead, here I am comparing her to Angela Carter and Christina Rossetti. She must be good.

I wrote about The Honey Month in last week’s Left of Cool. Here’s an edited version.

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There’s something vast and mythic and story-ful about honey, even for those of us who don’t particularly enjoy the taste. Honey pops up in our fairy-tales, in medieval recipes, even as a euphemism for things connected to sex. It’s natural and of the world, it’s so connected to place that honey from different areas or from bees feeding off different plants tastes totally different. Honey has connoisseurs as dedicated as any who study wine. And because of all this the idea of honey is irresistible; both earthy and symbolic. This makes it wonderful to write about; it also makes it dangerously easy to overdo it.

In February 2010, Amal El-Mohtar performed an experiment of sorts. Throughout the month she tasted twenty-eight different sorts of honey; one for each day. What emerged from this was The Honey Month, a collection of twenty-eight poems and short prose pieces inspired by each of those vials of honey.

Each piece begins with a description of the honey: colour, smell and taste evaluated in a format that is almost scientific. In a way these descriptions serve to ground the collection – the description that accompanies perhaps the most outrightly sexy poem in the book is contrasted with El-Mohtar describing “peach creamed honey” as smelling “rather unpleasant; sweaty underthings”. Frequently there’s an element of self-mockery as she reflects upon her seeming inability to describe many of the honeys without resorting to alcohol-comparisons. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t beauty here too – her descriptions of colour can be startling, and her notes on taste contain associations that are quite as poetic as anything else in the collection.

El-Mohtar’s prose pieces often take the form of strange, half-forgotten fairy tales; something about them always feels familiar, though they are completely new. “Raspberry Creamed Honey” has the narrator speaking to rivers and rescuing the dawn from a hungry ogress by means of song. “Thistle Honey” harks back to the complex system of economics that pops up so much in fairy stories, where everything must be paid for, when a spontaneous gesture by the narrator has unforeseen consequences. Something about the deceptively light villanelle “Lemon Creamed Honey” feels like it could have come from Thomas the Rhymer. Equally simple, “Black Locust Blossom Honey” might almost be a nursery rhyme.

Many of the stories are darker and meatier, though still with elements of familiar tales. “Ugandan Honey” is a story of death and ritual sacrifice that might in another life have been written by Angela Carter. There is death too in the poem that accompanies “Blackberry Creamed Honey”. “Cranberry Creamed Honey” also has elements of a darker myth, but it may also be the one story here in which El-Mohtar’s prose is excessive.

“Manuka Honey” (described by the author as medicinal in smell and taste) is accompanied by something like a children’s horror story, in which the narrator explains her discomfort with a companion by looking back to a childhood encounter with a sinister group of ravens. “Hungarian Forest Honey” is another tale of childhood and mysterious forests and uncanny gifts.

Then there are the outrightly sensual ones (though almost everything has undercurrents of sex and romance). I’ve mentioned “Peach Creamed Honey”, the second poem in the book that has something of Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” (I’m not sure Rossetti would approve) about it, all fruit juice on skin. “French Chestnut Honey” is the story of an adolescent girl’s sexual awakening. “Malaysian Rainforest Honey” is a story about the sort of temptation that can only end badly but is entirely worth it. “Bamboo Honey” is a lighter story of attraction and seduction.

Read at a stretch The Honey Month might be too much, or (appropriately) too cloying. But dipped into over a stretch (there’s a terrible bee-related analogy trying to make itself felt here) it’s a gorgeous collection; dark, and sweet, sensuous and extremely beautiful. Interspersed with illustrations by Oliver Hunter, this is an absolute delight to read.

 

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October 2, 2011

Jane Rogers, The Testament of Jessie Lamb

The more I think about The Testament of Jessie Lamb, the more I am impressed by it. This is a novel about the end of the human race with a teenaged narrator (one, it turns out, who is capable of the most singleminded fundamentalism). The narratorial voice is so authentic for a character of this sort that in the early stages of my reading I thought it just wasn’t very good. I was wrong; it is.

A shorter version of this appeared in the Indian Express last weekend.

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If you want to wipe out a species, targeting the females is a good place to start. In James Tiptree Jr.’s 1977 short story “The Screwfly Solution” a mysterious epidemic spreads across the earth that causes men to murder women. At the end of the story we learn what has caused this state of affairs, and that it was intended to end the species. It is too late; by this point the human race is doomed.

In Jane Rogers’ The Testament of Jessie Lamb the cause behind the spread of ‘MDS’ is never discovered, and is never (beyond idle speculation by the characters) the focus of the book. What matter are the results of this disease; MDS, or ‘Maternal Death Syndrome’ has now infected everyone on the planet, and any woman who gets pregnant will die.

Jessie, Rogers’ narrator, is a teenaged girl. Over the course of a few months she moves from indifference towards MDS (she thinks of it as normal and only expresses irritation at the mass funerals for women), through an involvement with various political groups, to a willingness to take radical steps to save the human race. Her “testament” is told from captivity; the identity of her captor, hidden at first, comes as an unpleasant shock. Her account of the events that led up to this moment is interspersed with reflections on her prison.

How do you wait for the world to end? From the beginning of The Testament of Jessie Lamb it’s clear that unless something miraculous happens the human race is going to die out within a couple of generations. And (as Jessie thinks in the context of MDS) “the knowing it was coming must be the worst part”. Rogers documents various reactions to this knowing; Jessie’s mother tries to get on with life as usual, her aunt joins a religious cult, her friends join various feminist and environmentalist groups. Young people, angry with the mismanagement of the world by “grown-ups” (the awkwardly petulant teenagers are Rogers’ biggest weakness here) form a separatist movement.

The best solution that science can come up with is to sacrifice young women (“Sleeping Beauties”) – implanting them with embryos on the understanding that the women will die. The religious groups think this is wonderful; the feminists think it’s barbaric – and Jessie is tempted by the prospect of saving the species. At this point it becomes clear why the book is prefaced with a quote from Euripedes’ Iphegenia at Aulis. Jessie’s name also begins to seem ominous – the similarity to “Jesus” might be a coincidence, but Jesus is also the “lamb” of God. Late in the book Jessie’s father describes a girl choosing to become a Sleeping Beauty as a “lamb to the slaughter”.

The Christ analogy ties in with a broader set of references to Christianity. In a plot as apocalyptic as the end of humanity, it’s unsurprising that there should be explicit religious overtones. And so Jessie’s story is a “testament”, and the farm where she takes refuge is “Eden”. The religious group to which her aunt belongs are known as the “Noahs”.

At first Jessie’s narrative is rather underwhelming. But as the reader approaches the later stages of the book it becomes clear that this is a brilliantly crafted piece of work – Jessie’s frustration at the adults around her, her conviction of her own rightness and her attraction towards heroic sacrifice all ring true. It gradually becomes clear that the text is capable of a complexity that is far beyond the simplicity of Jessie’s own thoughts.  I’d like to think it’s a rare reader who will agree with Jessie’s choice or the reasoning behind it. Underneath it all are the twinned associations of martyrs and suicide bombers. Yet we see every step of the road to this decision. And as awful as it is we are made, after a fashion, to respect it.

The result is a deeply uncomfortable piece of writing. The last few years have seen plenty of dystopian novels featuring teenaged protagonists (and I do wonder how this book would have been received had it been published as young-adult literature). But reading The Testament of Jessie Lamb, it’s easy to see how this science fiction novel published by a small press should have made it to this year’s Booker long list. It is outstanding.

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