Tatty Old Reads


Tatty Old Reads



The Bonfire Of The Vanities

by Tom Wolfe


Authors criss-cross the borders of reality and fiction to selfie-cackles and hip-hoorays; though many readers will skip - or simply not see - these lines. Dazzling prose may amuse the cognoscenti, but the great reading public prefers the rough and tumble of celebrity yarn to the arcane niceties of silken thread. Therefore the dapper Tom (see inside cover photo in double-breasted suit) Wolfe did trim his pencil, stifle his sniggers and rattle off this best seller. Many of the characters portrayed here may be modelled on real inhabitants (already larger than life), and to a great extent the plot is a musing on the portmanteaux and plastic bags of the rich and poor – the whites and blacks - of New York City. To complete this loop, chapters from the book have inspired the treatments of a thousand Netflicks episodes; and the real or super real careers of many actual journalists, politicians, stock brokers, trophy stunners and law officers have been schooled by its pages.


Sherman McCoy, a Wall Street Master of the Universe, comes a cropper while dallying with a Southern vamp (the young and glamorous wife of an ageing charter mogul). As a result of their folly, a promising black kid from The Projects lies in a pool of coma. Meanwhile, the vultures circle: politicians, community leaders, lawyers, cops and press. Who is behind all this? The British, of course. Just about every page reeks with some reference to the all-pervading purveyor of worsted suit, of shirt with detachable collar, of hand-tooled footwear, of fireplace ripped from Home Counties manse to be installed on the 99th floor of steel & concrete block; and - most glittering and dazzling of all - of scoop à la Murdoch tabloid.

The fact that Rupert Murdoch is an Oz super-baron and disqualified as a true Brit, is irrelevant. Steiner (his effigy) and the sottish hack Fellows, are portrayed as Limeys, though mere shadows of the Oxbridge type. Actually Fellows is an alumni of Kent at Canterbury, but who in NY could tell the difference? Wolfie! He knows exactly what he's peddling. The author, by the way, tackles the transatlantic difference in analogue to Martin Amis: plotting his chapters like a prime time TV producer with one eye on the stopwatch, the other on his sponsors. But while the American's prose hardly glitters and never dazzles, it seldom stutters and only rarely stumbles.

That said, there are stutters here, or splutters when some characters – principally, Maria (the vamp) and Kramer (the Assistant DA) – speak in slang or drawl, and quite laboriously so. Wolfie rams home Maria's cotton mouth, her pronunciation of “Shuhmum” for Sherman is even worked into the plot; while Kramer's faux NY cop-Irish is annotated with brackets, interpolations and plain translations that staunch the flow of speech. Dialogue aside, the pages of Wolfie's book turn themselves with the synchromesh stick-shift a of wash'n'waxed journalese.

(I have never read the “Electric Kool Aid Acid Test”, nor the late Robert M. Pirsig's “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. However, I did once flick a few pages of “The Whole Earth Catalog”. Heavy tome, that. Until I scored this secondhand paperback, I had associated “The Bonfire Of The Vanities” with an errant pape called Savanarola urging the citizens of Florence to burn their Botticellis. Though maybe I got that from a Netflicks series?)

So, how much of this novel is a shot of “In Hot Blood” - cocking the big ears of its little pitcher first to barely-fiction, then to almost-fact? The first flush of The Vanities turns on a theatre of embarrassment, but the plot pops short of outright farce; instead Wolfie, puppet-walks our moral sensibilities from liberal outrage to outraged liberal. Face-to-face with Shuhmun's crimes and punishments, the focus pulls back from how low can high-enders sink - to – isn't the end nigh? And – reading in 2017 - to how do the times change? Thirty years on, the Bronx has become yuppified, gentrified, safer than milk (one hears); but back in the eighties it was still all that, no? In these pages, there is a pre-anticipation of nostalgia, a premature longing for the kind of NY where pimp rolls are performed by actual pimps, not actual stockbrokers in actual sneakers.

To end on the book's epigram, there comes a simulacrum of the “Where they all are now...” type that grated on me somewhat. Actually, each of these present premonitions reads like another mini treatment for a further episode. OK, Wolfie, you could have turned this into a saga. Or maybe you have written half a dozen sequels which I should now Google? But, casting off your otherwise good yarn in this way is such a terrific yawn, I wonder if I'll bother.




East of Eden

by John Steinbeck

I enjoyed hearing this serialised, in condensed form, on BBC Radio 4 last year; so when I came across a tatty paperback copy I grabbed it for reading 'at some point'. In fact, I got round to the read sooner rather than later, but for some reason it then took me about two months to get through it. I could only take in a few pages at a time, which is unusual for me.

OK, I read with the recurring idea that this is a contender for the Great American Novel. But a fable quality in the story-telling kept knocking it back. I mean, fable overrides story because the protagonist - Cathy (later called Kate) Ames - is evil beyond words; and her antagonist – Adam Trask, whom she marries then leaves to bring up twin boys on his own - is passive beyond reason. Having said that, East of Eden's fable stands in the midst of some dozens of characters and episodes that are very credible indeed. And the time and place where most of the book is set – Salinas, California, at the turn of the 19th century - has got to be a real contender for paradise on earth, though it has its share of unsuccessful farmers.

I suppose because the crux of the novel is biblical - containing two iterations of Cain and Abel in the Trask family (Adam & Charles, then Caleb & Aron), with Adam & Eve's Expulsion (Adam & Kate) thrown in – the characters and scenes drawn from real life must needs appear offset. But it's a rollicking story, in which Kate sweeps through peoples' lives scattering the good crumbs of an evil wind. This is no feminist tract, but the presence of such a powerful woman, set against the weakness of men, does give Kate's peculiar form of witchcraft a proselytising twist.

The BBC version was narrated by Lee, the Chinese cook & majordomo who looks after the Trask boys as they grow up. The book itself is narrated by an unnamed relative of the Hamiltons - an extended clan of on-going sub-plotters. I think the very slightness of the connection is a deliberate ploy to highlight the fable or mythical nature of the Trasks' story. I don't need to know if Steinbeck really had a connection with such people, this just seems to be his way of suggesting so. The narrator has no real role but speaks with discreet authority. Getting Lee to narrate, as on BBC Radio, gives it a rather different slant. Lee's Chinese wisdom does play a major part in the story, and his own achingly poignant story is one of those threads that weaves its way through the book to great effect.

Something always intrigues me, are these accounts we read of brothels all that? In Salinas, Kate runs a house specialising in sado-masochism. At one time or another, all the pillars of the local community have been paying guests there; and by using a hidden camera, Kate has accumulated the evidence to bring the whole town to its knees. Maybe I'm just naïve about prostitution, but I somehow don't buy that. I'd have thought, compromising photos of a handful of bigwigs had been enough; but I guess a belief in the ubiquity of conspiracy sex doesn't harm your book sales.

East of Eden remains, for my money, a least a contender. It has elements of how the West was won, how the family was redefined, and how fortune smiles on the haves. A lot of characters lose their lives in this book and at times I felt the author was getting too cocky at playing god the while. But he does suggest that paradise lies in the opposite direction of where it's expected.; and that, on the whole, people do get better in time; or anyhow, those that choose to. Which is on the money.



Mr Norris Changes Trains
by Christopher Isherwood


'Mr Norris Changes Trains' (or 'The Last of Mr Norris', as it was published in the USA) is a queer piece by the creator of 'Sally Bowles'. My copy (a cheap American pocket paperback, published by Avon Reprints in 1952) has the exploitation hook, “HE WAS TORMENTED WITH EVIL DESIRE” in yellow lettering across the top of the front cover, which shows a tormented soul – presumably Norris himself - sitting on a sofa, surrounded by young men and women necking. The artwork is classic 50s, from the days when it was cheaper & quicker to have an artist paint a scene in full colour than to hire a photographer and some models for an hour. The man in the centre of the proto-orgy looks decidedly left out.

The cover lies. Norris is nothing like the tortured young man portrayed there, and this is not an exploitation novel. Homosexual eroticism is hinted at throughout, but only once is a character - the genuinely tortured Baron Pregnitz - accused of being ”a fairy”, and that at the end of the book when his tale has all been told. Mr Arthur Norris is an English conman-cum-spy, an ex-pat domiciled in Berlin, fifty-ish and comically bewigged, but tortured more by his financial ups and downs and the hard-knocks of his associates. He is a collector of sadistic novels such as 'Imprisoned at a Girls' School' (he has even authored 'Miss Smith's Torture Chamber') and the regular customer of a dominatrix and flagellator.

The scene (1931-3) is before and after Hitler's election as Chancellor, the last - that is – of the Weimar Republic. The book would be an important documentary of its times, especially since both narrator (William Bradshaw) and Mr Norris attend communist party meetings and do odd jobs for the Berlin Commissar. But it isn't a tale punctuated with political speeches or street fights with thugs of the Horst Wessel type, nor does it dwell much on the way Hitler's gang snatched a popular victory from the jaws of electoral defeat. The main plot of this slim novel concerns how Arthur Norris, in order to pay off his debtors and leave Europe, inveigles William into helping him pull off a piece of entrepreneurial espionage. In the meantime there is much fairly comic shenanigans and some vague suggestions of lewdness.

I guess this book was read fondly by those in the know, dwelling on its scenes of male friendship, all of which have a unreal innocence. William's ski resort trysts, first with his 'Billy The Castaway'-loving Baron, then with the young Belgian-Aryan, Piet van Hoorn, are as charming as they are unconvincing. In an era (the book was first published in Britain in 1935) when heterosexual relations were appearing in books with increasing daring, 'Mr Norris Changes Trains' remains prudishly chaste (with the exception of Mr Norris' flagellation noises-off, and a single recommendation of a prostitute's good value).

One – mild – disappointment with the book, which I found an easy and entertaining read, was its polite refusal to get to the bottom of anything. There is the suggestion that Norris' time in Germany is due to his disreputable past. He is able to carry on as a member of the upper echelons in somewhere like pre-fascist Berlin, whereafter his options are limited. But how so the narrator? What is his real fascination with Germany? Or are we simply to accept it is to get the love that dare not speak its name, and go no deeper than that? I dread to think of poking my nose in where it is not wanted.


My other irritation was that the first few chapters contained too many inconsequential characters. I think perhaps Isherwood wrote in people he knew on the Berlin scene – with Norris, his factotum Schmidt, the landlady Fräulein Schroeder and Kuno the Baron roundly drawn from real life – but without bothering to sketch in the lesser characters' portraits. The result is a few mix-ups during the middle chapters, when I found myself reading names for names without having much idea of whom they represented.


Montcalm and Wolfe
by Francis Parkman

About a dozen years ago I finally got round to reading James Fenimore Cooper's “Last of the Mohicans”. A shocking tale, I thought, and one that portrayed the Huron - a native people of North America - as utter savages. Let's be clear about that term (which Parkman uses throughout his “Montcalm and Wolfe”): savage denotes those who would practice cruelty as a matter of course; force prisoners of war to 'run the gauntlet'; and - in prima facie evidence of the accusation - cut the scalp from a wounded man, woman or child; all the while, glorying in such deeds as their natural right. Cooper's book is pretty lurid in this respect.
As someone who spent a rather severe winter living in a North American Tipi – though in the Southern English countryside – I had gained something of a first hand respect for the so-called Red Indians because of their close-to-nature lifestyle. Not that I was surprised by Cooper's account of the Huron, but I have to say I was expecting redeeming qualities. Which, of course, are present in the honour and humanity of Uncas and his father Chingachgook (the last of the Mohicans). But the savagery of Magua and the other Huron is not redeemed by such of the 'Indians' deemed 'friendly' by Whites. Besides which, Cooper was probably guilty of romanticising both the good and the evil of his characters; and it's not surprising to learn (from his own words) that his take on native America was derived from books rather than living in Tipis or Wigwams (whatever they are). In contrast, Parkman had first hand experience of life with native Americans (the Sioux), though he was in the habit of calling even the Christianised ones 'savages'.
Another reason for picking up Parkman's book was the puzzle of Canada. I have often wondered why it was that whereas the United States, with their historic family connections to the British Isles, could fight for their independence - while Canada, only newly wrestled from the French, should fight to remain loyal to the crown? This is not something you can Google in an hour or two. Last year, we had a couple of Quebecois students couch-surfing with us and one of them was of native stock. Exchanging ideas in broken French and English we learned where they stood on independence for Quebec and - for that matter - on Scotland. While Canadians are not known for their warmth or sense of humour, these boys were everything you'd hope for in the next generation: well brought up, alternative looking, concerned & talented. But you'd hardly guess we shared the same royals. It's a strange old world in which countries and nationalities are not what they used to be.
As you can see, whenever I read a book, I want it to engage with the world I live in; even if it's a history book written more than a century ago. Parkman's “Montcalm & Wolfe” was first published in 1884, but when I came across a 1984 centenary edition – hrdbck. gd-cnd. – in a second-hand book store here in Bursa, I had no hesitation buying it, knowing I would be motivated to read it in a short time – and start making connections.
The title is a bit of a misnomer, as General Montcalm - commander of the French forces in New France - does not make an appearance in the first 200 pages; and to meet General Wolfe - who led the main assaults on Louisville and Quebec – the reader must get deep into the second half of the book. In the meantime, a dozen & more characters of equal or near-equal stature appear. Prominent amongst those who, like Montcalm and Wolfe, lost their lives on the fields was Braddock, a conventional English general mortally wounded at the battle of Monongahela. Of still greater prominence is George Washington, who was a volunteer captain with Braddock's tragic expedition to Fort Duquesne. Parkman's method is to give rounded portraits of all his main protagonists, so the title of this book (one of a series he wrote on the British and French in North America) functions as a token of its contents rather than a summary.
Herein lies one of the faults with Parkman's shameless historicism. He is forever partisan towards the Americans in the field (if not at home), usually against the French, often against the Canadians & Indians, and ultimately (despite admiring glances) against the British. For example, over Duquesne: he rates Washington's good sense above Braddock's heroism, praising the American's advice of splitting the column in two, with the Englishman leading a flying wing into Beaujeu's experienced Canadian woodsmen. But he then fails to point out one result of this very strategy leads the British - after being ambushed - to come crashing back into the rear guard. And whereas Braddock is then portrayed as a hero for rallying the regulars - implying it is all a folly anyway - Washington is allowed to criticise the British soldiers for a friendly-fire incident without comment. The tendency to style Washington as a dashing volunteer in the British army (as though his home state was never under any threat from New France) didn't start with Parkman; but he, as the virtual founder of American historical studies, does not seek to be objective about the famed Virginian soldier & statesman.
To return to stereotypes for a moment. James Fenimore Cooper candidly admitted to knowing little about native Americans beyond what he had read. Parkman, however, spent much time with the Sioux tribes of his own day (roughly a century after the events portrayed in this book). However, whereas Cooper is careful to give a balanced picture of native life, creating the idea of the noble savage (later to be taken up by others such as Longfellow), Parkman has no praise for native peoples. He refers to them as savages but never ascribes honour. Furthermore, several times he points out that it is often the Christianised tribes that commit the worst atrocities, scalping men, women & children in homesteads and forcing prisoners to run the gauntlet. In the notorious murder & scalping of the wounded at Fort William Henry, followed by robbing & the massacre of the column, the natives are portrayed as nothing short of devils incarnate.
The reverse of this is echoed in Parkman's partisan portrait of Washington. Whereas modern historians tend to question the value of Washington's strategic role in the Braddock expedition, Parkman has nothing but praise for the man who was to become first US president. As I said above, he reports Washington's disgust at the confusion of the British regular soldiers without comment. Moreover, Parkman does not much question Washington's earlier role in the death of the French officer de Jumonville (an incident that had led to the war), though it was widely believed at the time that Washington had been directly involved. Parkman's history, then, is the typical written-by-victors approach, which then becomes subject to revision and reconstruction.
Parkman's treatment of Montcalm & Wolfe and their exploits, is less open to reëvaluation – being more straightforward accounts of character and battles. Both were professional soldiers, the credibility of whose loyalties and fidelities has never needed questioning. The majority of this book, then, is a slow build-up to the dramatic events portrayed in its final hundred or so pages: the siege of the French citadel-port of Louisville turning the tide for Britain; then its forces sailing up the St Lawrence River and laying siege to Quebec; and (almost) finally the dramatic, literally cliff-hanging dénouement as French power crumbles.

Parkman is good at giving the economic & social roots of New France's failure, contrasting the colonial styles of the British & French. He does not do irony, however, and draws few parallels with what happened within two decades of victory at the Heights of Abraham (1763), or half a century later in the War of 1812. More recent historians have put those events in perspective (for example, Peter Snow's “When Britain Burned The White House”). But Parkman's style is engaging enough, for a Victorian, and his copious notes – including many archival extracts – make for an entertaining read (if you like this sort of thing). The copy I have has page after page of contemporary illustrations and, published in 1984, was a centenary reprint of the original edition.



By Myself

by Lauren Bacall


What constitutes a feminist icon? Simone de Beauvoir? Germaine Greer? Madonna? Soon after this Instagram message appeared,

madonna: Thank you Margaret Thatcher!
#unapologetic#rebelheart

the sender deleted it. Reports say she had received a barrage of complaints from many of her gay fans – or at least, people whose reaction the entertainer may not have thought of when she 'liked' the photograph of Britain's first (and so far only) woman prime minister. The image of Margaret Thatcher was headed by a quote (presumably) from the so-called Iron Lady herself. At any rate, the words read straight from the horse's mouth,

If you set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything at any time, and you would achieve nothing.”

which is possibly what the singer known as Madonna was really responding to by her Instagram message. Apart from being a great fillip for Instagram - that must be grating on Twitter - what have either of these women done for women? Are either of them feminist icons?

It was when just finishing off Lauren Bacall's autobiography “By Myself” when the above story broke. The news came on BBC's Radio Four and though the details were somewhat sketchy, it sounded like Madonna had been hailing the Prime Minister at the time of Clause 28 as someone women should be looking up to. Now, most of us who got through the Thatcher years did so without compromising ourselves over her gender. The fact that she was a woman made no one on the Left love her. Nor did feminists publicly express delight over her ascendency. The most feminine solidarity Mrs Thatcher got was from women who rode to hounds, from yuppie women striving to make it in the male dominated world of capitalism, from housewives indelibly blue-rinsed in the tweed, and – one supposes – from those silent majority women who may simply not have denied voting for her. Thatcher, btw, was a near contemporary of Lauren Bacall. On Thatcher, The New Look must have worn thin before it became old fashioned. Yet The New Look, as embodied by The Look (Bacall's seminal own contribution to post-War fashion) never went out.

Bacall's autobiography, “By Myself”, is a book by a real feminist icon. The image projected through her was of a strong woman in control. From the first film, “To Have And Have Not” onwards, age and sex would be no bar to her. Though she was a mere eighteen year-old unknown when she left her native New York and went off to Hollywood to star alongside Humphrey Bogart – the biggest box office star of the day – she comes across as an all-knowing, wisecracking tomboy who just oozes sex. As well as this, The Look was created around her and, though she was actually somewhat angular, gawky and (in her own words) flat-chested, she instantly became the bombshell that knocked Rita Hayworth off her pedestal.

Bacall's was a high-shouldered, manly image which perfectly suited the position many women had been thrust into by the war. Working in factories or in uniform huge numbers of women had been recruited into the war effort and achieved a sudden independence. Her role in the film, and the off-set romance between her and Bogart – which the script was rewritten to trade off – was appealing to male and female audiences alike. She was admired by women for her style and confidence, while men couldn't help dreaming they should have Bogart's luck.

The way she tells it, Betty Perske (her real name) didn't have to struggle to get to the top. An only child, her mother was abandoned by her father when she was small, though she was lucky to come from a well-connected, Jewish family who sent her to private schools. From her first acting lessons at the age of sixteen to top Hollywood billing just three years later, she must have led a charmed life. And in fact, she admits as much, for this is not quite a dishonest book. She devoted all of her twenties to Bogart and their children, with her acting career taking second or third place. Bogart's early death, which takes approximately seventy pages, also took its toll on her. We cannot doubt her devotion to him, and she does not doubt ours. Bogart, sixty years on from his death, is still an icon (though not quite a feminist one).

There is always important stuff missing from biographies and autobiographies and we pour over them struggling to fill up the gaps, to add local colour. Film stars, in my book, usually win out over politicians as their stories are mirrored many times over in their performances. What's missing here, though, is on two levels. The first, and most obvious, is that although we get impressions of what it was like in Hollywood in the Forties and Fifties, and later on Broadway and London's West End in the Seventies, the roar of crowd and smell of greasepaint passages don't quite draw us in (though the smell of Bogart's decaying body is put somewhat pungently). I think that's down to Bacall's somewhat prosaic writing. She did write it “by herself”, so what you get is what you read; little is edited out or in.

The other thing missing is some (and not all) of the truth. Bogart is portrayed as a saintly husband (if very much the sinner when it comes to booze). Bacall does not mention the on-off affair he had with his long time assistant, which elsewhere has been documented. If it's true, the way Betty extracted a shopping spree from him in revenge points to a very different kind of marriage than she would have us believe. Also, airbrushing out Katherine Hepburn – Spencer Tracy's lover – and replacing her with his estranged Louise (died 1983) – is simply private politics. All those visits by Spencer and his 'wife' – especially as (his best pal) Bogart lay dying (a twelve months' gig) is an example of such doublespeak.


So don't come here for the truth, come here for a 1979 version, one that needs to be read in context. As a self portrait of an icon it's just a part of the jigsaw. Lauren Bacall was created by the auteur Howard Hawks and – like Pygmalion's creation – whatever Betty Perske was like in private, her public story is all the reader may count on her to tell.


Perfume

by Patrick Süskind

I just re-visited this book. I saw the film soon after it came out (so impressed, entertained, shocked and in catharsis I had to watch again within days) then started to read the book. It seemed identical, so, it being a translation, I never finished it.

OK, that's my backstory.

"Perfume" is a modern folk tale, set in a brilliant evocation of the eighteenth century. I can see how it inspired Andrew Miller's period novels "Ingenious Pain" and "Pure". Though much of the characterisation hardly moves beyond stereotype - for example, the passivity of Grenouille's mother & the two principal victims, even the grandiosity of the Italian perfumier Baldini - that line of criticism misses the point. As a folk tale it only needs to scratch at the surface of character. We are, after all, drawn into the inner life of a mass murderer - albeit a highly unusual one - and it must be hard to read his story without experiencing an unholy degree of empathy. This in itself is an example of the gothic horror the reader experiences.

I have a feeling S
üskind will never do anything like this again as his writing bears something of the gentleman amateur (he lectures his reader; and despite being short, the plot has an overlong interlude in a mountain cave; also Grenouille is demurely fantastical - a Mowgli via Tarzan creation, somewhat unselfconsciously drawn.)

An admirable achievement which has launched the careers of many imitators - whilst its aloof author has shunned the temptation to serialise and debase himself.


The Unbearable Lightness of Being

by Milan Kundera

A throwaway remark, about this novel being so light I had forgotten most if it, forced me to pick up the book again after thirteen-odd years. When I finally finished my loose-leafed paperback copy, I realised I must have mistaken it for another - like the man who mistook his wife for a hat. For the one detail I thought I had remembered – about a reluctant dissident wandering round with a bomb – still eluded me. But having spent portions of the last few weeks in the company of Milan Kundera (ie his reader), I find myself, as people are fond of saying here in Turkey, “left standing like a Frenchman” (ie understanding nothing).

I am being facetious. There are things I understand, in my own way. I should amend the analogy: from the historical Frank listening to an unintelligible language, to the modern European tourist hearing Arabesque music for the first time. Just as an overblown wailing rattles one's nerves, so “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” alienates me in horror at its subject matter. Why? Am I a prude? Well, I judge myself to be a libertarian socialist, and something of an unreconstructed romantic. Therefore the palliative philandering rife under communist Eastern Europe, after pricking my libido, gives me a double dose of the heebie jeebies. In 1984, when this book was first published in English, Czechoslovakia was still living though its Orwellian nightmare. While the author had long since fled the scene and (in reality) become a Frenchman, his book was concerned with those Czechs who, in one way or another, were chained to their national identity. In that sense, Kundera himself was being facetious. Or else he was playing with fire.

Before I get started on Nietzsche, and the other philosophical stuff here that alienates me, I should also state my lack of empathy with Kundera's characters. I can appreciate cheating. In farce, it's obligatory and either mutually or otherwise justified. In tragedy, its often part of a wider pathology. The temptation to cheat, the intrigue of cheating, the pleasure of illicit sex, and so forth, are all major subjects for entertainment in novels of many types. Where would “Madame Bovary”, “Tender Is The Night” or “Fear of Flying” be without the cheating husband or wife? Either we root for the cheater, or look on in horror/admiration with a 'there but for the grace of God go I'. Even though characters in fiction are not real, we may reflect on them as if they were actual people - depending on how well or ill their author has breathed life into them.

However poignant the images, I am unconvinced by the character of Tomas, who is addicted to sex with as many women as he can find, cheats daily on his wife Tereza, to whom he regularly comes home with the smell of female crotch on his hair. She still makes passionate love with him at weekends, which puts her at some distance, too. I can empathise with Tereza's despair when she realises what he gets up to on his way home; but the survival of their marriage leaves me with a cold feeling. Though the actual infidelities of both are convincing, even compelling, the improbability of their marriage is... dare I say unbearable?... because the author does so little to explore it.

To understand the kind of men, Tomas and his spin-off Franz, who leave their families - children as well as wives - without regret, without a thought, would be something. Plenty of couples divorce, and in those a good proportion of the men give up being primary carers. But how many then break off all contact with their sons and daughters? Divorce, and the solving of one problem by the introduction of others, is a subject not often enough dealt with by serious writers, and I am sorry to see it passed over here with such flippancy.

Anyhow, I've decided not to go into Nietzsche here. I tried to read his “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” at the age of sixteen. The story, or whatever it is, had not grabbed me by page ten, and I regretted the major slice of pocket money it had cost me. I still regret it, and it makes me think you should be able to return books and get a full refund if you don't get more than 10% in.

I didn't like “The Unbearable...” first time round, and I may not have finished it then. I think I was managing a summer school in the UK at the time and I had acquired the book as a way of winding down when my duties were ended around about 11pm each night. This time, I again used it as bedtime reading, but I only finished it after about three weeks. Good value at 79p from Oxford? Hardly, considering all the effort and time put in.

When story-tellers decide to include themselves in their books merely by using the words I & me in the text, or by becoming full-blown characters, they prompt the reader to do some googling. It becomes legitimate, even obligatory, to find out what parallels exist between the fictional characters and their own. In the case of Kundera, Tomas and his satellite Franz can be seen as meditations on the writer's own predicament. As someone who took part in the communist coup d'état in 1948, was later imprisoned by the regime, then readmitted to the Communist Party, finally fleeing Czechoslovakia after the Russian invasion of 1968, we see he is somewhat conflicted. Freely admitting, in the book, that his characters are impressions of what he might have been, though continuously intoning the phrase “What must be” (in German!), I cannot help wondering as I read each word of the story that this is all true in one way or another.


For example, when Tomas is tricked into betraying the editor of a dissident magazine, is he not somehow admitting his guilt over the real life gaoling of a university colleague? It is said that the Nobel prize has been withheld from Kundera for that very suspicion. This dismays me somewhat, when former Nazis are made laureates and even Popes. I prefer to think the committee are just not as impressed by the book as its publishers' would hope. Then the reading public can be left to make their own mind up without being told, officially, that this is the work of a truly great writer.



Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man”
by Siegfried Sassoon

Sassoon's fictionalised memoirs pander to a recurring fantasy of the British, that if only they had opted out of the twentieth century's catastrophic wars and remained in 'Splendid Isolation'. In 1914, had they left Germany, Austria, France & Russia to slog it out without the benefit of their assistance, then the idyllic Edwardian era would never have ended. The Empire, despite all its titanic inequalities, would have sailed gloriously on: the great mother ship of Pax Britannica majestically circling the maelström at a safe – & profitable – distance while its rivals pummelled each other into failed states.
Sassoon is not so concerned here with the politics of what might have been as with nostalgia for the lost world. His one direct comment (in these fictional memoirs) on the slaughter of the 14-18, is that “...the War ... as everyone now agrees, was a crime against humanity.” Written in 1928, this rather equivocal comment points an accusing finger without apportioning blame. The duality continues. On leave from the front, he defends the enemy when his kindly Aunt Evelyn “bitterly call[s] them 'hell hounds'”; but when confessing to the reader doubts about the truth of German war crimes, his amanuensis - George Sherston - discreetly avoids voicing them in public.
Hang on a minute. Why, dear reader you ask, are we talking about war, when the subject is supposed to be hunting? Is this the tale of one who runs with the fox and hunts with the hounds? In a word, yes. Sassoon's prize-winning, instant classic is an attempt to be all things to all men & women. On one level, it's a cashing-in on the fad for Bertie Woosterism in an age of declining private incomes, of demesnes being sold off for golf courses, manor houses boarded up, and of old soldiers plodding country lanes begging for scraps of work.
George is an orphan, an only child, with a £600 per year trust fund, looked after by his Aunt Evelyn in the countryside of East Kent. A delicate child, he is educated at home until his twelfth year, then at Ballboro' (Marlborough College) & Cambridge. On the eve of his departure for boarding school, Tom Dixon (the family groom), takes young George fox hunting for the first time. At the meet, he is attracted by a slightly older boy, Denis Milden, who is already a proficient horseman and fox hunter.
For economy reasons, George's pony is sold when he goes away to school and so, without the opportunity to hunt, he takes up cricket. It isn't until he comes down from Cambridge, sans degree, that he takes up fox hunting again, once more at the suggestion of Dixon. There follows an obsession with hunting and point-to-point horse racing which uses up more income than the family solicitor (his trust fund manager) is happy to part with. Moreover, George's refusal either to resume his university studies or prepare himself for a commercial career, exasperates the prudent guardian. However, his kindly Aunt Evelyn generally supports his wishes and even sells one of her precious rings to help pay for one of the four horses essential to George's becoming a true blue huntsman.
Anyone unfamiliar with what fox hunting consisted of at this time, might be forgiven for feeling puzzled what all the fuss is about. Over the course of the book, Sassoon gives a valuable insight into just what many of the so-called leisured classes got up to with their time, and their money. But a historical perspective –somewhat buried here - may help to put fox hunting in context.
By the middle of the eighteenth century, the aristocratic 'sport' of stag hunting, which had been in vogue since Roman times, was in serious decline – along with the deer's natural habitat, the aboriginal forests of Albion. A new quarry had to be found, else the very fabric of social hierarchy would go to the wall. So it was that the poor blasted fox, admittedly a bit of a nuisance to some farmers, was elevated far beyond its original threat status. Artificial 'coverts' were constructed around the countryside wherein M. & Mme Reynard (ie Mr & Mrs. Fox) were encouraged to make their lairs and breed. Not all farmers approved of this and many went on trapping & shooting foxes as pests in time honoured fashion. These were considered bad sports by the new fox hunting community. In the nineteenth century, when barbed wire fencing was introduced, farmers who used it to protect their fields were despised by the hunt who enjoyed jumping with their horses over fences. Despite such obstacles, the 'sport' or fox hunting spread rapidly round the country and society was saved.
George Sherston is a fan of R.S. Surtees' nineteenth century hunting novels, and therefore the concentration of his memoir on riding to hounds – with only a side chapter devoted to cricket – sets it up as a comic novel modelled on the same. A light tone is maintained throughout the book, even in the couple of chapters dealing with the war years 1914-16. Sassoon not only fictionalises his life (by changing names & dwelling on the comic and adventurous aspects of his subject), he edits out his school and Cambridge years, plus his early literary career. The effect of this is to narrow and box-in George's character, making him out to be a genial if somewhat empty-headed fellow who, merely by an accidental interest in equestrianism, manages to prepare himself to be a useful and courageous leader of men in battle. This is the Bertie Wooster side of the piece, to whom Tom Dixon plays an ever-willing Jeeves.
So are these memoirs reliable? Perhaps the real question is to wonder if they memoirs at all. To whit, on page two comes a passage which almost had this reader putting the book down before it had hardly started,

...it was Dixon who taught me to ride, and my admiration for him was unqualified. And since he was what I afterwards learnt to call 'a perfect gentleman's servant', he never allowed me to forget my position as 'a little gentleman': he always knew exactly when to become discreetly respectful. In fact, he 'knew his place'.”

After that, I only carried reading because of Sassoon's reputation. Although I suspected he was a bit of a snob, I had never thought he was someone for whom the right-wing reactionary phrase 'knew his place' could be quarantined in anything as flimsy as a pair of quotation marks. In fact, as I began to say above, though on one level these fictional memoirs were published as a commercial venture; on another, they are supposed to be a subversive dig at the very people they appear to celebrate. Only last January (2014), in the Guardian's Reading Group, Sam Jordison quoted Sassoon himself, forty years after publication, calling it, “innocently insidious anti-war propaganda”.
Not only do Sassoon's school & Cambridge days go uncatalogued, his Jewish heritage, homosexual love life & writing career are similarly expunged. But not entirely so as, merrily, the text swings from sublimely refined code to the cor-blimey of name calling. George Sherston, far from periodically suffering the black-ball of anti-Semitism, is portrayed as English to the point of absurdity. Absurdity of a different kind appears in the naming of George's favourite horse: Cockbird (whose depiction in the art of cottage doors is well-known). Furthermore the comic novelist Surtees is elevated to the status of mandarin sports writer he would himself have taken delight to pillory. Finally in this list of subtexts, the naming of Nigel Croplady is an unsubtle dig at an unsavoury hunt character who, presumably, was a known flagellant of deprived gentlewomen.
This is therefore a curious tome which can be read on levels of increasing depth. Even a hunt saboteur might applaud George's unjoy at the killing of foxes and their cubs. Indeed, being in at the kill, which one presumes is the object of the fox hunter, hardly ever features in his many detailed descriptions of hunts. Tropes from the hunt are recycled in his descriptions of life and death at the front line. Just as he makes no fun of those farmers or churchmen who abhor hunting, so he defends the Germans against accusations of war crimes. When he meets an old hunting companion in a dugout, they discuss the man's German cousin, who is in the artillery 'on the other side'. And perhaps the most poignant example is the barbed wire so loathed of fox hunters, making life so difficult for soldiers at the front.

In conclusion, I would generally approve Sassoon's claim that the book is a piece of anti-war propaganda. In that it was followed by second and third instalments of war memoirs, its purpose is partly to draw readers in. The vanilla hunting theme and the book's plain avoidance of contentious sexuality & ethnicity only serve to sweeten the pill. At the time of writing, I have read just the famous Part Four of “Memoirs of an Infantry Officer”. If that is anything to go by, though, the anti-war purpose is very well served by this introductory volume.



Bleak House”
by Charles Dickens

It was one of those novels I was determined to read... just whenever I got round to it. Being sufficiently aware of the term “Jarndyce & Jarndyce” - the story of an inheritance case bound up for years in the old Courts of Chancery - to have deployed it in a probity battle of my own, all that held me back from commencing the book was its sheer length. Even so, when the latest (2005) BBC serialisation was broadcast on Prime, I was tempted not to watch, thinking I should still do the book before it was spoiled for me. Then the trailers got me hooked. With a gaunt-looking Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, Alun Armstrong as Inspector Bucket, Denis Lawson in the Jarndyce role and Johnny Vegas as Krook... not to watch seemed perverse. And when I noticed it on dizimag earlier this year, I had to watch again, though by then a pdf of the text was lined up on my tablet. I read the bulk of it on a week's holiday binge.

Anyhow, why have I commenced a review of a Dickens novel (this one was originally serialised in 1852) with reference to its latest TV version? The shilling-a-go, 24 page, double-columned tabloids in which “Bleak House” first appeared, were churned out in twenty monthly instalments that sold - to coin a contemporary phrase - like hot cakes. They were the popular entertainment of their day and, alongside Music Hall Theatre, were the Victorian equivalent of telly & netflix. So here's the answer to my rhetorical question. The most significant difference, it seems to me, between the appearance of a new Dickens serial and “Breaking Bad”, “Mad Men” or “Sherlock” (some of my particular favourites within the genre) is that the illustrated chapbooks were the product of a single, unedited mind.

Bleak House” is a massive undertaking, more than 350,000 words in length (five times longer than “The Great Gatsby”, for example). It has more than twenty characters with major roles in the story. It paints a highly detailed picture of the Holborn area of London, with two other main locations: St Albans and the (ficitonal) Chesney Wold of Lincolnshire. Set in the apotheosis of the post chaise – that magical era just before railways revolutionised travel – it simply reeks of horse sweat and “London Peculiar” (fog). Dickens is not known as a writer of purple patchwork description, though that may only be because his descriptive passages are supreme examples of the form. Time and again he sets the scene in London or in Lincolnshire with pages-long preambles on the state of the weather, the buildings, the neighbourhood & local inhabitants. He does so with what we might be tempted to call cinematic mastery. Had he needed them, he might have employed the painters Constable, Sisley and Whistler to illustrate each of his chapters. But he didn't, his pen being enough to create each “swelling scene”.

The plot is essentially two main stories (one tragic, one romantic) with many digressive, though parallel, tropes leading off into satire, pathos and bathos. Two narrative voices are used: the first being anonymous, the second the testimony of a major character, Esther Summerson. While the Jarndyce & Jarndyce suit provides the mainspring of the novel, Esther's story is the source of most human interest. Of these, there is an unholy host of legal representatives, all seriously flawed; from lawyers, clerks, copywriters and stationers even down to a dealer in waste court papers. At the top of this pile, soaring even above the High Chancellor himself, there is the gaitered, crepuscular figure of Tulkinghorn. William Guppy, a lawyer's clerk who in the course of the story earns his articles and right of practice in court, is one of Dickens' slimiest creations. In love with Esther Summerson, his efforts to win the heart of fair maiden are a proper cringe. But to see him at sup with Tony Jobling & the younger Smallcreep takes him beyond stereotype and deep into character study. This is the power of Dickens' mature work. With interlaced storylines in a landscape peopled by fully-rounded characters, a not-so-little world is created for us.

There are natural faults in the book, exaggeration, for example. John Jarndyce is simply too good to be true, Mr Vholes is one lawyer too many, Richard and Ada's love is simply too ideal, Caddy's father-in-law (Mr Turveydrop senior - the embodiment of Regency deportment) is a trifle too foppish and Richard's fate is really too contrived. Then the verbose self-obsession of many characters does tend to cloy. At times you may wonder why no one is ever told to, “Cut to the chase!” (though Lady Dedlock manages to do so once or twice, hardly without opening her mouth). Above all, the inevitable auto-backslapping (for which expression you might read 'sentimentality') of the writing is what sets it apart as Victorian.

This is not a book, though, that many readers will throw against the wall. It's too heavy, for one thing. It'll break your Kindle, for another. Soon recovering from the above tendencies, the dialogue in particular is always a delight. Inspector Bucket, for example, insisting on using the full title “Sir Leicester Dedlock, Baronet” each time he addresses the peer – often twice in a single paragraph – is voiced in masterly fashion. The speeches of Harold Skimpole, a self-confessed sponge, are often long but never tedious. He will insist on justifying his irresponsible behaviour because his very insistences are their justification. Esther's complaint that her story is too much about herself neatly sidesteps many of the pitfalls of first person narrative. “Bleak House” is a novel you will put down at the end with a bitter-sweet feeling of loss that its world has now left your physical grasp.

A book of this length needs to have plenty of scope, and so I'll summarise some of its many parts before going to say what I think it's really all about. Every level of society is represented: from the gracious, often pompous, Sir Leicester Dedlock, Baronet; down to the fatalistic mud sweeper, “Toughey” Jo. There are fine country and town houses, contrasting with a sordid squatted area of London - “Tom's All Alone” - itself the product of a long, unresolved Chancery case. There is a mysterious death (seemingly from auto-combustion); and a foul murder, followed by a police investigation, false accusation and imprisonment. There is a long, desperate chase through a snowstorm. There is a hero, Mr George, late sergeant of dragoons. There is a ghost that plods the terrace of Chesney Wold (ancient seat of the Dedlocks). There is a mean and snidey moneylender. There are several romances, not many of which end too happily. There is wife abuse, child neglect, and a satire on the misplaced philanthropy attendant on Britain's poor and African colonies. Finally, to round off my incomplete list, there are many comic and bathetic scenes ringing the death-knell of Chancery Law, which even as Dickens was writing was being reformed.

But nor can a novel of this length restrict itself to a single theme, no matter how powerful or relevant it may be. In fact, while the actual case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce is a somewhat murky device - lurking behind rather than driving the plot - other strands of story unravel with greater clarity. Esther's true status, for instance, is revealed in the middle; the murder is solved long before the book ends, and the chase concludes in good time for the full dossier of loose ends to be judiciously tied up. The perversion of justice, by allowing inheritance and property cases to consume themselves, is not even one of the main themes of "Bleak House". The central ideas explored are: interference in love and family matters, hypocrisy in the neglect of children, the rights and wrongs of charity, the kindling of false hopes and the abuse of sentiment.

I will end by returning to a comparison of “Bleak House” the novel with its own - and other - TV serials, and at my being daunted by the length of the book. Another example, “Games of Thrones” (which I haven't seen or read much of, I should point out) seems to be worth citing. The books on which this serial are based contain more than twice the word count of the Dickens, but are written - the author himself has stated (in The Guardian newspaper, August 13th, 2014) - with TV serialisation in mind. As soon as each manuscript is finished, a thousand and more hands are hired to build the sets, play the parts, wield the cameras and mike booms, digitise the graphics, edit the output and – dare I say it - write in the dialogues. Dickens, with the bare help of a few typesetters, printers and his national distribution network – pulled off this feat with no more than a single graphic artist (Hablot Knight Browne – Phiz) to flesh out his words.

What a mind!



"The Great Gatsby"

by F. Scott Fitzgerald

"If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away."

Nick Carraway's profound depiction of an otherwise profane character, Jay Gatsby, lifts a rather short jazz-age tale into the realms of the Great American Novel. The above quotation is a conceit, and readers often despair how Fitzgerald uses Nick's viewpoint to veer into purple pontifications, but somehow the device works. Peering through his buttonholes into the swank salons of 1920s New York, we attend wild parties, eavesdrop on crooked gamblers and prohibition cheats, see into the drawing rooms, limousines and love-nests of the rich, and get the low-down on two notorious killings. Through Nick's cautious and incautious perceptions, we also get glimpses inside the heads of various characters: Gatsby, with his pure romantic optimism; Daisy with her ennui touching on genuine despair, Tom's priggish contempt for everyone outside his race and class, Myrtle's hunger and jealousy, and Jordan Baker's dishonesty and cynicism. Even minor characters get this under-the-skin treatment; for example how the gambler Wolfshiem's fatherly affection for Gatsby does not prevent him from avoiding his duty; or how Gatsby's actual father glosses awe at his son's wealth with delusions of the boy's social prospects. At times Nick's perceptions probe a little too deep for belief; for instance, Gatsby could hardly have shared all the emotional reaction he felt during his return to Daisy's hometown after she married. That he is able to carry us into such private territory is more an outcome of Fitzgerald's compellingness as a story teller than the verisimilitude of Nick's narrative tropes.

Much of the novel is taken up with snippets of backstory, which weave through the plot, revealing and amending as the 'truth' about James Gatz - aka Jay Gatsby - gradually comes out. He is a self-made man in every sense of the phrase. Coming from a poor family in the mid-West, he improves himself by private study and discipline. Leaving home at an early age, he drifts along the shores of Lake Superior, picking up work where he can, until one day he comes across the yacht of Dan Cody - an adventurer who has made a fortune in the Yukon. As Dan's factotum, he learns the ways of the word. So when the US enters the first World War, he is able to enlist and train as an officer. This is when he meets and courts the aristocratic Daisy; conquering her, before setting off for France. The war, during which he is decorated for acts of leadership and heroism, earns him the right to a European education; and so he overstays by five months at Oxford University in England, picking up some upper class English speech and manners. He returns to America after his girl has married someone from her own class (Tom Buchanan), and thus begins his campaign to get rich enough to win her back someday. To achieve this, Gatsby mixes with gamblers, bootleggers and fraudsters; though Nick Carraway is careful not to give away too many of his secrets - turning down an offer to join him in one venture (an open contempt of the man's wealth, for Nick Carraway in all his genteel poverty is decidedly Old Money and looks down on the upstart, writing, “I disapproved of him from beginning to end.”) Gatsby has bought a large house across the bay from Daisy and Tom's mansion. He throws huge open parties there in an attempt to lure the unsuspecting Daisy to his home. The story actually starts with the arrival of Nick, who comes to live in a small house conveniently next door to the love-struck Gatsby. Nick, along with tennis star Jordan Baker, then becomes a go-between in Gatsby's seduction mark II of Daisy - who (also conveniently) happens to be Nick's distant cousin, and whose husband Tom was a frat pal of Nick's at Yale.

Though there is fine intertwining of plot with sub plot (Gatsby & Daisy vs. Tom & Myrtle/Nick & Jordan), enough colourful characters to have kept Hollywood in Gatsby-themed restaurants for decades (Owl-Eyes, the Chester McKees, the Elevator Boy), and 'scope of landscape (the sound between East & West Egg, Doctor T.J. Eckleburg's gigantic glasses with the ash heaps behind, plus various open topped car rides through the streets of New York) "The Great Gatsby" owes more to Fitzgerald's short story writing than his previous novels. For such a short book, it's not a fast-paced read, nor is it un-putdownable. In particular, its long chapters are probably shy of running the whole mile - and this is doubtless why some readers refuse to countenance it as contender for the Great American Novel. And yet it's hard to say what else the book could contain, harder still to say what's missing. Fitzgerald's familiar device of understatement is present throughout, so whatever the characters don't say or do becomes almost as important as what we're told. Even less is 'explained' - which has led to many long, winding debates (eg “Was Gatsby a bootlegger?” and “Is Nick Carraway Gay?”) Also it has been singled out as one of the first truly modernist novels in English.

Jay Gatsby being synonymous with a kind of crass overdressed overbearing representative of the Jazz Age (a term Fitzgerald helped to coin) it's worth taking a fresh look at the text to see whether the stereotype is justified. Are Gatsby's parties festivals of bad taste? Is his house a temple of kitsch?

When Daisy visits, she is moved to tears by his collection of shirts. Given her wealth, sensibility and fashion cool, those sobs do not sound hollow. Owl Eyes is astonished by the quality of the library - authentic down to its uncut books - which shows us that Wolfshiem is not the only one to appreciate Gatsby's “Oggsford” (Oxford) stay. Moreover, Owl Eyes does his duty by Gatsby in the end, unlike the gambler, again reinforcing the sincerity of his admiration. As to the parties, though "Vladimir Tostoff's 'Jazz History of the World'" is not played nowadays alongside orchestral works by Cole Porter and Berlin, it would at least have had some cultural leverage in an age when the popular arts were beginning to influence even highbrow culture (cf TS Eliot's lines "O O O O that Shakespeherean rag/It's so elegant/So intelligent", published just three years before). As to the man himself, Nick's assertions, from the first to last chapters, that Gatsby turned out all right in the end; also his assertion - to the fellow's face - that he was “worth the whole damn bunch put together” (the bunch meaning, Daisy, Tom and Jordan) place him almost on a moral high ground. In spite, then, of his pink suit, his yellow Rolls Royce, his over familiar "old sport" routine and the drunken excesses of his parties, there is more to Gatsby than his stereotype image

Fitzgerald, through Nick, leaves us to decide for ourselves if Gatsby “turned out all right in the end”. In the last chapter, where he is sharing the final pieces of his backstory, he makes a comment about Daisy's admitted love for his rival Tom, which seemed crucial a few hours before,

"'Of course she might have loved him, just for a minute, when they were first married - and loved me even more then, do you see?'

Suddenly he came out with a curious remark:

'In any case,' he said, 'it was just personal.'

What could you make of that, except to suspect some intensity in his conception of the affair that couldn't be measured?"

Earlier Daisy has used the word 'personal' against Tom, who has challenged Gatsby's “old sport” catchphrase. She says, "if you're going to make personal remarks I won't stay here a minute.” The usual meaning of the expletive, "That's personal!" is the crossing of a boundary. In Gatsby's “curious remark” it doesn't seem to mean the violation of anything private - especially nothing grudge-worthy. To go back to the quotation from Chapter One, "If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures," Nick seems to have found the answer to that question. At the end of the story, Gatsby, who created himself in order to recreate the past, may have given up the idea of being anybody at all. Though he clings to the possibility of winning Daisy back, the events of the story have brought him to a kind of beatific state of mind. It is as though “just personal” means that only by stripping away all wealth and class could Daisy and he be together. After all, she had defended his artificial turns of phrase. What he makes of Daisy then, with his being a kind of human seismograph, has an intensity of conception beyond normal measurement. He sees beyond the wealth in her voice. But this interpretation, like the idea of Nick Carraway being secretly homosexual, is neither something Fitzgerald actually says, nor can it be proved either way. The device of using a narrator means every implication is left to the reader's discretion.


To sum up, then, “The Great Gatsby” is a tragic romance on a par with Romeo & Juliet. Though only one of the lovers is doomed – I shouldn't say which – the story reaches beyond its immediate subjects and is actually prophetic. Paranoia over bond scams, which are central to Gatsby's wealth, were a real factor in the Great Crash of 1929. Daisy's marriage seems likely to fail, too. Nick Carraway's prospect seems to be as a writer of great romans-à-clef rather than great bond issues. Perhaps only the ultra cool trickster Jordan Baker – herself a real “old sport” - has what it takes to come out on top?




Georgian Poetry 1911-12
ed. by
Edward Marsh

The Georgian began - let us picture the prelapsarian idyll on the eve of World War One - as a collection of earnest young authors whose crisp verse appeared in slim volumes, often published out of their own pockets. The looming cataclysm set to destroy their world only enhances their innocence. For the first Georgians are not famously inspired by the sinking of the Titanic, by the uprising of labour (even police forces went on strike in 1912), or by such international crises as Agadir and the Balkan Wars. They are thought of as a mainly back-to-nature lot, swains to buxom shepherdesses in plashy meads and admirers of fauns at their tea-time frolics. Of course, great changes were in store, but Volume 1, which I feature here, was only the first of five anthologies edited by Edward Marsh (with the help of Rupert Brooke & Lascelles Abercrombie) published in the decade from 1912.

Rupert Brooks' “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester”, which is included here, would be the type-cast for this school of verse. Its apparent patriotism, or at least its affection for a down-your-way homeland, would eschew the jingoism of bull-dogs & gun-dogs (often to be observed in Mr Kipling's offerings) for the gentler love of scones with butter, jam & cream. But reading “Grantchester” in this, its true context, I appreciate more the fun of it all. For example, how the nostalgia the poet felt for his favourite corner of Cambridge is contrasted by sly digs at other local spots and their inhabitants. For example the “Royston men” who,

Are black and fierce and strange of mouth;
At Over they fling oaths at one,
And worse than oaths at Trumpington,
And Ditton girls are mean and dirty,
And there's none in Harston under thirty,
And folks in Shelford and those parts
Have twisted lips and twisted hearts,
And Barton men make cockney rhymes,
And Coton's full of nameless crimes,
And things are done you'd not believe
At Madingley on Christmas Eve.
Strong men have run for miles and miles
When one from Cherry Hinton smiles;
Strong men have blanched and shot their wives
Rather than send them to St. Ives;”

In fact, this whole section of the poem is such a riot of comic jibes you can't help but hoot when it is read it out, and then to read the rest of the lines with wry chuckles and smiles.

As a movement, the Georgians are also known for their reaction against the pure aestheticism of late Victorian poetry. I suppose you could take that to mean they were anti-decadent, wrote from the heart and were not given to high-brow ironies or cynicisms. As we have seen from the above, and will see below, there is more to this generation of writers than a posture of deliberate naïvety. There is the usual deal of classical reference we would expect from the public school system. For example Ronald Ross calls his poem to the Evening Star, “Herperus”, while the Greco-Roman mythology of T. Sturge Moore's “A Sicilian Idyll” perhaps reflects a return to Aristotelian values. In the way the Pre-Raphaelites of an earlier generation had sought to cut through the embellishments of the late renaissance and early modern period, were the Georgians trying to arrive at purer models for their art? Yet Sturge Moore's story of the youth Delphius' depair at the loss of his childhood friend (first to a tutor, then to a wife), could appear to a modern reader to have undertones of ambiguous sexuality. Moore was excluded from the later volumes on the grounds that he wasn't a real Georgian. So what constituted the genuine article?

The number of religious – perhaps I should say Christian – works comes as a surprise to this reader, who was not expecting so much piety in 1912. Because of alphabetical ordering of the authors, Liverpool poet Lascelles Abercrombie's “The Sale of St Thomas” has first place in the book. It's a blank verse dialogue between a very worldly (I might say unsaintly) Thomas (of the doubts) and the captain of a vessel bound for India. Thomas wants to sail for India and books his passage with the captain. But the captain can't sail for want of a carpenter on board. The need for this, plus stories of a missionary flayed to death and of the flies that plague India persuade Thomas he had better not make such a voyage, so he informs the captain he has changed his mind. Then along comes a Noble stranger (the 'owner' of Thomas, who turns out to be His runnaway slave), who pays the captain to take him anyway. In other words, this is an allegorical piece that does not so much disturb the tenets of religiosity as give them a gloss of realism.

Another kind of realism pervades James Stephens' “The Lonely God” which portrays God forlornly wandering about the garden of Eden after the Expulsion. I say realism because this human mould deity is a jealous god of rather mortal tendencies, coveting Adam's wife Eve and imagining the day when she,

The perfect woman of his perfect race
Shall sit beside Me in the highest place
And be my Goddess, Queen, Companion, Wife,
The rounder of My majesty, the life,
Of My ambition. She will smile to see
Me bending down to worship at her knee
Who never bent before, and she will say,
'Dear God, who was it taught 'Thee' how to pray?'

I am somewhat startled to discover the author was an Irishman, a nationalist, friend of Joyce and surely in another camp from the Georgians! It's amazing to me how poetry of this era managed to cross political divides. Rupert Brooke, after all, was an intimate of Winston Churchill, who was then First Lord of the Admiralty and not too chummy with many Fenians. After World War One kicked off, Brooke was able to joke – hinting of a real prospect – that with Winston's intervention, Lascelles Abercrombie could join him in uniform as official War Bard. And yet, I think the inclusion of James' work is actually a nod and a wink towards the true aim of the Georgians. Edward Marsh, Lascelles Abercrombie and Rupert Brooke were seeking to do for English poetry (still weighed down by much Victorian baggage) what the Celtic Revival had done for the Irish.

This book is far too long to review in great depth and I want to single out only one further long poem. Meantime, I should say that DH Lawrence, Walter De La Mare & GK Chesterton are among the seventeen poets included in the anthology.

The Georgian poet Wilfrid Gibson is singled out for much attention in “Centre & Periphery in Modern British Poetry” (Andrew Duncan, Liverpool University Press). I would like to steer readers in the direction of this book, though I fear many will – like me – find the going tough. It's at once a scholarly and eccentric piece of criticism and my attempt to write a review of it may never be finished. However, it does throw light on this (nowadays) obscure Northerner, who, in Duncan's claim is really the only poet to have made a serious attempt at writing in an English dialect. Gibson has three poems in Georgian Poetry Vol 1, but “The Hare” is the one I wish to focus briefly on.

The Hare” is a rambling, quasi gypsy-ballad in which a young man recounts his pursuit of and romance with an orphan girl. “The Hare”, which he almost strangles in a dream in the opening of the piece, returns several times, either as guide or allegorical figure. It's a poem of escapist romanticism, celebrating the freedom of the road, a nomadic lifestyle & utopian love. The landscape is a throwback to the British Isles of George Borrow (especially his "Lavengro") in which the countryside could be plodded without crossing railway lines or entering large towns.

Here' a short though typical stanza. The whole poem is in iambic tetrameter with an eccentric pattern of rhyming. The narrator and his girl have now fallen in with each other are on the road at nightfall, she having escaped into his company from a guardian who was about to give her in marriage to an unwholesome friend.

"And all about us, through the night,
The mists were stealing, cold and white,
Down every rushy syke or slack:
But soon the moon swung into sight;
And as we went my heart was light.
And singing like a burn in flood:
And in my ears were tinkling bells;
My body was a rattled drum:
And fifes were shrilling through my blood
That summer night, to think that she
Was walking through the world with me."

Without in the least murmuring of smut, "The Hare" is a powerful erotic fantasy of homely chivalry and free love. It shows us that the growth of social revolution in the nineteen twenties came from seeds planted before the First War. Andrew Duncan would also have us believe that the Georgians were socialists who laid the ground for the more radical poets of the nineteen thirties. Having read Vol 1, I am intrigued by both these ideas.





Laurence Olivier
by
John Cottrell

In a recent Guardian newspaper interview (6/5/2014), the poet John Cooper Clarke made fun of poets whose parents approved of their work,

I can read a poet now and tell within a few lines if they have been encouraged by their parents. You know the ones who have been told from an early age: "It's marvellous Tarquin." It's invariably rotten.

The same holds true, I believe, of actors. Leaving aside for one moment those from established Thespian families (the Redgraves and Fondas of this world), actors can easily be divided into individuals whose parents pushed them, and the rebels who had to jump ship to get into the business. That's not to say the likes of Dirk Bogarde or Toyah Wilcox turned into "rotten" actors, though there was a quality of self-satisfaction about their work which they needed to overcome. Lawrence Olivier came not from a theatrical background but from a High Anglican vicar father with an interest in the stage. By substituting religion for the theatre, Shakespeare for god, his single-parent upbringing and being sent off to drama school at the age of seventeen, we can appreciate how Olivier sprang from between two sources: sub-noble scion and gang-show bore. Bolted on to that, the early years of slogging at his craft and mixing with sundry Method actors (yes, John, there's always one hanging about), comedians and natural talents, Olivier honed himself into the greatest ham of all time.

This much, John Cottrell's book tells us, though never so directly. We could have expected a more in-depth analysis of the actor's psychological make-up from the writer of a "best-selling account of the assassination of President Kennedy". Instead we get copious notes on the false-noses, hair-dos, voice production and other externals that make up an actor's craft, along with some details on his career as empressario, then as first director of the Chichester Festival and National Theatres. Of his three marriages, four children (by two wives), home life, friendships and out-of-theatre interests, we get some snippets - though few of them choice or telling asides. The fact that Oliver was still very much alive when this biography was published (coinciding with his seventieth birthday; he was to go on living and working for another decade and more) seems to have inhibited not merely its content but its scope.

As a straight forward account of Laurence Olivier's progress from child actor to his elevation to the peerage (he was the first actor to be granted a seat in the UK's House of Lords), this biography does a tolerable job. Graduating from the Central School of Speech Training & Drama in 1924, the artist served an apprenticeship at Birmingham Rep and rose, within a few years, to become a juvenile lead in London's West End. He made early forays into talking pictures and by the close of the 1930s had established himself on both stage and screen both sides of the Atlantic. His partnership with Vivien Leigh (second wife) continued through and beyond World War Two with both taking starring roles in acclaimed films (she in “Gone With the Wind”, he in “Pride and Prejudice) and in stage productions (appearing together as Lord and Lady in “Macbeth”). He also followed his colleague Ralph Richardson into active service in the Fleet Air Arm as a pilot, though for most of the conflict he was seconded to the entertainment side of the war effort. His filmed versions of three Shakespeare plays (“Henry V”, “Richard III” & “Othello”) were considered milestones both for their use of the medium and for popularising English classical theatre. Olivier could turn his hand to a wide variety of roles and acting styles. For example, as he approached his fiftieth birthday, he was able to star alongside Marilyn Monroe in “The Prince and the Showgirl” (1956); then on stage as a fading music hall comedian in John Osborne's “The Entertainer” (1957, filmed in 1959). The 1960s saw a slight reduction in his stage and screen work as he took on the administrative role of directing the National Theatre, however he was still capable of turning out powerful stage performances, such as “Othello” and many cameo roles on film (for example, “Oh, What a Lovely War!”). This biography only goes up to 1976, when he had given up his twelve year stint at the National (while continuing to act for the company) , and had made films such as “Sleuth” (with Michael Caine) plus various TV roles (Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” and Nikodemus in “The Life of Jesus Christ”).

It is not until page 350 (of a 480 page book) that we are told,

So often in the past he had been a law unto himself in his interpretation of a part, going his own unpredictable way to great personal advantage but sometimes at the expense of the production as a whole.

The year is 1963, the fourth decade of his professional career. Are we to assume that some of the failed productions were due to Olivier upstaging fellow actors? We are told the 1940 production of “Romeo And Juliet”, in which he and Vivien Leigh starred together, flopped when it reached Broadway. Why? Cottrell merely suggests the New York critics were prejudiced. That hardly explains why the couple who were about to star in a film together (as Nelson and Mrs Hamilton - a wartime triumph both sides of the pond) failed so spectacularly on stage. They had sunk their personal fortunes into the lavish production and done well enough on the road. They were, moreover, newlyweds and every bit as famous as Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were to become two decades later. Without further exploration, we may be excused from wondering if Olivier - as Romeo - upstaged his Juliet. Or did Olivier lose his nerve? Without closer analysis we will never know, but it is the job of the biographer to do so.

In his penultimate chapter, Cottrell singles out Olivier's physical fitness and physical presence as two of his major strengths. He goes on to catalogue injuries he sustained both on stage and in front of the camera, including thrust and slash wounds from swords, an arrow in the leg, a broken ankle and electric shock. At times he would throw himself about the stage in unrehearsed business, and at others he would routinely perform leaps and bounds – at one time, after a bracket had broken, being left dangling ten metres above the stage from a piano wire. All of which suggests a recklessness which is at somewhat at odds with the man's conservative image. Indeed, it seems Olivier was that rare animal, the old school revolutionary. Never wishing to appear “old hat” (a favourite phrase) he would embrace the unconventional. Cottrell presents evidence to support the idea he was in fact rather awkward at times and that - though fond of grand japes - his behaviour could be either ungraceful or downright clottish. On his first day of operational duty at the Fleet Air Arm, he was taxiing a seaplane across the tarmac when he crashed it into two other planes, knocking all three out of action. One evening at the National, he gave such a tour-de-force performance of Othello that the whole cast lined the corridor to his dressing room, cheering him as he went by. He strutted past them and slammed the door behind him. Apparently he was upset because he knew he could never repeat the performance. To behave with such gracelessness before his fellows seems at best a lack of feeling, at worst the antics of a callous boor. While he so often excelled in stage charisma was he sometimes weak in self awareness?


There are precious few anecdotes in this biography, concentrating as it does on the actor/manager's successes and failures. We are told of his friendship with Richardson but only once do we see really them together, when Olivier was taken for a spin in his friend's new car, along with his new wife. The joke is funny enough but on its own does not amount to a portrait of their relationship. The rest is exchanges of advice here and there. You are left speculating perhaps the pair were not really friends at all, that there might have been more rivalry than companionship between them. So Cottrell doesn't really pursue Olivier the man. In the last chapters we learn he had a temper, but were are the shouting matches with Kenneth Tynan? And what were they about? Why was he so irascible at times? Did he drink too much? And what really happened between him and Vivien Leigh? I'm not tempted to say this biography asks more questions than it answers. The real problem is, it questions too little of Olivier's life and work.





CAESAR (Life of a Colossus)

by Adrian Goldsworthy


This life of Julius Caesar was originally published (minus subtitle on jacket) as one of Weidenfield's military history tomes back in 2006. With the success of the BBC/HBO TV series “Rome”, it was quickly repackaged and relaunched to cater for a subsequent surge of interest in the founder of Imperial Rome. Arguably, Julius Caesar has always been ancient history's most popular figure. Even contemporary contenders for that distinction – Cleopatra as beauty/queen, Pompey Magnus as fixer/general, Cicero as writer/orator - were more or less satellites of Gaius Caesar of the Julii. What sets him above the other great figures of the day is the breadth of his achievements from the battlefield, to politics to oratory & authorship. Goldsworthy's biography, we are told, is wider in scope than other accounts. Whereas many books concentrate on Caesar the military tactician, others deal with the rise and fall of his dictatorship. What we have here is a life that claims to combine the man's political career with his military campaigns. But is that enough to pad out a full life?

Most biographies succeed or fail neither by strict adherence to fact, nor by spinning the good yarn. Where an author has to dig out hidden truths, then such facts may have something spicy to add. And where the telling of the tale reflects the legendary nature of its protagonist, then the story may benefit from spicier writing. However, built on original research & good writing, a successful biography needs to give the reader a contextualised portrait that stands up for itself. In the case of a well-known figure from ancient history, especially the most famous of all, the biographer is faced with two main obstacles. First comes the difficulty of finding out anything new. Secondly, when a tale has already been told many times, detaching the plausible from the mythologised takes precedence over constructing new narrative. And to compare the task of writing a biography of Julius Caesar with that of a “colossus” from recent times – say Winston Churchill – an author needs to keep the obscurity of the facts under control while encasing the narrative in familiar terms.

It's interesting that Goldsworthy draws only sparingly on Caesar's own Commentaries, preferring third hand accounts. But surely the reports he sent from the campaigns in Gaul, which were published more of less annually in Rome, would have been widely read at the time? According to Cicero, the author tells us, even tradespeople were fond of reading. Furthermore, Caesar was renowned for the clarity of his writing - making it easier for the less educated, and therefore I think we should simply assume he was a popular author in his lifetime. Although he didn't write an actual autobiography, like Sulla (his predecessor as dictator); I think it's necessary to distinguish between the way Caesar saw himself and the way others recalled him.

At this point, I pray to digress and delve into my own motives for reading a biography of such a remote figure. I often read these accounts of real people's lives as a sort of antidote to my fiction reading. It intrigues me to see how well or ill character is conveyed by words alone; and I qualify that point of view by stating I come from the first generation brought up in the television age (I was born in 1956 and remember watching Popeye cartoons at the age of three or four). The virtual window of inscribed words on a page (whether of clay tablet, papyrus roll, paper book or e-reader screen) was established long before the time of Julius Caesar. By his era, real life & myth had already been recorded in histories or mimicked in prose & verse for more than a thousand years (if we go merely as far back as the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh). Caesar himself made unique contributions to the body of writing, not only by publishing the Commentaries his own accounts of his military campaigns, he was also a poet and critic. Biographers, therefore, are able to use his own writing – and that of contemporaries such as Cicero – to base much of their texts on. We also have two thousand years' worth of commentaries on those commentaries to help us decipher them. When we pick up any book purporting to be a life of Julius Caesar, therefore, I think we are entitled to expect a fine distillation not just of the grapes of truth (if such a phrase may be pardonned) but the true essence of the man.

Goldsworthy's method, especially in the first third of his book, is to extrapolate Caesar's youth and early career from a wide-ranging of reading around the subject. He conjectures on the likely upbringing the boy would have received as a member of an old but somewhat undistinguished branch of the aristocratic Julii clan. He then fills in the backstory of Sulla's dictatorship, which began when Caesar was about fifteen years old. The known facts give the first inklings of the young man's character: his dandiness, defiance and courage. Goldsworthy's caution prevents him from drawing too fine a portrait, though; and when he recounts the young adventurer's expedition to Bythinia (incidentally located in the very part of modern Turkey where I live) he is confronted with one important unknown fact. Did Caesar have a homosexual affair with King Nicomedes? Contemporary sleaze-mongers styled him “Queen of Bythinia” - a sobriquet to dog him for the rest of his life. Though there is no other suggestion that Caesar was anything other than heterosexual (and the prolific seducer of other men's wives), he was still issuing denials of the affair in the year of his assassination, four decades later! In addition to the mocking title of “Queen”, Caesar so distinguished himself in battle against King Nicomedes' enemies (and therefore the enemies of Rome), he was awarded the Civic Crown, the second highest honour possible. These are the facts.

It's all very well to assume Caesar, as a youth, received the same education as every other scion of the rich. That level of research could be summarised without quotes from Suetonius (writing on Caesar himself) or Cicero (writing about another young man). What stands out in Caesar's case? Where precisely were his estates? What local legends survive of him? What is known of the gardens he was to bequeath in his will? I believe there must be things of this kind worthy to include, no matter how dubious the sources may be. After his adopted son Octavian became the Emperor Augustus, Romans worshipped Julius Caesar as a god. Temples were erected to him and all kind of relics would have been dug out and revered. Still being in living memory, anyone who knew him would have contributed to this lore. For comparison, take the life of Jesus Christ, who was far less well-known, yet many little snippets of his family story came out after his death. For example, during the flight to Egypt, Joseph is believed by Coptic Christians to have worked as a carpenter on the Fortress of Babylon in Old Cairo. In the decades after Julius Caesar's death, I am sure thousands of stories were told and many places identified with him. But this book is not based on field research, which is a great shame. We need to know more of his background than just the supposed shape and colour of his toga.


Other ways of getting at the real man could have included a comparative study of the sculpture. Roman artists followed the realism of their Greek masters and though not exactly a warts-and-all approach, neither was Roman stone portraiture ever more than lightly idealised or stylised. Caesar's portrayal in contemporary literature is undoubtedly biased towards the writer's politics. Suetonius in “The Twelve Caesars”, written a century and a half later, was drawing on such like, which writers have done ever since. There is a short round-up of Caesar in literature towards the end of Goldsworthy's book, but nothing like the comparative study I would have expected. Gielgud's portrayal of Shakespeare's Caesar, which I saw at the National Theatre in London, 1977, was somewhat elderly and patrician (the actor himself was probably too old by then), but I seem to remember it was greeted as a classic performance. Caesar, was responsible for his own myth-making, and his efforts to promote himself have reverberated down the centuries.

Any narrative that ends in the pre-known sudden death of its protagonist is bound to be overshadowed by a Faustian cloud; especially a text like Goldsworthy's, which blithely reminds us what is going happen to its protagonist every fifty or so pages. It's hard to imagine anyone watching a film like “The Bunker” without the grim knowledge of how it's going to end. Yet it does not follow that as soon as Caesar crossed the little Rubicon river with the XIIIth Legion (an act of civil war), that his committal of treason therefore doomed him. Yet the expression “crossing the Rubicon” equates to “burning one's boats” not to “selling one's soul to the devil”. It is no coincidence that so many of Caesar's words and actions (whether real, invented or associated) have similarly entered international parlance and culture. He may have uttered the phrase, “Veni, Vidi, Vici” (“I have come, I have seen, I have conquered”) on a previous occasion, but when he included it in his Commentary on the Civil War, he was referring to the pushovers of Pontus and not to his greatest victories. A few months later, returning in triumphal to Rome, the expression was written out on placards and carried in procession and was taken to mean ALL of his conquests. “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” - the words with which Shakespeare has Mark Anthony open Caesar's funerary ovation - have become the catch-phrase of the populist rabble-rousing politician. Yet Caesar, then dead, remained aloof from the implication. Even the phrase, “Et tu, Brute”, which he himself may not have uttered, remains an expression of the betrayal he obviously felt, and therefore not actually untrue. The myth he built around himself continued to grow long after his death, robbing the assassins of their justification.

Throughout the book, the initials BC are used, which I can't bother objecting to as date marker. The alternative BCE, though it is more politically correct, still refers to the Gregorian calendar (itself a revision of a calendar introduced by Julius Caesar), and anchors history to a Romano-Christian world view. What niggles me is the Faustian countdown effect of constantly referring to these dates. Goldsworthy even talks about BC decades as though they existed. Well, yes, of course ten year periods did exist, but not in the way we count them back from the estimated birth year of Jesus Christ. The Romans had their own anno primo (though never fully agreed on) from which Julius Caesar lived in the eighth century. Roman people would refer to a year as “when so-and-so had the consulship”, or “x years after the dictatorship of another so-and-so”, or “when the triumph of whatshisname was held”. By constantly mentioning years in the countdown BC timetable, Goldsworthy alienates us from the mental set of the Romans.

When we get into the middle and latter thirds of the book, the narrative is dominated by Caesar's military campaigns in Gaul and the Civil War, the true military bias of the book is revealed. Generals throughout history (whether of the field or armchair variety) have studied Caesar's campaigns and Napoleon Bonaparte's commentaries on Caesar's set piece battles are mentioned several times. Caesar's luck, especially in recovering from his own mistakes, seems to have been a major feature of the campaigns he waged. Also, his caution, which probably cost him more victories than defeats, preserved him to fight another day. Of life on his campaigns, Goldsworthy gives interesting details. For example, that Caesar would often stay with local Celtic nobles rather than in his own camp. That horses were fed on seaweed when all other fodder was used up. And that barley or even roots were sometimes made into bread for the legionnaires.

What Goldsworthy fails to do, I think because he always prefers to reserve final judgement, is to summarise the main qualities of Caesar's war fighting succinctly enough. And yet, all the evidence is in the book. Firstly, he was a front-line general who shared the risks of combat and thereby gained the devotion of his soldiers. As a youngster, he went East, organised local militias along Roman lines, and achieved modest successes against poorly-led opposition. Later on, in Gaul, again pitching well-trained troops against semi-wild native warriors, time and time again he overcame divided enemies. Finally, forced to fight against Roman legions in the civil war, he lost almost everything - except his head. Against a tired Pompey, the twelve years he had spent leading armies in the field gave him a significant edge and total victory in the end .

It may come as no surprise to the reader that Caesar suffered from epilepsy, and Goldsworthy does mention the bare facts. However, I would expect a biographer worth his salt to have investigated the incidence of epilepsy amongst other figures from military, political and literary history. Then, by comparing Casear's situation with their's, at least we could have had a better idea of what he and his followers were up against.

Nowhere does Goldsworthy make it clear that Caesar's ability to compromise with his fellow Roman aristocrats would, in the end, prove his downfall. His dictatorship was never the tyranny that Sulla's was, he didn't have people rounded up and killed. He wanted genuine reform: land redistribution to the less well off, the prosecution of corrupt officials, the reward of loyalty, even democracy. He was not vengeful, never dismissed the Senate or blocked elections to the various offices of state. Few could have borne him real grudges. It was simple jealousy, with which the Roman republic was rife (and which he practised as much as most), that set men against him. Jealousy was even encouraged by the system. Elections for the highest offices of state being held every year was just incompatible with a growing empire. Having already expanded far beyond the city-state it was founded as, Rome risked the same fate Athens had suffered four centuries before. An empire needs both strong central AND devolved local government. When appointments were made on a yearly basis and new governors took months to arrive at their territories, there was bound to be discontinuity and corruption. As long as men were able to fight amongst themselves for favours, they would do so to the detriment of the common good.

That's not to suggest Caesar was too saintly for his own good. He and the rest of the Roman nobility were a blood-thirsty lot, which Goldsworthy's book bears witness to and apologises for. What distinguished the Romans from their Gaulish, Egyptian and German neighbours was their organisational skill; meaning they were able to work together in a way unique in the ancient world. Co-operating as soldiers on campaign, they divided the labour of foraging, construction work and actual fighting in a manner that confounded their enemies. In times of war and peace they were business people, traders, settlers, opportunists, you could almost say proto-capitalists – slave-drivers without ethical qualms. In the upshot, Caesar's assassination differs not from any St Valentine's Day massacre type of peer justice. All Caesars, whether big-hearted Julius' or snidey little Edward G. Robinson's, live and die by the sword of jealous brothers-in-arms.





"This Side Of Paradise"

By F. Scott Fitzgerald

I Do Hate to Be A Spoiler, but...

I must confess skim-reading “This Side Of Paradise” a couple of years back, dismissing the work as a rag bag and putting it down somewhere on Goodreads as “the first Coffee Table novel”. Before Christmas, I began delivering on a guilty self-pledge to plough through the tome word for word, and not a few weeks did pass before that mealy task was done. The verdict? It is more pastiche than rag bag, a distinction I endeavour to explain below.

Of course, the novel has to be read by all serious students of Fitzgerald's work not simply because it was the first he published; launching his career, it became the fiction sensation of 1920-1. It first took off on the back of positive reviews from a brace of friendly critics (Rascoe & Mencken) who were keen to promote Fitzgerald's distinctly Young American voice. Thereafter, it soared on chutzpah & hype; and benefiting from the coast-to-coast coverage of publishing giant Scribners almost 50,000 copies were sold in little over a year. It may be the first novel to depict the return of the US Expeditionary Force from Flanders, and by pre-dating Faulkner's “Soldier's Pay” and Hemingway's “The Sun Also Rises” by half a decade, it delineates the start of a literary movement of which the latter was to coin the term, “Lost Generation”.

That books sell through clever marketing is clear, but a certain amount of consumer satisfaction is also required. What appealed to 1920s readers is slightly more complex. No doubt, fascination with the lives of the rich would have kept many eyes on the page. Sex plays a major part, too. Of course, Fitzgerald was no purveyor of smut and the novel presented little that would have been worthy of any second glances by Jazz Age censors. It may therefore have benefited from the vogue for risqué without incurring any of the risks. Through a mixture of obtuseness and subtlety, Fitzgerald takes his reader from scandal-class kisses at posh house parties to the cheap hotel rooms of debauchery proscribed by the Mann - 'White Slavery' - Act of 1910. Also of topical note was the start of Prohibition in the very year of publication, which may have increased sales to the clientèle – or would-be clientèle - of the speak-easy. Most of all, though, “This Side of Paradise” is a book about young adults, written by a young adult, for young adults. It was the start of the era when law-making would begin to dog the lives of young Americans and lead, ultimately, to the revolutionary Beat Generation that came after the Second World War. Having laid that claim for it, however, it must be said that the text as a whole is not an easy read. Doubtless many copies would have fallen open at well-marked, well-read passages.

A handbag? Pastiche? Influenced by the likes of Compton MacKenzie’s “Sinister Street” and Joyce's “Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man”, its many passages of brittle prose are cut, for heaven's sake, with much damp poetry and windy dialogue. It's as though the contents of Zelda's diaries (the style of which Fitzgerald carefully deployed in drafts of his early novel, “The Romantic Egoist”) had been tipped out onto a large refectory table, cherry picked and then repackaged between leaves of his own stuff. Expensively produced stuff, that is. All the same, stuff. At one point our anti-hero Amory Blaine walks out of his job at a New York advertising agency complaining,

...it took about ten thousand dollars to educate me where I could write your darned stuff for you”.

We never get to read his copy, but we are tied to the mast while Fitzgerald does impressions of Endymion The Vogon,

                 “The shadow of a dove
Falls on the cote, the trees are filled with wings;
And down the valley through the crying trees
The body of the darker storm flies; brings
With its new air the breath of sunken seas
And slender tenuous thunder...

Is this the writer who gave us “The Great Gatsby”? You better believe it! How did the old Iggy Pop number go? “Success/Here comes my Chinese rug”.


The main characters are clearly life-meets-literature drawn, from Blaine (an amalgam of Fitz himself with various Princeton bonhomies), his fairy godmother Ma, an actual Monsignor, a succession of débutantes (amongst which Fitz's real-life loves Zelda Sayres and Ginevra King are measured out in coffee spoons) plus lesser souls for whom the East Coast of the nineteen-teens would have been an anthem stomp for disaffected youth. It's an artificial book in as much as it's populated by artificial people. There is no plot, no ending to give away. So here's my spoiler: some die, others go on to other things.




Visits to Monasteries in the Levant

by Robert Curzon

No mealy-mouthed apology, carefully worded excuse or legal argument can deny the truth. 'Visits to Monasteries in the Levent' is the tale of a gentleman thief. But nor is its author any sort of Raffles, no down-on-his-luck aristocrat preying on the follies of an idle rich bretheren. The book, despite a plea to have been written for his own pleasure, was a runaway success when first published, adding immoral profit to hoodwinks and larceny. In the years 1834-37 Robert Curzon, later fourteenth Baron Zouche, plundered the libraries of Orthodox monasteries in Egypt, Palestine and Greece. His claims to legitimacy include cash payments and donations made to the monks in occupation, assertions that he was looking principally for lost non-religious works, and that he rescued many books from destruction.

The publication of Curzon's book in 1849, coming five years on the heels of Kinglake's 'Eothen', turned its well-heeled author into a literary celebrity. The work went through three printings in its first year, then several editions. 'Eothen' had created a surge in demand for travel writing, especially about the Orient; a popular sensation which would climax in the 1865 issue of Sir Richard Burton's 'Pilgrimage to Mecca'. Curzon's tome played up to Victorian fantasies of the East, exploited the eternal craze for treasure hunting; and the author was lent academic credibility by his pursuit of lost classical texts.

What merit does the book have besides the achievement of popular success? Perhaps not as not as finely written as Kinglake's journal - which always avoids reading like a diary - where 'Monasteries' is lacking in literary artifice, it makes up for in the freshness of its portraits and landscapes. Curzon, still only twenty-three years of age when he first sailed for the East, had come down from Oxford without a degree in order to succeed his father as member of parliament for Clitheroe. He promptly lost this seat, as a result of the Great Reform Bill, and so embarked on his own version of what was still called The Grand Tour. One of the first scenes he describes is the harbour of Navarino, where wrecks of the Egyptian and Turkish fleets could still be seen, seven years after they were destroyed by Admiral Codrington's coalition fleet. From the Peloponnese, Curzon and his companion would embark for Egypt, and so the scene shift to the streets of Alexandria and their first vision of life in the Orient.

Curzon's portrayal of what nowadays would be called culture shock relies on a thoughtful evaluation of what it meant to be a traveller in those days. In this, he is a decidedly modern writer. From the balcony of what he calls 'the only hotel in Africa', a typical paragraph,

Some miserable-looking black slaves caught our attention, clothed each in a piece of Isabel-coloured canvas and led by a well-dressed man, who had probably just bought them. Then a great personage came by on horseback with a number of mounted attendants and some men on foot, who cleared the way before him, and struck everybody on the head with their sticks who did not get out of the way fast enough. These blows were dealt all round in the most unceremonious manner; but what appeared to us extraordinary was, that all these beaten people did not seem to care for being beat. They looked neither angry nor affronted, but only grinned and rubbed their shoulders, and moved on one side to let the train of the great man pass by. Now if this were done in London, what a ferment would it create! what speeches would be made about tyranny and oppression! what a capital thing some high-minded and independent patriot would make of it! how he would call a meeting to defend the rights of the subject! and how he would get his admirers to vote him a piece of plate for his noble and glorious exertions! Here nobody minded the thing; they took no heed of the indignity; and I verily believe my friend and I, who were safe up at the window, were the only persons in the place who felt any annoyance.”

The 'annoyance' felt by Curzon and his companion is not, I would suggest, indignation. His irritation was less to do with self-righteousness than the affront to human dignity with which such peremptory beatings were endured. There is exploitation here, too. The passage quoted is accompanied by the following illustration:



I assume this to be a romanticised representation of slavery as it still existed in Egypt at the time. Curzon's reactionary pique was aroused not only by the oppressions of daily life in the east, but the corresponding freedoms his countrymen enjoyed. He was writing as a Tory whose narrative begins in the very year in which the Tolpuddle Martyrs were transported to Botany Bay.

Not all of Curzon's attitudes, however, are of a political reactionary. There was something like Humanism in the man, too. Firstly, we see the human touch in his challenge to the prevalent Protestant belief that all monks were fat and lazy. At least as far as Benedictine monks of the Catholic Church were concerned, he disavowed the image of Friar Tuck in Walter Scott's Ivanhoe as unreal. He asserts that the majority of Orthodox monks he encountered in the Levant were pious, hard-working and worthy individuals. Secondly, he parodies European attitudes towards Islam in a jocular passage his contemporary Edward Lear might have penned. A Persian – i.e. a Moslem - visitor to England enters a church. On seeing the organ pipes then hearing it played, he starts at its ugliness and guesses it to be the incarnation of a monster. When, service being over, the congregation stream headlong out of the church, the Persian naturally assumes it is in flight from the said beast.

There are in fact many anecdotes in the book, mostly second hand (as the above), that illustrate, for example, the honesty of Turkish porters or the guile of Armenian dealers. I suspect many a national stereotype has its origins in the tales told to Victorian travellers. But enough apologies already! No matter that Curzon was content to be cheated of a few shekels for his board & lodging. He carried about with him a bag of universal gold and he carried off the core of what is now the British Museum's collection of Orthodox Church manuscripts. No doubt the curators there will excuse his avarice by pointing to the bad conditions the books were kept in and how he had actually rescued them from the hungry jaws of rat & bookworm. Will these two wrongs make a right? If yes, then at least we have Curzon's own words to help restore the books to their original locations.


'David Niven
The Other Side Of The Moon'



a biography by
Sheridan Morley


In general, books have to be read according to their contemporary style or timeless poetics. Irrespective of the writing, sometimes just the content of a book justifies the hours frittered away in a self world, ignoring the bleats of mobile phone to be charged or dishwasher to be emptied. When a book announces it will tell 'the other side' of a famous life story, filling in the bits left out by the author of no less than two autobiographies (both read and enjoyed), then there is a book screaming out to be read. But woe betide such a book that lets you down!

David Niven was a Hollywood actor, a British star; very well known during his five decades of picture-making and still remembered to this day, though he died thirty years back. He wasn't the most remarkable of actors and some of the ninety films he made were not what they promised to be ('Bonnie Prince Charlie', 1948), commercial flops ('Oh Men! Oh Women!' 1957) or just plain bizarre ('Casino Royale', 1967). The list of his blockbusters, though, tells of a career without parallel. Check out the movies you've either seen or heard of: 'The Charge of the Light Brigade', 1936; 'The Prisoner of Zenda', 1937; 'The Dawn Patrol', 1938; 'Wuthering Heights', 'Raffles', 1939; 'The First of the Few', 1942; 'Stairway To Heaven' 1945; 'Around The World In Eighty Days' 1956; 'Separate Tables', 1958 (for which he won the Oscar for Best Actor); 'The Guns of Navarone', 1961; 'The Pink Panther', 1964; 'Death On The Nile', 1978, and 'The Curse Of The Pink Panther', 1982. He was also one of the pioneers of live television drama in the US, both as actor and producer. He served his country on active service in the British Army throughout World War Two, only taking time off to make propaganda films (some good 'uns at that). Plus, he found time to write a couple of novels, and two highly successful volumes of autobiographical reminiscences: 'The Moon's A Balloon', 1971; and 'Bring On The Empty Horses', 1975.

I well remember us tuning in to the episode of 'Parkinson' (Britain's equivalent of the 'Dick Cavett Show') when he was promoting his first autobiography in 1971. I was fourteen at the time and by rights would have seen the old bean as another old square. The fact he dared to talk about his schoolboy sex life made him human to me. My father dismissed the man (he thought all actors were, “pimps, puffs or prostitutes”), but as a family we always watched 'Parkinson' together; and I then recalled how Dad had taken us to see Niven with Shirley MacLaine at the Odeon Cinema when 'Around The World In Eighty Days' was re-released (around 1965). In our wholes lives together, the only other film Dad took us to see was 'Lawrence of Arabia' (another Sixties re-release.)

Many, many years later, when I began researching for the second volume of my 'Leaves of the Poets', I picked up both of Niven's autobiographies and read them with amusement. These vols are light reads, not what is called 'literature', but flipping heck, books can be simple fun, can't they? Without reading between the lines, it wasn't hard to guess what Niven had done to become a writer. In fact, whenever the film career took a dip, he'd turn his hand to another medium to supplement his income. Before becoming a movie actor, for instance, he'd been a solider, sold liquor and promoted horse racing. Ensconced in Hollywood, whenever he was laid off, he would do some radio, television or even live theatre. So what would he write about, besides himself? He'd always been known as a raconteur. In the long hours movie actors have to stand about waiting for their turn to perform, he would keep everyone on the set amused by prattling about all the famous people he'd hung out with. These included legendary names such as Errol Flynn, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Gary Cooper, Merle Oberon, Olivia de Havilland, Laurence Olivier, Cary Grant, Shirley Temple... the list is quite without limit. On the set, he would hone the telling of these stories, embellishing them and taking liberties with the truth, as far as decorum and friendship would allow. Therefore his stories should not be seen as true in themselves, but rather as gossipy commentaries on great cinema celebrities and the times in which they lived. Reading his books, you soon twig the vein in which the stories are told and glimpse the real world which they gloss over.

For example, opening 'The Moon's a Balloon' at a random page, I find a typical anecdote. It is 1938, Niven is under contract to the producer Sam Goldwyn but has been suspended for turning down a script. With nothing else to do, he makes a couple of lucrative radio broadcasts; only to be informed by Goldwyn's lawyer that under the terms of his contract – despite suspension - he is not allowed to do any acting work at all. But Sam Goldwyn knows a good thing when he sees one, and instead of being sued, Niven has to cough up fifty per cent of his fees. Next off, he does a radio show with Bing Crosby, sponsored by the food corporation Kraft. In due course, along with his cheque, Niven is sent a hamper full of food. So the star writes out Sam Goldwyn a cheque for half this amount; then cuts every item of food in the hamper in half, too – including the contents of tinned sardines – and sends them off with the money.

What Niven doesn't stoop to tell us is that the odds of a half hamper of spoiled food landing on Sam Goldwyn's actual desk were far less than even. The most that could be achieved by the prank would be to give the man's front office staff the headache of disposing of it. However, he does admit,

It was ridiculous and childish and I was behaving like a small boy attacking a heavy tank with a water pistol but rather enjoying it.”

...then he quickly segues into the intervention of Fred and Phyllis Astaire on his behalf, leading to a new seven-year contract, huge salary increase and promise of the game-changing 'Raffles' role. That, of course, is Niven-on-Niven, a man with enough material to achieve such clever use of juxtaposition. I'm coming to Morley-on-Niven in a jiffy.

Rex Harrison was perhaps the only influential person in the movie world who admitted never caring for our subject. Another Englishman in Los Angles, Harrison (star of “Dr Dolittle” and “My Fair Lady”) was present when Primmie, Niven's first wife, was fatally injured in a bizarre house party accident. He didn't give a reason for not liking the star of “Raffles”, but it seems strange of him to refuse to contribute anything to Sheridan Morley's biography - other than an off-the-record dislike for his compatriot. Morley reports Harrison's refusal, but offers no clue as to why. Which brings me to why this biography was such a size nine disappointment.

Morley kicks off by informing us his book will not be a simple retelling of Niven's well-known stories. Moreover that he has dug deep to find “The Facts Behind The Façade” and, in-line with his main sub-title, will tell 'The Other Side Of...' the man who wrote 'The Moon's A Balloon'. Not only that, in one of the first anecdotes (actually another Niven-on-Niven yarn), he promises juicy revelations,

...Some of the best of the stories sadly never made it into print, though they have a kind of 'ageing Englishman abroad' quality of considerable and hilarious charm, like the night at a grand Malibu gathering when he was apparently asked by a glamorous hostess if he would like a blow. Unable to believe his luck, David whispered that he would and is told to follow his hostess into an upstairs bathroom. Finding her there with his back to the door and standing by the bathroom cupboard, David removes his trousers in delighted expectation, only to have her scream in horror and surprise at his nudity. In her hand is a glass phial containing an exotic powdered drug – and I know of no better generation gap story than that.”

Morley's vapid deconstruction, “I know of no better...” does nothing to unmask the real Niven; who, though I am sure was the author of the reported gag, would never have behaved with such crass naivety: “Unable to believe his luck” & “delighted expectation” - what phooey! While crack cocaine only emerged on the scene in the 60s or 70s, the snorting of coke was rife in Hollywood in the 1930s when Niven would have been no stranger to it, if no user himself. Furthermore, the terms 'blow' and 'blow job' being close enough to confuse an uninitiated observer, would scarcely overlap in Malibu circles – even cross-generational ones. The truth is, Niven was given to the embellishment of such risqué stories, but the grain of truth embedded in this particular yarn was most likely as much aural as oral. Overhearing the words “blow” and “upstairs bathroom” at a party, Niven might have quipped that he was game, only to be informed he would have to keep his trousers on. To which, soberly snorting his Manhattan, he would have shrugged and said you couldn't blame a chap for wishing. I'm sad to say, this kind of one-click forwarding of Niven myths is really all Morley has to offer.

Even the revelation that heart-throb Merle Oberon and David Niven spent much of the 30's shacked up together is useless to us without some sort of analysis of why he rejected her pleas to get married. Why, for example, he was reluctant to marry someone in the same profession, shouldn't the author ponder what held him back? Isn't that what a biographer is supposed to do? Isn't that was makes Roger Lewis' 'The Life and Death of Peter Sellers' such a monumental work? Morley's book, through some weird shift in the time/space consortium of publishing, manages to tell us less than nothing. Who was Niven's father, for gawdsake? Beyond a name and the suggestion of wealth squandered, we learn precisely nought with-the-rim-off. The news that he died at Gallipoli, but his death was not confirmed by the War Office for two years, goes without comment. Egad! Did he have no comrades in arms? Nor does Niven's own reticence on the subject of his father go challenged. Throughout the book, serious analysis is parried by reassuring depictions of the man's privacy, his stiff upper lip, his utter discretion, old chap. Instead of lifting the lid on his sexual relationships, all we are given are a few inconsistencies of date and place. For instance, in 'The Moon's a Balloon', Morley smartly points out, Niven puts first wife Primmie's age at death as twenty-five instead of twenty-seven. It's not as if she was a case of gaol-bait, is it? What I would like to know, just for the toss, is how did his early experiences with prostitutes colour his romantic relationships? But Morley, family friend and official biographer, hangs out the old linen with only the whitest of stains.


Even the promise to refrain from repeating well-known Niven anecdotes is broken. He repeats stories broadcast on the 'Parkinson' show, and the above-quoted yarn of the Kraft food hamper, from “The Moon's A Balloon” is repeated almost word for word. What purpose does that serve? Is there any analysis? No. He even manages to purloin the actor's narrative style, so you can hear an echo of Niven's voice, almost smell the faint whiskied breath of him as though the book were a third, ghosted volume of reminiscences wafting up from the grave. “The Other Side Of The Moon” should have been like “The Far Side Of Paradise” - Arthur Mizener's well-researched biography of Scott Fitzgerald – the title a play on Fitz's first novel, “This Side of Paradise.” It is not. In fact, it hardly qualifies as the type of second-rate biography you expect of much lesser stars. Morley has simply chatted to a few of Niven's old chums (including his father, the actor Robert Morley), read the star's own books and consulted a few newspaper and magazine archives. True, from his childhood onwards, young Sheriden knew Niven personally, and you get the feeling the actor may have been somewhat of an uncle figure to him. So he recounts his life in chunks of five years or so, pausing frequently to remind us that “The Moon's A Balloon” and “Bring On The Empty Horses” will arrive in old age, as though his whole life had been leading up to them. Along the way Morley heavily criticises many of Niven's choice of parts and films and in so doing denigrates his career. His attitude reiterates the idea that the life of a jobbing actor is somehow demeaning to the gentleman he surely was. Which seems rather hypocritical since his father Robert Morley's career fared no better, you could say a lot worse. I saw Robert in a dull revival of the Ben Travers farce, “Banana Ridge” at the Savoy in 1977; but remember him principally as the first film actor to play Oscar Wilde - a role he revelled and excelled in. In my opinion, for all it's worth, Niven deserved better than this dishonest, rushed out semi-biography to accompany the reissue of his own witty confessions.

"Literature"

by Peter Widdowson

This book explains what is meant by the term “post-modernist”. It also explores poetry and fiction of both the past and present by using post-modern critical tools. This means, it shows how ideas derived from linguistics, feminism and post-colonialism have changed critical thinking. The author presents the idea that the enjoyment of literature is a political act; and furthermore, that writers are engaged in creating alternative views of the world we live in.

We may, for example, see Shakespeare's play “The Tempest” as a commentary on the attitude of Europeans towards the native people of the New World. Although this particular play was written long before the morality of colonialism began to be criticised, nevertheless the text deconstructs itself to reveal underlying attitudes and assumptions. Likewise, nineteenth century novels such as George Eliot's “Adam Bede” are shown to contain a commentary on contemporary attitudes towards women's place in society.

More modern texts may be commentaries on literature itself. Ted Hughes' poem 'The Thought Fox' when analysed in detail reveals itself to be a poem about a poem. Other modern texts studied include poetry by Seamus Heaney (about ambivalence towards violent sectarianism), Tony Harrison (about the desecreation of his parents' grave by vandals) and Grace Nichols (about the “'double colonialisation' of being a black woman”). Also included are short critiques of fiction by Salman Rushdie (“Midnight's Children”) and Isabel Allende (“The House of the Spirits”).


Widdowson has a theory about what he calls “the literary”, which is his own hobby-horse. It's not too difficult to follow him, as he writes without pretentious references, and I think what he's saying is that the best writing is self-aware, and that good writers deploy words and expressions and use plot lines which foster new awareness in the reader.


The Secret Adversary

By Agatha Christie



I read this book out of two rather joyless motives: researching the Whodunit genre and the Second Novel. Another reason for reading was more whimsical: having seen plenty of Agatha Christie on screen, I'd never actually sat down and finished one of her tomes. And sit down I did, getting through the book's 200 oddish pages in two longish sessions. It was very readable, not particularly challenging, sometimes charming and occasionally annoying. In other words, it did what it said it would do on the box.

The characters Tommy and Tuppence are young, amiable almost-rogues who set out - circa 1919 - looking for remunerative adventure. Quickly, they get themselves embroiled in a plot, à la Zinoviev letter, to use the Labour movement to bring down the government. It's written from a mildly reactionary viewpoint, which mildly outrages me. The plot is far fetched and inevitably (for the genre) convoluted, but managed well enough and by changes of location, character and tone kept this jaded reader turning the page.

Let's see now, what's it got? Mystery a-plenty (if a-wishy-washy), crooked spies, red herrings, double-dealers, guns'n'poisons, the very prototype of the young assistant, romance, hard-boiled dialogue, hostage-taking, country houses, a millionaire with money to burn. No bumbling police, though; a shoot-out but no corpses; London scenes, but no pea-souper. I suppose you can't have everything.

Tommy and Tuppence, a couple whose first outing this is, were Christie's least commercially successful sleuths. I wonder if there isn't something too self-satisfied about a romantic couple's working together to make superstars of them like Miss Marple and Poirot? Perhaps one of these erotica hacks should take them on, insert bedroom scenes every ten pages and make a million dollars? Heck, it's outta copyright...





Sylvia & Michael

The Later Adventures
of Sylvia Scarlett

by Compton Mackenzie


I can only deplore the auto-backslapping of certain adventure writers that spend the last quarter of a book congratulating themselves on what a grand old tale they have told us. This pompousness kills half the suspense. "Sylvia & Michael" being the fourth, if shortest, volume of Mackenzie's romantic adventures of Michael Fane and Sylvia Scarlett, I'm afraid smugness pervades the whole tome.
Reminiscent of Kipling's "Kim" and Scott's "Heart of Midlothian" in this, and one other respect, the hero and heroine's fates are plotted against huge events that dwarf the sum of all the individuals involved. Sadly, when Mackenzie sat down to write "Youth's Encounter" (vol. 1 of "Sinister Street") he could have only an inkling that the final dénouement of his story would take place in the midst of what would become known as The Great War, and then the First World War. Yet drawing so heavily on his own experience of public school, Oxford university, the Anglo-Catholic branch of the Church of England, Music Hall Theatre and the seedier side of Edwardian London, it is little wonder he employs his wartime experience in the Balkans and Eastern Aegean to backdrop and populate the scene of Michael's epiphany.
War, which breaks out while Sylvia is delerious with typhoid in Russia, puts people into uniform; which as Mackenzie tell us on the title page, makes every one look alike; except for the women, I suppose? Notwithstanding this, he claims there are no 'portraits' in the book. Of characters, then, there is the usual mix of vamps and scamps: the good, the bad and the very bad. Concetta makes a reappearance, persued by the evil juggler Zozo. Her fate is still as unfortunate as before and mirrors Lily, of whom there is no more news. There is a friendly Bulgarian bandit, an English Petroleum baron and an accomodating priest. All stereotypes must have their origin in the real world and, rather despite his claim, I imagine Compton Mackenzie was one of those people you would be wary of meeting lest he put you into one of his books.
Though a good deal of action goes on in the background, as it were, most of these adventures are of the soul. We have the predicatable dose of Catholicism - Roman, this time - intruding, somewhat incongruously into Sylvia's story. Not that her reversion to the mother church isn't sufficiently explained away, exhaustively in fact. It's just that I object to a story-teller using his own particular convictions as material in this way. Much better, I thought, was Mackenzie's account (in "Galippolli Memories") of his time on the shrapnel raked beaches of Turkey, when he felt in the hands of God and strangely at peace with his fate. In "Sylvia and Michael" we are asked to believe the couple witness some pretty awful atrocities - the ethnic cleansing of modern parlance - without feeling much more than their own good fortune. Still, I suppose, there may be a deal of the writer's experience talking there. I hope I never live to see for myself what war really is.
Going back to the other point about Kipling and Scott, if I may, there is an English smugness here, an imperious view. All the Serbs, Romanians, Bulgars, Russians, Greeks and what have you appear as so much flotsam on their own shores. There is a pervasive class snobbery, too; and despite the boyish character of liberated Sylvia, sexism. Wherever the plot roams, there is always a common cockney girl, whether pay-to-dancer or guesthouse proprietress, who is salt-of-the-earth.
I wonder at Mackenzie's Englishness. At one point in the book, he appears to criticise Erskine Childers' novel "Riddle of the Sands" for giving away secrets to the Bosch. That's rich! After the war, both of these distinguished writers turned to Celtic nationalism.
The ending of a saga must come as a kind of anti-climax. So much has gone before, the dénouement can hardly be organic. We must leave the world the author has created with at least a tinge of regret. And, perhaps, a slap on our own backs for having read so far.




Sylvia Scarlett” by Compton Mackenzie

Sylvia Scarlett”, one of the continuations in Mackenzie's “Sinister Street” saga, prompts a little backstory-telling. The eponymous heroine appeared in the first book of the series as self-appointed guardian of Lily Haden, whom Michael Fane is in love with. Roughly at the same age, Sylvia and Lily are a couple of prozzies. Having baldly stated the fact, there is some further qualification of Ms. Scarlett's character: neither she nor Lily have much of the street-walking hooker in them. As Sylvia has already said to Fane (it is repeated here), “Money is necessary sometimes, you know.” These two educated and cultured young women inhabit the Imagist, Edwardian London of Ezra Pound (parodied here as the Languedoc poetester “Hezekiah Penny”). The company they keep is that particularly Kensington blend of low life fraudsters, single mammas, pseudo artists and young men of the Oxbridge set. It is a sort of West London version of the Bloomsbury group, except that for politics you should substitute religion; and for theatre, music hall.
Considered extremely daring at the time of publication (1918 forTHE EARLY LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF SYLVIA SCARLETT”, to give its full title) this saga can sensibly be compared with contemporary works by James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence. Whereby Mackenzie was adept at sailing as close as possible to the moral wind of the day, he managed to benefit from the publicity stirred up by outrage. At the same time he avoided the censure of the law without being shunned by the book-buying (if not the book-borrowing) public. In short, his tomes sold like hot cakes in a society increasingly obsessed by sex.
Whereas the adventures of “Sylvia Scarlett” are not as a poetically or lengthily written out as those of Michael Fane, her complete life up to the age of thirty is emcompassed, with much glossed over. The scenes with Michael and Lily, for example, which take place as the characters are in their early twenties, form only a short (if crucial) part of this narrative. And to what extent we are given a fully rounded, believable portrait of this young woman is debatable. When loosely filmed in 1935, with a tom-boyish Katherine Hepburn (as Syvia) and the super-dapper Cary Grant (as Jimmy Monkley), cross-dressing was used to much stronger effect than here. There is an obvious homosexual interpretation but, like a tamer version of Evelyn Waugh, Mackenzie merely dangles the possibility in front of his audience; for instance, at one point telling us that Sylvia's hands are masculine.
Sylvia's clear protoypes are Fanny Hill and Becky Sharp (the latter also filmed in 1935). She is her own woman from the start, and while she frequently throws herself on the kindness of strangers, she always manages to rise above the kind of squalor normally associated with frausters amd common prostitutes. This is despite not being a great beauty herself.
Still as a teenager, she is married (to an Oxford man) and divorced. She frequently walks out on money and prosperity because foremost in her mind is being true to herself and never to be groomed (“developed” is the word often deployed here) to suit another's whims. This doesn't stop her from grooming others, most notably Lily and Arthur Madden. The reader is treated at fairly regular intervals to solliloquies in which she, in something like a stream of consciousness, sums up her situation. For example, in a long paragraph beginning with the words “I must be getting old...” (she is twenty eight at the time) she compares herself, favourably, to a drunk, because, “drunkenness is the apotheosis of the individual”.
Later on, when facing the imminent prospect of marriage she tells a close friend that really she is no feminist, “...Personally I think that the Turks are wiser about women than we are; I think the majority of women are only fit for the harem and I’m not sure that the majority wouldn’t be much happier under such conditions. The incurable vanity of man, however, has removed us from our seclusion to admire his antics, and it’s too late to start shutting us up in a box now. Woman never thought of equality with man until he put the notion into her head.”
Having started life in France (she is only half English) she spends her teens in England then travels in Italy, Spain, Morocco, South America and the USA. By her mid-twenties, she seems to have given up the life of the working girl and turned instead to the family tradition of musical theatre as both her principal means of living and her means of fulfilling a creative urge. Throughout these novels we are given to believe the borderlines between fraud, musical theatre and prostitution are very thin indeed. Mackenzie himself grew up in a theatrical family, and the fame of his sister Fay Compton still survives in living memory at the time I write (2013). Presumably he knew his subject far better than he dares equate us.
The book abounds in piquant adventures. At one point Sylvia becomes the moll of an Argentine gangster with whom she escapes from a shoot-out in a bordello. At the same time, we are asked to believe her relationship with Carlos Morera is platonic and that he showers her with valuable presents (setting her up for several years to come) for the mere pleasure of escorting her round town.
Mackenzie does not subject Sylvia to the thorns of her many rose beds. Whatever ups and downs his heroine endures barely scratch the surface of this oh-so wise and cynical woman-child. And whenever she comes across characters whose fates are without her good fortune, she is able to look on with more sympathy than empathy. Concetta (a dancer) and Rodrigo (a guide) whom she meets in Granada, are in situations not unlike those she has been through herself. Yet as she is about to help them, one is abducted by a jealous lover while the other is fatally stabbed by a rival. Back in London she is shocked to hear that Jenny Pearl, the model of an artist friend, has been shot dead by her jealous husband. But this promises to be merely a plot device. In fact, Sylvia's character can be callous or even craven at times. For example when Jimmy Monkley, who took care of her after her father's suicide and who has been gaoled for fraud, comes out of prison to visit her, she flees for her life. At the time, she is riding high on the success of her musical show - but in horror of the past, overlooks the debt she owes him. Actually, survival instinct is in operation here and we can't blame Sylvia for shutting the trickster Monkley out. He was grooming her when she left him at the age of fifteen. But it convenient to be able to choose what you will of your past life, a luxury not afforded to most of the characters here, or in real life for that matter.
Even after her most crushing reversal (I won't reveal just what) Sylvia is able to dust herself off and, pocketing a timely windfall, escape from the consequences.
This is a story that does not end on the last page, though it says “THE END” in capital letters. Throughout this volume there are references to Miachael Fane and, who'd have guessed, it was followed up by “SYLVIA & MICHAEL - THE LATER ADVENTURES OF SYLVIA SCARLETT” in 1919, a book even shorter again. If there are diminishing returns in the series, more fool the reader (me, for example) hanging on in to the bittersweet end.


A note about religion: Sylvia, it is made plain from time to time, is a woman without religious faith. Mackenzie, however, cannot resist inserting a chapter mostly devoted to the pro- and anti- anglo-catholic schisms in the Church of England. He achieves this with skill and not a little entertainment à la Lurch in The Church. He even manages to get the non-believing Sylvia to come down on the side of his own pro-ritual views. The gauntlet thrown down by Joyce in "Portrait of the artist as a Young Man" is picked up.


Meet Murder: Revisiting Michael Herr's “Dispatches”


To my younger eyes, the film “Apocalypse Now” was somewhat pretentious. It had eventually come out not long after I finished reading Michael Herr's book “Dispatches”... but a while before I finally got round to Conrad's “Heart of Darkness”. I supposed there was some subtlety in Francis Ford Coppola's film that I was missing, since he had reportedly based his script on a fusion of those two books.

I next viewed the film a couple of decades later, by which time I had done my Conrad reading, and realised it was Marlon Brando's pretentious portrayal of Kurtz that had spoilt the show... and not the film's ambitious blending of fact and fiction. Martin Sheen, Dennis Hopper and even FF Coppola himself were vindicated. Marlon had become a fat slob, a bloated angel unworthy even of the messianic Kurtz role.

Every bit as chilling as Capote's “In Cold Blood”, “Dispatches” brought the corpse of America's Vietnam war back to life to my generation. We had all too quickly moved on. Just when we were beginning to forget the horror, Herr came and jolted us out of our safe European punk rock fantasy world. One of the many telling images he gives is of a grunt he ran into a small jungle clearing. He had just gone to take and leak, but the young soldier seemed uptight to have him there,

He told me that they guys were all sick of sitting around waiting and that he'd come out to see if he could draw a little fire. What a look we gave each other. I backed out of there fast, I didn't want to bother him while he was working.”


Read this book if you think “Full Metal Jacket” is pure entertainment, if you're not afraid to face the truth behind the statement, “Hell Sucks”.




"SE Persia"
by Sir Arnold Wilson

Sir Arnold Wilson is one of the most reviled characters in that strange unfinished enterprise, the British Empire. After the First World War he was put in charge of the territory that would become Iraq, where he soon became known as 'the Despot of Mess-pot'. Under his administration, riots were put down at a cost of 10,000 lives. While he favoured direct rule by the British, Gertrude Bell, his assistant, supported by TE Lawrence, believed the only solution was to make an Arab kingdom under Faisal, son of Hussein (Guardian of the Holy Mosques). Wilson eventually accepted the idea, but was replaced by Sir Percy Cox, his old boss at the Foreign Office of the Indian Government. Wilson was knighted and, in consolation for his loss of public office, was appointed a director of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (the precursor of BP). Later he became a Tory MP and during the 1930 gained a reputation as an apologist for Mussolini and even Adolf Hitler. However, he died fighting fascism at Dunkirk in 1940, aged 55. This book, 'S.E. Persia' – subtitled 'Letters and Diary of a Young Political Officer, 1907-1914' was published posthumously in 19411. He had written it while serving as an air gunner officer with RAF Bomber Command in the year that led up to his death.

Anyone with an interest in the history of the Middle East, especially if they have spent time in the area, will recognise the authenticity of this book. Wilson, who trained at Sandhurt and started his career as a map engineer in the Indian army, was made a liaison officer to accompany the Turko-Perso-Russian commission which was determining and mapping the eastern border between Iran (then known as Persia) and the Ottoman Empire. This meant surveying through tribal territories between the Shatt-al-Arab and Mount Ararat. It was the first time much of the area had been mapped using modern methods, and through Wilson's efforts the British gained invaluable intelligence. The need for the Turks, Persians and Russians to co-operate created an extraordinary opportunity for espionage that Wilson did not shrink from exploiting whenever he could.

At considerable risk to his own life, he employed knowledge of Arab and Persian dialects, a fearless belief in his right to be there, and the horse-trading skills of a native tribesman. The writing, especially in his letters to his family, often veers into the braggadocio of an earnest young Christian anxious to prove he is no heathen. Whenever he has the need to placate a local potentate, he hands out finely printed Korans as presents, buys up quantities of goats, has them slaughtered and then roasted to make propitiatory meals. According to him, the natives often look on this infidel with a certain awe – i.e. in the same regard we associate with Lawrence. In fact, if even half of these adventures are true, they make his more famous countryman's exploits look like those of a boy scout on some jolly jamboree. Wilson is not some mere orientalist with half his mind taken up by ancient ruins. His remit is as the agent of an increasingly oil-hungry empire. He looks on all foreigners as potential allies or enemies in the Great Game; and if he wonders now and then about the Kurdish or Zorastrian inhabitants of a forgotten village, it is seldom without the hint of how much more profitably they might live under the aegis of Pax Britannica.

At one point in his days as a young political officer, Wilson makes a journey home to visit his family in England. Instead of paying for a berth on board a steamer, he opts to work his passage as a stoker! When the ship calls in at Port Said to take on coal before entering the Suez Canal, he accompanies his fellow stokers to a brothel. I couldn't resist using this in 'My Heart Forgets To Beat', where I have Dic (the stoker of Swansea) befriending a version of Wilson and taking him to the house in the question. Other steamy details include the 'temporary wives' taken by the Bengal Lancers, Indian cavalrymen employed by the British in their occupation of southern Persia.

I don't think readers of this book will be converted into supporters of the British Empire, from which saints preserve us. But I do think a perusal of its anecdotes will help explain Britain's continuing embroilment in – and fascination with - the Persian Gulf.

(I) First published by OUP, I have the hardback Readers Union edition of 1942.




"Man of Nazareth"
by Anthony Burgess


I seriously wonder what point there was in writing this book; or what point there was for me to read it! I half expected Burgess to do something novel with “the old, old story”; he is mostly known for his fiction after all, but apart from certain details there isn't much here that goes beyond or runs contra what we've heard so many times before.

I was brought up within the Christian tradition, as far as it goes in a secular household. Baptised as Catholic, I was never taken to church. Later on, I was recruited into a Church of England Choir. I enjoyed the music, until my voice started to break. Finding myself with little or no faith, I quit the job before joining the altos and compulsory confirmation classes. No regrets there, but religion has always interested me, especially from the historical perspective. For the past twenty years, I have lived mainly in Muslim countries. I once attended an Anglican service held in Saudi Arabia, partly for the novelty of doing something you could figuratively be thrown to the lions for.

Anyhow, I picked up this volume in a second-hand bookstore in Istanbul, hoping Burgess would have something more interesting to say about Jesus Christ than Dan Brown's slipshod offerings in “The Da Vinci Code”. The headline of the blurb on the back of the book claimed it filled in the twelve missing years of Christ's life. Pure hard sell. Beyond the claim that Jesus married when he attained manhood, and was a thirty-something (childless) widower by the time he started his mission, Burgess tells us little of the middle years.

The narration is done as a kind of chronicle, a story written up by a jobbing scribe. It is reminiscent of Gore Vidal's “Julian” - a novel about a Christian era Roman Emperor who tries to turn the clock back to pagan times. Burgess' Azor, son of Sadok tells a plainer tale than the epistles exchanged between Vidal's pair of haughty scholars. His method is to debunk exaggerated anecdotes, employ his own knowledge of current affairs (for example, in the practice of crucifixion), play up Christ's ideas as sound where they are to do with love, and play down the question of his divinity. Telling an otherwise conventional story, he begins with the twin annunciations (of John the baptist and Jesus of Nazareth), and ends with the resurrection as it affects the disciples.

Characters such as Salomé, Judas and (to a lesser extent) Joseph (husband of Mary) and Herod Antipas are not as we heard them at shcool or in church. Azor would have us believe first century oral history distorted their true strengths and weaknesses, and that he is still close enough to events to give us the truth. Judas, for example, was a victim of his own innocence rather than avarice. One small revelation is that when he realised he had been tricked, he rejected the thirty pieces of silver. The money was from the Temple but could not be returned as it had become unclean. It was therefore used to buy the burial ground where Christ's tomb was located. The cruel dancer Salomé, according to Azor, was really the adopted daughter of Herod Antipas, and later became a follower of Christ. The High Priest Caiaphas conspired with Zerah, a Pharisee (Judas' old friend), to have Christ crucified as a scape-goat.

With the twelve disciples and two Marys, the various shepherds, Kings and sundry other well-knowns to fit in, any writer tackling the story of Jesus has a ready-made panoply to deal with. This may seem to be an advantage, but since all Christian readers will have different expectations – depending on their sect – the writer will have to decide which to leave out as much as which to include. Burgess gives near-rounded portraits of the disciples (Simon-)Peter, Thomas and Judas, but for the rest we have to be content with ensemble sketches as they come on to blow their flutes, complain about the food or lead a donkey. Whereas the down-to-earthness of the followers is poignant at times, otherwise it is bathetic. But the character of Jesus himself remains aloof, even when he consorts with the females. He is literally a giant and since no attempt is made to get under his skin, even in the desert, his mostly inhuman nature takes precedent.

The writing is not what I'd call vintage Burgess. There is little of the humour you get in the Enderby novels or the Malaysian Trilogy. He doesn't play with language, as he does in “A Clockwork Orange” - though he does show off his Greek, Latin and Aramaic. When I checked out the book's Wikipedia entry I saw it was written just after he'd collaborated on Zeffirelli's TV production “Jesus of Nazareth”. That figures. He used the research he'd done on the screenplay to dash off a novel, cashing on the publicity and controversy surrounding the broadcast. Since Wikipedia, and other sources, cite Burgess as a lapsed Catholic, it's hard not to think cynical thoughts of his motives in churning out this tome.

Still, the man was approaching the end of his life and it may be he had one eye cocked on the hereafter as he sat down each day to write his quota of words.




"A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian"
by Marina Lewycka
Not Old - But Looks Tatty!


Were we to spend 30 to 40 years of our lives without meeting a single Ukrainian, and be unaware that their communities are dotted about the country, the revelation of their existence would come as little surprise. We've heard tell of Somali social clubs going back a century, personally we know shed-loads of Poles, we sit next to Brazilians on the bus or train every day. The UK is a peculiar sort of place. Funny, too. Its native humour is interlaced with the self-parodies of the Pakistani, Yahudi, Italian, Chinese and German types who over the years have made it their home. Such diversity began long long before the post-war immigration boom, by which time the UK already had its panoply of national stereo-goons: the Welsh teachers, Canadian adventurers, Irish nurses, Australian sheep farmers, English toffs, Caribbean sailors and Scottish housekeepers. So if now we've got Ukrainians too, it figures.

When people say, as they do, there's something very English about... and then go on to yak about something that is not at all English indeed, we nod and accept these as facts because so often there's truth in them. There's something very English, we say, about the Turkish kebabs on every high street, just as there's something terribly English about curry. There's something quite English about trusting a plumber because he's Polish, well they do work harder and invite you to haggle if you think they're overcharging. There's something absolutely English about the rise and fall of the Asian mini-mart; and then campaigns to save our Chinese laundries, Italian ice-cream parlours and French onion sellers are just about English as you can get. Though the English invented class snobbery, there's something utterly English about the young aristocratic lady in Downton marrying the Sinn Fein chauffeur.

Therefore, to say there's something very Engish about “A Short History of Tractors In Ukrainian” is not to annex beetroot soup, fur-lined caps or Natashas with embossed fingernails for the British Empire. It's to say that this story of Ukrainians in Peterborough is an archetype in a post-modern world of which the UK has become capital. Of course, apart from the Crimean War (1853-5) a while ago there was little to connect Britain with the former Soviet Republic, and what is least English about the book is how the Mayevskyj family became slave workers under the Third Reich, then refugees after World War Two. The British were not overly concerned in the tragedies that befell former provinces of the Romanov empire, preferring to mop up after the Ottomans. Things began to change after the fall of Poland in 1939. In the seven decades since, it's fair to say that population-wise Britain has become the most European of all EU members, leaving aside its aloofness from the Euro project. What distinguishes the UK is not simply the sheer number of émigrés it has absorbed, but their diversity and the endurance of their cultural values. With alacrity, the UK celebrates its very own Hungarian bean-fests and Romanian Independence days.

“A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian” is the story of how a septuagenarian engineer, Nicolai Mayevskyj, betroths a thirty-something Russian divorcée from the Ukraine, Valentina, and what his daughters Vera and Nadezhda - our narrtor – go through. It's partially a comic novel with the line “I have a cunning plan” - Baldrick's catchphrase from “Black Adder” - repeated no less than three times. The fun-poking at Nokolai's one-foot-in-the-grave search for companionship and Valentina's boil-in-the-bag modernity is interspersed with chunks of family history, sibling rivalry between Vera and Nadezhda, and memories of their dead mother. Actually, though the writing never ceases to be light, it is seldom lightweight. Through the medium of English and English slapstick, things Ukrainian and Russian are presented effortlessly and with charm. Whenever the action descends into parody and farce - over Pappa's “squishy-squashy” impotence for instance - the narrative takes a sudden twist and we're treated to a chapter from his on-going manuscript history of Ukrainian tractors.

Marina Lewycka's use of tense is subtly done. Most of the action is told in present tenses, which gives the story-telling a button-holed, in-your-face quality. Some writers, Andrew Miller for example, carry the use of present tenses to extremes. Lewycka, however, frequently reverts to past tense narrative, sometimes even in the same scene, and once again the effect looks effortless. I had only a few quibbles with the text; sometimes there were double line-breaks between paragraphs in the same scene and I couldn't see why. Also, as with the Baldrick line, there is occasional over-use of repetition: “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” pops up two or three times more often than originality demands. And occasionally you get lines which could only be of benefit to non-native speakers, for example: “Now he is spent up – he has no money left.”

This is an easy and rewarding read which leaves me feeling intrigued and keen to read on. If I ever come across the volume advertised on the back cover - “Caravans” - I'd certainly consider buying it, if only to see if Lewycka extends her reach, or branches out beyond the world of Ukrainian emigrés.



“Sinister Street”
by Compton Mackenzie

I read the first hundred pages of this gigantic novel in awe that its sparkling text could have been written over a hundred years ago. Mirroring Joyce's near-contemporary “Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man”, “Sinister Street” goes further, beefing up childhood impressions with deep probes into the psychology of the quixotic child, Michael Fane, as he grows from toddler to man about town. Also, there is great prose, much of it landscape, which almost always avoids the purple.

But not the purple cloth. Mackenzie was one of that triumvirate of Roman Catholic convert authors (the others being Graham Green and Evelyn Waugh). I was dismayed with the boy's religious fanaticism dominating the next two hundred pages. Precocious even by Joyce's standards, Michael Fane's curious admixture of faith, bookishness and larks stood him on the Irishman's shoulders, rather, as if at twelve he were already the Victorian equivalent of Compleat Man. Wallowing through all this religiosity, I began to apply the formula of seven deadly virtues to Compton Mackenzie's literary boasts. Deadly because seen from the outside as negative, in Fane's world these virtues are untainted by vice. Snob (as amalgam of pride and prejudice), prig, braggadocio, zealot, hypocrite, smug & glib. From a famous public school in London, to an exclusive college in Oxford then on into the slums of Pimlico, Michael Fane lives according to the above codes in order to retain the title of gentleman. Even punching a copper and spending the night in the Bow Street cells fails to tarnish his self esteem and righteousness.

Pre-dating “Brideshead Revisited” by three decades, “Sinister Street” is said to be the quintessential portrait of undergraduate life at Oxford. From the viewpoint of Michael Fane's snob, almost everyone deserves looking down on: street boys, Rhodes Scholars, peers whose tastes he deplores. Even his taste in girls suffers from an entropy of sneer. Attracted to those who set out to attract, Michael is sooner or later appalled by their contrariness and crashes out of his slumming ways.

The title puzzled me for hundreds and hundreds of pages; presumably it was meant to. The Fane family (Charles Michael Saxby Fane, his semi-pro pianist sister Stella and their unmarried mother) do move about somewhat; so at each of Michael's new locations I paused to think if it were the eponymous street. One thing that does not wander at all is the point of view, which doggedly remains Michael's. This is an achievement, enduring over two hundred thousand words; but his cut-glass world view distorts as well as reveals. Not quite in a sinister way, I should add.

This novel is so long, it becomes writing above fiction. What's more it begs sequels; and the sequence of three it begot (“Plasher's Mead”, “Sylva Scarlett”, “Syvia and Michael”) was only curtailed by The Great War. Other than that, it's a veritable Downton Abbey of industry over craft, a voluminous Victorian handbag of a work. Yet it is not all told. Which probably inspired Orwell to go “Down and Out” on crusading slums of his own; and as in there, we are left by caesuras to guess what peccadilloes dared not speak their names. The novel's popularity (stayed in print for most of the twentieth century) is partly down to the censorship of popular libraries followed by championship by the Daily Mail. Many were the boarding school bums caned for possessing it, but it was never banned outright like DH Lawrence's more explicit work. In truth, the (originally) two volumes are very long on the results of adultery but rather short on their details.

Having deprecated the hero, I must say the romantic vision of Lily is irresistible, despite her sloth. In Fane's smitten shoes, I would have been tempted to take old Mrs Carthew's advice and “beat her figuratively for a year” lest she became “a shrew or a whiner”. But in the pursuance of his romantic dream, he is incapable of taking good advice, only bad. Whether he marries her is not revealed until very near the end of the book (829 pages in my battered 1969 Penguin paperback). Like with further episodes of Downton, I ponder taking in the sequels - lifetime permitting.



The Woman of Rome
by Alberto Moravia

I can't begin a review this book, which I first read in 1978, without some discussion of prostitution. 'The woman of Rome' is the first-person narrative of a street walker. Not quite the lowest rung on the Roman pay-for-sex ladder, it asks on the cover of the 1951 US edition, Was She Good - or Was She bad?It will come as no shock to anyone that sex is a commodity bought and sold on the market. And yet, while the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s flourished, prostitution remained largely underground. Why was its liberation limited to bigger and brighter red lights districts? The answer seems to be that with marriage no longer the only outlet for lust, the new shame of paying for sex was Inadequacy. On the level playing field of 'free love', anyone resorting to a prostitute was not considered up to the task of attracting a mate. Then it turns out, in kiss-and-tell biographies published since, a good proportion of the 'dolly birds', 'groupies' and 'free-love hippies' on the scene were all the time selling their companionship in one way or another - as were many gay and straight men - through clubs, contact magazines and what have you. Nowadays prostitution is, like, the new rock'n'roll.

'The Woman of Rome' was written just post-World War Two, while the sexual revolution was barely in its gestation period. It is set in 1936, in Mussolini's fascist Italy, a time and place of much give-and-take in private morals. Would it be true to say, therefore, that a different moral code should be applied when reading it? Should we look very differently on Adriana, 'The Woman of Rome', than on a trafficked Asian woman of 2013? According to her own account, Adriana's family has lived in the city for seven generations. The daughter of a seamstress and (deceased) railway worker, at the age of 21 she discovers her chauffeur 'fiancé'/lover is already a husband and father. She is raped by a high official in the fascist police. Thereafter, thwarted of her marriage dream and in order to escape a life of drudgery, she decides to go on the streets. She does so, moreover, with the support and approval of her mother. A great conundrum is the extent to which Adriana enjoys her sex work and considers it wholesome. Having lost her virginity to the chauffeur, and being raped with the collusion of a friend who is already a prostitute, the life she turns to holds little horror for her; she has a healthy appetite for sleeping with men, young or elderly, strange or familiar. Nor do visits to church and the confessional persuade her there is very much morally wrong in her work. Some of her clients are old and uncouth, others knock her about a bit, and yet she always manages to find some aspect of them attractive enough to be an enthusiastic participant in the bed act. All this would be hard to credit, and harder still with the stark realism of the writing. Somehow, though, Adriana is not a fantasy figure, even in the way she finds sexual fulfilment with both casual clients, and the men she gets deeply involved with. Firmly rooted in her time and setting, it's somehow even possible to picture her life as charmed and idyllic. For Adriana is discerning about who she sleeps with; she only works when she feels in the mood; and she scorns the attitude of her friend Gisella, who forever haggles over money with her clients. Unlike her friend, 'The Woman of Rome' takes a special kind of pride in her profession, as she calls it, never claiming to be anything she is not.

The novel sets Adriana's life against the political situation of the day when she reminds us that 1936 was the year Italy brutally invaded Abyssinia. In revenge for the chauffeur's lies, she has stolen a valuable compact from his employer. It is a small crime but sets off a chain of tragic events that involves all her men: the cheating ex-lover Gino; Astarita, the fascist policeman who is madly in love with her; a psychopathic murderer, Sonzogno; and the student Mino, an anti-fascist with whom she in turn has fallen in love. Her relationship with Mino is scarred by the masochistic acceptance, even enjoyment, of the pain he brings her. He doesn't return her love and neither does he pay her to sleep with him. Nevertheless, she risks everything to help him, even when he lets her - and everyone else - down. No matter how strong Adriana's love for Mino is, she admits it is the brutal Sonzogno who possesses her most completely - a feeling she maintains even in the face of his evil intent. Being the lover of all these men, Adriana takes a little from each. Her positive attitude, although she herself feels suicidal at times, continuously asserts itself and in her way, given that a disastrous war is just around the corner, she comes to represent the spirit and beauty of the Italian people.

I can't help wondering if Moravia wasn't writing from some personal experience in pre-World War Two Italy, as Adriana's voice is so vivid and full of little twists of character. At the same time, the portrayal of a prostitute, without ever stooping into sentimentalism, is so strong and vibrant, Adriana transcends those around her. There are weaknesses in the novel's other portrayals, particularly Astarita's unprobed obsession with the lowly prostitute, but in a way this enforces her otherness, as nobody really deserves her.

Though Moravia was supposed to be an atheist, it would be difficult to read this book without drawing some comparison with the Madonna. In fact there is Adriana's meeting with the mysterious and Christ-like Father Elia and then her – apparently rejected – prayer to the Virgin. There is, at least, a supra-religious statement here regarding the imminent birth of the fatherless child.

As to me, reading the book again after thirty-five years, I am confirmed in my admiration for this kind of writing. Like the two-part film 1900 by Bertolucci (which I saw around the same time I first read the book) it is pellucid (a term the translator chooses twice), stark, super-real and romantic in a detached way. It's easy to fall in love with Adriana, and to maintain a sense of proportion. She is both a fictional character (someone that can't be possessed) and, aw shucks, a prostitute (ditto). I don't think a man could write a book like 'The Woman of Rome' today without receiving a lot of flak – or peppering it with graphic sex. More pertinently, these days it's less credible for an author to paste an uneducated person's voice over a complex narrative. You're going to have to find some clever angle to give it spin. Without all our post-modern clutter, the pulse of this book is strong and inspiring. We could do with a return to writing of this sort.

Note on the text:

The translation in my (lovely old paperback) copy, by Lydia Holland, seems reasonable except for lapses in tense, which frequently attribute habitual behaviour to characters Adriana has just met, as in “he used to...”, or “he would...”. There is also an inconsistency in the plot, when Adriana invites Astarita to visit her the night after Mino reappears, which is a tantamount promise to sleep with him; then six weeks pass before their next meeting. Given Astarita is madly in love with her, it seems rather far-fetched. Perhaps this is also down to a fault in translation - a missed nuance, perhaps - as the action is otherwise delicately plotted?




Ingenious Pain
by Andrew Miller

There's a great idea behind this book and Andrew's background (his father was a doctor, while he studied 18th century Eng. Lit. at Uni) meant he was very well qualified to write it. On the whole, this story of a freakish man unable to feel pain, works very well. You do feel you're in the times and you face the extraordinary situation James Dyer, the central character, is in. Anyone who had read and enjoyed Perfume by Patrick Süskind would have got a kick out of this, too; though its plot is not as strong. I have one serious quibble, which makes me distrust the awards system by which this book was given two very valuable prizes. The bulk of the book is written in present tenses, which gives it a post-modernist feel and jars somewhat with the historical setting. Added to that, though, comes a chapter written in convention style - an epistle, moreover - which (incidentally) to me is the best written part. However, there is no attempt to fit these shifts of tense into the narrative, which I consider to be a flaw. I understand librarians were responsible for the most valuable of the prizes won (the IMPAC), and they should know what the reading public like. However, it also won the James Tait Black Memorial Award; which, given how it is slightly flawed, I don't think it deserved.

Anyhow, it just goes to show how insincere and corrupt the book world is. It was great for Andrew, he was suddenly living on Cloud Nine after that momentous year. I wouldn't want to take his success away from him; if pop stars can make it like that, why not writers? But such grapes do taste sour. Put it like this, if I were an athlete and I saw people in front of me who I knew were on steroids, I think I'd have pretty much the same taste in my mouth.Literature on steroids is this: agents, publishers, booksellers, critics and book trade journalists get together to push a small number of writers. They do this to maximise sales through a practice familiar to all marketeers: brand/product placement. As if to acknowledge this, but really to take it to another level, Andrew and his mates organised workshops through the Guardian newspaper to show aspiring writers how to work the system! After creaming another two hundred quid off each of the eager punters, and with his face having appeared in the newspaper every day for three months, he only goes and scoops yet another prize for his latest historical offering! ("Pure" - which netted 25 grand in the Walter Scott Award).

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