Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Ever feel like murdering somebody?

Strangers on a Train 'Ever feel like murdering somebody?' I'm sure I've felt like it, but only in the heat of the moment, never in reality, like most people. But Charles Bruno in Patricia Highsmith's first novel, Strangers on a Train, isn't like most people. He's an alcoholic, desperately bored, rich man whose father keeps him short of money.

Whilst traveling by train to Santa Fe to spend time with his mother, Bruno meets Guy, an ambitious architect held back by his wife Miriam who refuses him a divorce. The two men get drunk and talk about their troubles, and Bruno comes up with a plan to murder Miriam in return for Guy murdering his father. In spite of his inebriation, Guy firmly rejects the idea.

It was the train setting that attracted me to the book, although after the first couple of chapters, the action shifts to various locations in the USA, places where the characters live or visit for holidays. The plot is not fast paced, rather the narrative takes time to examine what makes Bruno and Guy tick, their feelings and how they relate to each other. It's a complicated relationship. Bruno 'did not know how to love, and that was all he needed', he loves Guy and wants to be loved back. Guy is ambitious and desires fame. He feels 'hatred and disgust' for Bruno, yet admits that 'each was what the other had not chosen to be, the cast-off self, what he thought he hated but perhaps in reality loved'.

Of the secondary characters, I enjoyed Bruno's mother, a rich wife who takes no trouble to try to solve her own, let alone her son's problems. Bruno 'had always been given everything', and she could not understand why he had become an alcoholic, how it had begun. Thinking about it, 'she got up, needing a drink herself'.

There were a couple of things that niggled me, but I can't say what without giving away spoilers. But overall, I really enjoyed the book. Bruno was a genuinely creepy character and I sympathised with Guy's wish to break all contact with him. He learned the hard way to 'beware the desperate boredom of the wealthy'.

Monday, 22 January 2018

Have you a stout heart?

Northanger Abbey "Have you a stout heart? Nerves fit for sliding panels and tapestry?" If so, then you'll enjoy Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen's gothic parody.

The story is about Catherine Morland, a naive, seventeen-year-old girl who longs to be the sort of heroine she has read about in the 1794 gothic novel by Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho. Catherine joins family friends Mr and Mrs Allen when they spend a few weeks in Bath, where she meets Isabella and John Thorpe, and the mysterious Henry Tilney, with whom she falls head-over-heels in love. After being introduced to Henry's father and sister, Catherine is invited to spend some time at their home, Northanger Abbey. It is here that Catherine's overactive imagination leads her to invent farfetched mysteries and villainous situations.

It took a couple of chapters to really enter into the spirit of the book, which is written with a great deal of irony and humour. The style seemed more exaggerated and the people more caricatured than in other Jane Austen books. It was one of her earliest pieces of writing, having been finished in 1803 but only published after her death.

I think Jane Austen crafted a very accurate teenage dreamer, desperate for adventure. One of the funniest scenes was when a trembling Catherine searches for secret notes in the chest and cabinet of her room at Northanger. But what was particularly pleasing was the revelation that social interaction has changed very little in over two decades, especially where one-upmanship and teenage crushes are concerned.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Full of flawed characters and the stupid things they do

On Beauty It can't have been a coincidence that Zadie Smith named one of the main characters of On Beauty, Howard. The book is inspired by the author's love of E.M. Forster, is a hommage to him, and a modern re-writing of his Howard's End. Unfamiliarity with Forster's early 20th century work need not deter someone from reading Zadie Smith's story, which follows the Belsey family and how they cope after their academic father Howard gets his "end" away.

I didn't immediately take to the story. After an opening sentence that clearly declares the link with Forster, we're given a chaotic morning in what feels like an American family sticom. I also found it hard to believe that someone like Howard Belsey would turn up in London unable to make his own way to the home of his nemesis, Monty Kipps. Once these two scenes had passed, the book started to shine, and in the third section there were two outstanding, very moving scenes, first when Howard unexpectedly visits his father, and second a heartfelt monologue by Kiki Belsey after she and husband Howard have shared an intimate moment.

On reflection, there were so many things I enjoyed about On Beauty: the occasional old-fashioned style of narration, questions about intelligence, hypocrisy, education and class, and the vivid descriptions when the setting moved to London. It's full of flawed characters and the stupid things they do. Just like real life.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Neither American nor Russian

The Russian Debutante's Handbook The Russian Debutante's Handbook by Gary Shteyngart is about Vladimir Girshkin, born in Russia, whose parents emigrated to America when he was seven: They had left their rarefied Petersburg friends, their few relatives, everyone they had ever known, traded it all in for a lifetime of solitary confinement in a Scarsdale mini-mansion. Now aged twenty-five, Vladimir lives in New York, has a boring job, has failed to live up to his mother's expectations, and is going nowhere. He had reached the final destination of every immigrant's journey: a better home in which to be unhappy.

It's a great opening chapter, but I spent the next 25% of the book working hard to remain interested. I just didn't care about any of the characters, and the structure, whereby each chapter was further broken down into sections, seemed to chop up the narrative. In spite of this there were passages that contained wonderful descriptions: the Fan Man in his luxury apartment, and drunk Vladimir's first encounter with his girlfriend Francesca. It's not laugh-out-loud humour, but very entertaining.

Everything changes when Vladimir returns to Eastern Europe. The setting is Prava, Shteyngart's invented name for Prague, and the time is the early 90s, just after the fall of Russian communism. Vladimir attempts to throw off his lack of ambition, taking advantage of the unpolished mass of Westerners on the cultural make, whilst introducing American style and capitalism to the Russian mafia. He's able to insinuate himself into both camps, but at heart he's nether American nor Russian.

Enjoyable as it was, by the time I reached the end, I still didn't really care about the characters. Vladimir in particular, who seems to relish being a victim and believes this is his cultural fate.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

A glass of Chardonnay can make everything better

Worst Journeys: The Picador Book Of Travel Worst Journeys contains 55 stories by some of literature’s best travel writers, primarily in prose form. They relate all sorts of hellish situations, from the banality of dislikable traveling companions, to exceptional, near death experiences. It was a pleasure to discover writers who have had similar experiences to me, and a relief that I have not had the misfortune of some of the more adventurous.

Jan Morris is the optimistic traveler that I should like to be. No matter how grim the experience, she finds no excuse for self-pity, and there is no mishap, however grave, that cannot be accommodated with a glass of Chardonnay.

I've so far been lucky enough not to be robbed while traveling, unlike Stephen Brook. He describes how his ignorance led him to check in to a whorehouse masquerading as a motel, and the consequent theft of all his belongings. It was easy to sympathize with his British sense of outrage in the face of American criminal activity and laid-back policing.

A collection of essays on the effects of war provided the most appalling travel experiences. P.J. O’Rourke visited Northern Ireland in 1988 and witnessed an “acceptable level of violence.” Gavin Young revisited HuĂ© in Vietnam in 1968 and discovered how friends coped with US bombing, day and night over 14 days. Bruce Chatwin got caught up in a coup in Benin, was arrested, accused of being a mercenary and faced execution.

But it’s not all harrowing. Al Purdy’s poem recounting an episode in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago when he had to do in rocky terrain what bears do in the woods, left me yelping with laughter.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

How terribly interesting little things are

Queen Lucia EF Benson's book follows the life of the quiet village of Riseholme, where "nothing ever happens." Mrs Emmeline Lucas (Lucia) is self-appointed queen, ruling the villagers in matters of culture and entertainment.

Lucia is a snob. She professes to speak Italian, although in truth only a few words, her superior knowledge of music is accepted on the basis of her ability to play only the first movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, and she imposes her taste by disdaining the gramophone and new composers such as Debussy. With her right-hand-man Georgie she ensures that she is the leading light in the cultural and social life of the village. But revolution brews in Riseholme with the arrival of opera singer Olga Bracely.

EF Benson relates the story from no specific character's point of view, which allows the reader to know everyone's thoughts. For me this produced a delicious anticipation as to how each one would handle embarrassing and humiliating situations. The cast are so well written that I couldn't help but care about them in the face of their trifling problems. I felt sad for Georgie and I despaired over Daisy Quantock's unquestioning acceptance of self-improvement fads. There was also a point at which I wanted Lucia to be deposed, such was her nasty interpretation of other characters' actions.

To be sure, nothing much happens in the story, but on reaching the end I realised, "how terribly interesting little things were."

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Don't work too hard

Super-Cannes JG Ballard's Super-Cannes is a crime story set near Cannes in the South of France. Most of the action takes place in and around the Eden-Olympia business park, a closed community where Jane, a paediatrician, has taken a short-term contract. Her husband Paul, who is convalescing after a flying accident, tells the story.

Prior to the couple's arrival the previous paediatrician had run amok and killed 10 people, and as Jane becomes more engrossed in her work, Paul becomes obsessed with finding out what had provoked the bloody massacre.

I liked much of Ballard's style of writing, especially his descriptions, however the dialogue occasionally felt forced. There were a couple of points at which characters seemed to make implausible decisions, briefly rendering the plot far-fetched. In addition, the more I read, the more I felt the book to be male-centric. It seemed that the female characters were there primarily to titillate the reader.

In spite of these niggles, I really enjoyed the story, its premise, and how Paul slowly uncovers the recreational activities of Eden-Olympia's high-flying executives whilst pursuing his amateur investigation.