I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.
Have you read any Raymond Chandler? If not, why not? I expect you may say, Oh, I don't like crime novels. And yes, of course, Chandler is a crime novelist -- but I rather think that anyone who reads his books just for the plot may be disappointed. But above all, he is a simply wonderful writer. I'm talking about style here -- "Chandler wrote like a slumming angel", said Ross Macdonald. Oh, the plots are there, alright, but they are sometimes quite confusing, though never lacking in events and excitement. But again and again you are brought up against some of the most wonderful lines in English prose. Take for example "It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window". Superb.
Beautiful blondes are quite a feature of Raymond Chandler's novels, and though they are usually extremely untrustworthy, his hero Philip Marlowe finds them hard to resist. "I like smooth, shiny girls, hardboiled and loaded with sin". That description certainly fits Mrs Grayle, the gorgeous young wife of an aging and sick millionaire. She hires Marlowe to look for her priceless, recently stolen jade necklace. A ransom has been demanded, but the necklace has not been returned and someone has died in the process of trying to retrieve it.
There's money forthcoming for this job, which Marlowe badly needs, but he is also caught up in a police investigation, having witnessed a shooting in a bar in town. The killer, one Moose Malloy, fresh out of jail, is looking for his erstwhile girlfriend Velma, who has disappeared off the face of the earth. Between these two assignments, which prove to be oddly linked, Marlowe is kept busy, and gets himself into deep deep trouble. Needless to say he emerges, battered but unbowed -- or only a little bowed -- to face another day.
All the riddles, of which there are many, are solved in the end, though I'd have a job explaining exactly how. But that is really by the by. Published in 1940, this novel portays with brilliant skill the seedy underworld of Los Angeles, where drugs and alcohol and crime are the currency of the day. And, thought this would be enough to make any man lose his faith in the human race, Marlowe somehow manages to keep a shred of optimism.
You can crab over the morning paper and kick the shins of the guy in the next seat at the movies and feel mean and discouraged and sneer at the politicians but there are a lot of nice people in the world just the same.
I read this in an Everyman edition of Chandler's first three novels, and still have The High Window to go. I reviewed the first one.The Big Sleep, a year or so ago -- you can read that review here. Highly recommended.
There are many circles in the world of blogging -- which I can't bring myself to call the blogosphere, though many do. I myself have a nice list of blogs that I check on every day, through the very useful Google Reader. They are mainly, though not exclusively, composed of book reviews. I arrived at my list a good while ago and then have added to it from time to time when I happen on something I really like. After a time, especially when there's been cross-commenting going on, you get to know the people who write them quite well. And occasionally you are lucky enough to meet them face to face. This happened to me a few of years ago when I moved back to Oxford and encountered Simon of Stuck in a Book.
Now of course I no longer live in Oxford but still think of Simon as a friend. I enjoy his blog tremendously and through it I've been introduced to many writers I have come to love a lot. So when he started going on about Ivy Compton Burnett, I thought I should give her a go. I dutifully got hold of Manservant and Maidservant, and fell at the first hurdle. How could anyone read, let alone enjoy, this kind of thing? Well, Simon had said you either love her or hate her, so I put myself into the hate camp and more or less forgot all about it.
Then, recently, I read a review of A Family and a Fortune on another blog I have come to love and respect, A Penguin a Week. What a great idea that is, by the way. Karyn's reviews are always lively and intelligent, but it was clear that she was slightly bemused by ICB (hardly surprising). However, something she said about the novel made me think I'd like to read it. I think it was partly that she said it read like a play, which made me think I should try reading it like that. And so I did. And hooray, I finally got it. Yes, ICB writes almost entirely in dialogue, and dialogue of a rather peculiar kind. But I was totally immersed in the novel and have immediately ordered another two of hers which should be on their way to me as I write.
A Family and a Fortune is about exactly that. The Gavestons -- father Edgar, mother Blanche, two grown-up sons, daughter Justine, and Aubrey, the youngest, plus uncle Dudley -- live together in a large house. Though the house is large, and the family lives comfortably enough, money is rather on the short side. As the novel begins, a letter arrives from Blanche's 87-year-old father. He has fallen on hard times, and wants to come and live in the lodge, bringing Blanche's disabled sister Matty and her companion, Miss Griffin. They arrive, and are rather shocked by the small size of the lodge, having come from a much larger and grander house. Then Dudley gets a letter. He has inherited a fortune from his godfather, quite unexpectedly, which will provide him with an income of £2000 a year (considerably more than it sounds today, of course). Immediately, discussions ensue about how the money is to be distributed amongst the family members, though nobody actually asks Dudley if this is what he wants.
Quite a lot of other things happen -- deaths, broken engagements, marriages, and more. In fact one thing that really surprised me about the novel was how much plot there was. But what makes it so exceptional and interesting is the way the characters and their relationships emerge, almost entirely by means of the dialogue. Yes, that's the worst of writers today, ICB once said. They will write about something. Instead of just writing about people, about their characters. In fact the people in the novel are meticulously described when they first appear -- size and shape, hair colour, general demeanor -- but their personalities and the way they relate to each other emerge almost entirely from their conversations.
"Would some ham make me grow?" said Aubrey. "I am afraid my size is really worrying for Clement".
"What does it matter on what scale Aubrey is?" said the latter.
"I should always be your little brother. So you do not mind".
"Always Mother's little boy", said Blanche, taking Aubrey's hand.
"Mother's hand looks lily white in my brown, boyish one".
"Don't let us sit bickering all through breakfast,", said Justine, in an absent tone.
Bickering is really this family's chief mode of interaction. Justine sees her role as the peacemaker, and Aubrey -- fifteen years old, undersized, sharply observant -- frequently says what others are only thinking, though everybody is always trying to shut him up. Then there is Matty, Blanche's sister, who suffered some kind of accident in her youth and now has some problems walking -- though from time to time she appears at the house, having made her way up the long drive unaided. Matty is angry, bitter, jealous, vindictive, though all these qualities mostly appear only through her seemingly bland comments on people, things and circumstances. She treats her companion, Miss Griffin, abominably. She constantly appeals for sympathy, comfort and company, but her neediness and her self-pity drive everyone away.
"Come in, whoever you are, and find a poor, wrought-up woman, tired of knowing nothing and tired of being alone. You have come to put an end to that. I am not forgotten. And do I see three dear faces? I am not forgotten indeed. But I have been feeling quite a neglected, sad person, and I am not going to sympathise with anyone. I have used up that feeling on myself".
The great thing about this novel is that it is really funny. Or at least I thought so, though you might not. I don't mean laugh out loud funny, but just wryly, subtly, often blackly funny. So, Simon, you will be pleased to hear that I got it at last. Any other fans of ICB out there?
I've made a strange and disquieting discovery. A few days ago, dovegreyreader was urging people to read Zola, and, though I didn't say so in the comments, I thought I might join in. I looked for a free e-book and found Therese Raquin, which I duly downloaded and started to read. I've read about half of it, but I found I wasn't enjoying it at all. For a start it seemed as if it was all a bit familiar, but as I'd seen it on TV a million years ago that didn't really surprise me. Also, the translation I'd downloaded - by one Ernest Vizetelly - is about the worst, clunkiest translation I have ever read.
These two hands, one in the other, were burning; the moist palms adhered,and the fingers held tightly together, were hurt at each pressure. It seemed to Laurent and Therese that the blood from one penetrated the chest of the other, passing through their joined fists. These fists became a live fire whereon their lives were boiling.
Well of course it does say much the same in French.But honestly, Ernest, you could have done a bit better than that. And, above all, I just was not enjoying the story at all. It seemed terribly depressing and terribly melodramatic -- passion, lust, murder, suicide -- none of which I wanted to read about, really.
Anyway, I'd decided I was going to give up on the book -- chuck it onto my ever-growing pile of abandoned books -- and as I knew I'd read some Zola before, I thought I'd find a post or two in the archive to prove it. Yes, indeed, I had. I read Nana in 2007, and thought it was brilliant. Then I read another -- and what was it? Therese Raquin. And, what's more, I seem to have enjoyed it. Ironically, the last line of that 2007 review says 'it will stay with me for a long time'. Not long enough, clearly.
I'm not quite sure what to make of all this. It's not the first time I've read a good way into a book and then realised I'd read it before. Rather stranger to me is how much I seem to have liked it the first time round, and how much I disliked it this time. Perhaps just the mood of the moment, or perhaps my reading tastes have changed.
I've just found another Zola on the bookshelf -- Au Bonheur des Dames, in French. Not sure if my French is up to it, but I'm thinking I might have a go. There was a TV adaptation of this last year and the only episode I saw didn't impress me very much. But I'd like to give Zola another chance.
There are many things I can't do, ranging from brain surgery through anything to do with science or mathematics to brick-laying and heavy lifting. But most of them I am quite happy without. One thing, though, that I regret deeply is my inability to write a novel. Oh yes, I've tried, many times in the course of my life, but never got beyond chapter one. And it's obviously not that I can't write as I've produced quantities of non-fictional prose. What I lack are the three things absolutely necessary to write fiction -- plotting, dialogue and characters. I expect if I really tried I could produce something just about passable, but that wouldn't do for me. So when I encounter a writer who is absolutely at the top of the pile where those three things are concerned, I am not only enthralled but deeply envious. How do they do it?
Of course all this is leading up to William Boyd. This is the second of his novels I have read in less than a month. I wrote enthusiastically about Waiting for Sunrise a few weeks ago, and now I have just finished Ordinary Thunderstorms. And my goodness did I enjoy it.
This is the story of Adam Kindred. As the novel begins he has just returned to England from America, where he has been living and teaching (climatology) for a number of years, to have a job interview. He decides to treat himself to an Italian lunch, and gets into conversation with a man at the next table, who introduces himself as Dr Philip Wang, a research scientist. As Adam is leaving he notices that Wang has left a folder on the table. Luckily it has a business card in it, so Adam rings to say he will drop the folder off at Wang's flat. When he gets there, he finds Wang has been stabbed with a breadknife, and manages to leave his own fingerprints on it.
The obvious thing to do in this situation would be to throw yourself on the mercy of the police but, for various reasons, Adam does not do this. Instead he goes on the run, and is soon being tracked both by the police and by Wang's killer, the terrifyingly amoral ex-SAS man JonJo Case. So far, then, your conventional thriller. But though the pursuit continues, many strands open up which are at least as fascinating as whether or not JonJo will catch up with Adam. One such is the shockingly immoral behaviour of the big pharmaceutical companies -- Wang was employed by one such, Calenture Deutz, who are on the brink of getting a new wonder drug, promising a certain cure for asthma, certified and on the market. In this strand we meet Ingram Fryzer, the company chairman, a rather harmless multi-millionaire who is blithely ignorant of what the company is up to behind his back. Then there's the doings of London's river police, one of whose policewomen encounters Adam and takes him back to the barge where she lives with her aging radical father and where she and Adam smoke joints on deck.
But most fascinating of all, and, I suppose, what Boyd was really interested in exploring, is the way Adam survives once he has decided to hide from the law. Initially, his existence is about as basic as anyone could possibly imagine -- he finds a hidden spot near the river in Chelsea, makes a very crude encampment, and survives on baked beans and what he can scrounge from dustbins. After some weeks he learns to be a very successful beggar -- even better when he steals a white stick from a blind man -- and later still he is living in a sink estate in Rotherhithe with a prostitute called Mhouse and her son Ly-on, who she keeps quiet with rum and sleeping pills in his breakfast cereal. At this point he has changed his name to John 1603, or rather accepted the name he was given at the Church of John Christ, whose extraordinary, charismatic leader gives 2-hour sermons which are endured by the congregation of down and outs because a hot meal is forthcoming at the end. Then, after another name change, Adam is working as a porter in a hospital, having stolen the identity of a flatmate who inconveniently, or perhaps conveniently, died. I think identity is something that has preoccupied Boyd in most of his writing, and here he seems to be showing how fragile it really is.
I've told you rather more about the plot than I usually do, only because I wanted to give some idea of the amazing depth and breadth of this novel -- and believe me, I've only scratched the surface. I know the novel has had some mixed reviews, but I have to say it stayed in my mind in an amazingly tenacious way after I'd finished it -- and, by the way, the ending is notable for its lack of closure, which has led several reviewers to hope for a sequel, though I don't think Boyd has any plans for one.
And all of this is why I started this post by saying I could never write a novel. I just can't see how anyone could invent such an extraordinary and event-filled plot, or such unexpected and yet wholly plausible characters, or such totally believeable dialogue. But never mind -- luckily there are people out there who can do it for me.
This is 'A Schoolgirl' by the Liverpool born painter Luke Fildes (1843-1927). His social realist paintings and engravings attracted Dickens, who asked him to illustrate The Mystery of Edwin Drood. He seems to have turned to portrait painting later in his life. I don't know the date of this one, but I like it very much.