Sunday, 28 December 2014

Bad Men by John Connolly

Badmenbadmenbadmen...
John Connolly is a lovely man. In the couple or so interactions I've had with him as bookseller and bookshop manager-type person, he has never been anything other than polite, respectful and very willing to put in a shift when it came to signing his backlist and meeting the general public. In addition, and I choose to consider this not to be an author sucking up to the people who are responsible for moving units but rather as further evidence to support my opening statement, he is genuinely nice about booksellers. Indeed, booksellers get a nod in the acknowledgements of Bad Men, and, to my surprise as I'd not remembered him doing it, he wrote a very pleasing dedication in my copy referring to me as a bookseller as someone with a proper job (and not, as it might be interpreted, as possibly one of a marginal group of people living in Cardiff in full time employment). I don't know if it's a trait of genial Dublin-born Irishmen, if his parents had something to do with it, or if it's a conscious decision to hoodwink or swindle the purchasers and purveyors of supernatural thrillers; whichever, it works in his favour, as you'll probably realise when you notice the deliberately positive spin I give to this novel, which does have its flaws, but about which you'll not hear from me.

Necessary spoilers follow. In a departure (although not a major deviation as Parker haunts the lives of a few integral characters) from the Charlie Parker supernatural detective novels that have rightfully won him acclaim from peers and reviewers, Bad Men brings us an archetypal bad dude, the biblically named Edward Moloch, and his entourage of ne'er do-wells, as they plot revenge for a betrayal by Moloch's wife and object of scorn and cold, spiteful injury, Marian(ne). She has pinched a wad of cash from the shed, bought herself and her infant son new identities, and legged it after shopping Moloch and his gang to the authorities, leading to a short and abruptly interrupted incarceration for Edward. It all sounds like a tasty, suspenseful thriller, with a girl on the run and a determined posse of crims out for blood, needing only the intervention of a Quixotic knight errant to stand and fight on her behalf. Fittingly, up steps Melancholy Joe Dupree, giant and lawman, and heir to the forbidden secrets of the fictional Dutch Island (or Sanctuary), outlier in the chain of islands in Casco Bay, Maine. These secrets include historical massacres, murders, and the supernatural peace-keeping performed by those disturbed souls who watch over the island, and wait for the return of the one deviant who got away from them. And odds are on Edward Moloch to fulfil the role of prodigal island son, especially given he's having former-life flashbacks, particularly vivid ones, where he kills his island-settler wife over and over again. Naughty boy. And guess which unholy island serves as wifey's bolt-hole...


*Raises quizzical eyebrow*
I'm surprised I've still got a job with that hair.
What Connolly does really very well, as the equally lovely Mark Billingham points out on the front cover in one of those industry standard associative tag-lines that cause me no small amount of angst, is write a compelling page-turner, where the reader is actively engaged in the lives of the people who, normally, are there to dampen the sharp edges of various weaponry, which straddles the literary fiction genre and also pulls in other genre fiction fans. He has a broad appeal, which might put off literature snobs like myself, had he not been such a lovely man. A lovely man. Inherently believable*, readable and intelligent, Bad Men is a quality supernatural thriller, a classic good versus evil narrative, and just one of over a dozen such written by Connolly. Crass comparisons to Neil Himself and Stephen King might be appropriate, but I shan't be doing that. I prefer to consider Connolly a market-leader in this sort of thing, and shall work on re-stocking my diminished library with his backlist as soon as the lottery win is in the bank.

* Thanks in no small measure to his impeccable research, the fruits of which are gently folded into the mix rather than info-dumped as is occasionally the standard method of arriving at a justification for things and stuff.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Mendelssohn Is On The Roof by Jiří Weil


Can you see the swastikas?
In my triptych of black satires informed by the atrocities of the Second World War, I had high hopes that this oft-neglected author would offer something as equally entertaining as that of Vonnegut and Heller, showcasing the rational humanism alongside the absurd and insane with a dash of gallows humour. It certainly starts out that way, with a low level municipal officer in occupied Prague being tasked with the removal of a statue of the 'Jewish'* composer Mendelssohn from the roof of the Prague Academy of Music by the office of Acting Reich-Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich. Of course, he knows nothing of the likeness of Mendelssohn, so chooses instead the statue with the largest nose, which unfortunately belongs to Wagner.

I was salivating at the prospect of another comic masterpiece from Central Europe in the veins of Hrabal or Čapek, but sadly this is the high tide of comedy in the novel, and it occurs at the very beginning. What follows is a novel of fear, oppression and deep tragedy, told in as matter-of-fact a fashion as is possible considering the author himself faked his own death to avoid transportation to the death camps. In what reminds me of a Stephen King novel, the cast of characters introduced, including Heydrich himself, are ushered quickly through the farce to their doom, either to re-assignment to the Russian Front and inevitable death, or to the crematoria of the Final Solution, often under the auspices of the Gestapo. Heydrich avoids both fates, but dies in hospital after the infamous assassination attempt of Operation Anthropoid. Any humour, if there is some to be found, is sardonic. Throughout, the motif of the statue haunts the prose, whether it is the mocking statues of former heroes and patriots of various conquering or conquered nations, or Justice herself, astride roads and rivers, guarding bridges, or being smashed in air-raids, or the petrification of a person through fear, their inability to fight the rising darkness rendering them complicit in its abhorrent actions. And in a chilling finalé, the only truly innocent characters in the whole novel die just as the Russian tanks roll into Berlin to crush the remaining German forces and liberate Europe from the grip of Nazism. 

I'm left a little raw by the experience of reading Weil, and I suspect I might leave it a little while before I return to the literature of the Holocaust, if at all. However, I'm in complete agreement with the preface by Philip Roth that the brevity with which Weil delivers his testimony is the "fiercest commentary that can be made on the worst that life has to offer." As an apologist for overlooked Czech writing, I can commend this able storyteller with no fear of it being considered controversial and free of my habitual cynicism and sarcasm.

* In parenthesis here as Dr Rabinovich, Jewish scholar, points out later in the novel that Mendelssohn was christened as a child so he couldn't be Jewish


Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut

We are what we pretend to be.
I'll lay my cards down from the off, so you are under no illusion about where my loyalties lie. I love Kurt Vonnegut novels, and I love Nick Nolte movies. I haven't read / seen a bad one of either. True, some have qualities in excess, some are deficient thereof; but none are so bad that I wouldn't watch or read them again. Considering the intertextual currents on which I've been adrift recently, this convergence of preferred author and actor is a pleasant one. For a starter, it's not often that one can post a picture of Nick Nolte wearing a swastika arm-band without a cease-and-desist order following shortly behind. Secondly, as I realised on re-watching the movie another time, the poignant music of Arvo Pärt's Tabula Rasa features throughout, which just so happens to be one of my favourite pieces of music with which to accompany fits of self-pity. Thirdly, Vonnegut manages to cast SS Obersturmbannfürher Adolf Eichmann in what must be his only comic role in literary history, albeit with the benefit of dramatic irony and only very briefly. 

So of what is it that I speak so knowingly? Vonnegut, in what is a Cervantes-esque editorial comment right at the start, claims this to be the testimony of one Howard W. Campbell Junior, only slightly edited to make it less objectionable to the reading public and then only to cut out some of the more overtly erotic scenes from one particular chapter, from his time incarcerated in a Jerusalem prison awaiting trial for war crimes, for the benefit of the Haifa Institute for the Documentation of War Criminals. Campbell is a war criminal, and possibly the greatest secret agent of the Second World War. An American by birth but raised in Germany for the most part, Campbell does what he needs to survive during the tumultuous years of Nazi rule, which mainly consists of doing nothing to stop them and also broadcasting the racial doctrines of the Führer's twisted dogmatism. However, unbeknownst to his Nazi Übermensches, through a cleverly disguised system of coughs and pauses, he is also broadcasting secrets of the Reich to agents of American Intelligence*. Married to a German actress of some beauty, his only loyalty, so he repeats to himself and to her, is to what he terms, and is one of the most enduring ideas of the book, Das Reich von zwei - the nation (or more accurately, kingdom) of two, paying no heed to the laws or requirements of any other nation but their own. 


All legal correspondence can be addressed
care-of Jesus to the Pentagon...
Fast forward many years, and Campbell is hiding in New York, in plain sight, as himself, his only friend a man who it turns out is a Russian intelligence agent and who eventually betrays Campbell by publicising his true identity, from whence comes the dramatic tension of the second storyline of the book and film. His wife is dead (or is she...?) and his life is meaningless, captured perfectly in both media when he leaves a police station and has for the only time in his life no good reason to move in any particular direction whatsoever (until a police officer politely threatens him). In the film, again to Arvo Pärt's music, Kurt Vonnegut makes a very small cameo appearance as a man on the street walking towards camera looking concerned, and the first time I saw it I was nearly in tears! Any way, badda bing, badda boom, things go terribly wrong, despite a last minute reprieve of sorts, one which robs him of his reason to accept the blame he finally comes to believe he deserves and which precipitates his ultimate fate. 

Thankfully I'd read the book before watching the film for the first time, so my own mental images of the characters are burnished rather than dictated by the excellent on-screen portrayals by John Goodman and Alan Arkin of Campbell's Blue Fairy Godmother (the American agent who recruits him in the first place) and George Kraft (his New York Judas). But the film is quite faithful to the novel, convincingly done given the difficult nature of the timeline, and despite the director or screenwriter incarcerating Eichmann in the cell above that of Campbell rather than the very fleeting meeting of the two that occurs in the book. If you've not read or watched either, do the book first, as always. You'll find a rare moral satire of depth and complexity, written by one of the keenest minds in recent American literature. You'll find more great lines** than at which you'd be comfortable shaking a stick. And you'll find yourself feeling more for a notorious Nazi than years of cultural backlash could have prepared you so to do. It's one of my favourite Vonnegut novels, one of my favourite 'war' movies with one of my favourite male leads - the holy triptych - and incredibly relevant for our intolerant, ignorant society and its false, hollow politicians, pretending to be what they are.

* I choose to ignore the oxymoron.
** Some of which you can read here.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Over-excited Post

It's here it's here!
I just received this in the post from the lovely people at Brit-Books and am very pleased that I can now put it on the shelves and stare at it until finally motivated to read it by some quirk of cosmic coincidence. 

Because that's how I roll.

Don't expect a review any time soon.

The Numbers Game by Chris Anderson and David Sally

Stroking Malcolm Gladwell's ego
Non-fans of football might wish to look away now. 


Are they gone? Okay then, on with the story. I am very pleased to read things like this. Not that it's well written or a thrilling read; far from it. The authors are slightly lazy with their style, throwing out a reasonable-sounding punter / pundit myth which they then bust in a rather predictable fashion. It's all a bit, "You'd think this is self-evident, wouldn't you? But, AHHHHHHHHHHHhhhhhh! You're wrong." Yawn. To be fair to them, it's hard not to do just that with what is basically a myth-busting big-data-for-the-footballing-lay-person-type book. You set the reader up in his* comfortable assumption, plump up his cushions and get him a nice cup of tea, and then dash the cup to the floor, up-end the sofa and strip his clothes off as you push him out into the cold, hard light of statistical reality. It's how it's done. But it's still a bit repetitive over the course of X chapters, each dealing with its own fallacy. Plus, it lays claim to being one of those books with which you can lay waste to arguments in pubs about football. I disagree because I tried that and almost got punched.

However, I repeat I'm pleased to read such books, which include the excellent Inverting The Pyramid, Why England Lose, Brilliant Orange to name but a few, because I am inherently lazy myself, and find I often hold such opinions as espoused by the dim-witted pub punditry, or equally dim-witted former professional Gary Neville, in esteem higher than that which is their due. I'm easily swayed by enthusiasm, even if I find my cynicism, which before manifested for comic effect, becoming sharper and increasingly bitter with age, allowing me to pour forth scorn on such statements of 'fact' as score more goals and you'll win more games. When people take the time to remind me gently that I am lazy, and hold lazy opinions, then of course, I bristle (see opening paragraph for evidence...) with indignation, but also, do greatly appreciate the mind-numbing data-crunching that goes into such research as this. And it is all very interesting! I won't spoil it for you, but lots of the very scholarly studies of Myths and Facts about Football: The Economics and Psychology of the World’s Greatest Sport*** edited by Patric Andersson, Peter Ayton and Carsten Schmidt (Cambridge Scholars Publishing) are explained in simple terms, almost avoiding things like regression analysis (but not quite). It's compelling reading, and is one of those books that once you've read it, you can't quite see the game in the same way. You start to realise that the commentators are trotting out the asinine rubbish that they heard as players or from previous broadcasters. You realise that football is ripe for a statistical renaissance (to borrow the authors' own words). And you realise that neither Adrian Chiles nor Andy Townsend**** should ever be allowed near a broadcast booth again.

Is this football's Moneyball? Probably not, and the authors themselves admit that the Eureka moment that happened in baseball is an unlikely occurrence in this rather more complicated team sport. But it is an interesting foray for the average Joe Kinnear into Big Data analytics, and is well worth a read, regardless of how many times they shoe-horn Malcolm Gladwell into things.

*Forgive me for assuming the target audience might be heavily weighted towards a male demographic. I know lots of women who enjoy football, and a few who enjoy statistical analysis, but not very many** who might want to read this book.

**None

 
***My favouritest book on the subject, a sample of which you can read by following the link to the Cambridge Scholars Publishing website

****But don't let that stop you playing the ever-popular 'Andy Townsend Bingo' game next time you tune into ITV's coverage of a dead-rubber Champions League tie.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Closing Time by Joseph Heller

Nuclear War Halts 
Society Wedding of the Century!
I wonder if my new-found bachelordom is the reason that I have seemingly embarked upon a morbid trend in my reading. I have long avoided reading this novel, billed as the sequel to Catch 22 and, from the publisher blurb on the back, dealing with the tying up of ends in the lives of the characters from the first novel as they move towards their own deaths - not an uplifting prospect, Heller's acute and acerbic wit notwithstanding. What did I read after this? Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut. And next? Mendelssohn Is On The Roof by Jiří Weil. I suspect you'll see a trend. In my defence, I would posit that there is a deep, atavistic humour to be found in all three novels, something that everyone can access and recognise, the hangman's joke, the infantryman's bluster. That all three deal on one level or another with the atrocities of the second World War might raise a tired sigh from my estranged wife, who has long been disturbed by such trends in my literary taste (or lack, she would argue thereof). Again, in defence of my taste, I would argue that such atrocity is scored deeply into the consciousness of anyone born during or after it, and the World still resonates with the agonised cries of those whose destinies are still twisted around the hate and violence that thrust through the soil across Europe and the Middle East creating the forests of thorns that divide many cultures and even families. 

I should stop listening to Arvo Pärt.

In truth, Vonnegut lead to Heller (I had Mother Night on DVD sat looking at me on my coffee table, but more on that later), and Heller lead back to Vonnegut; Weil was hanging around anyway, smoking a cigarette on the corner and chatting with a lady of questionable circumstance. Vonnegut features in Yossarian's recollections, or maybe it was Sammy Singer's memories; Joey Heller sneaks into Vonnegut's Dresden. Did they actually meet in the war, during or after the Battle of the Bulge? Only Google can tell us, but they are luminaries, their light casting shadows on the same areas of humanity. 

In Closing Time, we meet Yossarian as a near septuagenarian, still mostly virile, still febrile with the paradoxes of life. His life's trajectory has soared higher than the parabola of a rocket, and he finds himself rich, socially well-connected and in business with Milo Minderbender at M&M Enterprises, an organisation which has diversified and is attempting to find a niche in the second-response military market with a plane that could end the world but doesn't exist (or does it?). Yossarian is still attempting to be immortal (or to die trying) although as he ages, his desire to keep living is on the wane. Former comrades appear in Sammy Singer, tailgunner, in Chaplain Captain Albert Taylor Tappman, now retired but mysteriously passing heavy water and therefore kept under close supervision by the Government's plausibly deniable secret research team in the off-chance that he could be militarised (by them or by their enemies), and a new (or at least poorly remembered) character from a shared military past, Lew Rabinowitz. Sammy and Lew's stories are intertwined with those of Yossarian as they each face their eventual fate. Yossarian is more Yossarian than I can possibly explain - more Alan Arkin* than I thought possible too - and the dissonance between thought and action throughout displays perfectly judged humour. Sammy and Lew are more sober characters and narrators, one reflecting on his life as second fiddle, the other refusing to concede defeat to anything he didn't want to be beaten by. 

The story is pretty straightforward and a little obvious, if it were to be told straightforwardly, but as with Catch 22, Heller chooses to muddy the waters with his inventive use of an omniscient third person narrator, mixing with the direct testimony of Singer and Rabinowitz, and Yossarian intrudes throughout in his inimitable fashion. To attempt a synopsis as a result, as the evidence above perhaps proves, is tricky and ultimately futile, but as always, the journey is more important than the destination, and perhaps that's one of the many wise aphorisms that could be used to sum up this novel. There are morals everywhere if you want to look for them. There are truisms a-plenty. There's even some thinly-veiled autobiography - Heller did in fact marry one of the nurses that looked after him during his hospitalisation with Guillain-Barré syndrome. It might not have garnered the praise lavished on the first novel, and there are inconsistencies (for example Yossarian is only 68, whereas he should be 78 if the timeline from the first book were to be accurate), but it does for old age, and dying, what Catch 22 did for fighting wars, and dying. It's hard to contain the scope of the book in 1000 words on a reader's blog, so I will stop trying. Suffice to say I love it. You probably will too.


*More intertextual coincidence - Arkin, the Yossarian in the 1970 Mike Nicholls film of the novel, appears in the movie of Mother Night as Howard W Campbell Jnr's 'friend' George Kraft. I had completely forgotten about this, but in retrospect it all makes perfect sense.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama

Mr President swears in your ear.
I have long been a quiet admirer of Barack Obama. Not just for the obvious race-guilt reasons, which creep into my thoughts on occasion, for no other reason that I'm white, of the lower middle class (or upper working class) and smugly safe behind my liberal WASP upbringing and need something to feel guilty about. Firstly for his role as a reluctant trail-blazer for African Americans; in a country where there are [fill in the number yourselves] million people of African descent, it's quite amazing that one of them hasn't been voted in as POTUS before now, so being the first is not only a great victory for equality, much like when Obama got his job at a law firm it is also a burning shame. For America. Me, I couldn't give a monkey's, race-guilt or no race-guilt. Secondly, he looks and acts like a man of class, in the non-pejorative sense, a man who would make a good friend, be noble and upright about the right things, and flexible about the others. Nothing in this audiobook (well, nearly nothing, but read on for more on that!) takes away this impression I formed just from listening to his victory speech when he made Senator in 2005. Thirdly, he's not one of the George Bushes, in fact is so far from being another George Bush that it's hard to believe they were born on the same continent. He makes Democrats look less like uncertain Republicans and more like - shocked gasp! - British Socialists, in the non-pejorative sense. No matter that he and his party is still way right of centre, as befits a country of [insert your own xenophobic bias / jingoistic hooting here]. The majority of the policies he's implemented or attempted to implement have been worthy, notable changes to the status quo of American internecine and / or bipartisan politicking, and he just talks so much sense! I truly do admire him, particularly within his current context, both political and social.

For these reasons I have toyed with the idea of buying his books for a while, but since I had the opportunity to plunder my now estranged wife's iTunes account before I left, I pilfered this Audible version instead. It was a good choice! As it transpired, the very best thing by far in this account of a young man discovering his antecedents and his place in the world, better than the well-written, thoughtful introspection, meditative and self-aware; better even than the humour and poise with which Obama puts across his points, his thoughts on the African American experience, referencing luminaries like Malcolm X and his bestest buddy preacher in the whole wide world Reverend Jeremiah Alvesta Wright Jr.; better even than the fact that Obama narrates this audiobook himself with his wonderfully measured and soothing voice; bestest of all the best bits is the first time Obama as narrator drops the F-bomb, followed by the N-bomb, and them further F-, N- B- and MF- incendiaries across the chapters that follow. I admit I tittered aloud, walking the dark and menacing streets of Splott late in the evening, so that a scary man at a bus stop turned away either in fear or disgust. The President of the United States of America is swearing in my ear! It's great. In a conversation with LA ex-pat pal and one quarter of the black people in his school / college (I forget which), the back-and-forth has b*****s, n*****s, f***s and m*********s. This is the President I'm talking about! Admittedly, he's not the President at this point, back when he was narrating this in 2007 or so, but he must have had an inkling that a mere two years later he'd be sworn in. Did he not think of the consequences of him talking about smoking reefers, drinking to excess and talking about b*****s? No wonder he's only getting two terms as POTUS*.

So for all these reasons, I would urge you all to throw away your paper copies, dog-eared and broken-spined, well-loved copies though they might be, and go get yourself this version on audiobook. It's ace.


*I know full well the restriction in place of only having two consecutive terms in office. Don't insult me with your expostulations.


Monday, 3 November 2014

Lowside Of The Road: A Life of Tom Waits by Barney Hoskyns

You still live out by the airport?
It’s not a coincidence that, during one of the lowest points of my life of late, I reached out to Tom Waits, both for a soundtrack for my misery and to read more about his life and music. Having discussed, agreed, and facilitated a separation from my wife of six years, and in the middle of a temporary period of not seeing my son due to the complications of the move, I had no access to diversions other than my music and books – of course, who actually needs more than that? No TV, no internet, no telephone, no money. Had I been out of a job too I could have cracked open a bottle of white port and pretended I Henry Chinaski! 

Waits’ early beat-jazz style, his circus-freak albums, his junkyard phase; his bawlers, brawlers and bastards* have been ever-present since I first started working in a chain bookstore in 1997 and was introduced to Waits through the oxide-fatigued cassettes on semi-permanent repeat in the stock rooms (along with early Aphex Twin albums and, perhaps less excitingly, Evan Dando). I luckily picked up most of his albums on the cheap, in second-hand bins and by carefully targeting forgetful friends’ CD stacks for short unauthorised borrowings**, and they’ve been bellowing and crunching, thumping and warbling in pretty much every one of the formative scenes in my own narrative since university. That voice, like hobnails on gravel, like a demented mittel-European scientist, a bar-room balladeer, a lounge singer in the back room of a strip club, has the ability to flatten and uplift in equal measure, and I have playlists of the energetic, the lachrymose and downright bizarre to suit any mood.

But what did I know about the man behind the music? Apart from his occasional appearances on screen (of which there are far more than I ever imagined) I had no idea who the hell he was and what the hell he was doing. When Lowside… came out I snapped up a copy, but until now I’ve never felt the need to dispel the sense of mystery. What changed? Well, pretty much everything, but that’s another story.

From the start however I was a little disappointed – mainly with myself – as I hadn’t realised it was an unauthorised biography. It amused me however that the author had been stonewalled by pretty much anyone who still respected Waits and Brennan or who still sought a place at their table. It turns out Waits and family are Pynchonesque in their reclusion. Hoskyns’ rather petulant inclusion as an appendix of emails from various people who turned him down appears an ill-judged attempt to justify the gaps in his narrative and his over-reliance on the testimony of those who were burned, but who in the main still remained supportive of the artist. But on the flip-side it meant getting only a tantalising glimpse of an immensely private person, without hearing all about his toilet habits or getting a roll-call (with evidentiary statements) of the women with whom he slept. I should say that the biography itself was not at all disappointing. Its limitations acknowledged, Hoskyns actually does a cracking job at putting Waits’ life into context and arranges his chapters thematically, taking what must have been hundreds of interviews and distilling them down to add support to his own well-researched conclusions and suppositions. It was incredibly easy to read too***, especially compared to the other book I was attempting to read at the time, and I could consume whole chapters in a sitting**** without feeling the need to get up and move around. I got a very vivid impression of what it was to be in Waits’ circle of influence, and of a man bubbling over with both vigorous strength (of body and drive) and tender and gentle sentimentality. The portrayal is of a man of extremes, who embodies the line “there ain't no devil, there's just god when he's drunk”, who has struggled with his family demons, his addictions, and with his latent parental instincts of kindness and patience, of his search for a father figure of his own. A tortured genius is an over-worked analogy, so I won’t use it. Instead I’ll say he’s a risk-taker and a guy with whom you’d probably want to chew the fat, have a beer, listen to some records. But don’t, just don’t, suggest you’ve got a drummer for his next album.

In the absence of an authorised or auto-biography, this is probably the best one out there (that I’ve read). Hoskyns is clearly a fan, but has an ability to be objective, and the writing is good enough that you don’t notice it. Does he do Waits justice? Who knows, and maybe only time will tell.


*The subtitles to the three volumes of his Orphans collection (songs that didn’t make the cut for his albums), provided by wife and muse Kathleen Brennan

**Tom, if you read this, I’m sorry. I would have bought them new if I had the money at the time. If you’re not reading this, then I am unrepentant and would do it again in a heart-beat.

**All bar the parts, occasionally overly drawn-out, describing Hoskyns’ own thoughts on the tracks included on each album, through which he takes the reader track by track for every album up to and including Real Gone in 2004

****The definition of ‘a sitting’ is the time it takes to make and drink a cup of tea and find and eat a small snack, and before getting fidgety.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Memories Of The Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

Great writing poorly read
Having read the introduction by translator Joanne Turnbull, I was excited to begin reading Krzhizhanovsky, an author whose published output was stymied no fewer than four times by the strictures of the Communist regime and / or World War II, and is only recently available to buy (thanks in no small measure to NYRB who have at least two selections available). The introduction and the website reviews promised surrealism, dark subversive humour and avant garde satire. What I found was all of these things, but also, an obliqueness that prevented me from truly enjoying it. 

I wonder if it's just me. At the time, I was going through the dissolution of a six-year marriage, so justifiably my mind may have been elsewhere. I was reading whilst waiting in the car for other people, at my desk in my noisy office during my 'lunch hour', and at home only as a distraction given my new bolt-hole had yet to be graced with Ethernet or Wi-Fi connectivity. I was also reading the unauthorized Tom Waits biography by Barney Hoskyns which was much more directly entertaining, undemanding, and therefore alluring. In addition, alternating aural distraction was provided by both the music of Tom Waits' entire back-catalogue on repeat (minus Orphans which I have as yet insufficient capital to secure) and the meditative tone of Mr President, Barack Obama, reading his own biography. So plenty going on there.

This left me missing quite a lot of the humour, the references to the political and social upheavals of post-revolution Russia, and I only gently touched the surface of his writing like a butterfly on an anvil. At times I felt like a cell in my own body, functioning on programming only with no concept of the larger body, in this sense the writing from Russia around this period. I'd lost my context for the book, despite having read quite a lot from this period by Soviet authors and others looking into the country. In the stories' defense, their images, or themes as his fictional writer would put it, are striking and direct: an Eiffel Tower pulling up its iron feet and running amok, being lured by the siren call of Communism from Russia and being frantically hailed by the Capitalist West in an attempt to stop it defecting; a corpse missing its own funeral and shipping up at the grave-digger's house for help, being carted around the city trying to talk to someone in the bureaucracy to get the mistake registered and resolved, only for the corpse to be rejected by every office as it didn't have the correct paperwork so didn't exist; and in the longest, eponymous piece of the collection, a young boy fascinated by the workings of his father's clock grows up to create a time machine which propels him into the future for a glimpse of the inauspicious future of Communist Russia, and whose own manuscript of the experiment is rejected by his publisher for being too shocking to the establishment and therefore unpublishable.

Recollecting these things does bring back a small smile to my face, so there must have been some small, unrecognized reaction to the writing, the content, the themes, my Homo-Sovieticus radar bleeping faintly in a room where no-one was watching. In hindsight, therefore, I can only blame myself for not appearing to enjoy what is quite possibly a great selection of short stories, one I should probably re-read at a later date. Go, buy, make your own mind up.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

The Wooden Sea by Jonathan Carroll

Wait, how DO you row across a wooden sea?
Jonathan Carroll poses two problems to me, as a book reviewer. The first is not the usual one with which I’m faced when contemplating a favourite author, but rather one of device, trope, hook – in short, a theme for the review. Carroll’s works are large in scope even when centred in small, parochial settings. They are not easily pigeon-holed, despite the complacent person’s tendency to bung them into the fantasy genre (indeed, I have an aged Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks version of The Land of Laughs), and are as spiritual as they are fantastical. They have an ease of language that often belies some hard-edged writing, and pretty much anyone in any given book could die or is already dead, even and sometimes especially the ubiquitous bullet-headed English Bull Terriers. So, what then, should I do to properly frame this review and subsequent Carroll critiques (for there will be more, with at least The Ghost in Love and A Child Across The Sky waiting in the wings)?
Perhaps theme-less-ness is as good a context as any. Indeed, with other contemporaneous contexts encompassing Neil Himself, and further out, Salman Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, maybe Carroll occupies natural lacunae between other genres, and thus he forces his own niche in the publishing world. In The Wooden Sea Carroll has a rebellious teen turned respectable, confronted by his youthful self (and his aged sexagenarian self too), embroiled in a super- and supra-natural mystery, with time travel, death, disappearances, and, yup, aliens. Plus, there’s the dog. All told from the first person perspective of present-day Frannie McCabe, it unfolds quickly, from the first appearance of the three-legged pooch and precipitated by its almost instantaneous death. There’s feathers, a bizarre Dutchman, a friend high up on the autism spectrum, a wife and former lover, magical tattoos, coffee, angels / aliens, wholesale reality warping, as mentioned time travel, and more death. In all, it’s an engrossing and thoroughly entertaining novel, with moments of poignancy, slap-stick comedy, ok, there’s some fantasy too, and a whole lot of beautiful things to consider. I’d previously said that Carroll sees things in a different way to me, and frankly I’m glad, as he acutely de-familiarises things in a way which is a delight to behold and does pose a question or two for the reader. I’m not surprised that Neil Himself likes him so much. So without further plot spoilers, it only leaves me to say this book is marvellous, in a best-book-I’ve-read-by-this-author kind of way. I burned straight through it, and it’s one that’s going to live in the little cracks of my mind for quite some time.
Incidentally, the second problem, sadly, reflects a slightly embarrassing personal issue I have, as an armchair advocate for the footballing fraternity that is Liverpool Football Club, with ex-LFC footballers by the name of Carroll… But I shan’t bore you with that one.

Monday, 13 October 2014

The Explorer by James Smythe

Stephen King in space?
I suspect that James Smythe has seen his fair share of science fiction movies. There are definite echoes here of Solaris (the original 1972 film) and even Dark Star, John Carpenter's rather off-beat long-short-film, from which the idea was formed for the now remaining Scott sibling's Alien (at least the bit about something scrabbling around loose in the spaceship). I suspect he's read a few sci-fi novels and short stories too. I pick up Ray Bradbury, and maybe Vernor Vinge, in the vastness of space and all the cold, hard, emptyness of the universe. And there's Robert Reed too, Marrow, things unknown and unknowable, exploration without end. 

But it's all well and good doing a literature review, putting this compact novel into context. What's more difficult to do is to review this novel without too much reference to the plot, which is tight and unfolds quickly, satisfyingly, once the red herring is out of the way. The red herring you ask? Yeah, sorry, spoiler. I can't tell you. 

Instead, by way of a quick and, hopefully, tasteful introduction, what we have is a narrator aboard a spaceship, a herald of the vanguard of a new era of space exploration. He's a journalist, Cormac Easton, and was chosen from thousands to document the first true deep space mission, years after the last failed attempt to get to the moon again. His crew members are all handsome, diverse, TV friendly types, also hand-picked and seemingly perfect for the job. All goes well until they wake from stasis into which they're put to survive the G-forces of take-off.... 

Starting out, I had an inkling where this was going. Deep space missions, exploration; it's been a while since the first episode of Star Trek back in 1966 where the ship went off on a five year mission, from which they returned safely, eventually. Things have changed, audiences are less enamoured with the closed narrative loop (heh heh! a joke for those who've read this already!) and by the 90s, even The Next Generation crew were stranded on the wrong side of the galaxy rather than bombing about locally, galactically speaking. Now, when people head off into space you expect them not to come back, to blow up - Gravity notwithstanding* - or get detached from the ship, suits rupturing, heads-a-popping**, and spinning out into the blackness, all alone. Still not a spoiler, I promise!

What James Smythe does is set you up for a fall. He shows a monster early, in full colour, and you think, shit, is that it, is that what the horror is? He's played his hand too soon. How is he going to fill up the other 80% of this book and keep me interested? What I appreciate in an author is when he can slide up behind you and yank up the waistband of your underwear over your head and you're none the wiser until you're hanging from the gatepost by your tighty whiteys. It's all hinted at, throughout, very simply but in such a fashion that you think, nah, the tech guys are just dumbing down for the cameras, for the journo fellow, the one who's along for the ride and frankly couldn't understand what they meant if they told him anyway. I will say it is a tiny weeny bit of a sci-fi cop-out, but that really doesn't matter. Given the amount of reading he's probably done it was all but inevitable. There usually has to be an explanation - a sentient telekinetic ocean planet for example, or an ancient race of long-dead explorers and builders, or naughty alien oblongs. If it worked for Kubrick then what's not to love? In conclusion, then, I really rather liked this book, and the progression from his first, The Testimony, shows that he is developing significantly as a writer; he just may be a British*** sci-fi novelist to watch!


*Although they did kill off quite a few of the crew before - wait! I'm not here to spoil that film for you either!
**People don't actually decompress violently in the vacuum - that's a space-myth so I'm told.
***Welsh!

Monday, 22 September 2014

In-House Weddings by Bohumil Hrabal

"Two days on a bender and
the cash gone..."
There’s a term in Czech, coined to encapsulate Bohumil Hrabal’s particular headlong rush through sentences and ideas, skipping over syntax and playing with somewhat surreal juxtaposed ideas and images. In and of itself it is a beautiful word – Hrabalovština. According to Adam Thirlwell*, Hrabal preferred the term ‘palavering’ – talking unnecessarily and at length, or prolonged and tedious fuss or discussion. I suspect that’s just Hrabal’s way of dismissing his own work with typical wry modesty. In another of his books, Dancing Lessons For The Advanced In Age, this palavering style is taken to the extreme, the author using digression and repetition to basically write one novel-length sentence. Playful is my preferred description, and in In-House Weddings, volume one of three fictionalised biographies** of the writer, you come across multiple digressive compound conjunctions where you’d expect some stronger punctuation and the words simply tumble over each other, clause after clause raining down on you like water over a weir, and you find yourself a little swept up in the flow, interesting given the Doctor’s fascination with water – a little taste perhaps:
He ran down the steps again to the river and scooped handfuls of water and lashed them into his face, but even that didn’t do, he tugged off his shirt with his wet hands and splashed his chest all over with water, and when he came back up, he held the wet shirt in his wet hands and let water run down his waist and splatter and wet his pants.
The pedant in me is screaming, but the breathlessness of the sentences is addictive. They swoop through emotions, Eliška smiling one second, dizzy and nauseous the next, as when she goes to visit the Doctor at his paper recycling operation and meets his colleague who describes the horrors of animal transport because as a writer the Doctor needed to hear these things, the horrors. When they walk along the rivers, she takes in the sweep up and down of the landscape, amazed by the beauty of the things she never took the time to notice, snapped back to the present by the Doctor rushing ahead, or skipping down to the waters’ edge to splash himself, and cross that she decided to go with him, only for the water in his eyelashes to bring her back to happiness. She delights in the Doctor’s nostalgia for the places of his youth but is disgusted by the ruinous present, seeming very upset by visiting the brewery in which he worked but at which he could only see things as they were when he was there. She empathises with a beautiful woman at the gate of his family home who sadly congratulates them on their up-coming wedding, happy that she can cause such sadness in another woman but recognising the sadness in herself, a melancholy that almost drove her to suicide before she met the Doctor in his run-down courtyard. The constant danger of death-by-falling-plaster which crashes down into the courtyard from the crumbling walls is a comfort, a reminder of her new-found happiness. The characters are typical European archetypes, although drawn from real life and some real literary figures in places, and could be seen in the films of Jiří Menzel and Emir Kusturica, especially the wise fool, into which type Hrabal casts himself. Comedy and tragedy, gentle fun and genocide are constant companions, and the London Review of Books say as much in the review quoted on NU Press’ website
Hrabal's comedy, then, is complexly paradoxical. Holding in balance limitless desire and limited satisfaction, it is both rebellious and fatalistic, restless and wise...  It is a comedy of blockage, of displacement, entrapment, cancellation... Hrabal, in Freud's terms, is a great humorist.  And a great writer.
In terms of his available works in English, I still much prefer Too Loud A Solitude, and Closely Observed Trains but in this really rather delightful novel are all of the seeds of the narratives from both, clearly plucked from his own life experiences. I can’t think of another writer whose books I enjoy on as many levels, and if only he’d travelled past his Bohemian horizons, I’d be willing to bet his works would be as ubiquitous as those of his more widely distributed European contemporaries.

*Miss Herbert, Vintage, 2009
**The others being Gaps and Vita Nuova, both available from Northwestern University Press, for now at least

Selected Holiday Reading - The In-Betweeners Abroad

I always try to travel light, a goal, something with which those among you with bookish leanings will empathise, that is challenging for someone intending to do as much reading as they can whilst ignoring as much culture and scenery as is possible. So huzzah and indeed hurrah for the generic e-book reader and its market competitors. Ten years ago I would likely have suffered a paroxysm of disgust for any apologist of the hated technology. Now, it seems, I must take one everywhere I go for more than one night.



The trip to which I am coming, an August sojourn by ferry to Santander and then by VW through Calabria, the Basque country, and north through Aquitaine, Poitou-Charente, Pays de la Loire and Bretagne, was a chance to get some serious reading under the belt. Twelve days of driving, drinking, books and beaches. The only 'real' books that made the trip were The Vagabond's Breakfast, of which more anon, and All The Days And Nights which, as I was on a deadline, I quickly finished off whilst the wife and child slept on the ferry, and whilst I also put an end to a very tasty if over-priced bottle of Bordeaux. 


Of course, family holidays being what they are, I was really only ever free to enjoy a book when everyone else was asleep, lending to my general state of sleep deprivation - a risky stratagem given I was driving the van - and to the selection of mainly shorter works through which I could motor and feel faintly satisfied to have made progress - which is as important to this consumer of novels as allowing the gentle hand of Fate to guide that which is selected to follow. So courtesy of my recent flirtation with South American and Spanish speaking novelists, the first short work was that of Jorge Luis Borges, which was followed quickly by three The Friday Project books I'd downloaded one after the other and which were the next three listed on the device's menu.

It feels somewhat sacrilegious to lump Borges into an in-betweener post, considering the fluff that normally collects in them, and the high regard in which most serious novelists hold him. Conversely I blame the executor of his estate, who worked hard to control publishing rights to his works in English, and from which this was the only work (that I could afford) that was available as a download; and as I was intent on filling the Borges-shaped lacuna in my education as quickly as possible, it therefore was the first I read, and potentially the one I would recall the least. Thankfully, I read two Darren Craske novellas straight afterwards which, like a mental sorbet, cleansed my memory meaning I could recall the umami of Borges' prose without effort. Oh, no offence to Craske intended, but frankly his slightly odd Victorian-era mystery stories, hung around the improbable frame of Cornelius Quaint, illusionist and cad, were but a short amuse-bouche. Not that Kaufman was the main course. In fact, this analogous metaphor has gone stale.

Still, Borges was a surprise. With the weight of post-modern fiction on the shelves pulling the plaster from my walls and the pervasion of his influence in the writers I read* I should not have been. The story which most stands out for me in this collection, cropped from various other works, is the story of the writer who re-wrote Cervantes' masterpiece in an attempt to ascertain if he could, independently and through his own process, come up with exactly the same words, in the same order and with the same sense (although with added depth, richness and renewed literary vigour!) as Cervantes himself, albeit it three and a half centuries later. What a concept. And what execution. Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote is a 'fake' review of a non-existent author, completed with audacity and tongue firmly in cheek. I had not expected to laugh at Borges, and therein lies a great pain. These short examples of his are crafted meticulously, densely layered and quite brilliant, but also accessible and enjoyable. Rather churlishly, I had expected enigma, deep mystery and unfathomable beauty; I had expected not to understand a word. I had pre-judged a book by the cover (and title) and am duly ashamed. Having now read a little of Borges' background, I have found criticisms, probably justified on this inspection, that Borges lacked substance, that his works are experiments in the art of writing - he was described as a 'doctor of technique' in an elliptical criticism by a leftist Argentinian magazine of the time - and his legacy of magical realism affronted those existentialists in search of reality and direct experiential truth instead of less tangible universal truths. I guess that's why his output is restricted to essays and short stories - two formats uniquely suited to the exploration of the seeds of ideas that might not survive propagation. I don't care, and plan to go directly to some sort of book-selling outlet to purchase both Fictions and Labyrinths post-haste. I can see why so many people cite him in so many works, claim his influence on what they do and how they think. In that respect, I'm with Oscar Guardiola-Rivera when he asserted that Cervantes and Borges marked the start of the first and second revolutions in Spanish-language literature.

By contrast, what I can recall of Darren Craske is probably not worth writing down (but I'll try). He has garnered some acclaim as a visual artist, and certainly his characters in these bawdy knockabouts bear no closer scrutiny than would a cartoon character in a daily comic strip. They amused, briefly, much as a dog on the TV might if doing something cute or saying "sausages". But, they were both made available for free by his publishers, so in that spirit of generosity I am happy to admit that having finished the first I did quickly begin the second. It's just possible I might pick up one of his novels proper and read it before sending it off though BookCrossing to await further readers on the shelves of a coffee shop.

And so on to 'Not The Main Course' Andrew Kaufman. To begin with, I harboured vague mistrust of the author based on the similarity of his name and that other famous Kaufman. Considering the conceit is absurd, that everyone in a bank heist is affected by a strange curse bestowed by the unconventional perpetrator of the crime and that one woman's particular problem is one of rapid shrinking, hence the title, this vague prejudice might appear apposite. In fact, although only short (gadzooks - a pun!) and definitely absurd in its premise, it turned out to be a poignant and interesting read. Running alongside the narrators tale of the shrinkage of his wife and of her travails is a tale of domestic disharmony and parental failure - the problems of the marriage souring the happy existence of their only child. This only becomes apparent later once the absurdity has had time to sink in an and also provides some grounding and realism. In retrospect I can't remember what it is about Andy Kaufman that I didn't like - probably his role as Latka Gravas alongside Tony Danza and Judd Hirsch in Taxi - and which coloured my thinking in this instance, but whatever it was isn't any longer. I would gladly take a punt on Andrew Kaufman's next book, and would recommend The Tiny Wife if you've got half an hour spare.



*It should be pointed out that I have a general and non-specific antipathy for writers of so-called Magical Realism which likely dates to my time as a bookseller when the educated but mentally untaxed and lazy liberal 50-somethings of Cardiff would amble up gently demanding the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and sniffing loudly when finding it on the shelves under G or M, whichever mis-filing ill-suited their particular strain of malaise at the time but which allowed them the opportunity to 'write a letter' to complain about something on which they held 'an opinion'. 




The Vagabond's Breakfast by Richard Gwyn

Deep hanging out in Greece
and the Med.
I enjoyed The Colour Of A Dog Running Away, Richard Gwyn's first published novel. This was partly because the city in which sections of it are set, Barcelona, is one of my favourite cities in the world - an outsider city, forging its own path despite a murky and unsavoury history, full of life and energy, invigorated by the Olympics but gradually settling back into its grime and soot under which one can glimpse flashes of coloured tiles and murals with enigmatic messages in Catalan, plus home to my favourite and now sadly deceased captive albino primate - and partly because I felt I owned a little bit of the novel, having arranged its launch event on behalf of a chain bookstore with his publishers Parthian Books. In fact, this event is mentioned in the pages of this meandering memoir as an example of his state of derangement due to his illness (some of the writing is collected from pieces written as he was waiting for a liver transplant, in a mental fog from the various accompanying disorders), an episode in which his phone goes off mid-reading and he struggles to understand that it belongs to him. His second novel, Deep Hanging Out,was read out of a degree of lingering loyalty and anticipation, but I did enjoy it in parts, and a foray into his poetry via Sad Giraffe Café was curtailed when I gave it to my wife as a present, but not before reading two curious prose poems (as they all are if memory serves) about kings and earth - one where a man finds a king's head in the earth in his basement which comes to life the next day at breakfast, and one where a monarch goes missing only to be found buried, by himself, in the ground.

There were preliminary echoes of Orwell and W.H. Davies in the title, and a wine glass on the cover, and it was published by a Welsh publisher*. For these reasons, and others**, I was ambivalent about reading this his latest book, more so when I found out it was a biography***.

But read it I did, and whilst on holiday no less. Having met Richard a few times in the past, pre- and post-transplant, it was easy to imagine his calm, languorous tone reading aloud from the pages. The prose doesn't jolt, bolt or otherwise upset the reader by doing anything unexpected, and the twin narrative, mixing memories of his illness and anxieties over the impending operation to transplant a new liver, and stories from his past from which he attempts, ostensibly, sometimes listlessly, to pinpoint the moment when he may have contracted the virus that left him with a cirrhosed organ, despite some of the content, is comforting, like listening to an avuncular elder wandering about his nostalgia, half chuffed with himself for having had a life well-lived yet trying to tell a cautionary tale for his audience. And failing.

For all of the rather dismaying stories, of insomnia, mania, befuddlement, sickness and symptoms of dementia, the rather more numerous and often repetitive stories of the time he spent impoverished and inebriated on the coasts of the Mediterranean and Aegean have an air of smug satisfaction about them. He seems proud to have drank and smoked and fucked his way through nine years of his life, parts blanked out by chemical abuse, others filled with hallucinations of strange shamans (or should that be shamen?) and frankly, I would have to believe that he must have the most marvellously tolerant and supportive wife and family at home, because if I wrote this about my past, despite her amazing qualities, my wife would in all probability push my new liver out of my mouth through the anus with a 2X4 wrapped in barbed wire. To be fair, at least he went out and did something which was not expected, had a life worth telling someone about. Someone once told me the best way to write was from experience, and that if I had to describe someone being punched in the face I should get into a bar fight****. He was right in that respect, although I prefer less damaging inspiration. I am quietly impressed that the person whom I had met on several occasions and who told me about writers like Roberto Bolaño was the man from these tales. I'm less surprised at the tone of the telling...

For all my prejudices and ambivalence, I did certainly enjoy reading it, at the same time as drinking several litres of strong, malty beer (which later caused some night-time unpleasantness and an unscheduled shower) and making notes in my own fashion on the nature of memory and story-telling. Good books tend to inspire in me the desire to launch my own literary career, and by that criterion alone I can only judge this book to be a good one. 

*Nothing against Welsh publishers, but it sometimes smacks of the peculiar parochialism of Wales that either the author, editor or agent thinks the appeal will be localised so will sell it to local publishers and then the depressed circle is complete. 

**It would be tiresome to relate, again, the anxieties aroused by reading and then feeling pressures to review books by people I know, even vicariously, so I won't.

***I was curious about his formative experiences but often feel that a record of a life with living left to go is a judgement without hearing all the evidence.

****Friends and acquaintances may be expecting my drunken 'Fight Club' story in this footnote, the one where I was drunk and homeward bound with the assistance of two young, female friends, when the tall, blonde, moronic fella from Dirty Sanchez yelled something offensive at us outside the Student Union bar on Park Place, and I told my friends I'd seen Fight Club and knew what to do in a situation like this, only to sashay over, call him a cunt, and then proceed to run about trying to avoid capture before one of his friends punched me in the mouth and I escaped, giggling, to the awed embrace of both ladies, but of course I wouldn't want to stoop to that sort of self-aggrandising nonsense.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Our Ancestors by Italo Calvino

The dog signifies nothing...
Now is as good a time as any I suppose to admit that I regularly confuse Italo Calvino with Umberto Eco and when struggling for the name of one of them, invariably come up with the name of the other. What value does this add to a review of either’s work? None whatsoever. I just thought it would pay to be honest up front, so that if I start talking about semiotics, the discourse of literary criticism, or beards, then you’ll know my train of thoughts has switched tracks and is heading for a bridge under construction.

Of course, reading the Wiki pages on the two of them (to make sure I was talking about the right fellow) I noticed with some dread that Our Ancestors is one of the best known works of the most translated contemporary Italian writer (at the time of his death) and here I am, trying to make sense of it in my own personal context. Well, I’m always going to be treading down some fool’s heels so why should I care if it’s actually most people? Indeed, Calvino mentions in his own introduction that modesty drives him to frame the three stories as mere entertainments, and that if the reader draws anything further from them then that’s the reader’s fault and no blame should be laid at his door. I hope you’ll afford me the same spirit of generosity and forgiveness.

So, Our Ancestors is a trilogy of (very) loosely themed stories, narrated by a third-party witness to events, and if enjoyment is the sole purpose, then in my opinion and for my taste, there is a definite hierarchy – at the top is The Non-existent Knight, then follows The Cloven Viscount, and propping up the others is the much longer The Baron In The Trees. In the first, a suit of armour is inhabited by the sheer will power of someone who doesn’t exist, whose only purpose is truth, and was, as Jules Verne said of Phineas Fogg, exactitude personified. His path across the battlefields of France is intersected by an amorous young knight, a mournful and bitter orphan-knight, and a love-hungry warrior maiden who wants only the man she can’t have (and who we later learn, [spoiler coming up – look away now] is the narrator of the story from her cell in a local convent and whose self-referential passages are pretty dull in comparison). A coincidental, comical convergence causes crisis for the non-existent knight and he sets out, with idiot squire in tow, on a quest to prove his title and therefore his non-existent existence is true, and, time and space be damned, crosses France, England, the Atlantic Ocean, North Africa and France again to return to the court of the aging and tired Charlemagne with his evidence, all of which is rebuffed, falsely it seems, and he ceases his non-existence, or rather, more so than before, in fact completely. There are some beautifully crafted characters herein, and the landscape is replete with those peasants and armour-fillers whose casual acceptance of the situation adds a surreal gloss to events. The Knights of the Holy Grail are thoroughly lampooned, and Charlemagne himself, at the end of his long campaign, the origins of which no-one seems able to recall, is toying with senility. All in all, a very lovely literary farce, a satire full of people chasing people, seducers being outwitted, young lust frustrated and a village idiot knocking over furniture and washing up in fishermen’s nets.

Um... Berto?
The Cloven Viscount is equally far-fetched, given it follows the life of a young nobleman blown into two halves by a Turkish cannon whilst on his first crusade, the two halves representing the twin sides of a single personality and who both manage to go on living despite the obvious challenges. Somewhat repetitive in parts, but with equally biting satire, the evil viscount wreaks misery on his populace, annoying the exiled Huguenots who are too afraid of persecution to be properly pious except in only the most vague terms, chopping plants and animals in half – to make them better appreciate the duality of existence perhaps – and trying to bed a young farm hand who gently ducks his attentions, causing her parents to suffer his perverse attempts at blackmail. That is, until the ‘good’ half of the viscount arrives, at first being a beacon of hope to the inhabitants with acts of charity and healing, but then by his very goodness attracting the attention of his evil half to those that he helps, thus becoming a curse in his own right, and who also falls for the plump young maid, causing [spoiler coming up – time to avert your gaze momentarily] the two halves to unite after their comically ineffectual duelling results in the removal of their sutures at rapier point allowing the two halves to be reunited at the divide. The one irritant is the narrator, ostensibly a young relative free from parental supervision and able to be at the side of every interested participant in the tale – a necessary device given the format, but irksome and calling into doubt an already improbable story by his intrusions. In a context where this tale appeared, for example a tale in Chaucer’s pilgrims’ progress, as part of a collection of storytelling it would probably sit less uncomfortably – although maybe that’s what this collection tries to be. Meh.

They could have chosen different poses...
Lastly, comes The Baron In The Trees, where a family slight sends the heir to the duchy into an oak tree from which he is never to climb down and from which he conducts the business of being a noble man, an intellectual, a philosopher, a villain, a military strategist, a lover, and a great storyteller. A simple and interesting premise you might think, but as the tale spans his entire, lengthy, life, related to the reader by his younger sibling, is in parts repetitive and dull. Many stories could have been trimmed, albeit at the cost of the great scope of the satire, to make it more enjoyable, and perhaps this is where the author’s own defence of the triptych falls a little flat, as enjoyability comes second to whatever it is Calvino is trying to say. I freely admit I skimmed some passages in order to advance before my 40th birthday*.

Phew. So at the end of this lengthy review which touches on plot but very little on what one might draw from levels below the facile, what have we learned? This is enjoyable for the most part, and even the bits that drag have merit, and like in his re-telling of 200 Italian Folktales, his voice and style is warm and distinct, rendering the surreal endearing and human. Plus, he doesn’t have a beard – that’s right, yes?

*Thankfully** more than a couple of years hence…

**I hasten to add that I have nothing against anyone over the age of 40