Sometimes when you read a book, you think I got the gist, and put it aside. This is one of those, from the slightly ungainly title, to the sex lives of the less than famous, (with the exception of Graham Greene) this illustrates the truism that in war it’s more than the gloves that come off. What it does paint is the extraordinary image of London in the blitz, where every night more and more of the city went up in flames. The fact that the inhabitants reached for each other in those long terrifying nights could be attributed to DNA or just the fact that terror, loss and death makes you want to fuck.
Last year a nice Norwegian journalist who was interviewing me gave me some Norwegian books so that I might know a little more about Norwegian writers. I could hardly know less, so it was a most kind gift. I enjoyed this beautiful story about a son and his mother and his life and her death. The quotation is from a poem by Mao. This is a line from the book. “It was like it always is with time, that it can slip through your fingers when you are not looking.”
A sweet little book which will whet your appetite for the real thing. A major fan of Auden’s shares his feelings and his favourite poems and his best thoughts.
I finished this which I had started in June and was struck by how well he finishes his books, not something all novelists can do, but something vitally important in the detective thriller. His terrain of the Hollywood cops and the Hollywood moon that sets the denizens of Hollywood buzzing is exactly his own. He has carved out this territory and nobody does it better.
The Life and Death of a British Emperor.
I’m slowly working my way through this. I was always fascinated by the Fall of Clive. This history is a little slow but I haven’t abandoned it, since I want to see how it turns out.
Well this is 1984. Actually more like 2084. For those of us who feel I-People are akin to a cult here is the novel of our anxieties. What does it mean when we share everything on line, on camera, on email and twitter? Is this a sinister or a useful human social development? Do we get closer to others, or further away from our real selves? Mae is the Winston Smith of the book, who gets a job at the Silicone Valley online giant The Centre. Her moments of rebellion, solo kayaking, and furtive sex with a mysterious watcher, are used as examples against her. Carefully advised by her counsellors, she learns her lesson, outing herself in a series of Orwellian contradictions. History too is rewritten, as camera and digital data is re-interpreted. So yes it’s a great idea, but I got the feeling that for once the film might be even better. Perhaps it’s the character of Mae who rarely becomes more than a cypher or perhaps we get it too soon, we quickly understand the irony of freedom becoming repressive, and hate the intrusive nature of this Maoist world, where self-criticism is used to keep the individual in line, so that the book seems overlong as it slowly works out its paradoxes: how working at The Centre transforms a bright intelligent young woman into a workaholic vessel, how it affects her relationship with her parents and former lover, how her world view is polluted by the shining guidelines of the Company, where everything is free, and nothing has any value. Where cameras follow you for every waking hour and you must be careful what you think, and you must communicate all day or feel the sting of social criticism. Big Brother is watching you. Dystopia Ltd.
Another from the interesting New Yorker writer. Interesting insights and observations. I’ve used the word interesting twice which alerts me I am trying to cover up the fact I found some parts a little dull….
Found a first UK edition in London. An early Leonard. And highly readable as usual.
The first half I thought was one of the best books I have ever read. Need to re-read it actually. It didn’t quite maintain the vigour and strength of its opening, but still brilliant. A prolonged consideration of the nature of consciousness from a physical, philosophical and scientific perspective. The Oxford dilemma: Stuck on a train in Didcot. Witty, thoughtful, sensitive, intelligent. Superb stuff.
Aspects of Provence.
I re-read it, mainly because I enjoy the story of Marius saving Rome, by refusing to battle the vast Teutonic barbarian horde as it heads south to threaten Rome, before he accustoms his army to seeing them as just an enemy and destroys them completely in Pourrieres… A military genius even Caesar thought was the cat’s pyjamas.
My addiction grows. I’m trying to ration myself to one Philip Kerr book a month but I don’t know whether I can. Found a nice autographed copy at Vromans, the excellent bookstore in Pasadena. Between Berlin and Smolensk, Bernie is the same back chatting non Nazi cop. Here he is invited by Joey the Crip to exhume and examine the bodies of the thousands of Polish officers killed by the Red Army, on Stalin’s orders at Katyn. The irony of the Nazis investigating a Communist War Crime is not lost on him or his protagonist. Great stuff.
The trouble with discovering a new author whom you adore, is if you binge on their writing you eventually come across something that you don’t like. This for me was it. The send up of the Esalen, New Age, touchy feely folk is funny for a while, but then reading about them is just as irritating as meeting them. So I chucked it I’m afraid.
He is an ace thriller writer. This one moves between Berlin in 1934 and ends up in Havana in 1954 before the crime is revealed. And you never see it coming. Bernie Gunther is the perfect hero, flawed, smoking, drinking, womanising, hilarious. I defy you not to have a good time with him.
Nice change at the Shangri-La Hotel in Paris to find this thirties yarn by James Hilton instead of some religious bullshit book. It’s very much a Ripping Yan, with the stiff upper lip narrative by Conrad the laconic hero of this improbable adventure, but he keeps the excitement coming in the Buchan style.
Characters are sketches, caricatures, but hey, it’s an innocent enough read.
A James Bond novel.
I never thought Fleming was any good. I only read him recently and was surprised to find him almost as bad as I suspected, but I do rate William Boyd, so it’s a pity to find him slogging through a Bond novel. It seems his heart isn’t in it. Anyway I left it behind in Paris, for somebody else….
A beautiful, very French, novella about marriage and a pair of ear rings. Written in a slightly antique style as befits the subject, by the exotic Louise, a novelist, poet, journalist and “grand horizontale” and translated by her quondam lover Duff Cooper, the quondam British Ambassador to France. Forgive the repetition, it’s quondam thing after another.
One middle-aged man in search of The Point.
A friend sent me this, and then brought him to dinner. Very funny pieces by the low life correspondent of the Spectator. In his own words: “He remains an undiscovered talent.” Modest, witty, and hilarious.
A friend sent this advanced copy for a comment, the biography of a boy growing up in Leeds Castle, but I’m afraid I found it uninteresting.
A nice 1940 edition, picked up in a second-hand bookshop in Chichester. A finely written story of the life of the Beau, who seems not only madly self-centred and utterly entitled, but vain, and not a little gay. He seems to be a bitchy queen half his life, and while he has many female admirers, with whom he gossips and corresponds, he doesn’t seem to sleep with them. Hello? Yes he is funny and foolishly brave insulting the Prince Regent when he is cut by him on Piccadilly, (“Alveney, who is your fat friend?”) but his entire life is dressing up, and three hours toilette and he changed his lingerie three times a day, so if that isn’t the height of narcissism what is? His gambling addiction and his penchant for borrowing money from his aristocratic friends makes it virtually inevitable he has to run away to Calais, where he lives in great style, but constantly on the edge of poverty by continually writing to and borrowing from old acquaintances. His sense of entitlement never leaves him, as he becomes Consul in Caen for a moment before talking himself out of a job. Perhaps this is the gamblers vice, to lose everything. He declines into squalor, sued by a former friend and thrown into prison, freed by friends, only to end up in a madhouse as reality overtakes his vanity. I thought it might make a nice play and then the Beau would of course have to be played by Simon Russell Beale. Excellent biography.
A lovely book in a lovely pocket paperback edition by Pushkin Press. Here, the sadly elderly Casanova is lingering around Mantua, waiting for permission to return to Venice, where he will accept the ignominious job of government spy. His powers waning, but not his interest in seduction, he has to face the decline of his fame, a challenge from a younger self, and encounters with both young and old females who want him virtually as a trophy, because of his reputation. At a friend’s house he behaves despicably to gain his way with a young woman who does not want him, bribing his rival, only to have to face a naked duel and his own feelings about his decline. So, then a book about mortality and morality, written by the excellent Austrian author Arthur Schnitzler, whom I have always enjoyed.
My other recently discovered author is Edward St. Aubyn and I binged with great delight on The Patrick Melrose Novels. This, the final one, I had started previously, but didn’t get as it is set at the funeral of the mother of the protagonist and you really have to read them in order to understand who is what, and what they did to who. In particular here he examines Eleanor the mother, and her complicity in the awful relationship with his father which permitted this poor child to be so sadistically and brutally bullied and sexually abused. A delightfully written and sympathetic conclusion to a life examined.
The First Three Bernie Gunther novels.
This has been my year for discovering the Edinburgh born Philip Kerr, and this summer I have binged on his books. Fortunately there are tons of them. His Bernie Gunther detective novels are about as good as it gets, plus they are set fascinatingly in Berlin during the Nazi period, so that we get a sense of how such an evil invades and takes over by small steps, while many were against it, but it is difficult to face the encroaching daily choices, and the risk of being murdered for speaking out. The joy of Bernie, is that he invariably speaks out, often in the face of the real Himmler, or Heydrich. Meanwhile he writes great detective fiction, shags the most delicious women, drinks and smokes and through him we see the rise and fall of Nazism and the appalling end Berlin undergoes. Invasion by the Russians? No, crucifixion please.
I was discussing with a friend how some novels which we read avidly in our teens and early twenties no longer stand up to re-reading, or we no longer regard them with such affection. Is it them, or is it us?
Examples: Lawrence Durrell and The Alexandrian Quartet, Ulysses, and now I have been re-reading Catch 22 and it didn’t do it for me. Nothing wrong, I simply had had the gags and didn’t want to revisit the territory. Whereas Dickens gets better by the re-read, apart say from The Old Curiosity Shop and the nauseating Little Nell and the wildly unfunny Pickwick Papers. The exception for me with Lawrence Durrell is his excellent book Provence.
Well not for the first time I change my mind. I loved this book on second reading. He is so completely funny. The opening few chapters are hysterical. The Northern novelist self-mockery, the observation of the state of published fiction, of the dearth of readers, all superbly realised. I had the feeling I would enjoy it more the second time and should give it another go and I did. Perhaps too, in paperback it seems less portentous, more mocking of the serious novel, than being that. It is that, serious, too, and ends with fine irony, his wife whose literary pretensions he has scoffed at throughout, turns out to be the successful one, but even then he succeeds, succeeds in writing “popular” fiction under a pseudonym, while the mother in law whom he fancies goes off with his publisher. I did it a disservice. I was wrong. As we say up North “Is it me, or can you smell gas?”
At some point in the summer I re-read this, which brings back three of his favourite characters—Jack Foley from Out of Sight, Cundo Rey from La Brava, and Dawn Navarro from Riding the Rap—for “ a twisting, explosive, always surprising masterwork of crime fiction.” Foley was the Clooney one.