Sunday, 30 August 2009

"The Two Mrs Grenvilles" by Dominick Dunne

This book was first published in America, where the author was a well-known journalist, writing in particular for Vanity Fair. Sadly, he died a few days ago (the day before Ted Kennedy), having been suffering painfully from bladder cancer for about a year. That it was published in America as long ago as 1985 and yet (I believe) for the first time in the UK in 2009 only shortly before his death nearly a quarter of a century later is inexplicable, for this is a very fine novel indeed.

I will not give away the plot, for there are at least a couple of very important matters of which readers need to be kept in ignorance, but it is set in and around New York high society, chiefly in the forties and fifties, and tells the story of a tempestuous marriage between an "old money" rich kid and an opportunist showgirl. The writer blends real events and characters into the proceedings with great skill, and never does the suspension of disbelief seem to require any effort at all.

The text is stylish, polished and elegant. I felt that the ghost of Scott Fitzgerald stalked the pages, but also the Somerset Maugham of The Razor's Edge, or the Anthony Burgess of Earthly Powers. In fact, these are not idle comparisons, since there is much of both Maugham's Isabel and Burgess's Hortense in Dunne's Ann Arden. In particular, the very brief scene in which Burgess describes Hortense being dropped outside the narrator's apartment building naked and comatose after a wild party kept coming to mind. Essentially, though, Ann is a more successful version of Patrick Hamilton's Netta from Hangover Square. What Netta aspires to, Ann actually achieves, and achieves brilliantly.

The most tragic figure in the book is probably not the doomed Billy, but his mother, the second Mrs Grenville of the title. Recognising from the outset what sort of woman Ann is, she is rendered incapable of doing anything constructive about it by her own dispassionate relationship with her son. Her autocratic approach, which is all she is capable of, backfires horribly, pushing Billy headlong into a secret wartime wedding. Thereafter the book is as much about her as it is about Ann and Billy, and it is Dunne's great skill that though she is sketched lightly, she is sketched deftly. We get to know her thoughts largely through her own rather stilted utterances, yet we feel her pain nonetheless; sheer hatred hidden behind a mask of forced politeness.

It is not the least of Dunne's accomplishments that he manages to achieve a tenderness of sorts at the end, or at least some genuine pathos. With Dunne's passing, the world has clearly lost a very fine novelist indeed. I felt this book to be better than Updike and perhaps even equal to Bellow. It is my regret that I have only just come across his work.

The Two Mrs Grenvilles is published by Arcadia under ISBN 978-1-906413-03-3

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

BBAW Book Quiz

In honour of BBAW 2009, I am setting ten questions to test your knowledge and love of books. In each case the name of both the book and the author are required. In some cases, bonus marks are available where extra information is requested.

I will publish at the end of next week the correct answers, and the name of the person who got closest to maximum marks. Please email your answers to me at guyfs[AT]yahoo[DOT]co[DOT]uk

1. In which book does the reader first make the acquaintance of Peter Duck's cave?
2. Which two doomed lovers unwittingly drink a love potion, with tragic consequences since the woman is about to marry another man?
3. A chance encounter at a railway station leads to the hero being entrusted with a magical device which can produce, amongst other things, armies of miniature soldiers. What was it, and what was his name?
4. What does Justine lead us into, and what is unusual about the story which follows?
5. Who rings a long and complicated peal of bells at short notice on New Year's Eve, and how does a subsequent flood help him to solve a deadly mystery?
6. Which former army officer, who at one time advertised himself in "The Times" as being ready to resort to crime "if of a relatively humorous description" plays a key role in suppressing a plot to manufacture synthetic diamonds?
7. Who proposes marriage to the wrong sister on impulse and later seeks to undo his mistake by means of an arson attack?
8. Which book opens with a celebrated author in bed with his catamite when surprised by an archbishop, visting him in honour of his 81st birthday?
9. Who bribes a milkman to lend him his uniform in order to run away to Scotland, leaving a stabbed corpse in his flat upstairs?
10. Which two young men use the torn-off covers of a bible to brush a swarm of insects off the naked body of a young woman?

Monday, 24 August 2009

"Fists" by Pietro Grossi

Fists is actually the title of three short stories which make up this book, and concerns a rather unusual relationship between two young fighters. The second revolves around horses, and the third around a young man who believes he is a monkey. They are well written, and each is strikingly different from each other. On this occasion I decided that rather than writing a review, I would conduct an on-line interview with the author, Pietro Grossi.

Pursewarden: Which writers have most influenced you from (1) Italian fiction and (2) English language fiction?

PG: It is difficult to say but, out of all of them, probably the two Italian fiction writers I most admire are Italo Svevo, La Coscienza di Zeno above all, and Pirandello. One struck me for his apparent simplicity, the other for his freedom, both for their endless wit. Again it is very hard to cut a bunch of books and authors out of hundreds, but if I have to draw a line I have to admit that the literature that has most influenced my writing, at least for the moment, is North American 20th century literature, all the way from Melville to Philip Roth. The author who has taught me the most about writing – I mean methods and tricks and how and where – is Hemingway.

Pursewarden: There is a strong sense of place in all of the stories. The horse story, for example, reminded me of the Abruzzo trilogy while the last story reminded me of the Garden of the Finzi-Contini. Is this something you deliberately aim for in your writing?

PG: I never thought about the Abruzzo trilogy but yes, definitely I recognized from the first moment there was something in Monkey that reminded me about Il giardino dei Finzi-Contini. Mostly the scene in which Nico remembers the first time he saw Piero's sister: the image of that girl reading in the garden could have definitely been cut out of some scene in Bassani's book. It's funny: I read Il giardino dei Finzi-Contini only once, when I was twelve: I guess luckily good things just stick with you.

Pursewarden: Why do you write short stories? What is about the form that attracts you?
Have you ever tried writing a full-length novel? What are the different challenges for a writer of each form?

PG: I started to write short stories because I wasn't able to write novels.

I kept beginning novels that I was never able to end, so at a certain point I just tried to write as it came to me, without worrying about how long it was and what was going on. So came ‘Boxing’. When Pugni was published and people started saying that I was a great short-story writer I kept on looking at those ten or twelve unfinished novels on my shelf and felt pretty ridiculous. The book after Pugni is a single longer story, though I don't really think you can call it a novel yet.

Some time or another I swear I'll get there.

Pursewarden: The last story is left deliberately unresolved. What was your intention here?

PG: I don't think I had any great intentions when I began the story. I actually never have great intentions when I begin a story. Or, at least, all the best stories I have written came out decently because I didn't have any great intentions. Anyway, when I began to consider Monkey and think about it I realized that it was a completely different story from the other two. The first two stories have a sharp beginning and a sharp end and a whole clear dynamic that leads from one point to another.

Monkey, I thought, worked in a different way. It was Cortàzar I think who once said that the relation there is between a novel and a short story is the same that there is between a feature film and photography.

I don't think this is true for every short story, but for a lot of them yes: Hemingway and Salinger and Carver for example work exactly in this way. The first two stories in Fists, in this sense, are more like very short novels, while Monkey doesn't really want to tell a story: Monkey just wants to take a picture of a small situation, a situation anyway that probably hides much deeper matters.

Monkey at first was pretty different and looked more like the beginning of a novel – which probably would have become another of my unended novels – then I realized that it was something different, not as clear and resolved but much sharper.

So, there you have it, the first author interview on this blog, but surely not the last. Fists is published by Pushkin Press under ISBN 978-1-906548-07-0

2009 Tilling Gathering

All Mapp and Lucia enthusiasts are reminded that there is probably still just time to register for this years Gathering on 5 September, organised by the dedicated and hard-working Jonathan Dunlop and Darren Reynolds at The Friends of Tilling. Sadly Pursewarden will be unable to attend this year, but can throughly recommend the event to all self-respecting Luciaphiles. Who knows, perhaps Hermione will be on hand to write the event up in his "five o'clock chit chat" column?

Oh dear, I hope I haven't given away the answer to one of the quiz questions.

Click on the link for details.

Friday, 21 August 2009

"Kilburn Social Club" by Robert Hudson

Kilburn Social Club is an appealing story of a football club peopled by leading cultural figures, all of whom earn the same wage. Attached to a large conglomerate, it finds itself at the centre of a family power struggle following the sudden death of the patriarch and his wife in a car crash. However, despite these intriguing circumstances, the book floundered a little for me, largely because I was left unsure as to exactly what sort of book Hudson was trying to write. Perhaps I am being fanciful, but I sensed a tug of war between a desire to create a serious novel and the perceived commercial demands of the marketplace.

Hudson is undoubtedly a fine writer. There are lots of nice touches at which you nod with appreciation, such as

"The rivers of the past flow into the present, and only in retrospect do we think we see the watersheds. If Monica hadn't noticed the man in black, then maybe everything would have happened differently."

You have to be an accomplished writer to get away with something like that in a contemporary novel (it is almost identical to something Forester said over half a century ago in Randall and the River of Time), but Hudson does. The problem is that it does not really fit with the textual style of the rest of book, which is largely strictly narrative in nature. It is almost as though he is trying to write a rather laddish piece of bloke-lit to order, but the real writer keeps peeping through.

For example, some passages of the book are simplistic in the extreme. How about this, which smacks of a piece of schoolgirl fiction?

"Aisling wasn't an idiot. She knew the letters to David were an issue for her. She was sure, deep down, that the letters were an issue for him too."

These are extreme examples, but I had trouble believing they could have been written by the same person. Perhaps the book was heavily edited prior to publication?

Overall, KSC had the feel to me of having been written with a sale of the TV rights specifically in mind - a sort of combination of The Brothers and The Manageress - and I'm sure the TV rights will be sold and it will prove very successful as a TV series, though things like the letters between Sally and Punty will need to be handled creatively.

I would recommend this as a great holiday read. It is a good story, with interesting characters. However, I would be fascinated to see what Hudson writes next. I have a feeling that he is actually a novelist rather than a writer.

2009 Book Blog Awards

I am surprised and delighted to announce that Pursewarden has been nominated in no less than three categories for the 2009 BBAWs. These are Best Reviews, Best Cultural Blog, and Best Literary Fiction Blog. Many thanks to those unknown individuals out there who were responsible for this.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Linguality dual language books

I have come across which features books in French or Italian with an English glossary on the facing page. This is a fantastic idea and it is a shame nobody has done it before. It means every time you come across a word or phrase you do not understand you can carry right on reading, rather than having to run off to the dictionary.

Unfortunately it is only available on a book club basis for now, but it is such a good idea that I am sure other publishers will pick up on it and make such books available in the book shops.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

"Black Spring" by Henry Miller

Where to start, in writing about Henry Miller? Come to that, where to stop? The only way to make this manageable is to restrict myself so far a possible to the book I am supposed to be reviewing, which is the new release by One World Classics of Black Spring. However, it is necessary to place it in the context of his other works, chiefly because it forms part of a trilogy which (though non-sequential) begins with Tropic of Cancer and concludes with Tropic of Capricorn. It is also set, at least partly, in that period of his life when he was living in Paris with flatmate Alfred Perlès, which is described in much more salacious detail in Quiet Days in Clichy. A fictional character named Carl masquerades as Perlès in both books, and the latter work is about the only surviving record of this largely forgotten writer; let us hope that One World Classics will now turn their attentions on him.

Miller’s main works of fiction fall broadly into two trilogies: the one just mentioned, and a second written later in life, comprising Plexus, Nexus, and Sexus, together called The Rosy Crucifixion. Thankfully, we can safely ignore these since they are common consent of a lesser standard than their earlier counterparts. Even the loyally sycophantic Lawrence Durrell cabled Miller in an effort to stop one of them (I forget which) being published, saying that they would damage his reputation. Personally, I found them tedious and over-long.

None of that is the case with the earlier trilogy, though. As with Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring is written in a totally unique style. Fragmentary, with the unities of time and place cracked asunder, and influenced on Miller’s own admission by the prevailing surrealism and existentialism of the thirties, the scenes which follow each other in bewildering succession are thinly disguised (though, some believe, heavily embroidered) auto-biography, and carry a consistent message. Better by far, says Miller, to be poor, hungry and homeless if in being so one can find understanding and fulfilment, than to be wealthy and successful if this simply wraps one in so many layers of social convention and platitudes that one has no hope of ever seeing the world as it really is.

It is only fair to point out that the text is well larded with four letter words and graphic descriptions of various sexual acts which are, for good measure, at best dismissive and at worst openly contemptuous of women in general. All three books of the trilogy could be published only in France (by Jack Kahane’s Obelisk Press recently chronicled by Neil Pearson) and were immediately banned in both America and Britain. Indeed they were not finally published in either country until the early 60s, after the Lady Chatterley case. Bizarrely, though, in 1958 even while his books were still banned, Miller was elected to the American Institute of Arts and Letters, so presumably a significant number of copies must have been circulating privately.

Even on initial publication a number of books must have slipped past the customs officials in England, because George Orwell, Cyril Connolly and T.S. Elliott all wrote favourable reviews. So, from distant Corfu, did Lawrence Durrell, whose Black Book (his first novel, now largely forgotten) was also published in Paris by the Obelisk press. Anticipating a ban, no effort was made to release it in England and America, based largely on the advice of T.S. Elliot, who during his day job was Durrell’s poetry publisher. As Neil Pearson points out in his book on Jack Kahane, alongside its day to day task of churning out sleazy rubbish, Obelisk also played a valuable role without which writers such as Miller and Durrell would not have seen the light of day.

I initially read both the other two books in the Paris trilogy while I was actually living in Paris, but I found Black Spring at least as enjoyable even when read in the dull greyness of London (incidentally there is an almost Proustian section in Black Spring where Miller speculates on the various qualities of greyness) and probably even more accessible.

Yes, of course there are objections and drawbacks. It is difficult to avoid the suspicion that Miller’s frequent use of bad language is gratuitous, and intended solely to shock, particularly in the context of the prevailing mores of the 30s. His attitude to women would inflame many of the school of political correctness. The fragmentary nature of the novels often makes it difficult to string together any coherent long term narrative. Yet Miller is undoubtedly a writer of genius, and the fact that he paints life in the raw is an important part of that. He puts me in mind of Céline, the depiction of life in New York by a Frenchman ironically echoing the description of life in Paris by an American. Black Spring should be on the reading list of anyone interested in twentieth century literature, or indeed in the evolution of the novel.

A huge thank-you is due to One World Classics for having had the guts to publish something on the grounds of its literary merits rather than its perceived commercial potential. Let us hope that Perlès and Durrell’s Black Book will feature in their list sometime soon.

Pietro Grossi - save the date!

Pietro Grossi, author of Fists, will hopefully feature on Pursewarden on 25 August.