Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Cornflower Books discussion

A very good discussion is going on over at Cornflower Books (see the blog link below and to the left) on the relationship between writers and publishers, and the current state of the publishing industry. I have already weighed in with my views. Writers, everywhere, do take the time to read this and contribute.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

"Selected Stories" by Julian Maclaren-Ross

As I may have mentioned before, short stories are not one of my favourite art forms, although I seem to come back to those of E.M. Forster (which I first read at school) at regular intervals. I read these Maclaren-Ross stories when they were re-issued a few years back, intrigued as much as anything by the title of Bitten by the Tarantula. I was struck then by the writing style. There is the lean, sparse style of Hammett and Chandler, by whom he admitted he was greatly influenced, but this is blended with occasional genuinely poetic insight, which feels more like Anthony Powell. Reading his biography, Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia, by Paul Willetts, who also edited his stories, caused me to go rummaging through the wardrobes to find them and read them again.

The more time passes since his untimely death in 1964, the more clear it becomes that he was, if not a great writer, then a great writer manque (sorry, Blogger does not seem to allow for acute accents). As one of the obituaries said at the time, it will always be a matter for regret that he did not produce the great novel that his contemporaries were expecting from him. However, his range was remarkable. As well as his stories, he was a screenwriter, a radio playwright and a talented and consistently insightful book reviewer. He also translated French books for English publication.

A gregarious man who more or less lived in various pubs throughout his life (a factor which undoubtedly contributed to his early death), he knew all the great writers of the day, including Orwell, Powell and Greene, all of whom he admired, especially the latter. Indeed, according to his widow, "Graham Greene" were the last words which he somewhat puzzlingly gasped as he suffered his fatal heart attack in hospital. Olivia Manning was the wife of a close friend, and he also knew the likes of Tambimuttu, and shared an office with Dylan Thomas. Incidentally, the character X.Trapnel in Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time is based directly upon Maclaren-Ross

That he never wrote that novel must remain a source of personal regret given my own ambivalence about short stories (which many contemporary "novels" now resemble), but also surely to the wider literary community. One senses that he could have given someone like John Braine a run for his money.

Incidentally, the biography is very well written, and like all good biographers, Willetts manages to find the telling phrase to sum up this complex and contradictory character. Maclaren-Ross, he says, was "a mediocre caretaker of his own immense talent".

Monday, 4 October 2010

"War on the Margins" by Libby Cone

This is (I believe) a first novel by a new author who writes with refreshingly old-fashioned attention to such out-dated concepts as grammar, and also peppers her work with adjectives and adverbs. I would guess from this that she has never attended a course on creative writing.

The book is set on Jersey during the German occupation and deals with difficult subjects such as degrees of (and motives for) collaboration, and, crucially with what might be called Jewishness. It turns out there are a number of people who do not regard themselves as Jewish; some even attend church regularly and have been brought up as Christians. However, when their family circumstances are set against the draconian yet ridiculously bureaucratic rules of the Nazi regime, they are forced to recognise that they have been singled out, with consequences which are unlikely to be pleasant.

This is of course dark, powerful stuff, and one feels properly moved by what Cone depicts so well, not least the persecuted Mr Davidson. Yet, perhaps a little unworthily, I couldn't help feeling that maybe the world had already seen more than enough books and films on the awful fate of the Jews during the Nazi era about twenty years ago. Maybe it's just me, but I actually groan aloud now whenever I realise that I have been strapped into yet another Holocaust theme-park ride. In much the same way, incidentally, I think that new books about Napoleon, or the Battle of Britain, take a lot of justifying. It isn't that one should care about what happened any less, simply that there are only so many times you can hear the story.

The second strand of the book features the real-life writer Claude Cahun and her lover Marcel Moore, whose real name was Suzanne Malherbe. Since these are real life characters, it probably does not count as a spoiler to note that both were active in the resistance on Jersey, and were captured by the Germans in 1944, having been informed upon by a local resident.

I enjoyed this feature of the book too. Cone has obviously done her research thoroughly and I felt that the real and the invented blended together very well as a work of fiction. It lightens the gloom of the current publishing environment somewhat to see such a well-written book being taken up by a commercial publisher.

War on the Margins is published by Duckworth Overlook, ISBN 978-0715639726