Thursday, 28 July 2011

Monday, 25 July 2011

"Needle in a Haystack" by Ernesto Mallo

This is a detective story set in the closing years of Argentina's military dictatorship, with people going missing on a nightly basis, to turn up murdered and usually tortured a few nights later. There are firm guidelines in place to see that these do not get officially investigated by the police.

I was looking forward to reading this, first because it is set against such a darkly interesting dramatic backdrop, and second because Mallo comes highly recommended (or perhaps just highly publicised). This is the first in a trilogy, and the first two are apparently already being made into films.

Perhaps they will work better in that form. You see, I should divulge that this author is a member of the "punctuation doesn't matter" school. Direct speech is not even broken up by line, but all mish-mased together. It makes for a largely unreadable book, and it seems strange that Arts Council funding apparently contributed to its publication. One can't help thinking that the money would have been better spent on writers who do at least try to obey basic rules of grammar and punctuation.

Monday, 18 July 2011

"The White Cities" by Joseph Roth

I recently read Roth's Radetzky March, a lengthy but well-written family story set, as the name suggests against the decline and fall of the Hapsburg Empire. Having also read something about Roth I knew that he had worked as a journalist and was therefore interested when I saw this title in Hampstead Books. I think I have blogged about them before. They operate by way of a number of tables in the Hampstead Community Centre just by the King William IV pub, whose cellar is reputedly haunted by the ghost of the publican's wife, murdered by her husband.

Roth spent most of his adult life living in France, a country with which he fell in love at first sight, as some of the glowing prose in the book testifies, since this is a collection of articles.mostly written for German newspapers. The most beautifully written describe the small market towns of Provence.

As events moved on in Germany, Roth, as both a Jew and an intellectual, felt unable to return after 1933. He died in Paris in 1939 ironically just before the calamity which he feared came to pass. The final entries, from 1937, which he calls "the fourth year of the German apocalypse", are dark indeed. Taking delivery of the author's copies of his new book, he reflects that it is his eighteenth, that fifteen of the previous seventeen have already been forgotten, and that even the forgotten ones have been banned in Germany.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

"Cranford" by Elizabeth Gaskell

I have just been re-visiting Cranford, that Tillingesque creation of Mrs Gaskell, a community that has its own rules and customs, and whose residents are completely uninterested in anything which happens beyond its parish boundary. Like Benson's creations, Miss Matty and Miss Pole and all their friends live in a completely self-contained little ecosystem of mutual gossip, scorn and support. 

The word "support" marks an essential difference with Tilling, though. Perhaps because Benson's characters (or most of them) are fairly flat, they are left to bear their own problems, but in Cranford whenever anything really horrible happens to anyone there is a rallying round born of genuinely neighbourly feeling. A good thing too, since horrible things, particularly death, seem to occur on a regular basis. There is a lot of death in Gaskell's books, which probably does no more than mirror nineteenth century reality, when death was so much a part of everyday life.

Mrs Gaskell is not a great writer but, rather like Trollope, her male counterpart, she is a great story-teller and thus a rattling good read. Hint: read Mr Harrison's Confessions first.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

"Cards of Identity" by Nigel Dennis

Just occasionally one comes across a book which it is very difficult to categorise or describe. Cards of Identity is one such.

Nigel Dennis was born in 1912 and died in 1989. Along the way he lived in many different places, including Germany and America. He was a book critic, journalist, columnist, novelist and playwright. Cards of Identity is published by Penguin Classics as a novel, though I believe it also did well as a stage adpatation.

The plot of the book, such as it is, revolves around the summer get-together of the Identity Club and the playing out of three case studies in particular. The first is an inspired bit of nonsense of imagined ritual revolving around badgers. The second pokes fun at the rather serious business of sexology, while the third hints at dark Stalinist undercurrents within a monsatery setting. "Identity" is the key word throughout, with some people deliberately pretending to be other people (whose names they have often been given by ohers) and others apparently succumbing to some sort of hypnosis into believing that they really are other people.

Beyond saying that the book is clearly intended to be a comedy and is indeed very funny in parts, it is difficult to pin down the style. To say that it is "nonsense" prose is insufficient; it is much greater than that. A pretentious PhD student might decsribe it as deconstructionist. I will say only that it has overtones of The One Way Pendulum, The Bed Sitting Room, Beyond the Fringe, and even perhaps looks forward to Monty Python.

I am very glad to have come across this book, having previously heard nothing of either it or its author. Do try it. In in increasingly bland and anodyne world, it is overwhelmingly different.