Monday, 22 February 2010

Browsing the Bookshelves

The great thing about staying in other people’s houses is being able to browse through their bookcases. Staying with friends who work for publishers is even better because their shelves are stuffed with books not yet available to the public, as well as those must-reads you never got round to buying when they first came out. So my bedtime reading list has been very mixed. I’ve read two Niall Williams books that came well recommended, but found them rather too romantic for my taste - Four Letters of Love and As it is in Heaven. Less gritty than Frank McCourt, less literary than John Banville, but the Irish love of words is there as well as the sentiment. If you want tears and laughter, a really indulgent evening with chocolate and a glass of wine, a hot water bottle and an early night, Niall Williams is your man.
Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favourite American authors so I fell on her latest novel Lacuna eagerly, only to be disappointed. It’s her first book for several years and is the story of a young boy brought up in Mexico and America by his mercurial mother and a series of step-fathers. As a young man Harrison W. Shepherd - otherwise known as Solito - lives in the household of Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera during the period when Leon Trotsky and his wife were staying there. This is the most interesting part of the book. He grows up to become a writer, then falls foul of the McCarthy inquisition. I won’t reveal the ending, only say that I found it very unsatisfactory and a bit of a fudge. But it was the structure of the novel that really failed me - the story is told in a variety of voices and styles - letters, diaries, third person report, newspaper clippings as well as traditional narrative - and the fragmentary style frustrated me. I simply couldn’t get involved. I was also aware that Kingsolver was writing a parable about American politics which, towards the end of the book, almost became a diatribe. Maybe she is so famous now that editors feel unable to suggest cuts - this book needed a really good editor.
I’ve also been having a binge of junk reading. My agent is also the agent for Michael White, so I tried one of his thrillers - The Medici Secret. As its title suggests, its in a similar vein to Dan Brown, but isn’t so well plotted and I found the central hypothesis totally unbelievable. I won’t be reading any more.
Now, back to the bookpile for more bedtime reading!

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Tinker Tailor Spy

John le Carre - A Perfect Spy

I missed this novel when it was published in 1986, feeling rather sated with the whole spy genre; after the fall of the Berlin Wall it seemed somehow irrelevant. Then I watched the first part of the television adaptation and didn’t enjoy it so never got round to the book at all. But it has recently been re-issued in paperback and I regret the lapse. Carre is an amazing writer, if (like John Fowles) rather wordy and slow-paced for contemporary taste.

A Perfect Spy is the story of a boy born to an aristocratic mother and a con-man father in the spectactular style of Bernard Madoff. When his mother has a nervous breakdown and sectioned, the child is brought up in the context of his father’s criminal associates, assorted mistresses and the cheaper end of the public school system. Carre builds the character of the young spy carefully and credibly. After reading the book I really can understand why people might betray their countries.
Stimulated by the novel, I have also re-watched the original Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy BBC adaptation. The cast list is a roll-call of British acting - Alec Guinness, Ian Richardson, Bernard Hepton, Hywel Bennett and Ian Bannen. It was adapted by the great Arthur Hopcraft, most famous for writing about football. Jonathon Powell, who commissioned the script, believed Tinker Tailor to be Hopcraft’s best work. "Everybody says how complicated a book it is, but also it is very simple; a man tracking down one of four people. One of the things Arthur was so marvellous at was in giving you a crystal clear line through things, honing it down to diamond-like clarity. Arthur became a king of that kind of work. The only other one in his class was Dennis Potter."

Hopcraft went on to write adaptations of Bleak House and Hard Times and won a Bafta, but apparently became disillusioned about the state of contemporary TV - what he called "being alternately patronised and bullied by girls called Fiona flourishing clipboards."
Another reason for Tinker Tailor’s quality is that it was directed by one of Britain’s finest film directors, John Irvin (still making films). It took me a while to settle into the slow, meditative style, but I found myself so gripped I watched all the episodes one after the other into the early hours of the morning. Financial constraints and ignorance (or contempt for) the intelligence of the viewing public mean that no one these days would allow such an profound exploration of a novel’s characters and themes, and I think that is a great loss to television.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Reading Alan Bennett

I’m just reading Alan Bennett’s account of his relationship with his parents, ‘A Life Like Other People’s’, published in 2009. His style is unique; Radio 4, perfectly pitched, and the very essence of ‘northernness’ is in the vocabulary, the flattened vowels in the rhythm of the prose. His voice establishes an affectionate intimacy with the reader. For a homesick northerner it’s as if you’re listening to a favourite uncle, reading you a bedtime story.
I can hear the echo of my grandparents’ voices, Harry and Lizzie, born in the Irish ghettos of Carlisle and brought up with the language of their adopted country. I can still hear my grandfather say to his wife, (who is once again ‘in a bit of a state’), ‘Now then, mother....’, his tone one you would adopt for an over-excited dog, his impatience and exasperation cloaked in resignation. My grandmother wears, like Alan Bennett’s mother, a duster coat, or perhaps a little two piece from C & A. She aspired to Binns, but could rarely afford the prices. She wore glasses with a little diamante exclamation mark at the corners, and always put on a hat even if she was going across the street for a loaf of bread.
Reading Alan Bennett, I’m pitched back into my grandparents' council house on a newly built estate, a sneering teenager poking ridicule at the crocheted crinoline dolls that covered the toilet rolls. On the sideboard were strange crocheted fruit bowls which you had to soak in sugar water and then dry over a basket until they were stiff. She crocheted hats too - which were then stretched over a specially bought ‘shape’, which I think she had ‘sent off for’ as a special offer from Woman and Home magazine. She was obsessively houseproud. Mrs Bennett’s litany of buckets and cloths and mops - each with a separate purpose - was repeated in my grandmother’s house. When she bought a new sofa the plastic cover was only taken off for family ‘dos’ or when the vicar came to call. Her particular enemy was the damp - you could die, she told me, from a chill caught in an unaired bed. She once burnt my grandfather’s Sunday jacket while airing it in front of the gas fire before he put it on.
But unlike Alan Bennett’s home, theirs was a cold, loveless house. If my grandfather ever ventured to show her affection she would shrink away and say ‘Don’t be silly, Harry!’ She told my mother once, while I played on the floor, wide-eyed and all ears, that she ‘couldn’t be doing with It. I put a stop to it after our May was born.’ Sad.

Sad too, Alan Bennett’s tale of repression in post-war Leeds; family secrets that concerned - not aberrant sexuality - but mental illness and its consequences. His account of his mother’s slow slide into depression and then dementia is gentle and humorous as well as tragic.
You can get tired of his style - though this book is too short to cloy. It’s a beautifully told memoir that also gives a frank account of the autobiographical sources for his many plays, sketches and books. Like ‘Talking Heads’ it’s a monologue that reveals as much about the narrator as it does about the subject of the story.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Wallander: One Step Behind

One Step Behind, by Henning Mankell

Detective fiction is one of my favourite forms of relaxation. I love puzzles of any kind and I want to be kept guessing right to the end. I also love being taken into a new and fascinating world by the writer. I’ve read Donna Leon’s Venetian detective stories (love Venice, quite fancy Brunetti, but they’re not always well written) and I’ve read Anne Zouroudi’s Greek mysteries (brilliant on all counts), so when I caught a couple of episodes of Wallander on TV I was keen to try the books.
The hero, Kurt Wallander, is a detective with an Interior Life in the best traditions of Morse and Adam Dalgleish. Wallander isn’t just a cypher to unravel the plot for the reader. He’s overweight, drinks too much, his romantic life is a desert littered with wreckage, and he has a close, though turbulent relationship with his grown-up daughter. But he is passionate about his work.
In the novel, One Step Behind, he is tracking, and being tracked by, a psychopath, whose strange mind-set baffles police profilers, detectives and the general public. Being able to get inside the mind of a psychopath and make it believable is quite an achievement for a novelist - Patricia Highsmith did it brilliantly, and so do Ruth Rendell and Ian Rankin. Henning Mankell gives a chilling portrait of a mild-mannered loner, living in a sound-proof room, leading a bizarre double life.
The writing’s good too. Sweden in the cool, almost perpetual, daylight of midsummer comes off the page so vividly you can feel the sand blowing in your face. I will be reading more Wallander mysteries and it’s also convinced me I need to read a few other Scandinavian authors too. Everyone’s talking about Steig Larsson, so he’s next on the list. Oh, and there’s a French author (female) called Fred Vargas I’m told I should try. That list should keep me relaxed for quite some time.
On the TV series - apparently Kenneth Branagh is going to be playing Wallander next, but I don’t think he’ll be as authentic as the current Swedish actor.