Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Books read in June

The Leaping Hare – George Ewart Evans & David Thomson
First published in 1972 and recently re-issued, this is a classic work. It gathers together what was known of the natural history and mythology of the hare at the time. Of the natural history, little was known as no systematic study of the hare in the wild by scientists had been undertaken. Enough was known to give a concise and informative overview of the different types of hare, their habitats and their habits. The bulk of the book of the book is given over to folklore and mythology. At all times, references are given which provides plenty of material for follow-up reading. Fascinating as the book is (and I love hares dearly) it is a terrible indictment that the bulk of the information in the book is about hunting the hare and provided by poachers and gamekeepers, those well-known ‘guardians’ of life in the countryside. Amongst all this are moments of wonder, usually when a hare has taken refuge beneath the skirts of woman – itself a telling addition to the mythos of such a beautiful creature.

The Futurological Congress – Stanislaw Lem
Think New Wave (this was written in 1971) and you’ll get some idea of the book, not so much the style as the content. Think also a mix of Sladek, Dick, Moorcock, and Aldiss and you’ll begin to get some idea of the books’ flavour. If it were to be filmed, it would have to be Terry Gilliam. Throw in the sensibility of a writer who is a master of satire, delivered with wit, and you have this book – one that imagines a future where the vast population of the planet is controlled and kept happy by ever increasingly complex cocktails of hallucinogenic and mood altering drugs.

On the surface, it is a comic novel. The situations that Ijon Tichy finds himself in are funny, outrageous, and wicked. The names of many of the drugs and their uses are wonderful plays on words (and hats off to the translator Michael Kandel). The situations stray into the absurd and one is never certain about the degree of reality, especially given that mind-altering drugs are involved.

As with all good comic novels, there is a serious side. You are not hammered with it. Lem is far too good a writer for that. Yet you cannot read the book without considering the moral questions posed – about population levels, about systems for living peacefully, about corruption, about how companies have so subverted the world to their own ends that they effectively control what happens. Except, of course, they are no more in control than anyone else. And the other big question is about how much we can rely on science and technology to solve what are not scientific or technological problems.

Dimple Hill – Dorothy Richardson
This and the following, last, book of Richardson’s Pilgrimage cycle is shorter, more compact, and much more self-assured than her previous works. Her personal circumstances were altogether uncertain and it is something of a miracle she managed these last two volumes at all. Yet she is by now clearly a writer at home with her method and with the world she has shaped out of her own.

Dimple Hill marks the moment when Miriam is told by her doctor that she is so near physical (and possibly mental) collapse that she must get away for six months. Having lived all her life with financial insecurity and with all the distractions of London, there seems no more danger in this than in any other enterprise of her life. And she exults at the chance so long denied, time for herself and time to devote to a project that has been growing in her mind – to write a novel that expresses the true nature of the feminine.

Her first move is to Dimple Hill (Windmill Hill in Sussex) to stay with a Quaker family. Whilst the book marks her (Miriam and Dorothy) first foray into the writing of fiction, the act barely warrants a few pages – that she tries and that she is deeply disappointed with her first effort. Instead, life with the Quaker family (all that is said and left unsaid) is examined as one might a rare and beautiful flower.

The writing is relaxed, open, and exquisitely captures a moment in rural life before the destructive forces of ‘agribusiness’ begin to erode a whole culture. One is left wondering what would have happened had the agricultural revolution of the time been based on a gentle Socialism rather than the voracious needs of the nascent military-industrial complex.

That aside, the novel as a whole is a triumph of atmosphere and emotional enlightenment, of a feeling of old ways passing with a new and uncertain future emerging in the dawn. For whilst Miriam returns to London it is with a different perspective and a certainty that a new language must be found to express herself in her writing and leave us a lasting legacy by which to carry forward literary culture.

Light Thickens – Ngaio Marsh
As an exposition on the playing of Macbeth, this is much better than many non-fiction works on the subject. As a detective story, it is as thin as you can get and still legitimately claim it as one. In a sense it is a short(ish) detective story (based on which cast member has the opportunity in the staging of a play to kill another cast member) tacked onto the end of the description of the rehearsal and performance of that play. It is all skilfully done. Marsh knows and loves the theatre and those who work in it (even the monsters). One suspects, given the dedication, that much of the staging was based in fact (or an idealised version thereof). Having played the Thane myself, I found this fascinating. I’m not sure how devotees of Inspector Alleyn come to it if they don’t have such a specific interest as my own.

Solaris – Stanislaw Lem
Arguably Lem’s best novel in which all his preoccupations are brought to bear. The concept is simple. A research station hovers above the surface of the planet Solaris. The planet is mostly ‘ocean’, a single, fluid entity that may or may not be intelligent but which is so alien that all attempts to make contact with it have failed. Or not. Because one of the ideas explored is just how do you know if something that alien is even aware of your presence?

The question seems to be answered when a psychologist called Kelvin is sent to the station. There he finds his mentor has committed suicide and the other two inhabitants are coping as best they can with the ‘visitors’. Each visitor manifests itself in a different way. For Kelvin it is the woman he loved, a woman who committed suicide many years before. Clearly a creation of the planet below, the visitors seem to serve no purpose. They have no message and seem not to know their own origin. But then nothing is as it seems in a Lem novel. Because this is a book about what it is to be human.

It is haunting, lyrical, and conveys a sense of alien-ness that most science fiction never comes close to. No literary equivalent of actors in rubber suits. No battles. No spectacular scenes (unless you count the descriptions of the planet). No monsters trying to eat anyone’s brains. Just human beings in an isolated world; humanity taking its early steps out of the nursery.

Freshwater – Virginia Woolf
A comedic sketch written for private performance. The subject matter is Woolf’s great-aunt Julia Margaret Cameron and the artists with which she was acquainted. There are two versions of the play, one a heavy revision of the other. Both, however, are funny and at times almost savage in their mockery of the figures involved (principally Cameron, Tennyson, Watts and Ellen Terry). Whatever else it may be, it shows that Woolf had a light side and a sense of the absurd that went hand in hand with her sense of humour.

Repetition – Alain Robbe-Grillet
An aptly named book as the author returns once more to scenes and ideas that have featured in earlier novels, not least childhood memories. The overall theme of the book, that of identity, is also a repetition. In this case the framework on which these issues are hung is that of a spy novel set in post-war Berlin. It does not flinch from the sleaze that afflicted the city, although the obsession with adolescent girls does make for uncomfortable reading. And whilst Robbe-Grillet tackles his themes with all his usual form, he never quite hits the mark. Perhaps because he has done it before (and better in something like The Erasers) or because in using the tropes of the spy novel he fails to come close to the sense of alienation and displacement that is to be found in works by the likes of le Carré and Deighton. Not uninteresting, but in the end unsatisfying.

The Final Programme – Michael Moorcock
The first Jerry Cornelius novel. A bit rough round the edges, an indication of the speed with which it was written, it is nonetheless strikingly prescient. A Europe in financial chaos and on the verge of collapse, America (as always) with global ambitions, greed rampant... one might think the author had access to newspapers from the early twenty-first century. The actual story is thin, but with Jerry Cornelius it has never been about the story, it is about the mood. This captures the mood of when it was written (which is probably why it made such an impact on me then) and so very little has changed. I always enjoy this one and always find something new.

March Moonlight – Dorothy Richardson
The final book written by Richardson during extremely difficult circumstances, yet still managing to be the most accomplished. She never stopped developing as an author, refining her techniques and improving her presentation. The brevity, of course, is probably down to her circumstances, but she makes a virtue of it and the narrative that underlies her work moves forward to the goal she had, perhaps, intended to reach at a more leisurely pace.

It is an intriguing question to wonder whether her writing would have been better or worse had she had to worry less about external factors. She chose a life of poverty to gain freedom, yet she and her husband were abysmally served by the world. But the world is always suspicious of such pioneers.

Having reached the end, I feel an immense sadness. The sequence of novels is an immense achievement and it is such a shame that compared with those who followed (like Woolf and Joyce), Richardson is neglected.

A Cure For Cancer – Michael Moorcock
The second Cornelius novel and a far more sophisticated piece of work than its predecessor. Less story but a greater evocation of mood; the arrival of characters who grow in importance in the Moorcock multiverse; and a much stronger sense that Moorcock had his finger on the pulse more firmly and accurately than any other writer then or since.

Revived from the dead, Jerry Cornelius searches for a way to revive his dead sister, Catherine. That’s the story. Along the way we seen an America (Amerika) that now shows every sign of becoming a reality; tap into the most basic myths of Britain (the story begins at Tintagel with Jerry washed ashore); and are treated to a lexicon of all that was cool in the late ‘60s.

Very tasty.

The Investigation – Stanislaw Lem
This is the sort of book that baffles blurb writers. It uses the framework of a police mystery set in southern England, but that is where the likeness ends as this is much more akin to a Robbe-Grillet or a Pinget than anything else. The framework and the metaphysical theories are the means by which a mood is created and we are able to study the sense of alienation felt by the central character. Lem does this in his science fiction as well, another genre that provides ample opportunity for psychological study.

It is an intriguing book and one I found fascinating, despite all the faults (of which more in a moment). The bewilderment leading to anger and back, the weariness that drives Gregory on, the dreamlike quality of events and places, are all wonderfully drawn and make best use of the ironic qualities inherent in the noirish tropes. But always the flaws.

The first level of these can be forgiven. Lem wrote the book in mid-1950s. His grasp of English geography was a trifle hazy; as was his understanding of the structure of the British police (he seems to have used a Polish model). I have no problem with that as they are incidental to the story and could easily have been rectified by a decent translation and translator’s note. Sadly, this book has not had a decent translation. This is the second level. Knowing Lem’s writing from before and after this book, it can only be the translation that is at fault (it is a different translator to those other books). It is dull and the translator’s grasp of English is faulty. Again, I can forgive that, because the translator should not be the final arbiter of the word on the page. What has really let this work down is the appalling editing. Whoever did it must have been asleep at the time or had an equally poor grasp of English culture and language. As an example, we several times have: ‘He shined his torch into the dark room.’ we have American makes of car, we a police Lieutenant, uniformed constables carrying pistols... It goes on and on. It made me itch to rewrite it in a way that kept to the text but simply made it sit comfortably in an English landscape.

I have gone on at some length about this simply because it demonstrates that an author’s work can be made to suffer by the ineptness or laziness of others in the process. And as a plea if anyone out there with the necessary clout is reading this to have a whole new and improved collection of Lem’s work in new (and better) translations into English.