Review – “The Thirties” – Julian Symons

The Thirties: A Dream RevolvedThe Thirties: A Dream Revolved by Julian Symons

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Julian Symons is perhaps best known as a crime writer. He also wrote poetry, social and military history, biography, literary criticism … He was a prolific, as a glance at his Wikipedia page will testify.

This book looks at the role of the arts – particularly literature, and particularly Auden, in the decade of the 1930s. Symons also discusses political movements – particularly of the left – and their connections to those artistic currents. Symons, who was in his twenties at the time, was a member of the intellectual and political groups he discusses, so has first-hand knowledge of the authors and artists in those groups, and of the political atmosphere at the time.

My knowledge of Thirties literature – particularly poetry – and the politics of the intelligentsia is limited. This book was, therefore, an interesting introduction to the period. Because my knowledge is limited, however, I cannot tell if the book was tendentious. Symons, to his credit, sometimes mocks his younger self, sometimes is appalled by him. The feeling I took from the book was that Symons was sympathetic to left-wing views, but was not a prosletyser, nor a zealot. Indeed, as he admits – and here is one of those moments he was appalled with himself – he sometimes took on the persona of a more right-wing individual in reaction against the zealous left-ism of the intelligentsia in which he found himself.

The book is short and easy to read – useful if all of this is new to you – and the chapters snappy and concise (each chapter tends to introduce a topic and then spin and divagate around it – Auden, poetry, politics, theatre, the New Left Review, Gollancz, and so on were all introduced in chapters of little more than five or ten pages. The subjects of these chapters would then reappear, weaving their way through the Thirties until Spain and Munich.

The book is, then, a concise look at a particular period in British political and intellectual history, and will be of interest to those, like me, who had little knowledge of that period and that milieu. The book also (re)introduced me to some poets I had heard of but knew little of, such as Stephen Spender and Gavin Ewart – and the few line lines and stanzas Symons provides from these poets to colour his themes has spurred my interest in reading more of them.

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Review – “The Drought” – J G Ballard

The DroughtThe Drought by J.G. Ballard

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One of the books I’m reading this year that I first read over forty years ago that I still own in the same smoky edition I bought back in 1976.

I’ve marked it down a star on the second reading. I like it, but it’s not brilliant. Nowadays, I like characterisation in a novel far too much to truly enjoy a novel built on ciphers (a Ballardian word!) for characters. And too many of the many characters have too little to do. Quilter’s a bit odd. So? Mrs Quilter is his mum. So? Catherine Austen likes lions. So? There are some fish people… So? And so on. I also find some Ballardian metaphors and allusions… exaggerated? Overegged? For example I can’t imagine reading in somebody’s blanched face “an image of [Ransom’s] own future…” in which he “would have to create [a] sense of time out of landscape emerging around them”. That’s a lot to hang on a face…

Interestingly, there are hints of Crash in the novel: “It was as if her face already carried the injuries of an appalling motor-car accident that would happen somewhere in the future.”

So – it’s elliptical, and kind of plotless, drifting like dunes in the hot sun, and full of a sense of unrelieved foreboding and ennui. Yet, I still rather like it. Few people write like Ballard, and this kind of British New Wave science fiction was certainly of the time, and defined a moment in the genre — the exploration of inner space rather than outer space — that I enjoy. It will be interesting to revisit Ballard’s other early apocalyptic novels at some point.

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[One of the books being read this year on the basis of this post: Something for World Book Day]

Review – “Stranger in a Strange Land” – Robert Heinlein

Stranger In A Strange LandStranger In A Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One of the books I’m reading this year that I first read over forty years ago that I still own in the same smoky edition I bought back in 1976.

I’m not going to write a long review, there will be plenty enough on Goodreads, Amazon and all over the Web. This is my second time reading it, and I still thought it was fun and interesting enough to get three stars. Yes, it’s sexist, and yes, its writing style is not “literature” – but then, it was written for teenage boys in the late 1950s and early 1960s, whose ideas of witty repartee would have been informed by 1940s detective movies on the television, gumshoes and newspaper men whose women knew their place.

And yet, there are enough ideas in the novel to turn a young boy’s (and girl’s) mind upside down and around about and set them all akimbo. Telepathy and telekinesis, and a man from Mars; older wiser, civilisations with mighty intellectual powers and wisdom; free love, and a lot of nakedness; criticism of religion while inventing a religion that is not a religion, and managing to confuse itself over the subject of religion, and whether God exists, whether there are immortal souls, and so on.

It’s not a great book, in the sense of great literature. But it’s fun, if a little tendentious, and perhaps a little preachy towards the end. However, there’s plenty there to set inquisitive young minds a-roaming, and more than enough that was, for the time, exciting, shocking and new.

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[One of the books being read this year on the basis of this post: Something for World Book Day]

Review – “Darkness at Noon” – Arthur Koestler

Darkness at NoonDarkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the books I’m reading this year that I first read over forty years ago that I still own in the same smoky edition I bought back in 1976.

I enjoyed it this time almost as much as I enjoyed it the first time I read it. When I first read it — in the summer, with the long college holiday stretching out before me — I read it much faster, because I had hours to kick back reading it. It was also the one of the first novels I had read that was so cynical, depressing, hopeless and bleak, so gripped me for that reason.

On a second reading, the novel remains cynical, depressing and bleak. I still felt the same hope as I started the book hope that Rubashov, the protagonist and anti-hero, the representative of the revolutionary old guard who is unjustly(?) imprisoned, would somehow wheedle and weasel his way out of prison. As the book went on, however, I discovered again that although Rubashov might be innocent of whatever charges are about to pressed on him, he is not innocent — he has taken part in a revolution in which others have died, he has sacrificed a lover to protect his own position in the party (and save his own life, perhaps), he has been involved in the deaths of other adherents to the cause, he made little fuss when other members of the council of which he was member were removed and liquidated in the cause of the revolution.

Rubashov knows too that he is not an innocent, and constantly returns, as he waits in his cell, to memories of the incidents in which he took a willing part, or which he instigated. He also knows that the revolution of which he was a leading light has moved on somewhere else, to a place he no longer quite knows, and occupies a space he himself no longer securely occupies. He no more has the certainties he once had. Statements he has made in his jaded middle-age — innocent statements, he claims — can be misconstrued and can be used to paint him as a counter-revolutionary, a traitor to the new leadership. Koestler himself had been a member of the Communist Party of Germany, and has been implicated in the betrayal of a woman, a fellow traveller, with whom he had been in a relationship. The novel is thus informed by first-hand experience of revolutionary cant and perfidy.

The book is divided into sections based on his imprisonment, then successive hearings with progressively-less sympathetic inquisitors, including psychological torture, and finally a judgement. To say too much about Rubashov’s fate — his demeanour as the hearings continue, and the sentence passed down at what might be considered a show trial — would diminish the intriguing if joyless experience of following his slow descent into the very basement of the bleak world he in part created.

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[One of the books being read this year on the basis of this post: Something for World Book Day]

 

Another Novel in the Series

So, finally, The Ethical Hitman is out there. Conceived third, written second, and fourth in the original series (but now fifth, or perhaps, mysteriously, sixth), it has taken ten years and fourteen drafts. Okay, a good few of those years were taken up with writing other books and trying to find an agent/publisher, so it’s perhaps not so surprising that it has taken so long.

The germ for this one was the hitman, who I’d included in a previous unfinished novel as one of the kind of unlikely people you sometimes meet hitch-hiking. After the first draft, the hitman evolved into somebody readers of previous books might think they know. I ended up writing the third or fourth draft of this novel at the same time as co-writing the first draft of a previous book in the series (Crossing the Line), and once I saw that my co-author had introduced a killer, it was obvious — to me at least –that the killer would become a hitman, and that hitman would become the hitman in this novel. Everything connects, particularly through the imaginary town of Dereham.

Also slowing down production were my own insecurities. Friends who read early draft mentioned various things, which caused me to rewrite those various things, or restructure other various things. Ultimately, and perhaps unsurprisingly, only one thing ever carried over from my friends’ comments — we get to know Molly better. The rest of the novel, despite my best efforts, remained as it was. Sections I’d taken out would wriggle their way back in, the structure would change, and then change back, characters would grow, and then diminish. In the end, at about draft ten, I looked at it all — the latest draft and the previous draft, and thought:  this is the story it is, and it can only ultimately please me. Although I do hope somebody else enjoys it too.

Set in the autumn of 1976, after the action in Raven of Dispersion, it chronicles the interactions of a hitman, a group of young friends, and Molly — who is possibly a spy, or as deluded as the hitman.  When Nick, hitching home one day, meets a hitman, he doesn’t know what to think. Should he laugh, or be scared? The hitman has ethics, of course — no women, no children. When Nick tells his friends what has happened, they laugh. Of course, it’s mad. The hitman is probably a lonely nutter, the type you sometimes meet out on the road, the type who tells tall tales. So they all forget about the hitman. Instead they worry about themselves. Nick wonders when he can get out of town, Mark obsesses about Chrissie, and Simon missing Anna, finds Jill. Gaz continues stealing things. When Molly breezes into town, and says she’s a spy, the friends are inclined to think her as mad as the hitman. She’s looking for her sister, she says, and for a man she always calls Archie even though she hates him. And then Nick sees the car that had picked him up. The nutter’s car, the hitman’s car. Intrigued, he and Mark follow it. They are blithely riding into dangers they cannot understand. Because, after all, the hitman’s ethics don’t cover Nick.

It is then, a tale of love and death. But who loves, and who dies?

Review — “Sway” — Zachary Lazar

SwaySway by Zachary Lazar

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An intriguing diversion that attempts to connect the occult, death, and the later hippie culture. The novel centres around the Rolling Stones, the film maker and occultist Kenneth Anger, and Charles Manson disciple Bobby Beausoleil, and attempts to meld together the early anger of the Stones, the dissolution of 60s youth like Beausoleil, and the death of the hippie dream, using Anger as a device that connects those worlds.

The power of the novel lies in the descriptions of the mess that appeared to be the early, young, Rolling Stones, and, to an extent in the description of the development of Kenneth Anger.
Where it is weakest is in connecting all this somehow with Manson, and with death. Thanatomania (obsession with one’s own death) might be a theme that Anger is working through, and Mick and Keith might have written a song called “Sympathy for the Devil”, yet the connections remain flimsy. I don’t feel that the convergence and conjunction of these elements, these people, is drawing me towards the inevitable murders by The Family, nor towards tragedy at Altamont.

For all its subject matter of murder and death, the book lacks tension. For somebody of my generation (70s freak rather than 60s hippie), the stories of Brian Jones, the Family and Altamont are well-known; there is thus no element of surprise to the novel. What it provides instead is atmosphere, a kind of overarching view of a particular 60s weltanschauung.

It is, however, well-written, and well-researched. When it talks about the Stones, or about Anger, there is a feeling of verisimilitude. There are also nice turns of phrase that arrested my attention. It’s not essential, however, and it doesn’t really tell me anything new about the era, or explain why the peace and love movement ended in death. Yet, for those interested in such things, it is worth a read.

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