Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Derby Day: DJ Taylor, Chatto and Windus, £17.99

The mists of Lincolnshire haunt the flat fields and lowering sky, and seep into local myth and legend.

Out of this fog which, we are told, lurks like a dense white halo over the low-lying land, there is said to gallop a winged steed: coal-black, with flaming eyes.

This mist haunts Scroop, a gently disintegrating manor house that overlooks the wolds, “where there are more rooks than Christian folk”.

Scroop is the ancestral home of Samuel Davenant, and to a second flesh-and-blood black horse – Tiberius - which casts its spell over the characters in DJ Taylor’s gothic, evocative novel.

In particular, Taylor’s characters are spellbound by the two and a half minutes that it will take Tiberius to run the Derby.

In those 160 seconds, fortunes may be made, men will be ruined, and the fates and destinies of the characters in this mesmerising, finely-realised pastiche of a Victorian novel determined.

The race is the climax to a tale in which George Happerton, a chancer and adventurer, bluffs his way into marriage with Rebecca Gresham, daughter of an unutterably respectable lawyer who has worked in the Equity Courts for 50 years.

Marriage to her is said to be worth £50,000. But it’s not enough. And nor is the respectability that this marriage could have won him.

Having got the girl, Happerton sets out to steal the horse from Davenant, through a campaign of forgery and deception funded, although he doesn’t know it, by his father-in-law.

But Rebecca has depths or – rather – shallows to match those of her husband, if only he could recognise them. Instead, she remains an unfathomable mystery to him.

If Happerton is a modern Victorian man, his wife is a modern woman. She likes his campaign to buy Tiberius and win the Derby because “it spoke of enterprise, status and ultimately money”.

She admires his speculative schemes, or at least those she is told of, but is irked that she is kept in ignorance of others. And, knowing that this modern world is not quite modern enough for she herself to take any great strides, she schemes to use her husband as her proxy, plotting to have him installed as a Conservative MP.

Taylor aspires to introduce us to a cast of characters to rival Dickens, who he references several times in the text. He makes a pretty good fist of it.

We have Happerton’s lowlife sidekick– some say his jackal - Captain Raff: a small, dirty, and rather ill-favoured former officer.

There is Mr Pardew, a crack safe-breaker whose enterprises are a key part of the Tiberius/Derby plot.

And there are Mr Gallentin, the Leadenhall Street jeweller whose lifted gems help finance Tiberius’s attempt on the Derby, and honest-plod Captain McTurk of the Metropolitan Police, who seeks to foil the plot.

All are swept up onto the Epsom Downs to take part in the novel’s climax; to mingle with the faux aristocrats, the swells in frock coats, tiny half-starved boys selling race cards, grub street scribblers from the Pictorial Times and the Illustrated London News, and the Mayfair tarts – Happerton’s among them.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Nicole Krauss: Great House, Penguin Viking, £16.99

George Weisz does magic: he retrieves the past for those robbed of it.

Not entirely unlike the True Kindness - the special Orthodox who hold the dying victims of bomb attacks in Israel, and “collect the spattered dead” - he shuttles endlessly across Europe and America tracking down the lost, inanimate underpinnings of Jewish lives riven by the holocaust.

This forensic furniture dealer tracks down the plundered desks, bureaus, chairs and beds their dispossessed owners long for: “all that furnished the lives they lost or the lives they dreamed of living…”

He talks of his work profoundly: “There is amazement that comes over each one…when I at last produce the object they have been dreaming of for half a lifetime, that they have invested with the weight of their longing.”

A lost bed’s significance grows for its owner as death nears: “before he dies, the man whose soul was overwhelmed needs to lie down in that bed one more time.”

But there is one item that eludes Weisz. For 44 years he has laboured to reassemble the contents of his father’s Budapest study; the constituents of which were loaded onto a Nazi Gold Train when the SS plundered Jewish possessions ahead of the Soviet advance on that city in 1945.

He has been doing so: “as if by putting all the pieces back together he might collapse time and erase regret.”

He has found everything but a vast desk with 19 drawers: the desk at which his father, a history scholar, wrote and which, aged four, he was given the key to the only lockable compartment. Weisz says of it: “when I was very young I believed that two thousand years were stored in those drawers.” He’s not wrong.

Much of Great House concerns the post-holocaust history of that desk. It has travelled across continents, given by lover to lover, writer to writer and, perhaps, mother to son.

It has dominated: physically, emotionally and spiritually, the lives of all through whose hands it has passed.

But in his quest for it, Weisz has a rival who is even more accomplished and cunning a desk-detective than he: his daughter. Why his daughter should want to deprive him of this great prize is at the heart of the book, so I won’t reveal her motivation here.

But let me give you a quote that might easily form the poster teaser-line for a great movie-adaptation of this book: “My father died fifty years ago on a death march to the Reich. Now I sit in his room in Jerusalem, a city he only imagined. His desk sits locked in a storage room in New York City, and my daughter holds the key…”

If I have made Great House sound like a gripping and rather profound detective story then I’m afraid I am misrepresenting it. Sadly, the desk is the least wooden character among Great house’s cast of po-faced, self-absorbed writers and academics who endlessly faff about analysing their dreams and worrying if they will ever write again. The hope has to be that they won’t.

So while you could buy the book and labour, as I have, to extract the great story that is at its heart, personally, I’d recommend you wait for the movie.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Perfect Lives, Polly Samson

Into Celia Idlewild’s perfect world an egg drops. There she is, preparing a perfect breakfast tray for her husband - "everything as it should be: black lacquer tray, two white porcelain cups, ginger thins, the Sunday worship on the radio” - when the egg plops through the letterbox and cracks on the mat.

On the shell is written in thick pen: “HAPPY FAT…”

We learn: "For a moment she was puzzled by what was written on the egg. But not for long.” The full message, obliterated in the smashed egg, would have been ‘happy father’s day’. The egg opens a crack onto another life that Celia has sought to close off; one she first learned of when a woman inadvertently alerted her to the existence of a child her husband has with another woman.

Celia has told him: "I will stay with you if you promise to never see that child again."

And now comes the egg: “Egg bomb. Stink bomb. Bombshell.”

Celia’s is just one of the, inevitably imperfect, lives presented in this collection of loosely-connected short stories; brief sketches, snapshots in which the lives of half a dozen assorted, seaside-dwelling artistic types overlap.

There is Richard, the brilliant pianist reduced to tuning old pianos turned tinny by the sea air. Richard must break off from a Chopin Barcarolle to ply his trade, and the highlight of his day is to tune Celia's perfect piano, “a Bosendorfer that had once apparently belonged to a high-ranking SS officer – who’s fingerprints stained the ivory keys?” It is the piano of his dreams.

Tarnished dreams are a recurring theme in the book.

Tilda the picture restorer has been winkled out of Hackney to take on her husband’s family farm and formidable mother; drawn there with tales of the fine strain of cattle bred there for generations, the fact she is pregnant, and an article about how to be happy in The Times.

But she can’t love the baby she bears: "She's tried, it’s like willing a dream."

Another woman carries on a curious kind of illicit relationship, cuckolding her husband not with another man but with a Leica camera that she covets, obsesses over and fritters money on as she might a secret lover.

Several of the lives drawn bear the inheritance of profound suffering: as Catholics in officially godless, communist-era Poland, or as the Jewish victims of Crystalnachte.

Yet, in the end, the cracks in these lives are often healed. Aurelia, a singer, performs on the same Hamburg stage her Jewish grandfather was booed from, but finds balm for the memory in taking a red rose thrown at her feet to place on his grave.

Estranged parents and children are reconciled. A potential tragedy ignited Tilda’s love of her baby and “a warmth like candlelight ran through her”.

The stories have a leisurely pace that belies a sharpness of observation and a depth of emotion. They are snatches that blend and develop like the short tracks on side two of The Beatles’ Abbey Road, each a significant and distinct part of a greater whole.

Perfect Lives by Polly Samson, Virago, £15.99

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

At the Chime of a City Clock

At the Chime of a City Clock DJ Taylor, Constable £12.99

The scene is a country-house weekend in 1931. While maids bring afternoon tea and footmen trip over each other in their eagerness to serve, the society hostess mingles with a swanky band of the not so great and the not so good.

As our narrator says, all is not quite “anyone for tennis?” A shady cove by the name of Rasmussen is eyeing up the art; a footman gets shoved down the stairs; and a body lands in a flower bed.

Then there is the global financial crisis, which hangs over proceedings. Periodically, the financiers in the party receive telegrams that leave them “looking like the chap who gets a letter from the clap clinic on the morning of his wedding”

Observing all this on our behalf is James Ross, who went to a good school but now struggles, by day, to sell carpet-cleaning solution door-to-door and, by night, to flog his poems and stories to obscure literary magazines.

He is caught up in all this because he has fallen for Rasmussen’s secretary, a femme fatale in a tight sweater called Susi, who has a penchant for struggling writers and a liking for their Soho habitats. So smitten is Ross that he has snaffled someone else’s invitation to stately Newcombe Grange, just to enter her orbit.

DJ Taylor’s novel is an impeccable, masterful evocation of time and place.
An entrancing portrait of the shabby genteel; of a soon-to-vanish world of Lyons’ Corner Houses, Park Drive ciggies and light and bitter, embossed with authentic-soounding period slang: sling your hook, easy as pie, and “a cup of the old ackamaracke”.

There are echoes of Orwell in the sickly aspidistras and struggling writers, and shades of Greene in the mentions of Lobby Ludd of the News Chronicle, razor gangs at the horse races, and in Ross’s role in fabricating a dirty weekend with a sozzled actress seeking a divorce, while a private detective looks on.

The only possible quibble is that this is not, as the dust jacket proclaims, a thriller. Neither, in the usual sense, is it a mystery. There is little suspense and less tension. There are human mysteries, but they remain unsolved.

The mystery of Ross’s broken love affair with a former fiancĂ©e called Netta hangs over the book, as does what - for him - is the ultimate mystery: women and what they want. He cannot fathom why Netta dumped him; hurling his ring in his face in a cinema queue.

A mystery to us is why, after an afternoon of country-house passion with Susi he can say: “I didn’t enjoy it much. But then I never do”

None of which detracts from what is a delightful transport into a vanished world. It merely adds an unexpected layer to a perfect period piece.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

The Selected Words of TS Spivet

The Selected Works of TS Spivet by Reif Larsen, Harvill Secker £17.99

Tucked away on the inside back cover of The Selected Works of TS Spivet is a url which takes you to a curiously eccentric website, decked out to look like a collection of sepia photographs and scratched movie clips, in which you can learn more about events and characters in the book.

You might, for example, listen to the music on TS Spivet’s sister’s iPod, or explore his father’s shrine to Billy the Kid.

It’s a curious discovery in a book which -- in both its physical appearance and in its content -- celebrates the gloriously old-fashioned art of map-making with pencils and pens, compasses and theodolites. Its 12-year-old narrator, TS Spivet, rejects the creation of digital mashups in which he could superimpose the complex material his works contain onto Google maps. Such an approach would make him feel like an operator; working traditionally makes him feel like a creator.

The book is a physical delight -- presented as a facsimile of TS’s work, with side panels in which maps, drawings, diagrams and footnotes spider every page.

In this context the website seems to be something of a multimedia joke; a Heath Robinson affair with handles to wind and slow-to-load flash sequences, where you scroll through text by pulling on a rope. Nevertheless, it points to what may be the future of multimedia book publishing, in which the printed page is no longer enough to tell a story.

All of which makes the story told in print even more poignant.

TS Spivet is a compulsive map-maker of extraordinary genius. He maps the people he meets, the places he sees: “everything that I have ever witnessed or read about”. He maps facial expression, particularly insincere ones.

Map-making brings him fame, and is the reason for the great journey that forms the spine of this book. The Smithsonian, unaware he is just 12, awards him a hugely prestigious prize and asks him to come to Washington.

So he sneaks out of his family’s ranch near Divide, Montana, jumps a freight train and begins an epic 2,000 mile journey; as challenging for a boy as the trek west of the pioneers, yet conducted in modern comfort. The train is carrying luxurious Winnebago Cowboy Condo mobile homes, and TS is able to camp out in one.

The journey is one through present and past, and the book is many things -- not least a Huck Finn-style adventure and a celebration of the American West -- told partly through maps because, for TS: “A map does not just chart, it unlocks and formulates meaning; it forms bridges between here and there, between disparate ideas that we did not know were previously connected.”

Once the Smithsonian’s officials have overcome their shock at TS’s youth, they set him to work, saying: “Remember, you are America’s illustrator now.” It’s a measure of Reif Larsen’s success that we might say the same about him.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

No Time To Think

No Time to Think: The menace of media speed and the 24-hour news cycle
By Howard Rosenberg and Charles S Feldman (Continuum $24.95)

If the Cuban Missile Crisis were to erupt today, would the world survive?

It’s a question that goes to the heart of No Time to Think, and particularly to what its authors describe in their subtitle as the “menace” of modern media.

In 1962, when surveillance showed nuclear missiles trained on American cities from its near neighbour’s territory, there were no 24-hour rolling-news channels and web sites with voracious appetites for instant news, comment and analysis; no millions of bloggers ready to pass snap judgements on the actions of government; no rapid-reaction political spin teams designed to exploit this media landscape for their own gain.

For a week, President John F Kennedy was able to keep the missiles’ presence secret while a private dialogue with Krushchev defused the crisis. He was not pressured to follow his first, instinctive reaction – an air strike to destroy the missiles.

Ted Sorensen, special counsel and intimate adviser to President John F Kennedy, says in No Time to Think that today’s media pressure would have made it impossible to keep the missiles secret, that there would have been public panic and congressional pressure, and that the first choice of military response would have been followed.

He concludes: “in all likelihood…the result would have been a nuclear war and the destruction of the world.”

So, No Time to Think argues that the internet and 24 hour news channels are a force with the power to destroy the world.

It’s a powerful argument – and one that deserves a considered response. So let’s consider it while we review the rest of No Time To Think’s attack on modern media.

Rosenberg and Feldman believe the standard of modern news reporting is poor, and identify two culprits: speed and citizen journalism.

The need for speed means that news is reported before it is clear what has happened, and before events are understood. Coverage is trivialised: “The public’s right to know has been supplanted by the public’s right to know everything, however fanciful and even erroneous, as fast as technology allows.”

And then there is the citizen journalist. Rosenberg and Feldman see “a modern reformation that preaches a new-media theology, one that elevates amateurs to exalted status with little halos glowing above their golden heads.”

What they leave out in all this is the public’s practised ability to choose what, and how much, news they consume.

In a succinct and illuminating historical analysis of the need for speed in reporting, they chart the golden hour of the fresh-minted CNN as its coverage of the first gulf war. As they point out, audiences fell off dramatically once there was no war to screen.

So it’s clear that, when we have no need for 24 hour news, we choose not to watch it.

Rosenberg and Feldman see the outpourings of citizen journalist bloggers as a “tsunami” of questionable information. But saying there are too many blogs is like saying there are too many books in a library. Readers – of books or blogs – use cataloguing devices to select what they need.

Most bloggers don’t see themselves as professional journalists. Just as, when there was a piano in every parlour, it didn’t follow that there was a concert pianist in every home.

The citizen journalist will get the audience he or she deserves. Last week [January15] an ordinary passenger on a ferry diverted to rescue passengers in the New York plane crash took a snap on his iPhone, uploaded it to the internet, and saw it reproduced in newspapers around the world because it was of unique journalistic value and interest.

But what of the one really serious assertion in No Time To Think: that the internet has the power to destroy the world?

Rosenberg and Feldman fail to make the case. They cite no examples of knee-jerk, media-fuelled military reactions that might provide a modern-day contrast to Kennedy’s measured response over Cuba.

If anything were to have proved a catalyst for such calamitous reaction, surely the attacks of 9-11 would have done so. But they did not. Rather, the response, in the shape of the War on Terror, was formulated over some months.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz

You wouldn’t want a father like Marty Dean. If there is a blackout during a thunder storm he will hold a candle under his chin to show his young son Jasper “how the human face becomes a mask of evil with the right kind of lighting.”

The bedtime stories he tells are “dark and creepy tales, and each had a protagonist that was clearly a surrogate me.”

But by far his scariest story is that of Jasper’s own family. “These are the building blocks of your identity,” Jasper is told. “Polish. Jewish. Persecuted. Refugee. These are just some of the vegetables with which we make a Jasper broth.”

The broth is a rich one, and so is A Fraction of the Whole. Toltz weaves from the story of Jasper, Marty, and his notorious criminal brother Terry, a fantastical tale full of wit and malevolence. In it, a steady stream of one-liners set up a foreground chirrup against a backdrop of weirdness, fantasy and dark comedy.

The plotting is outlandish.

Terry turns serial killer to wreak revenge against corruption in Australian sport. He shoots the wilfully underperforming captain of the Australian cricket team in the stomach, then turns his gun on cheating bookies, a bent jockey, a boxer who takes a dive in the ring, and coaches who administer performance-enhancing. Quickly, sport is cleaned up, everyone plays by the rules, and Terry becomes a national hero.

Matty is plunged into a coma from the ages of four to eight, after which “Sometimes in the middle of the night when I was sound asleep I was woken by a violent shaking. It was my mother, wanting to make sure I hadn’t fallen into another coma.”

That doesn’t stop her trying to poison her son to death. The poison leaves him reeling, evoking “A feeling like walking into the middle of a Harold Pinter play and being asked immediately by a tribunal to explain it or be executed.”

In the small-town Australia of A Fraction of the Whole, mundane actions invariably have extraordinary consequences.

Anonymously, Matty places a suggestion box for townspeople to nominate improvements they would like to see made.

At first the suggestions – such as that the town’s one, severely arthritic barber retire because “this town has more bad, uneven, and downright mysterious haircuts than any town in the world” – are harmless. But malevolence creeps in. A campaign begins against Terry, who ends up confined in the asylum on the hill. To draw the poison the box is destroyed in an explosion, which happens to blind the father of Terry’s first great love.

Through it all come the one-liners.

An army recruiting officer asks: “Tell me what makes good army material?”
And gets the reply: “Light cotton?”

Here’s another: “I have nothing against children, I just wouldn’t trust one not to giggle if I accidentally stepped on a land mine.”

A Fraction of the Whole will have you laughing just when you know you shouldn’t.