Thursday 18 March 2004

Len Deighton: Declarations of War (1971)

Edition: Panther, 1973 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1229

This collection of short stories is the only one published by Deighton; I don't know of other, uncollected tales, so this seems to be something of an experiment in his output (as were several other books he published in the early seventies). As the title suggests, they are all war stories, though all of them have something a little unusual about them. The little twists include such ideas as having a story of air combat in the First World War, very much apparently in the style of W.E. Johns, turn out to be about the Germans. (This particular trick is repeated in another story as well, with the added element that student unrest in the thirties is used to evoke the student agitation of the late sixties.)

The stories are all very short, and they are constructed so that the twist is the most important aspect of every one of them (something more commonly considered a feature of science fiction than other genres - though writers like Frederick Forsyth do this frequently in the thriller). All that most of the stories do is set up the situation, then reveal the twist. This makes them a little short of space for characterisation and so they are filled with stereotypes.

The best story in the collection is the first one, It Must Have Been Two Other Fellows, which has a premise rather similar to the song I Remember It Well. Two men meet in a garage where one is working on his car in his spare time after the Second World War, and they recognise each other - they were together in a tank action in North Africa. Or were they? As they reminisce about it, it becomes clear that their memories of what happened are mutually contradictory. So the reader is left guessing whether they are remembering different, yet similar, events, their mutual recognition being a mistake; or whether the War was a time that neither remembers clearly, even its most exciting moments.

Generally, though, these stories are fun to read once and individually. They do pall a bit read all in one go, even though, as no prior publication details are given, the assumption is that they were intended to form part of this collection from their conception. They are too similar to feel inventive to anyone who reads all the way through, and I was left, as someone who has now read them twice, feeling that Deighton is a novelist trying a little too hard at the unfamiliar craft of short story writing.

Wednesday 17 March 2004

Mike Jay: The Air Loom Gang (2003)

Edition: Bantam, 2003
Review number: 1228

The most famously insane person of the eighteenth century was of course George III, one of the most celebrated madmen of all time. Yet his case is not as interesting in itself (rather than for who the patient was) as that of a contemporary Englishman, James Tilly Matthews. The turn of the nineteenth century was a pivotal time in the history of the treatment of the insane, as asyla began to be built which were more like hospitals than the prison-like buildings which preceded them, and the way in which Matthews was incarcerated turned out to be important in the precipitation of this change. Matthews' life and delusions are fascinating in themselves, as well as being unusually well documented (this fact meaning that he is one of the first cases where psychologists have been able to attempt to make a modern diagnosis).

The Matthews case basically begins, as does Jay's book, with a disturbance at the Houses of Parliament. Matthews interrupted the closing stages of a debate in the early 1790s, the one which lead to the declaration of war with revolutionary France, by shouting out "Treason!" from the Visitors' Gallery. He was led away and committed to Bethlem Hospital, the place that is the origin of the term "Bedlam". He remained there for a couple of decades until just before his death. His delusions were principally that a secret organisation was using a device called an "Air Loom" to control people's thoughts and precipitate a war between France and Britain. The really odd thing is that Matthews had actually been involved in secret negotiations with the revolutionary government, so that his delusions had some basis in reality. That of course was not acknowledged by the British government of the time.

So many elements come together in the Matthews case that it is easy to see why Jay chose him as the subject of his book. He has responded to the story with a book which is exciting as well as fascinating. In places it even seems as though it is a historical thriller rather than a non-fictional narrative. (It reminded me of "steampunk" novels, like K.W. Jeter's Infernal Devices, for example; this is partly because of the science fiction resonances of the air loom device.) The Air Loom Gang is very highly recommended; wonderfully written, engrossing.

Wednesday 10 March 2004

Iain M. Banks: Excession (1997)

Edition: Orbit, 1997 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1227

After a couple of novels which, though they seem similar, were not set in Banks' favourite science fiction background, Excession returns to the Culture. Like all the Culture novels, Excession is about how the Culture interacts with outsiders - only this time things are different. In the earlier novels, these contacts are with groups which are technologically inferior, and can be read partly as commentaries on the relationship between the former colonial powers and the cultures with which they came into contact. Here, though, the contact is with something called an Outside Context Event, a potentially disastrous meeting with an alien entity far ahead of the Culture's technology. This takes the form of an excession, the entry of an object into normal space from an unknown origin (excession literally means "going beyond").

The Culture are not the only galactic civilization interested in this alien object. Such analysis as is possible points to incredible potential developments in physics, applicable in technologies such as instantaneous travel, or almost incomprehensible weaponry including the means to subvert the Minds (artificial intelligences) of the Culture, not just an advanced civilization but one very different (one assumes) from that of the object's origin. Apart from Culture splinter group the Elench, the main competitors are the Affronters, whose general behaviour is reminiscent of the most drunken rugby club dinner. There are also complicated political games between the Culture Minds that are involved. The story is, however, told mainly through the experiences of the humans manipulated by the massively more intelligent Minds, punctuated by messages passed between the Minds themselves. (This is typical of the Culture novels, and basically makes it easier for a human reader to identify with characters while feeling that there is more going on behind the scenes than the text reveals.)

Banks' writing in Excession is up to his highest standard, and it has an extremely clever ending. It is the best of the Culture stories and is probably one of the main touchstones for the new school of space opera which is currently popular.

Friday 5 March 2004

Damon Galgut: The Good Doctor (2003)

Edition: Atlantic, 2003
Review number: 1226

During the apartheid regime in South Africa, the regions set aside as "homelands" were supposed to be some kind of showcase for the idea that there was some measure of freedom for black people. (The phrase used was "self-determination for native peoples".) Even then, they generally seem to have been rather sad places; the South African government used some of the less appealing land in the country for the homelands, much like the land provided by the US government for native American reservations in the nineteenth century. After the fall of the regime, the homelands were quietly reabsorbed; few other countries had even recognised their existence as independent states. The most famous place in a homeland was Sun City in Bophuthatswana, the Las Vegas of South Africa and somewhere which allowed foreigners to visit the country and have the homeland status as a sop to their consciences (but which inspired the protest song I Ain't Gonna Play Sun City).

This is the first of Damon Galgut's novels I have come across, though I gather he is quite an established South African writer. The Good Doctor is set in one of the former homelands, which remains unnamed, in a hospital in its one-time capital. The area is forgotten, the town virtually a ghost town and the hospital is empty, run by a small group of doctors well aware that a job there is a dead end posting. The place is so run down that all the difficult cases are immediately transferred to the much better equipped hospital just across the line which used to be the border.

Frank, the narrator, is a middle aged doctor who has been at the hospital for some time. He has sunk into a slothful state, in a stasis because the job promised him on arrival - to take over as head of the hospital - has not materialised even after several years. He, like the other doctors, has his own reasons for accepting the pointless life he leads at the hospital (the opposite of the stereotypical picture of doctors as dedicated), and he is quite comfortable in a settled and slothful kind of way.

But then the hospital is changed utterly by the arrival of Lawrence, a young, naive and dangerously keen doctor, newly qualified, starting a year's placement there. Because of a lack of usable space, he has to share Frank's room; the accommodation is as run down as the patient care. The Good Doctor is an account of their strange friendship, a kind of companionship based around their major differences in outlook and personality. (These differences are perhaps meant to say something about the changes apparent in personalities shaped before and after the end of apartheid.)

The Good Doctor is a slow novel, as might be expected from the location in a forgotten backwater. What is is about is more atmosphere; it is one of the best depictions of melancholy inertia I have ever read. Mind you, inertia is not that popular a topic for a novel, but it is certainly a difficult task - to make the central theme of a novel something which militates against a dynamic plot. The doctors are unhappy, but are unable to make the effort of will required to move on. The hospital, like the rest of the former homeland, is forgotten and decaying. There are echoes of other writers - the style made me think of a downbeat version of Alexander McCall Smith, and I was also reminded of Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter. (Part of both these reminders are probably due to the African setting common to all three novels - though of course I don't think that the continent is not as uniform as this might suggest!) Even with these echoes, though, The Good Doctor is an original and powerful novel.

Tuesday 2 March 2004

Vladimir Nabokov: Lolita (1956)

Edition: Penguin, 1980
Review number: 1225

Lolita is probably the most famously scandalous novel of the twentieth century, and still packs a punch as its subject is one of the remaining sexual taboos - the seduction of a twelve year old girl by a paedophile. (Lolita's age was raised slightly in the famous film made of the novel.) The novel, supposedly memoirs written in an asylum, concentrate on three years or so in the life of Humbert Humbert (a wonderful, but assumed name) together with some background to explain how he came to be attracted to young girls of the type he calls "nymphets". In a small Eastern US town, Humbert falls for the his landlady's daughter, Dolores Haze, also known as Lolita. But the girl's mother has at the same time fallen for Humbert, and eventually he marries Charlotte Haze as part of a scheme to seduce Lolita. She finally finds out about his passion for her daughter (Humbert keeps a secret journal, rather recklessly). After confronting him, Charlotte runs from the house, only to be run over by a passing car and killed. This event catalyses Humbert's seduction of Lolita, and the two of them set off on a mammoth car journey across America.

There are three very clever contrasting pairs which basically make Lolita work in the way that it does. First, Nabokov makes all three main characters thoroughly dislikeable, to the extent that Humbert's story sometimes seems to be describing a competition where the aim is to be as unpleasant as possible. This is, of course, about the only way to make Humbert not come over as a complete monster. (It should also be remembered, of course, that Humbert is the narrator - so that even if we believe his claims that he is telling things exactly as they happened without excusing himself, we have to remain aware that we are only seeing things from his point of view.) At the same time, all three are victims: Lolita most obviously, but her mother is trapped by her infatuation for Humbert into a situation which leads to her death, and Humbert, also trapped in an infatuation for someone not very nice, describes himself as a sick man whose actions are driven by his illness.

His infatuated reconstruction of Lolita and her true nature form a contrast which is the second of Nabokov's clever touches. She is clearly shown to be a not very bright, selfish and vulgar adolescent, and yet even while he realises this, Humbert is helplessly captivated by everything about her - even her faults. The dual nature of the idealised and real Lolita is brilliantly conveyed by Nabokov. If Lolita could be said to have a wider application than its sensational subject matter suggests, it is in Nabokov's delineation of the nature of infatuation. (The author, however, denied that the novel has any kind of moral.)

The third contrast is between the sordid activities of the three main characters and the beautiful, poetic writing style. Two of the most masterly writers of English prose in the twentieth century, Nabokov and Conrad, did not have it as their first language. Nabokov goes so far in the afterword to Lolita, his first English novel, to deplore his writing as second rate by comparison with the "untrammelled, rich and infinitely docile Russian tongue". This is surely too self deprecating to be a true comment on how he felt about his English writing; however, my Russian isn't good enough to check out whether his novels in that language are as good or better. When one thinks about influential prose styles from the fifties, the obvious names that come to mind are "beat" writers like Kerouac or Burroughs; but I think that Nabokov's writing has had more impact on the mainstream English novel.

Although widely attacked as pornographic, there is nothing titillating about Lolita. The novel is not a pleasant read, but it is certainly like a journey which requires frequent stops to admire a particularly beautiful view. It is entirely deserving of its position as one of the twentieth century's most admired novels.