Archive for November, 2013

Ed McBain

November 25, 2013

I’ve always enjoyed detective stories: I was brought up on Sherlock Holmes, who is still my all-time favourite, but over the years have grown to appreciate Raymond Chandler, Ellis Peters and Ed McBain, all for different reasons. I used to have, may years ago, an extensive collection of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels, and at some point, eager to clear out and reduce the mountins of books overwhelming the house, got rid of them. I’m kicking myself now, as I hunt out cheap second-hand copies again, to fuel my re-discovered pleasure. Let this be a lesson to everyone…

Detective stories work in a number of different ways: the earlier development seems to have been the sleuth and the side-kick (Holmes and Watson, Brother Cadfael and Hugh Berengar the Sheriff); later on there are the lone heroes such as Philip Marlowe, and then there are the groups of detectives working together, such as McBain’s 87th Precinct crowd.

His city seems to be based on New York (I think) and he develops the feel of a tough and hectic city and overworked police and detectives swamped by a wide range of crimes. Mainly he offers murders, and gritty realism in sixties style. The detection, clues and reader participation in the mystery-solving are par for the course; the detectives are well-characterised and individualised, and their interplay is part of what makes the novels work. Some are better than others, and some are pot-boilers. In the end, I like them because they are different from the others I’ve mentioned earlier, and, as with all detective stories in my experience, the details of the plots are soon forgotten, allowing me to re-read and still enjoy them…

In a somewhat superior way, perhaps, I’ve always classed detective fiction as light reading, for days when I want a rest from more serious reading, but I’m coming to realise that I’ve been unfair: there is serious craft involved in devising the plots and sowing the clues to satisfy the reader, and then slowly bringing matters to a satisfactory and convincing conclusion. For me the best, in literary terms, has to be Chandler… and it may be time to revisit him soon.

Chasseaud: Mapping the First World War

November 21, 2013

9780007522200I’ve always been fascinated by maps, for as long as I can remember, and will happily pore over an interesting one for ages: there are lots in this new book. Maps can present information so clearly, or conceal it, and these reveal aspects of the First World War that I hadn’t really realised, or thought about. There are hundreds of maps, on a wide range of scales, from different sides and at different points in the conflict; certainly there are more maps than text overall.

The devil is in the detail: how colossal, and how intricate the trench systems were on all sides, and not just on the Western, but on the Eastern front, too (and this last I’d never been aware of, somehow vaguely thinking that in the East there had been a war of movement), and in the Balkans and Italy, and in the Middle East. You may know that it was the First World War, but the maps make one aware of this in a way that text cannot… Similarly, the intricate, even mind-numbing detail of the planning of bombardments, and attacks and offensives, so many of them failures and bloodbaths… patterns of firing for artillery down to the tiniest detail.

The sense of waste, of pointlessness, of futility is unavoidable: how could people have succumbed to the madness that let them order men to burrow into the ground and live like animals, and be slaughtered, and for four years? Once again I was confronted with the impossibility of understanding, and the sense that really, we are not a very intelligent species.

The book is very well-written: the author is an expert in his field and this is clear through his selection of maps, his analysis and the judgements he makes. It is well worth the time and effort if you are a map obsessive, and already know the basics about the war.

The final map is the most sobering: a pencil-annotated map of the Ypres area made after the ‘clear-up’ after the war; the number of corpses finally collected is marked in neatly, for every 500m square. Shocking.

Turgenev: Fathers & Sons

November 17, 2013

I’ve been re-reading this ready for the next meeting of a Russian literature group to which I belong. I have read quite widely (I think) in Russian literature; it’s very different, often obscure and challenging, and always an insight into another society and culture far removed from our own. Sometimes I gain insights into my own past family history, too.

It’s remarkable how different nineteenth century Russian novels and novelists were from the English ones we read today: no Jane Austens, Brontes, Eliots, and the themes wide in scope, philosophical, with an awareness, it seems, on the part of many writers that things could not go on much longer as they were, that major societal upheaval was on the cards, and this a couple of generations before the 1917 revolutions.

We see the generations of Russian aristocrats and peasants trapped in their traditional roles and behaviours, or trying to be a little bit different and usually failing, and the nihilist Bazarov is a breath of fresh air against this background. However, he reminded me, in his behaviour and approach, of the twentieth century existentialists, who also did not seem to be offering a terribly attractive alternative way of living one’s life, and who have also faded into obscurity. I like Bazarov: he’s a fore-runner of a different way of being, and at least really struggling with the contradictions of his times and himself.

The subtle interplay of the generations (see the title of the novel) is well done; Turgenev draws the reader to see the similarities and differences between them, and perhaps reflect on this interplay in her/his own life, what things change and which remain the same, passed unconsciously down through time. Class differences, too, are revealed – Bazarov’s origins are very different from his friend’s…

And I’m left with the question (often the same one at the end of many Russian novels) ‘what is this writer saying, in the end?’ Are we prisoners of our pasts, doomed to repeat usque ad infinitum, or can there be another way?

Miklos Banffy: Transylvanian Trilogy 3

November 10, 2013

The third volume was compulsive reading, as I anticipated, and I stayed with it to reach the end. Characters and states do move inevitably towards the disaster of 1914, which seems to be waiting to happen. Yes, authors can and do manipulate their readers, as does Banffy: kill off some key characters and end key relationships and you will create a sense of loss and ending in your readers, but, at the end of 1400 pages, I felt I had been led by an author who loved the people and the places and who re-created their uniqueness for generations of later readers, and the sense of tragedy and consequent loss was very real, for this reader at least.

There were also hints at where the future might lead, with a sense of injustices beginning to be righted and exploiters getting their come-uppance, though against the broader canvas, I also felt that such changes were perhaps inconsequential. Equally, the world needs good people.

The hero, at the end, is alone, knowing the world he loves is ended; he goes off to war and the novel ends, in a sense unresolved: a cliché, perhaps, with Banffy manipulating his reader again, but no less effective for my realising that…

I had done my usual trick of leaving the introduction until I’d read the book: I hate having my pleasure shaped and formed by someone else before I start. It is brief, and sheds a little light on the man and the time and place, but not enough. However, I think that a judgement that The Transylvanian Trilogy is a forgotten classic is valid.

Miklos Banffy: Transylvanian Trilogy 2

November 9, 2013

With the second volume, I’m truly hooked. It’s a good translation, in that it reads well, fluently and effortlessly; occasional words in other languages are left in and translated, so the feel of somewhere different is enhanced. It’s a shame that the maps (included in the first volume) are both poor and inaccurate; a couple of good maps, and also a chapter to explain clearly and succinctly the outlines of the area’s politics in the early years of the last century would have been very helpful.

The similarity in scope and intent with Mahfouz’ Cairo Trilogy has become much more evident as I’ve made my way through the second volume. It’s a page-turner, but gripping, too: I find myself caring about the characters and what happens to them, as they sleepwalk their way to catastrophe: by the end of the volume we are in 1910 and the clouds are definitely gathering on the horizon. The short-sightedness of the self-satisfied aristocrats can be breath-taking, and the venality of the new middle-classes and more educated people as they exploit the peasantry and ethnic minorities, as well as pull the wool over the eyes of their masters, the aristocrats seems to leave no-one any way out.

The novel clearly overlaps with the life story of the author – this becomes clearer through occasional footnotes by one of the translators, who is a descendant of Banffy’s. Much of what I have read over the years has left me puzzled about the melting-pot of nationalities and races in Central Europe, and their inextricable fates: clearly all was not well under the wing of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This let to the new, post-Versailles nation-states, which in many ways were not much better (see, for example, the recent historical research of Timothy Snyder), and ultimately to the ethnic cleansing at the end of the Second World War, and again during the more recent Balkan conflicts. At the moment I have the picture that people can live together if they do not have any real consciousness of themselves as a ‘nation’ or ‘race’, but that there are always people who will play upon differences for their own, often sinister ends. I certainly don’t know what the answer to any of these issues is; what I do know is that the issues are a great deal more complex than Western nations seem capable of understanding.

Where have these novels been? Originally published in the late 1930s, they seem to have vanished for decades: looking the author up in my usual reference books drew a blank in all three; only wikipedia has information.

I’m well into the final volume now…

Miklos Banffy: Transylvanian Trilogy 1

November 1, 2013

9781841593548Nothing about vampires here: sorry to disappoint!

I like beautiful, well-made books, and I have been a fan of the Everyman’s Library since its renaissance in the early 1990s. As well as good, durable and (usually) well-produced copies of some of my favourite classics, I’ve also discovered other texts when they have appeared in the publication list and I’ve felt adventurous, as well as in need of another nice book. This explains my acquisition of the Transylvanian Trilogy, by Miklos Banffy, published in the 1930s but set in the Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the early years of the twentieth century, the lead-up to the Great War.

It’s easy reading, and also quite superficial in some places, but deceptive as it draws you in to the world of the aristocracy in this fatally-flawed and ultimately doomed empire, with a paralysed government, and various ethnic minority problems. I do feel attached to and interested in the main characters and how their futures are going to play out; I can see the empire falling to pieces around them, whilst they can’t, for they do not have my gift of hindsight. And I do have quite a detailed and clear picture of life at the time.

I struggled to find anything to compare it with, certainly in English literature. I suppose Antony Powell‘s A Dance to the Music of Time might do, but in the end the closest similarity is with Naguib MahfouzCairo Trilogy, in terms of the time-frame and the scope and the attention to detail: the reader is drawn into and becomes part of a completely other world, which s/he has probably only been previously aware of. The aristocracy is decadent, with a capital D, the peasants are oppressed, particularly by the bourgeoisie who are on the make in every direction, the army is as stiff-upper-lipped as it’s possible to be, and the details of the duelling code are fascinating….

However, I’m only at the end of volume one, so there’s a long way to go; the whole amounts to about 1400 pages.

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