21st century literature, Benjamin Black, Book review, Crime, Detective fiction, John Banville, The Black-eyed Blonde

The Black-eyed Blonde by John Banville/Benjamin Black

This should so have been a great find. A new Philip Marlowe novel written by John Banville, writing as Benjamin Black. Raymond Chandler is one of my favourite novelist (looking back, I see I put him at number 5 in my top ten, which is there or thereabouts), and John Banville is a Booker prize winner. The Sea, which I reviewed back in June 2012, is an ultimately flawed novel but which showed a lot of craft in its writing. O it took me a few seconds to decide to buy this. The combination should have worked – Chandler is not that hard a writer to imitate, he has so many recurring motifs, it almost writes itself. There’s the sultry blonde who turns up unannounced at Marlowe’s office, and offers him a job without telling him the whole truth; the slug on the back of the head that takes Marlowe out at a key moment, the stumbled upon body, the drugged drink, and so on. The language is tougher to copy – highly distinctive, of course, but elusive, as Banville finds here.
There were, however, looking back, some warning signals. For a start there was the strange “John Banville, writing as Benjamin Black”. I can understand the use of a pseudonym, the creation of a different writing persona to make it clear to the readers that they can expect a different experience – but “writing as” is really having your cake and eating it, saying “but it’s really me, Booker prize winning stylist here after all”. Then there was the ambiguity about the relationship with Chandler’s estate – is this an authorised use of his intellectual property or not? There is nothing on the cover to indication this, although it seems obvious it must be. On investigation, it appears this is an authorised use of Chandler’s copyright, but by a company which has bought this off Chandler’s estate, rather than something approved by surviving family members. So done for commercial gain alone. Then there is the title – The Black Eyed Blonde. There’s some ambiguity there – are her irises black, or, in the more traditional use of the term, has she bruised eyes? It is in fact the former, although do people really have black irises? In a short note at the end of this novel Banville explains that this title was in Chandler’s notes as a potential title for a future novel – but he didn’t use it for a reason I suspect. However fanciful Chandler’s imagery or imagination, there was a truth at the heart of it that is lost here.


So is this a parody, a tribute, an imitation? Was Banville taking a break from “proper” writing and having a bit of commercially rewarding fun – slumming it – writing something in the style of Chandler?  I have a horrible suspicion that this was not done with the appropriate respect for Chandler/Marlowe, but was simply an attempt to screw some more money out of the estate. This cynicism might be harsh, but the real test is whether the novel works or not. Is it a success as an effective imitation of Marlowe? Can you forget, even for a moment, that you are reading a 21st century recasting of the genre? I’m afraid not. For a start, the novel lacks the pace of true Marlowe. He was a genuinely good detective – the detective here really does very little investigative work beyond asking police contacts for help, and interviewing, ineffectively, some obvious suspects. Loose ends are not followed up, whereas the real Marlowe would have tracked them down in a night. So for example a dead body is found to fake someone’s death – who was the body, was his death a convenient coincidence, or a murder? This question is never asked, whereas true Marlowe would have cared about this casual brutality. Banville’s Marlowe wastes huge amounts of time waiting for the case to break of its own accord, rather than tracking down leads. True Marlowe is also a man of deeply held convictions, and while this version does protect his client’s confidentiality, he speaks far too freely about the case to people he has no reason to trust. This Marlowe is frankly a bit slow – it takes him an age to realise his drink has been drugged, long after the reader has worked it out. Chandler’s novels are complex and sometimes confusing – this was straightforward and simple. There are other false notes struck – why does the black-eyed blonde not tell Marlowe that the man she sends him to find, Nico Peterson, was believed to have died in a hit and run incident several weeks earlier. Her reluctance to tell him this aspect of her story serves no purpose whatsoever. Later when Marlowe and Peterson’s sister are held up by two sinister Mexican thugs, they knock him unconscious, then kidnap, torture and kill her. Why would they leave Marlowe alive if they are such vicious killers?


I wonder – in 75 years will people be writing Harry Potter novels where a grownup Harry goes back to Hogwarts to investigate mysterious goings on?  Would that be as wrong as this feels? While I appreciate that there are plenty of examples where great authors works are completed and their worlds reimagined in a different context – Young James Bond for example, the completion of the Hitchhikers sextet, and the Sherlock Holmes tributes – I can’t think of a single one that has been genuinely successful. You wouldn’t do this for any other art form, and I am not convinced it is respectful to the original authors. Chandler didn’t write enough Marlowe novels – he couldn’t have done – but he left us with enough to make novels like this pointless, and a bit tawdry.
20th century Literature, Book review

Look Back in Anger (2)

My last post summarised the plot of this play. Look Back in Anger made a big impression when it was first performed in the 1950’s. It caught the zeitgeist in that special way that some works of art do, and because they are so very much part of the cultural, social and political environment in which they were created, it is often the case that outside that context they lose much if not all of their impact. That’s not in any way a criticism of such works, or a claim that timelessness equals greatness. But the unarguable fact is that Look Back in Anger is not performed very much if at all nowadays, and for a good reason. 

The 1950s were an interesting time. The war still hung over the country and the austerity is caused was only just wearing off. People like Jimmy Porter were going to university for the first time, where they were taught by men who had come through the war. At the same time the Cold War was accelerating, and the possibility of nuclear annihilation of the planet was becoming clearer. Britain’s role on the world stage was diminishing, and Alison’s father’s reminiscences of the days of the Raj are a reminder of this. Jimmy’s anger was, for 1950’s audiences, a slap in the face, a visceral shock, and the fact that his anger is so unfocussed – it is never really clear precisely what it is he is angry about – make sit all the more difficult to respond to. Which is why Cliff and Alison, for the most part, simply absorb it. It is interesting to me that the play’s title is Look Back in Anger – that is to say Jimmy’s anger is about the past, not so much the present. And neither Cliff nor Alison can do much about the past, hence their helplessness in the face of Jimmy’s ranting. 

So the question is whether this play is simply a period piece, important at the time but no longer of any particular interest, or whether it can be re-staged and made relevant for the twenty-first century? Is there anything left to be angry about now the Cold War has been won and we are all middle class? I would be astonished if an accomplished company couldn’t resurrect this play. There are some staging issues – everyone seems to smoke throughout the play for example, although that could be updated to e-cigarettes I suppose with a bit of a nod to the passage of time – and some of the contemporary references could be updated without any damage to the integrity of the play. But the relevance of Jimmy’s frustration with the state of the country and his place (or lack thereof) in it seems screamingly relevant to me. 

Having said that I suspect the sudden switch of affection from Alison to Helena, their interchangability in Jimmy’s bed, would be hard to pull off convincingly. Jimmy would need to be irresistible, which I suppose could be done. I’d like to see a company try it. 

20th century Literature, Book review, drama, John Osborne, Look Back in Anger, Modern writing

Look Back in Anger by John Osborne

If I was writing this review say 25 years ago, I would not need to provide any details about the content of this play. It formed part of the cultural scenery, largely because of the impact it caused when first performed in the 1950s. Subsequent films (including one with Richard Burton) and revivals meant that everyone knew, broadly speaking, who Jimmy Porter was, and phrases like “angry young man” and “kitchen sink drama” were part of every day discourse.Image result for look back in anger

Now, in 2015, less so. The play is not performed very often, if at all, is not (at the time of writing) on GCSE syllabuses, and the reasons for Jimmy’s/John’s anger seem confused and distant. So to start with a recap. Look Back in Anger is a short play which portrays the relationships of Jimmy Porter, his wife Alison, and their friends Cliff and Helena. There is also a short appearance by Alison’s father, Colonel Redfern. Jimmy is 25, too young to have fought in the war, and is a university graduate. He runs a sweet stall in an un-named Midlands town. It is not entirely clear if this unconventional career choice is voluntary, a rejection of the rat race (in the same way that John Braine’s lead character in “Hurry on Down” becomes a window cleaner) or an expediency to pay the rent. Jimmy is often described as working class, but I think the portrayal of class in this play is more subtle than that – not too many working class people went to university in the 1950s, even if it is more white tile than redbrick, and Jimmy appears to look down on Cliff in class terms, describing him as a ruffian. He is also very erudite, reads the posh Sunday’s, and listens to classical music concerts on the radio. So hardly a working class hero.

His wife, Alison, is however, screamingly middle class. She appears to have married Jimmy, her “bit of rough” to irritate her parents, (particularly her mother), although there is also the suggestion that Jimmy is sexually irresistible. Alison is slumming it, and when the play opens with her ironing Jimmy’s clothes while he and Cliff laze around reading the Sunday papers, she is approaching the end of her tether. Jimmy taunts her constantly, appearing to have already recognised that their relationship is doomed, and therefore accelerating its end. To be fair to Jimmy, he will lash out at any target, although Cliff has developed a technique for handling him – he either gives as good as he gets, or ignores him. Not much happens beyond the grumpy conversations about their Sunday rituals, Cliff the lodger, and old friend of Jimmy’s, providing a foil to much of his good-natured abuse. Cliff and Alison have a strangely overly affectionate relationship which they act out in front of Jimmy, almost to goad him, without success.

Helena, Alison’s childhood friend, arrives as an emissary from the middle class. She spars with Jimmy constantly, and he is right to resent her presence – she makes no secret of her contempt for him and encourages Alison to leave him. Alison breaks the news that she is pregnant – this is clearly unwelcome. She plucks up the courage to leave Jimmy.

It is at this critical turning point that Osborne drops quite a dramatic bombshell (a dead metaphor if ever there was one). Alison leaves, but Helena stays, and confronts Jimmy with the news of his wife’s pregnancy. They fight, she slaps him, he cries, and she jumps on him, passionately, leaving the curtain to fall on what we are led to believe was the consummation of a passion that has been building for some time.

There is an obvious problem here – this switch is utterly unbelievable, psychologically, but the dramatic value of it far outweighs the cost in terms of the audiences’ willingness to believe in these characters. We just have to believe she finds him irresistible, not that she likes him. She quickly takes Alison’s place, literally in that she resumes her stance behind the ironing board, and familiarity quickly descends on Jimmy’s flat. In the play’s climax Alison returns, having lost her baby (strangely I mis-remembered this scene before re-reading the play, thinking she had had an abortion. The scene could be played that way – “I lost the child” could be euphemistic – but perhaps that would have been one taboo too many for Osborne’s 1950’s audience.)

So that’s the play, in summary. I wouldn’t normally spend so much time on a plot as that, but I think it is worth it to provide context for the commentary in my next blog.

Book review, Marx, Non-fiction, Terry Eagleton, Why Marx was Right

Book review: Why Marx was right by Terry Eagleton

Or, irritatingly on the front cover of the book (published by Yale University Press in 2011) “why marx was right” – as if this was some e.e.cummings poem! Anyway, overcoming that minor grievance, I was pre-disposed to like this book. That the ideas of Karl Marx have been too easily dismissed or overlooked since the end of Soviet communism in the late 1980’s/early 1990’s is undeniable. A well written demolition of the more prevalent myths about Marx was long overdue. But this isn’t it. In fact, I struggled so much with this that it joins the very short list of books I have tried to finish but failed.

The principal reason for this is Eagleton’s style. I am sure that what he was attempting to do was engage his audience and make the subject matter accessible, but his use of humour to do this is so wooden, at (most) times so inappropriate, so misjudged, as to make this almost unreadable. I started underlining some examples when I was still perserving with this book, but the pages soon were covered in lines. Here’s some random examples:

“Inequality is as natural to capitalism as narcissim and megolomania are to Hollywood” (pg 78)

“Change …is not the opposite of human nature; it is possible because of the creative, open-ended, unfinished beings we are. This, as far as we can tell, is not true of stoats.” (pg 81)

“If babies could get up and walk away at birth, a good deal of adult misery would be avoided, and not only in the sense that there would be no bawling brats to disturb our sleep” (pg 85) (Unpleasant turn of phrase there).

And so on and on relentlessly, “joke” after “joke” without any genuine humour at all. These may go down well as practiced asides in the lecture hall, but on the page they didn’t work at all. Neither do the constant popular culture, man of the people references to football or going down the pub – we all know Eagleton prefers cricket and white wine. We can spot a phoney a mile off.

Eagleton has clearly read every word of Marx, and huge numbers of other thinkers, critics and commentators, who are endlessly name-checked. Take this for example:

“As the philosopher John MacMurray comments,”Our knowledge of the workd is primarily an aspect of our action in the world.” “Men”, Marx writes in Heideggerian vein in his Comments of Wagner “do not in any way begin by finding themselves in a theoretical relationship to the things of the external world” (pg 142)

Hope you got that, because there will be a quiz?

Marx wrote a huge body of work, and in the course of his life obviously refined his position on many issues. If you have the time and energy therefore you can find support for most arguments somewhere in his writing. Eagleton’s job here wasn’t to manipulate that work to support a narrow view of Marxism, but to preserve the key ideas which needed repeating. But there’s the rub – if Marx’s ideas really needed translating, saving or defending by Eagleton, aren’t they in deep trouble already? Perhaps “why marx was right” is wrong?

Incidentally, when I first started reading this book one thing struck me, and that was the confidence of the title. Typically academics write in a far less direct way – Why it could be argued that in most respects Marx was correct”. No such hesitation here, Marx was right, others are wrong, and I’ll punch anyone who disagrees. I liked that – such a shame that the book goes so far off course.

21st century literature, Autobiography, Book review, http://schemas.google.com/blogger/2008/kind#post, Moab is my washpot, Stephen Fry

Moab is my Washpot by Stephen Fry

In the second volume of his autobiography (although “reminiscences” would be a more accurate description) Fry mentions performing in “All’s Well that Ends Well” in Queen’s College, Cambridge. I saw that performance, and while I have no memory whatsoever of “our hero” I think the odds are I must have seen him in it too. So that’s my personal connection with this book, for what very little it is worth.

If you had asked me a few days ago what the title of this book was I would have fought you to the death in defence of it being “Moab was my washpot”. Why the mental auto-correct? Obviously it’s in part the visual echo between “was” and “washpot”, but also it’s in the past tense, which is where biographies and their titles belong, in the “As I Walked Out one Midsummer Morning” category. The biblical reference is kind of explained in this edition – I reread the quasi explanation a couple of times, but am still none the wiser, and the intended impression of look at me cleverness is clearly quite deliberate.

There isn’t really a criticism of the Stephen Fry aged approximately 4 to 20 you can make that he doesn’t make of himself in the book, in a way becoming immune to such criticisms as he goes. Of course he was insufferable, profoundly irritating, dishonest and despicable towards his loved ones. Guilty as charged and yet still quite pleased with himself. Fry had as you can imagine a very privileged childhood, although he portrays it as ordinary. This is in part defensible – to him it was ordinary – but he must have enough experience of normal life by now to know that having servants in the 60’s (for example) wasn’t normal. The prep and public school experiences dwelt in in this book are however banal, I’m sorry to say – the only remarkable thing about them being that this way of life was thought worth preserving into the 1970’s and beyond, and that he thinks we will find the arcane details of the schools’ invented languages and rituals in any way interesting. Similarly his numerous digressions, which give the impression of existing simply to fill the space available, are a soapbox on which he is able to argue for his various opinions, haranguing the reader without allowing any genuine room for dissent or doubt.

Autobiography that is a careful attempt to massage perceptions of a public figure are always going to happen – don’t hate me, I am ordinary really, look at these pictures of me in short trousers on the beach at Southend etc – but this book is more subtle than that. Describing at almost all times a rather unpleasant little oik is a strange way of garnering public affection, but we forgive him almost everything (as do his saint-like parents and family, and virtually every other authority figure he comes across). He had a QC to present his mitigation at his sentencing hearing in the Magistrates’ Court for goodness sake! This forgiveness is manipulated principally by the alchemy at the end of this book – somehow the A-level failing, prison-sentence serving, obsessive thieving has been transformed into a hard working genius who gets a scholarship into Cambridge after only one year’s study, a transformation which is his responsibility alone it seems. I don’t buy that. It is the one part of the book where there is obviously a whole lot more going on that we aren’t told about. At other points he is clear that he changes details to protect the innocent – maybe some journalist will one day dig out what really went on over those months.

I have managed to get this far without using the “national treasure” description, which is quite an achievement, so there you have it. As such Fry is immune from any criticism, and good luck to him for it – let’s just hope he uses his immense power for good, not to protect public schools, fox hunting and the royal family. I worry about a day in 20 years when he is in the House of Lords lecturing us on how things were better in his day, when schoolboys were taught Greek before breakfast, where sex abuse was seen as part of normal school boy development (the description of his “deflowering” even when sanitised in its description, is not for the faint hearted) and all good fun, and the poor knew their place, good for a comic turn now and again but not much more. You really want a happy ending for Fry, you really do, but does he deserve it?

21st century literature, tribute

Comment: Terry Pratchett

I had to mark Terry’s passing last week. he went out in great style, tweeting a mini-short story featuring his greatest character (?), Death. It was just the perfect ending.

I’ve been reading Sir Terry since the mid 80’s, and pretty much everything he wrote. The DiscWorld series of some 40 novels is a comic creation of the highest order – I see back in the day he came 15th on my all time list of favourite writers, which isn’t bad but feels a bit low in hindsight.

Some memories of Discworld – on a train back from a union meeting or conference in the 80’s, god knows where, with several colleagues in their 20’s all getting drunk and being silly as you do. I got the Pratchett novel I was reading at the time, and one of the women in the group (yes, there were women trade unionists in the 80s) picked it up scornfully, as if it was toxic, and said “So you actually read this kind of stuff do you?”. Now to be fair in those days the paperbacks covers came illustrated in a fairly childish manic manner (see below) which suggested pretty strongly that these were children’s books – which I don’t agree with for one minute – so the reaction was understandable, if still a bit condescending. Fast forward ten years and a friend came to visit, him an Oxford PhD and all, and he got out his hardback copy of the latest TP, which happened to be “Hogfather”. At the time, having a young family I was saving a few quid by buying the novels in paperback, which were published when  the latest hardback came out – so I was always about 6 months in arrears. A hardback Pratchett struck me as a single man’s indulgence, although I hope I had enough sense not to say so!

Reading TP was – and is – an interesting experience. Without any effort at all I can consume the books in a matter of hours, the rest of the world fading out for that space of time. But strangely the plots rarely stay with me. That means of course I can enjoy re-reading the novels, but I think it says more than that. I think with Pratchett the plots are not that important – the scenario, yes, but the details of who does what to who, less so. With Pratchett it will always be character that is king. And what a cast of characters he developed, captured simply in a line or two – Ook – each utterly distinctive. For Terry there seems never to have been such a thing as a minor character – almost everyone is developed with care and attention to detail, so that Foul Ole Ron for instance or CMOT Dibbler are easily remembered and with as much affection as Vimes or Veterinari.

Lastly his books entertained because they are bursting with ideas. Often the ideas are thrown away quickly enough, but there is always another along quickly to take its place. He created a wonderfully completely realised universe and tackled contemporary issues seriously and effectively. You never got the sense that Pratchett was dialling it in or just writing another Discworld novel, and even in less effective novels you can see what he is trying to do. With “Raising Steam” we see Discworld beginning to come to terms and be comfortable with modern technology, which was an optimistic was to end. I think there might be an unpublished 41st in the series to come, which will be bittersweet.

I hate to end on a down-note, but I have to say this. Elsewhere I have slated the Long Earth novels Pratchett co-wrote with Steve Baxter. I have expressed doubts about the extent to which Sir Terry did more than lend his name to these books. I may of course be wrong, but there is more humour, wit and imagination in the name Moist von Lipwig alone than there is in the whole Long Earth series. So I don’t hold them against him!



Comment: Holocaust denial books sold on Amazon

More on yesterday’s entry re Amazon selling race hate material. This story was first broken in 2013, and received some national media coverage, as a result of which (it is claimed, but I cannot confirm) that Amazon withdrew these items for sale, albeit temporarily. They seem to have sneaked back without any publicity.

Much of the response to the media coverage took the line that if these books aren’t illegal, then why shouldn’t Amazon sell them? Fair point, but there’s two qualifications on this. First, these books are illegal in some countries in Europe, most notably and obviously in Germany. Despite this Amazon will happily post these books to you irrespective of where you live. There was no “not for sale in Germany” warnings on the site for these books. So is Amazon breaking the law? Secondly, while you can buy many things aren’t technically or actually illegal, soft porn for example, the conditions in which they are sold are controlled by responsible sellers, if not by the law itself. So soft porn goes on a top shelf. Even Viz has a “not for sale to children” label. But Amazon ignores these rules. I just checked – even highly explicit content such as the Fifty Shades series contains no warnings about the nature of the content. With these “novels” at least you get reasonably accurate reader reviews – almost 2,000 of them! – but with the holocaust denial books the descriptions give no hint that what you are getting is racist bilge.

One final point. Amazon uses clever algorythms which trace what you buy and also which items you browse. Because of these searches Amazon is now convinced I am a neo-nazi, and keeps trying to sell me more of this garbage.


Comment: Amazonian Extremism

Reading the Amazon reviews of a book I intend to blog about sooner or later, I came across one review which recommended another book, controversially entitled “Enoch was right”. In case you haven’t come across Enoch Powell before, he was a conservative politician who promoted racist ideas in the UK in the 1960s and later. This was captured most memorably in his “Rivers of Blood” speech, and appealed to a racist, anti-immigrant tendency within the UK at the time, which of course has some worrying parallels with the rise of UKIP today.

Following the link to “Enoch was Right” Amazon’s helpful site told me that customers who bought this book also bought these others, and gave a list of recommendations.  Each of the recommendations were, to be blunt, Nazi filth. Holocaust denial material which in other countries it would be illegal to print, sell or promote are being sold on Amazon without any warnings or qualifications of any kind.

I don’t expect Amazon to censor what its readers can buy, but there have to be limits on this freedom. Amazon wouldn’t sell child pornography would it? So why sell holocaust denial material? Worst still, why allow this material to be sold unfettered, with descriptions eulogising about the scholarly and authorative nature of the books, and supported by clearly placed “reviews” confirming how wonderful the books are, and recommending others of the genre? I will write to Amazon and ask for details of its policy on this issue, and keep you my imaginary readers posted.