2011/19 The Expelled

 

It is over thirty years ago, as a sixth form student, that I first encountered Samuel Beckett, when I read Waiting for Godot and then saw a superb production of it at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester with Max Wall and Trevor Peacock as Vladimir and Estragon. Following that I went on to read most of his other early plays, before encountering his later shorter pieces, or dramaticules, which I studied briefly as an undergraduate. I am less familiar with Beckett’s prose fiction, although it could be thought of as a false distinction to separate his short stories (or even his longer prose pieces) from the monologues contained with plays such as That Time, Footfalls or Rockaby.

The Expelled, published as a Penguin Mini Modern Classics, contains two novellas (although I’m not sure if they are long enough to qualify as such): The Expelled and First Love. They are both a delight to read, the language so rich and poetic that I found myself re-reading paragraphs two or three times for the sheer pleasure of it. Beckett’s writing is often rather loosely described as ‘surreal’ or ‘absurd’. What is often overlooked, in my opinion, is that Beckett is a great storyteller. Even when writing in French, Beckett is an Irish writer and his writing is full of the Irish voices of his youth – their rhythms, their poetry and their stories. In fact, reading Beckett for me is only possible with a Dublin accent playing in your head. The other thing that Beckett is not always given credit for is that amongst the bleakness and hopelessness of some of those stories, he is a very funny writer. Like Flann O’ Brien, he is able to wrest humour from the most desperate situations and the pointless absurdity of life. Both of these marvellous stories confirm why Beckett is worth reading over and over again.

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2011/18 Via delle Oche

 

And so to the final volume in Lucarelli’s De Luca Trilogy. Via delle Oche. It is 1948 and De Luca finds himself in Bologna and teams up again with Pugliese to investigate what appears to be a suicide, but which De Luca quickly determines to be murder. The war is now long over, but its legacy is still strong as the Italians prepare for fiercely contested national elections. And as with the other volumes in the trilogy, it is the politics of post-war period that provide the backdrop to the story.

Via delle Oche is the notorious red light of Bologna and it is this murky world, typical of the noir novel, that De Luca and Pugliese enter, as politicians and criminals (often the same) jostle for power in the post-war vacuum, old rivalries between fascists and communists play out and political enemies take revenge on one another. As ever, De Luca attempts to rise above the political maelstrom in the interests of truth and justice, only to find that justice is itself a politically constructed ideal and truth is always to be sacrificed at the altar of political expediency. Time and again, as De Luca faces the obstructions of one political faction after another and his attempts to remain neutral become increasingly difficult, he declares, “I’m not working with anyone. I’m doing my job, which is to investigate a case, and I’m going to keep doing it until I discover who the murderer is!”

This captures the tension that drives the narrative in all three novels – the difficulties of a policeman attempting to serve the principles of justice, when justice itself is open to political interpretation.Via delle Oche is a fitting end to a trilogy of short, yet important, crime novels.

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2011/17 The Damned Season

The Damned Season is the second volume in Carlo Lucarelli’s De Luca Trilogy. Set in the summer of 1945 in the aftermath of the end of fascism and Italy’s defeat in the war, De Luca is on the run. As a policeman who has served under Mussolini’s regime he is travelling under a false identity. However, he is recognised by a member of the new partisan police and is forced to help in the investigation of a multiple murder involving the local gangleader, in order to protect his identity. Of course, the case turns out to be mired in the local post-war politics, reprisals and the struggle for advantage and power.

This short volume may be a police procedural, but it continues the central theme and questions of the first book. De Luca is a policeman, not a fascist, destined to serve justice under whatever government is ruling. As such De Luca must always tread a fine line, constantly trying to outmanoeuvre both the crooks and the political masters. For ultimately Lucarelli asks how one can champion justice in a society that lacks it? Or how can a man of justice operate under political masters who have nothing but contempt for justice? These are big questions and, whilst the distance of time may provide some objectivity, they are not questions that have gone away.  A great piece of Italian noir that is easily and best read in a single sitting.

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2011/16 The Magic Paint

 

Having grown up on Penguin Modern Classics, it is to be welcomed that Penguin have chosen to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the list by publishing fifty volumes of short fiction from some of their leading authors. Penguin Modern Classics introduced me as a teenager to much twentieth century European fiction, including Primo Levi (and I can’t remember the last time I read any Levi), and looking through the list of these newly-published mini-classics is something a nostalgia trip for me.

I think I have also remarked elsewhere on this blog that I am not commonly a great fan of the short story form (with some notable exceptions) – novels and novellas are more my thing – so to have these small, cheap volumes that act as a kind of taster (or reminder) of some great writers through their short stories is exciting. They are a perfect quick read, ideal for a short train journey (which is what happened to me with The Magic Paint), of a size to be crammed into a back pocket – volumes that look better crumpled and battered than in a pristine condition.

The Magic Paint is a collection of eight of Levi’s (short) short stories, all charactized by the precision and concision of the writing. They are also very funny – from the magic paint whose powers bring good luck to the kangaroo that comes to a dinner party. This is Levi having fun with his imaginary bizarre worlds and after I had finished reading this slim volume, I felt had had spent a very warm and amusing hour with an old friend.

 

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2011/15 The Following Story

 

The Following Story is for me one of those chance encounters. I came across it whilst browsing in the bookshop looking to spend a book token I got for Christmas and something attracted me to it. I’m not sure what it was, but this is a beautifully written novella which is distinctly European. Its language has the feel of European modernist writing and that is not just the fact that there are strong echoes here of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. The language has a poetic quality and a kind of formality that reminds me of some of the writing from that same period. This slightly old-fashioned feel to some of the writing, juxtaposed with occasional moments of contemporary idiom (in the form of direct speech) is one of the books striking features.

The novella tells the story of Herman Musert, a former classics teacher, who goes to bed in Amsterdam but wakes up in Portugal in the same hotel room where twenty years previously there took place what turned out to be a life-changing event. It has a dream-like quality, yet this is reality and when he goes to sleep he dreams of being back in Amsterdam, only to wake up again in Portugal. It is only when he finds himself boarding a boat with a cast of unlikely co-travellers, that he begins to realise the significance of what has happened.

This is a deeply lyrical and philosophical book, highly literary in its references (for which your old school lessons in classical mythology come in quite handy), but completely engaging. It won its author, Cees Nooteboom, the European Literature Prize in 1993 and deservedly so. As a reflection on life, death, dream, reality and passion, it is a book that deserves reading and returning to.

 

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2011/14 Slipless in Settle

 

Taking a break from Scandanavian crime fiction, here is a book I received for Christmas – a perfect present for a cricket fan who hails from the north of England. Slipless in Settle is a journal of Harry Pearson’s summer of 2009, which was spent watching northern league cricket. Cricket is one of those sports that has always enjoyed a very high standard of writing about it – I would argue that cricket journalism (think of John Arlott and Neville Cardus for starters) is amongst the best sports journalism there is. Perhaps as a cricket fan I would say that, but if you get the chance to visit the library at Lord’s (and fortunately i get to go there regularly because of a research project I’m involved in), then you’ll see what I mean.

But Slipless in Settle is not one of those cricket books that documents the great feats of famous sportsmen. Northern league cricket has always been played to a very high standard with amateurs playing alongside professionals (some of the great names in the game also played northern club cricket alongside turning out for their counties and their countries) and Harry Pearson’s book is a nostaligic, even sentimental, homage to northern club cricket, its culture, its history and its players. It is part sports history, part social and cultural history, part whimsical reminiscence and also a bit of obsessional statistical analysis that cricket fans love so much. It is also a very funny book. Pearson has a wonderful sense of irony and a keen observational eye. He is also of the North himself and understands it. The humour is warm and affectionate, never condescending.

For me, this was the world I grew up in. My dad played northern league cricket, captaining and opening the batting for Denton in the Manchester League in the fifties and early sixties, and although Denton doesn’t get a mention, the place where I spent my childhood from the age of five (Bolton) is and the grounds and teams he describes are very familiar. So this was a nostalgia trip for me too, in part, and I found it reassuring that the local teams that I watched as a teenager in the seventies are still going strong today and the inter-club rivalry that existed then is alive and well. Of course this is not a book for everybody. Those who do not understand cricket, or are indifferent to it, will be baffled by the book, I expect. But for those who love the game, and especially those who are familiar with the particular culture of northern club cricket, it is a wonderful read. And that is why it was such a perfect present for me!

And I’m writing this review on the day that England won on unlikely victory against South Africa in the Cricket World Cup!

 

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2011/13 Unknown

 

Still with Scandanavian crime fiction and to the third novel in Mari Jungstedt’s Inspector Knutas series. This is a very well constructed traditional police procedural with a strong ‘whodunnit’ feel to it and perhaps the most satisfying read of the series to date for me. I mention its ‘whodunnit’ quality because this so so often a rarity these days in crime fiction and I felt a certain nostalgia in reading this book at its rather charming and old-fashioned feel, which Jungstedt manages so well.

This time Knutas and his team are called in to investigate the murder of an archaeology student. Jungstedt brings together some of the gorier elements of Gotland folklore, along with the island’s Viking history and the fact that archaeology has become a veritable industry and source of income for the island. It is this bringing together of the ancient and the modern that allows Jungstedt to convey something of Gotland’s landscape and culture – certainly more so than in the earlier novels. Gotland is much more a living character itself in this novel, but not just as a pohysical presence – a cultural, historical and psychological one too.

Where Jungstedt has innovated is that there are two heroes in her novels and this becomes stronger in each of the three books so far. As well as Knutas, there is also the journalist Johan Berg – so two heroes, pitched against each other, but both on the same side, as it were. The tension and rivalry between Knutas and Berg is nicely set up by Jungstedt and looks set to play an increasingly important role in future novels.

 

 

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