“My feeling was, the soul is startled by the telephone and never at ease in its presence” – From “Indecision”, Benjamin Kunkel

29425

In the months before Ecuador I was all about The Uses of Freedom–or Der Gebrauch der Freiheit if you’re German. Late at night I would look at the words of this very deathocentric book, and on that Saturday night with Vaneetha (which had so far failed to distinguish itself from many of the Saturday nights preceding it) I was looking again at the words, with one eye open and the other shut since I’d taken out my contacts and otherwise couldn’t focus on the lines. “Procrastination is our substitute for immortality,” went the first half of the sentence I was rereading; “we behave as if we have no shortage of time.” I read the book at maybe two pages an hour.

Yet I felt more slow than stupid, and suspected it had always been thus with me. Maybe my slow temporal metabolism wasn’t equipped for the efficient digestion of modern–or postmodern–life, as it had apparently already been for some time. Sometimes I felt like I’d never catch up with even the little that had happened to me. There had already been too many people and places, and the creaking stagecoach journey or straggling canoe ride by which one location might observe, in olden times, how it became the next (and one Dwight, the next, uncannily similar Dwight) had been supplanted by the sleight of hand of subways and airplanes, always popping you out in unexpected places.

At least at night the phone didn’t ring. My feeling was, the soul is startled by the telephone and never at ease in its presence. Often on a midtown street someone’s cell would ring and half a dozen people would check their pockets to see if it was them being called, and I’d glimpse a flash of panic in one or another guy’s eyes. Myself, I kind of felt like I needed my news delivered by hand–to look out the window as some courier appeared in the field, coming from a distance so my feelings had time to discover themselves. But instead people were always calling and asking me to do things, and since only pretty rarely was I really sure I wanted to, my system was to flip a coin. “Hold on let me check my . . . yeah sounds cool but hold on . . .” I would say in the Chambers St. kitchen or if someone called at work. But I didn’t have a date book and was actually consulting one of the special coins. Heads, I’d accept–whereas tails, I’d claim to have other plans. I was proud of this system. Statistically fair, it also kept my whole easy nature from forcing me to do everyone’s bidding; it ensured a certain scarcity of Dwightness on the market; it contributed the prestige of the inscrutable to my otherwise transparent persona; and above all it allowed me to find out in my own good time whether I would actually have liked to do the thing in question. By then it was invariably too late–but everyone agrees that knowledge is its own reward, and so do I.

Advertisements

“an author whose books were marvellous but rather the same” – Elizabeth Taylor and Andrei Makine

at-mrs-lippincotes

I have just begun reading Elizabeth Taylor’s At Mrs Lippincote’s (not, it feels obligatory to point out, not that Elizabeth Taylor. From Valerie Martin‘s introduction:

Though I never met either of them, Kingsley Amis introduced me to Elizabeth Taylor. He did it slyly, with deceptive nonchalance, as one might present a powerful relative to an acquaintance at a party; he knew she was important but had his doubts about me. This happened in his novel Difficulties With Girls. After a poor lunch of macaroni cheese, Jenny Standish, much neglected wife of the libidinous Patrick, has gone to the library in search of steady company. ‘Everything seemed to be out, bar an enormous saga about Southern Belles, but then she spotted a new Elizabeth Taylor on the returns shelf.’ At home, Jenny is disappointed to discover that ‘the new Elizabeth Taylor turned out to be an old Elizabeth Taylor in a new impression and with a different outside, and she must have been slipping not to have checked, always advisable with an author whose books were marvellous but rather the same.’

I am just starting to read Elizabeth Taylor (though I already know her mother died of politeness, suffering appendicitis on Christmas Day and refusing to bother the doctor), but, as Martin goes on to write “for any novelist, let alone one as famously cranky and hard on the women as Sir Kingsley, to stop cold the progress of his own story in order to extol the virtues of another novelist is unusual, to say the least” and so far I am impressed. The quote from Difficulties With Girls Martin cites also put me in mind of another novelist with a seemingly very different thematic concern than Taylor’s, Andrei Makine. I have had occasion to cite Makine a couple of times before. And I am nursing a longer essay on this remarkable writer, whose work is of a high pitch of lyrical intensity, who offers an unimpeachable insight into the tragedy of Russia in the twentieth (and twenty-first) century, with emotion but without sentimentality, managing to depict the USSR as a tyranny which treated the lives of its citizens (supposedly what the whole enterprise was about) as utterly disposable – while, without exoneration or excuse, capturing the moments of idealism that could capture youthful enthusiasm.

9780340728093-us-300

But they are rather the same – a narrator born in the post war couple of decades, now an exile in the West rather like Makine himself, recovering via memory a now vanished world which was defined by the gargantuan, heroic sacrifices of the Great Patriotic War (as WWII is still known in Russia) There are variations – The Woman Who Waited’s erotic longing and ironic release, The Life of An Unknown Man’s satire of the New Russia, Confessions of a Lapsed Standard Bearer’s more direct focus on childhood memory, A Life’s Music musical themes – but the overall pattern is the same.

And yet, his work is marvellous. So much for range!

51n62smYHpL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_

Cornelius Medvei: “We don’t take characters and develop them; we set ourselves writing puzzles and try to solve them”

Cornelius Medvei: “We don’t take characters and develop them; we set ourselves writing puzzles and try to solve them”

The Making of Mr Bolsover is a novel which it is relatively easy to find critical words phrases to describe – mock-heroic, deadpan, quietly subversive – yet each leaves one with a sense of dissatisfaction. Ostensibly it is the political biography of a former civil servant who begins to live wild and embarks on a career in local politics. The narrator periodicaly references weighty biographies of the likes of Gladstone, Disraeli and Lord Salisbury The book is set in a recognisably contemporary world with references to email and mobile phones, but these are rather incidental to a more timeless depiction of suburbia and the wild places near suburbia that could be set any time in the last fifty or so years.

Medvei is a somewhat obscure figure – indeed, the first two Google results are for a different man entirely (his father?), a high powered legal professional. And while while this is the man (follow link), his bio doesn’t mention his novel. I get the sense Medvei may not be the world’s most assiduous self-promoter.

cornelius_medvei

Cornelius Medvei‘s father lives near to the writer Alexander Masters (of “Stuart: A Life Lived Backwards) who wrote about him in the Spectator
(under the headline “There’s nothing wrong with plugging a friends book”

Cornelius Medvei, whose father lives in Sussex, a few fields away from me, has published three novels. They are fables that are witty, wry and thin (in terms of pages) and nobody except Susan Hill and I reads them. The latest one, The Making of Mr Bolsover, is about a local politician who becomes a prophet and ends up living in a wood, cooking rats. On the back cover is a review of Medvei’s first novel, Mr Thundermug. ‘Delightful, unforgettable and splendidly peculiar.’ That review is by me. ‘A book of genius,’ says another review — that’s by Susan Hill.

Cornelius writes ‘like nothing else I have ever read’, says Susan. I’ve met her only once, at a fundraising event for the Emmaus homeless community in Oxford. We instantly forgot about the homeless and talked about Cornelius. About how odd he is; how lanky; how his writing makes you feel he’s been
teleported from the 1920s, part-Kafka, part-John Collier; how at unlikelymparties you turn round and find him standing six inches behind you, quiet and steady as a post; and how he should be in every bookcase.

I’ve had Mr Bolsover on my desk for the past six months. I tore it open the instant it arrived, finished it in two hours, then shoved the book aside in despair. It is brilliant; and, again, it won’t sell

Masters takes on Medvei when walking together:

‘What is wrong with you?’ I demanded as we began our walk up onto the Downs. It was a drizzly day. ‘Why can’t you write a straightforward book that will give you a decent income?’

‘I don’t know,’ groaned Cornelius, bending himself into the wind. ‘I thought this one would do it. It is very funny, it has a strong plot.’

‘And it is full of obscure 19th-century
references to political theory. Why don’t you write about 21st-century issues?’

Mr Thundermug was about alienation,’ he protested.

‘The hero was a monkey who spends his time gazing at the sky and having
philosophical thoughts while his wife eats the bugs out of his fur.’

‘Bookshops often put it in the children’s section,’ admitted Cornelius. ‘They don’t know what to make of it.’

AdTech Ad
‘Couldn’t you include a murder or a love interest — something that the reader can get his teeth into?’

‘My second book, Caroline, was a romantic novel.’

‘About a man who falls in love with a
donkey!’

‘I often find that one in crime,’ agreed Cornelius.

We get to read Medvei’s own justification for the detached, rather abstracted style of Mr Bolsover:

‘And then you have adopted this strange detached style for Mr Bolsover, a sort of arch remoteness, as though you’d attached your pen to the end of a long stick, like Matisse …you don’t try to get inside Mr Bolsover’s head, like another novelist would. You don’t explain why he changes from a councillor into a rat-eater.’ (actually in the novel he is a rat eater before a councillor – SS)

‘Precisely! Political biographies don’t. Why did Trotsky become an advocate of permanent revolution? In the biographies there’s a wan passage about him being an idealist, or driven by a sense of mission; but otherwise they pass over it. The motivations for change in these books are either not identified or are banal. In Mr Bolsover’s case, he was hit over the head by a library book.’

I could identify with a approach of Medvei’s to writing , setting him (and Masters) apart from the usual approach of so many creative writing seminars and so forth:

20745388._UY630_SR1200,630_

He paused at a hedge, pushed aside a strand of bramble to reveal a muddy
bridleway and stooped into it. ‘There are different reasons people write, and we’ve got ourselves caught in a wrong one. We don’t take characters and develop them; we set ourselves writing puzzles and try to
solve them. Do you know that story by Somerset Maugham that starts, “I wonder if I can do this?” No? Read it. He is another of us.’

This algebraic attitude to writing also explains why Cornelius’s books take so long. ‘I can see this scene or that twist, but I don’t know the answer overall. I just know the feeling I’m after. I’m always going on at my students about how they should spend more time planning essays before starting writing, but that’s never the way I do it. I just jump in, start writing, chasing this feeling that will be an answer to the puzzle, and get bogged down. It leads to endless points of despair.’

Masters’ semi-tongue in cheek point – that knowing an author gives their books a life and dimension beyond the supposedly detached critical review of a strange – is somewhat incident in this piece to a consideration of the sameness and rather formulaic nature of much contemporary writing.

Argentina’s Dark Half-Century: Review of Lewis Shiner’s “Dark Tangos”, SF Site, 2012

dtangos_web.jpg

I reviewed Shiner’s definitely SF short story collection Love in Vain for SF Site also. This was a highly impressive “mainstream” novel which comes highly recommended as the review hopefully makes clear. Original here.

Few countries have had as dark a half-century as Argentina. Once one of the ten wealthiest nations on earth, and blessed with outstanding natural resources, Argentina’s post-war history became a catalogue of repression, oppression, exploitation and (perhaps worst of all) a pervasive sense that justice was never done. The most intense and damaging period of repression was the so called processo, which introduced “disappeared” as a noun to the lexicon. Anyone suspected of leftist sympathies was liable to vanish, and in one of those particularly sinister twists of the human capacity for cruelty, pregnant women would give birth in captivity only to be killed and their children adopted by the elite. The CIA and various American corporations were complicit in this abuse, yet another murky drama of Cold War powerplay.

As Lewis Shiner’s narrator observes, while the absolute numbers of dead (thirty thousand or so in the processo) is not near as high, the evil and determination to utterly destroy The Other is reminiscent of the Holocaust. In the novel, the narrator, Robert Cavenaugh, works for a fictional American corporation whose Buenos Aires office was, it turns out, complicit in all this. He himself is a relative innocent, a frequent visitor to the city even before the posting, and recovering from the breakup of his marriage. This is, for him, far from a hardship posting; he is keen to master the tango, and embraces the Buenos Aires lifestyle, the antithesis of the suburban commuter life he knew, with gusto.

Shiner has weaved a compelling and sharply observed tale. The tango is Robert’s key to the nocturnal, sensuous world of Buenos Aires nights, and Shiner takes the reader into this culture with subtle, unshowy erudition. I have never been to Buenos Aires myself, but Shiner manages to create a convincing portrayal of a vast, vibrant city with the intimacy of a village. There is plenty of local colour, but it does not overwhelm.

What follows is a by turns entertaining, erotic and disturbing account of how Argentina’s and America’s pasts and presents intersect and interact. Falling in love with Elena, a beautiful Argentinian he sees one day at his workplace and meets one night at the tango, Rob enjoys a blissful interlude of eroticism, suddenly cut short by Elena withdrawing all contact. Determined not to let this relationship just end, Rob insists of entering her world, and through this determination is drawn into the darker heart of Argentinian politics. The darkness of Argentina’s past is counterpointed with the bright, romantic world of the tango, and the gentleness of the love story counterpoints the viciousness of the political plots.

At times I found some of the contrasts Shiner’s narrator drew between Americas North and South a little laboured; Argentina, too, is the New World. However they are perhaps necessary for us to understand the transformation from political innocent to someone whose involvement goes beyond the superficial, touristic liking of a country to something deeper. Shiner, whose short story collection Love In Vain I reviewed, has written a “straight”, mainstream novel that reminded me most of all of Graham Greene’s tale of painful moral awakenings and difficult comittments. There is no real speculative element to this fiction; when you read the torture scenes, and read about the tragedy of Argentina in the last half century, you’ll wish that these were the products of imagination rather than grim reality.

William Gerhardie – review of “God’s Fifth Column”, The Dabbler, 2015

Another William Gerhardie piece, this time ten years on from the SAU blog one and covering much of the same ground about his odd kind of fame. The Dabbler had a feature called the 1p book review, on books that, in theory at least, cost only 1p via Amazon marketplace. I also had encountered Gerhardie again in the memoir of Rupert Louis Ferdinand Frederick Constantine Lofredo Leopold Herbert Maximilian Hubert John Henry zu Löwenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg, Count of Loewenstein-Scharffenec, financial manager of the Rolling Stones.

 

1p Book Review: God’s Fifth Column by William Gerhardie


Seamus Sweeney reads God’s Fifth Column: A Biography of the Age 1890-1940 – an unusual work by an author who at one time looked like becoming one of the greats…

William Gerhardie has achieved an odd kind of fame; famous for not being famous.

He is a writer whose champions specifically focus on his obscurity, or rather the obscurity of his later life. Gerhardie was well-known in his early career, and the same few quotes that recur in his blurbs give testament to his appeal to his contemporaries. Evelyn Waugh said of him, “I have talent, but he has genius”, and for Graham Greene “to those of my generation he was the most important new novelist to appear in our young life. We were proud of his early and immediate success, like men who have spotted the right horse.”

Born in St Petersburg, Gerhardie was an English merchant of great wealth who was thrown into a sack in the 1905 Revolution. According to his son, he was only spared by being confused by the mob with Keir Hardie (this does have the air of a somewhat convenient anecdote). A Russian education for William was followed by being packed off to England to prepare for a commercial career of some kind; he ended up returning to the land of his birth as part of the failed Allied intervention after the 1917 Revolution.

As well as the acclaim of Greene, Waugh, Katharine Mansfield and Edith Wharton, Gerhardie also achieved a fair measure of worldly success, being taken up by Lord Beaverbrook as a potential protégé on the strength of The Polyglots. Beaverbrook’s attempts to turn him into a bestseller failed, and a lengthy decline into obscurity began. In 1931, aged 36, he published an autobiography, and moved into Rossetti House in London, behind Broadcasting House. He would remain there until his death in 1977, “a hermit in the West End of London” in the words of Holroyd and Robert Skidelsky’s introduction to God’s Fifth Column.

Every so often, Gerhardie achieves some revival  degree of revivial. I myself tried to stoke the embers in 2006. William Boyd, a longtime admirer partly based Logan Mountstuart in Any Human Heart on Gerhardie. Michael Holroyd seems the most devout keeper of the flame.

 There was another flurry of interest when his biographer, Dido Davies, died in 2013. Davies was a former heroin addict and author of sex manuals who had her funeral written up in Mary Beard’s blog.

 Of his novels, Futility, Doom and The Polyglots are widely available. Futility is the most amenable to (my) contemporary taste,  while Doom and The Polyglots are much shaggier stories but with much to recommend them. The latter,  with its vain narrator, is notable for a remarkably clear-eyed portrayal of children free of sentimentality or faux-toughness. The former features a fictionalised Beaverbrook and a piecemeal apocalypse.

 One of his works I have yet to track down is Meet Yourself As You Really Are written with Prince Rupert Lowenstein, father of the Prince Rupert Lowenstein (or more properly, Rupert Louis Ferdinand Frederick Constantine Lofredo Leopold Herbert Maximilian Hubert John Henry zu Löwenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg, Count of Loewenstein-Scharffenec) who became financial manager of the Rolling Stones. In his biography A Prince Among Stones (which Sir Michael Philip Jagger, perhaps actuated by jealousy due to relative lack of names, responded: “Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think your ex-bank manager should be discussing your financial dealings and personal information in public”) the younger Lowenstein describes the work:

He [Prince Rupert] was a writer, or more precisely, he had had a modestly successful book first published by Faber and Faber … which he had written with William Gerhardi, a novelist, playwright and critic, born in St Petersburg to English parents, who was a renowned and pioneering supporter of Chekhov’s writing in the West. (Gerhardi was also a keen supporter or the Tsarina, whom he had met as a young man, and believed that the best influence in Russia was, contrary to all normal belief, that of Rasputin who had been violently against the war in Germany…)

 Meet Yourself as You Really Are was a very early example of home psychoanalysis, one of those psychological quizzes that offers instant insights into your personality and psyche … You are asked a long list of questions about all aspects of your life, covering everything from childhood to phobia, social behaviour to daily routine. I remember one that asked ‘Do you like your bath water tepid/hot/very hot?’ … From these answers and a scoring systems, you could discover your personality type among multiple permutations (three million possibilities, the book’s strapline proclaimed) leading to a number of basic key type.

William Gerhardi and my father had decided to name these different types after rivers, so you might at the end of the process discover you were the Rhine, the Nile, the Tiber or the River Thames, the latter with its conclusion ‘You’re the sort of poor mutt who always pays.’

 After his death, within various cardboard boxes labelled “DO NOT CRUSH”, was found the manuscript posthumously published as God’s Fifth Column. He had been working on this from 1939, and it made it into the Metheun catalogue of upcoming publications for Autumn 1942, but was then withdrawn (the relevant correspondence disappeared during the War; Gerhardie claimed he had withdrawn it at his own request for revision).

The “god’s fifth column” of the title is the comic spirit, subverting humanity’s well-intentioned, seemingly rational plans. Gerhardie defines it thus:

God’s Fifth Column is that destroying agent – more often the unconscious agent, sometimes malevolent or maladroit in intention – of spirit within the gate of matter. Its purpose is to sabotage such structures and formations of human society, built as it were of individual human bricks, as have proved to be unserviceable for association into larger groups of suffering units because insufficiently baked by suffering to cement with their immediate neighbours.

Later, he writes “Comedy is God’s Fifth Column sabotaging the earnest in the cause of the serious.”

Despising overarching explanations of history, and keen to defend the individual against all the collectives, from family to state, that seek to the control the “suffering unit” that is the individual person, Gerhadie’s history is a series of tableaux, of scenes in which the same figures -Tolstoy, Shaw, Margot Asquith, Arthur Balfour, various royals of various  nations – recur.

Holroyd and Skidelsky edited out a quarter of the text which was unready for publication; the bulk of the text  relates to the 1890-1919 period, with the next twenty years much more briefly dealt with.  Gerhardie’s judgments are direct, his authorial voice magisterially certain of his subjects. A sample:

Bernard Shaw sent the greater writer of the Russian soil [Tolstoy] his The Shewing Up of Blanco Posnet, which drew a blank from Tolstoy, who answered that he ‘looked forward to reading it with interest’. Which, in author’s vocabulary, may be taken to mean he had already dipped into the thing without much interest and elected to write before he had to confess disappointment. In his accompanying letter Shaw stressed that virtue was ineffective because habitually cloaked in pious language, and would gain by the prestige of blunt, full-blooded, pithy speech, in which vice masquerades attractively before an admiring adolescent world.

 This suggestion also seems to have drawn a blank. Virtue knocked dumb by meekness drew tears from Tolstoy’s old eyes, and he could not see it swaggering in jackboots.

 But the letter is key to Shaw. He is a swaggerer, and he knows it and enjoys it. A man of trepidation in most things, he takes a double step. Metaphorically, even physically, as he strides up like a conquerer before the cine-camera. He adds an incongruous flourish of defiance to his old-maid’s signature: uses belligerent barrack room terms to convey Salvation Army sentiments.

This extract is fairly representative. God’s Fifth Column is full of entertaining anecdote, and Gerhardie has extracted from a host of memoirs of the age a host of arresting observations and unexpected encounters. His style, lapidary in Futility, tends to the verbose (not to mention tendentious) here, and ironically given his disdain for the great abstractions that press on the “suffering unit”, much of the narration is taken up with abstraction.

Read at length, the style becomes slightly grating; however as a book to dip and out of, it works very well.

 

x19432