Saturday 20 December 2008

The Joys of Old Books

At a second-hand book sale I found a 1944 Penguin edition of Conrad's 'Twixt land and Sea, a collection of three short stories, being 'A Smile of Fortune,' 'The Secret Sharer' and 'Freya of the Seven Isles.'

The book itself is absolutely gorgeous, one of those old orange penguins with the white band across the middle. The spine advises this is number 447 in the series. The book proudly declares it price to have been Ninepence. That's Ninepence, mind you, not nine pence or 9p or even the old fashioned 9d.

Even better, on the back, where nowadays you'd get a misleadingly enticing blurb, there is a charming advertisment for Greys (sic) Cigarettes, described as "Just honest to goodness tobacco." This is accompanied by a picture of a military type in one of those gigantic bearskin helments worn by the likes of the Coldstream guards. It is noticeable that he is not smoking tobacco, honest or otherwise.

Inside the front cover is an advert for "Service shoes by Lotus - specialists in regulation footwear." Inside the back cover is an advert for Mars Bars - "Nothing but the finest ingredients is good enough for Mars." We are warned, however, that "Zoning now restricts Mars to the Southern Counties. So here's hoping for a quick victory - and plenty of Mars for everyone - everywhere." Beat the Hun so the free world can enjoy Mars Bars once again ... And one of the leafs at the back carries a promotion for Cadbury's.

Given that this book cost me nothing, effectively ("Take this box, fill it with as many books as you like for $5.") the amount of pleasure I've gained simply from caressing its battered cover and smiling at its quaint adverts (a practice that needs to be revived) is positively indecent.

On Wilbur Smith

unless I do something really stupid, like read another book by Patricia Cornwell (1), then Wilbur Smith's The Seventh Scroll is going to be my worst read of the year (2). In fact, I can only think of two books I have disliked to the same degree - Melvyn Bragg's Credo and Iris Murdoch's The Bell. Wilbur Smith being compared to Iris Murdoch? Truly, we do it strange.

Where to start with The Seventh Scroll? First things: its length, size isn't everything, but when we are talking bout truly, reprehensibly bad writing, dull plotting and cardboard characters, then size suddenly becomes very important. The Seventh Scroll has a lot of size, a harrowing 486 pages. Bricks are smaller, and more readable.

You know when you read a book, and you bounce down the first page, all Bambi enthusiasm, waiting to get hooked in to the story, to become fascinated by the characters or the sweep of the story or the intracy of the plot or the way that the writer batters new stuff out of the English language? That is what I was like with this book. I thought I should read something by Wilbur Smith, as I've been snottily turning up my nose at his books for years. Natural justice compelled me to see if my high brow derision was merited - Hell's bells, I am the limpest-wristed of liberals and believe in all hose fine principles like innocent until proven guilty. I have a lemming like streak, which I mentioned before in relation to Patricia Cornwell, that makes me make intermittently misguided reading choices in an attempt to bond with the common folk. Never, ever again. Until I read The Da Vinci Code, at least.

But, anyway, about the bloody book. All right, so it is big. The plot and the characters are hopeless. Rider Haggard did this sort of thing 10,000 times better, long, long ago. Save yourself the ordeal and re-read King Solomon's Mines. It is shorter and better.

Briefly: Royan, half English, half Egyptian and very hot, survives a savage assault that leaves her elderly Arabic husband dead. they were working on an archaelogical project relating to the mysterious seventh scroll, which might locate the lost tomb of Pharaoh Momose. She seeks help from a dashing English adventurer type, and together they locate the tomb in the face of opposition from the nefarious types - the ringleader is of course German - Hell bent on their destruction.

None of this would be terribly bad if it wasn't so drabbly written. I think it was about page 6 or 7 that warning bells started ringing, when the elderly Duraid is murdered. It was just horribly flat, badly paced, lacking tension. I was suddenly struck by a longing to read an Haggardian adventure story writen by Ian MacEwan. Think how much fun that would be. But not, never, another word by Wilbur Smith.

Never the less, I ploughed on. Royan flees Egypt and enlists the help of the aforementioned adventurer. He is - get this - an authentic English aristocrat, complete with double barrelled name (Sir Nicholas Quenton-Harper. Not Quentin, you understand, but Quenton) who delights in shoting game birds and rare antelope but still styles himself a 'conservationist' - though he only winces at the thought of cutting down ancient trees and doesn't allow his scruples to actually stop him, of course.) Sir Nick is a gentleman, which means he doesn't shag Royan, though she does allow him to get to to fool around a little bit more than is ladylike (must be her kinky Arab blood). Everyone else is at it, of course, especially the black characters, who are portrayed various as foolish, lazy, stupid, drunk or horny. And there is an evil Russian as well, who we know is evil because he debases his woman. And the aforementioned evil German mastermind, who is also, naturally, sexually deviant.

Crude, offensive stereotypes aside (Did I forget the sleazy, untrustworthy Arab?), the novel is very badly written. Characters talk - and think - in fully, uncontracted, non-colloquial language, no matter how grim the circumstances. Since Smith has already got plenty of words he should have been merciful and spared us a few by allowing his characters to say "Don't" instead of "Do not." I am sure Roayn and Nick were very well raised, but surley even they would have used the odd contraction especially when fleeing for their lives for the umpteenth time.

There is one almost-good joke in the book. Wilbur Smith puts himself in it as a character, referred to as a writer of books redolent with sex and violence. As a passing wink this might have worked, but he decides to hammer home the point by repeating it several times, perhaps feeling his readers are too thick to get it. More likely, they are simply comatose.

Beneath the smug author photograph inside the dust jacket, I am told that Smith dedicated his last 20 novels to his wife Danielle. If they are all of this quality, then she should be insulted.
1 - As described previously on lefthandpalm:
2 - The year in question was actually 2005. This review was posted on an MSN book review group, that is shortly to be deleted. It is reproduced here because I'm very fond of the sheer glreeful viciousness of it.

The Horror! The Horror!

I’ve always had a guilty fondness of horror stories – the tendency of these stories to be full of heaving bodices and ravishments and sexual license appealed to me in my teenage years, and any honest man will admit (and any woman confirm) no man stops being a teenager, ever.

I can’t even begin to list all the horror stories that I have read, from the respectable (Dracula, Frankenstein, Poe, Lovecraft et cetera), through the somewhat respectable (Stephen King) to the utterly unmentionable – where titles and writers blur into an endless montage of bared and rended flesh, cliché and nonsense. Ah! The joy of it all.

“Re-invention” is a dirty word to my mind. It usually entails some smart arse grabbing someone else’s laurels and trying to make off with them. Which brings us to The Secret Life Of Lazlo, Count Dracula, by Roderick Anscombe.

This is a re-invention of the Dracula story. It is, in a trivial way, emblematic of the problem with modern literature – which, as I see it, is that writers are too damn knowledgable to be able to write. Shakespeare wasn’t familiar with Freud or Neitchze, but that didn’t stop him writing a psychologically perfect illustration of the Oedipus complex (Hamlet) and brilliant examinations of power, its mis-uses and its consequences there-of (MacBeth, Richard III, Julius Ceasar). He just wrote it, damn it. In these postmodern times, however, people are too well versed in too much to do anything as simple as write it, damn it. They have to cram all sorts of stuff into the story, without thinking about what is already there. Dracula is perfect as it is. You could talk for days about the imagery and subtext, the fear of contamination, the allure of the other, Dracula as a supreme Oedipal figure who can only be killed by driving a phallus, sorry, stake through his heart. What we don’t need is a psychiatrist turned writer to do it for us.

In a nutshell: Drac isn’t a vampire, he’s an ordinary aristocrat with a fondness for rough sex, so rough that his dates don’t often survive. He dabbles in the infant science of psychiatry which allows him to ponder on his condition in a tedious manner. It isn’t the psychological brooding that annoys me, but the poor quality of the writing makes it very heavy going. Anscombe might be a qualified psychiatrist, but if this is anything to go by, his case studies make poor reading, and leave the reader feeling skeptical.

I’m not one to rush to judge too quickly. It wasn’t until page 178 that I became infuriated, when the good Count asks a friend ‘and that’s where we come in?’ – an odd phrase for a 19th century Hungarian aristocrat to utter. Of course, once I decided I was not ‘bored’ but ‘infuriated’ by the book, I showed it no mercy. I started folding pages over (after a conversation with my wife as to the practicality of using her lipstick as a highlighter) to mark things that annoyed me particularly – and I count a further 19 folded up corners. 20 blunders might not sound a lot, but remember this is from halfway through the book, and they are only the outstandingly bad examples. Add on top of that a poor quality of writing, staging (the characters seem to spend most of their time at breakfast) and plotting (not content with the violation and murder of four women, Anscombe throws in a plague, a treasonous conspiracy and a murder investigation).

The book is full of sloppy writing. We are told that one woman wants to ‘Show that she wears the pants.’ Again, an unusal ambition in 19th Cnetury Europe and an even more anachronistic styling. A few pages later, this woman and Mrs Drac have ‘Hit it off.’ Talking to the dogged Inspector Krause, probably the only convincing character in the book, Drac declares ‘if you look here and here you will see the small flaws which are the mark of manufacture – which however, superior, can never match the careful application of the craftsman to his art.’ Try saying it – people just don’t talk like that, particularly people who use phrases like ‘And that’s where we come in?’

I’m not going to list all of the top 19 Bad Things. I will, however, ask if you, knowing that your husband had killed two young women, would invite a third to stay at your home and watch indulgently while she flirts with the monster? Mrs Drac does just that. And, because I can’t resist it, the topper. As I have said, this is a book that has been written badly. Worse, it seems never to have been re-read either by the writer or by anyone else – perhaps I am the first person to have read it. If it had been read by an editor, and that editor had not been rendered unconscious by the overwhelming monotony of the prose, surely the phrase ‘Grief does not come naturally to her nature’ would have been struck out? 'Naturally to her nature'? There is so much of this sort of thing.

Vampires are so on-the-money, with spooky castles, dark capes, wolves, bats, oodles of sex, how is it possible for it to go so horribly wrong?

Thursday 11 December 2008

Respect is due: Mike Terry 1947 - 2008

From his obituary in the Independent:
In 1975 Terry joined the Anti-Apartheid Movement as Executive Secretary. The organisation had been formed in London in 1959, as a "boycott committee" to draw attention to the evils of apartheid. Julius Nyerere addressed the first meeting, along with Trevor Huddleston, later president of the AAM. As the years passed, the movement's main objective was to campaign for a democratic South Africa where every section of society had equal voting rights. It seemed at the time that the apartheid regime was impregnable since it had the support of Western governments, South Africa having played the card that it was a bastion of the free world in the fight against Soviet expansionism.

Maintaining close links with the African National Congress, the AAM evolved policies to isolate South Africa, advocating economic, diplomatic and sporting sanctions, and no military or nuclear collaboration with the country. It is difficult to imagine the initial and lingering hostility to these policies, especially in the present climate of international relations where the application of sanctions is the weapon of first resort in dealing with a "rogue" state. (1)
Doesn't that bit about the apartheid regime seeming impregnable because it was actively and passively supported by the west sound familiar? We don't learn from our mistakes and , at a national level, we yet to evolve any sort of meaningful conscience. Thankfully, people like Mike Terry have the courage, commitment and intelligence to act when we fail as a nation.

And having helped change the world, he went back to being a teacher. Good man.
1 "Mike Terry: Campaigner who led the Anti-Apartheid Movement for two decades," by Bob Jones, published in The Independent, 10th of December, 2008. (

Anthony Burgess

Burgess, eh? Used to love him. Now I'm not so sure. Can't say why. Something lacking, underneath the artifice and the word play. A sense of him taking it seriously, perhaps? Also, he wrote too damn much, too quickly. Most of his novels are just throwaways - a half, or quarter, decent idea flung down in 160 pages or or so, the essential weakness covered up by a lot of clever verbal antics, and rudeness. Neither of which would be a bad thing if there was a sense that Burgess wrote the novel for any reason other than maintaining his quota of books for the year.

It is hard not to be drawn towards Burgess the man. There is so much about him that is endearing and bizzare. Most famously there is story of how he came to be a full-time, professional writer - diagnoised with an in operable brain tumour, he cast about for different ways that he might provide for his wife and (as then unborn, and tragically never born) child. As he'd had a couple of books published by this time, he decided to try to write a book a month in the months remaining to him. He failed, but he did manage to crank out three or four, and - more importantly - he also failed to die. Infact, he kept on failing to die until 1993. This, and other legends, make it easy to like the man and forgive the problems with the books.

Only it has been suggested that most of the legends are just that - legends, invented by a man with an urge to create stories and myths about himself. His brain tumour and medical death sentence appear to be one of these little fibs Burgess told over the year (1). Which just leaves us with the boooks, which are a mixed bunch, always very clever and written with great brio, but usually seeming a little bit hastily put together, lacking in a developed plot and the sense that the author was really interested in them as anything more than an excuse to show off his vocabulary.

There are exceptions. The Malayan Trilogy (Time for a Tiger, The Enemy in the Blanket, Beds in the East) are vey good and there is a real sense that Burgess connects with his characters situations - probably because he is writing at least semi-autobiography. While I haven't read Man of Nazereth describing the life of Jesus, the sequel, Kingdom of the Wicked, is also very good. Here Burgess is addressing big stories and huge characters, and he seems to respond to the task.

While I have little time for Enderby the flatulent poet whom everyone else seems to regard as a masterful creation, the third (or was it fourth?) in the trilogy (or was it quartet?), Enderby's Dark Lady is worth reading, though it isn't strictly necessary to read the earlier books in the sequence as various irreversible things happen to Enderby in books one and two, and then are mysteriously reversed in book three (or was it four?). His book about Shakespeare, Nothing Like the Sun is excellent, perhaps his best. Again, he is engaged, the intellect and the word play being used to describe one of the few people he seemed to admire almost as much as Anthony Burgess. A Dead Man in Debtford, describing the life of Marlowe, is also very, very good, for the same reason.

His great big not-quite-Booker-winning book, Earthly Powers, I am not sure about. The first time I read it I was sixteen and did so to annoy my mother - because the book's main character is homosexual and this had convinced her that Burgess must be "of that ilk" (I can still remember her saying that) and this might corrupt and taint me. At the time I thought it was brilliant. Re-reading it a few years ago, I'm no longe sure. Thee is a lot about it that is excellent, but a lot of it is just the typical Burgessian froth and frot, spread over several hundred pages instead of a hundred. It deals with big important themes like love and faith and art and blah blah blah blah but doesn't really have very much to say about them. The climactic revelation about the fate of the Toomey children shocked an sickened me the first time around. The second time, the scene seemed badly mishandled and written like a bad comedy.

So yeah, Anthony Burgess, I don't know if he's good or bad or not.
1 - From the wikipedia biography of Burgess, viewed on the 10th of December, 2008. It should be noted the claims are not verified, however. (

Wednesday 10 December 2008

Graham Greene

Greene, eh? Bit like Burgess. I used to like him, now I don't. Why not? Don't know. But when lovers fall out, it isn't usually pretty or reasonable or rational. And I used to love Greene. I even blamed (?) him for my loss of faith at one stage, though I was sixteen at the time and prone to saying silly things. Where did it go wrong?

Introduced to Brighton Rock in secondary school, I quickly read most of his other major works - my parents had a compendium of five or six of his novels, and several gorgeous orange backed penguins. I lived and breathed The Heart of the Matter, The Power and The Glory, The Quiet American, A Burnt Out Case, The Honorary Consul and the other 'major' novels. I can even remember feeling very upset when he died in 1991.

At university I even wrote my dissertation on his religious novels - "Bakhtinian Readings of Graham Greene' or some such piffle. By this time I'd read most of the famous ones and was polishing off the minor works - Travels With My Aunt, The Captain and the Enemy, Monsignor Quixote and so on. I didn't think much of them but I didn't let that worry me. I recognised them as what they were - minor fluff, not to be taken seriously and not compared to the great work that Greene had done before. Though it is interesting to note that it wasn't until my university years that I read The End of the Affair - and I disliked it intensely, for all that it is rated as one of his best. I loved the alienated brooding of Bendrix, but I choked on the absurd religious elemnt of it. Which is interesting, in light of what was to come.

Then we driffted apart for a while. Perhaps we should have left it at that, but I tried to rekindle the romance a frew years ago, picking up a copy of A Burnt Out Case from the local library. it had always been a favourite. But now it sucked. Abysmally. What had once seemed charged with pathos and beauty and terror was just ... dull. And very schematic. And really, obviously, trying too hard to make itself seem important.

Since then, Ive been too scared to re-read any more Greene. I'm afraid that the other greats will seem just as bad. Particularly the other favourites - The Heart of the Matter, The Power and the Glory, The Human Factor. What if they two are as dry and worthless, second (though it might be third or fourth) time round?

Recalling another of his novels that I admired, The Quiet American, published in 1955 and seeming to predict every American foreign policy misadventure between then and now, made me think - what if Greene had resisted the temptation to write all these banally sanctimonious Catholic novels, and written more in the line of the The Quiet American?

Greene was always characterised as being a writer torn between Catholicisim and socialism, though I think that is simplistic - the socialism never really seemed like anything more than ideology he paid lip service to to shock and annoy his fellow Catholics (and vice versa, I suspect). But what if he had thrown the mumbo-jumbo out and written more politically, more journalistically? It is an interesting thought, and I for one, as a disillusioned Greene-ite, wish that he had.

W. Somerset Maugham

I enjoyed the film of The Painted Veil, though mostly for the amusement of watching Edward Norton and Naomi Watts pretend to be terribly proper English peoples. Plot clunked along from one fairly predicatable point to another. Perhaps the book would have felt been less by-the-numbers, and as they say, never judge a book by its film adaptation. Look what the bastards did with Joseph Conrad's Amy Foster. And that was only a short story.

I read Of Human Bondage earlier this year. The first two chapters are perhaps the most pathetic (in the true meaning of the word) I've ever read. Perhaps they are a touch sentimental by modern standards, but the writing is controlled but at the same time empathetic. Alas, the rest of the book slides quickly down into a morass of awfulness and never manages to drag itself out.

Those first two chapters deal with the orphaning of the main character, Philip. He is sent to live with his deeply priggish minister uncle, attends boarding school where he is bully and mocked because of his club foot, tries various professions and decides to become an artist in Paris for a while, returns to England, completes his medical training, falling in love with a trollopy tease of a waitress.

The whole thing is very banally pretentious. Various theories or philosophies for life are put forward, giving the affair a rather studied (and shallow) European air. But Sentimental Education this is not - though I suspect Flaubert's novel was very much on Maughan's mind when he wrote Of Human Bondage. There's nothing here that is interesting or remarkable. The philosophy is bland and superficial. The psychology of the characters dull and the action sluggish.

What dirt and nastiness Maughan permits is decorous and prim - precisely the sort of things Philip rails against. Obviously, one can rebel against bourgeois conventions and morality, but only so far. I can't recall anything very interesting about how it was written - after a hundred pages or so I switched off, though I kept turning them in the hope of finding something to reward my perseverance. It is fustrating, though, to think that while Maughan was moving his stuffy litle marionettes in their quiant little comedy, Joyce had already written Potrait of the Artist and was at work on Ulyssess.

Now, it is not fair to compare a book to Ulyssess and say, "It isn't Ulyssess, so it is no good." If all books were as experimental, dense and byzantine as Ulyssess, book sales would be even lower than they are and illiteracy would be a necessity for keeping a blanced mind. But Of Human Bondage is Of Human Bondage is too old fashioned, uninteresting and blandly written compared to other books published in 1915 (1) that aren't anywhere near as radical or unreadable as Ulyssess. I would take The Valley of Fear - or even Tarzan - over Of Human Bondage. And never mind that D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Kafka and Ford Maddox Ford all had considerable books published that year.
1 - '1915 in Literature,' wikipedia article, viewed 10th of December, 2008. (

Monday 8 December 2008

From Potter's Field by Patricia Cornwell


Occasionally, I dip my toe in the pool of popular literature, and the strange thing is I persist in doing this, even if almost every time I do, it either gets scalded or bitten off by a pike.

My most recent exercise in toe dipping involved From Potter's Field by Patricia Cornwell. I worship Tom Waits, and he wrote a song called 'Potter's Field' and I though the novel might be related to it in some murky post-modernity way. And anything to do with Tom Waits must be brilliant, or so I thought. I should have borne in mind the Rod Stewart covers of his songs, that are just naff reprises of the original. I should have been more circumspect and thought - there is glory, and then there is reflected glory, and then there is stuff that is nothing to do with anything at all glorious. You have to approach these things with caution. The part of me that continues to have faith in human nature maintained that so many people revered Cornwell that she couldn't be bad. The more cynical side thought that popularity must equal bilge. Numerous evidences could be cited in support of the second proposition, and alas, precious few in support of the former.

From Potter's Field joins the multitude, I am afraid. Cornwell is not a bad writer as such - but Potter's shows she is a poor plotter and her characters don't act or speak in a belivable manner.

Her plotting technique seems to involve exaggerated withoholding of a key piece of information or action. The classic example of this is The Hound Of the Baskervilles, where Conan Doyle keeps Sherlock Holmes off stage for most of the novel, and once he turns up he reveals everything in 5 minutes. All crime stories rely on withholding - it wouldn't be much fun if the criminal admitted to the crime on page 5 - though then we might have space for a proper investigation into motive for and consequence of the crime, both of which rarely feature in crime literature, and particularly in From Potter's Field.

In Cornwell's case, it is the crucial plot element could have been realised at almost every point - characters talk about it early in the story, then seem to forget about it for a couple of hundred pages, until the bland and unlikable Kay Scarpetta remembers it and decides to put it into effect, at which point the plot resolves itself in a most helpful manner. this wouldn't be too awful, if the intervening 200 pages were more interesting than the are.


Sunday 7 December 2008

James Kelman

Since Alastair Gray has put himself out of the running, James Kelman can now lay claim to the crown of 'Most Important Living Scottish Writer' - should he care for such a title, which I rather doubt.

I have read three of his novels, plus short stories. Since that trio includes THE WHOLE of the near unreadable Translated Accounts, it surely qualifies me as Kelman's most devoted reader, and world authority on his works. Come on! Who else has actually read the whole damn thing?

Other that Translated Accounts, I've read How Late It Was, How Late and A Dissaffection. Both are good, though it was a long time ago and I'm struggling to recall enough to make a spirited defence of them. I also have You Have To Be Careful ... on the book shelf, with a provisional start date in January 09.

How Late It Was, How Late won the Booker Prize a few years ago, back when I was naive to imagine that this particular trophy actually meant something. At the time, it was TERRIBLY controversial, because Kelman's fondness of the word 'fuck' and all variations thereof proved too strong for some folk. One newspaper calculated that the word occurred more than four times a page. How did they work that out? What poor bugger had to sit there and count how frequently James Kelman swears? It has been a long time since I read it, but I remember it being being very intense and bleak. The other two are much clearer, so I'll focus on them.

I recall A Disaffection as reminiscent of Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground, only coarser, longer and set in Glasgow. The main character, Patrick Doyle, is a pissed off 29 year old teacher and he is fustrated sexually and careerwise. Sometimes you want to scream at Patrickbut this is a testament to Kelman's ability to make his character seem real, because real people are like that. The final scenes of the book - basically an all day piss up with his brother and his brother's mates, when he should be teaching, interrupted by the arrival of his brother's wife, culminating in a long walk home in the rain - are brilliantly poignant. Kelman must be the only writer who could imagine a trudge home in the Glasgow rain, with a strong liklihood of a kicking from a couple of belligerent cops, seems at all redemptive.

Translated Accounts is a very strange book, composed of fragments of first person narratives, translated by a person or persons who have only a limited familiarity with English. Here are the final lines, which I think are stunningly good:
I cannot say about a beginning, or beginnings, if there is to be the cause of all, I do not see this. There are events, I speak of them, if I am to speak it is these, if I may speak. (1)
I remember reading some spurious comparison between Alastair Gray and Kelman, to the detriment of the latter on the grounds that Kelman is limited by his decision to write in dialect (ducks Kelman's haymaker - he dislikes the word intensely) and his concentration on dull realism. This is bullshit. Kelman's concern is for with the unrepresented, and those who are made to be silent.

He has also been accused of misogyny, a charge often levied at male who write about males subjects, though curiously often aimed at females who write about females. It is a libel that can easily be put to rest. Though most of his narrators are male, he is concious of an excluded 'female voice' (ducks anouther swing from Kelman) and highlights this in the closing pages of A Disaffection. The first speaker is Patrick, well pissed. The second is his sister-in-law, Nicola. Kelman doesn't like quotation marks and the paraphenalia of bourgeois grammar. Live with it:
Pat waited a few seconds before speaking. What I mean there about Elizabeth is she's got a sense of peace. John has it as well right enough but I think she has it more. It's a real sense of peace.

Pat. Women have to listen more than men, that's why they've got a sense of peace as you call it; they're used to listening - that's what they have to do all the time, listen to men talking. Yet to hear them you'd think it was us did it. And not only listen to them, women have to watch them all the time as well, they've got to study their moods, they've got to see its alright to speak if this is the bloody time you can ask the question or no, is it the wrong time and you'll have to wait because half the time men just areni willing to listen to something if they don't want to hear it, it gets you down. (2)
Back to Translated Accounts. It is, I think, the ultimate realsiation of what Kelman has been trying to do with his linguistic guerilla warfare. Reading it a few years ago, I tried to work out what his goal was. I came up with three options:

First of all, by writing a novel that tetters on the verge of incomprehensibility, he is trying to make the reader actively create the narrative from the fragments he has provided. The reader has to create the characters and action in his head. If so, he has failed dramatically, because the novel is too resistant to this sort of exercise. The reader will simply give up in fustration. That said, there was one sequence which I read as describing a building crowded with refugees, which gave me the heebie-jeebies. But, with reflection, I don't think that was what he was trying to do.

Second, he might be attempting - by making the setting, characters and conflict anonymous - to describe some universal experience of displaced or opressed persons. The anonymous characters who flit through the ... (words fail. Novel? Story? Collection?) ... the accounts might be Palestinians and Israelis, or Sandinistas and Contras, Jews and Nazis, blacks slaves and their owners, or Glaswegians fighting against English tyranny. If this was his purpose, however, he failed again as the book is so incoherent that it is impossible to draw any sort of narrative or structure out of it. It isn't anyone's experience.

Which brings us to option number three, which is, I think the correct one. I think Kelman has been trying to respond to the critics who bemoan his obscenity and his refusal to write in anything approaching Standard English (pah!). Translated Accounts a story taken out of its natural reister and translated into a hideous non-language by computer mediation - a bit like running Shakespeare through Babelfish. It is, to all intents, unreadable and incomprehensible - which is the point. I think Kelman is trying to show us that a story or a character must be described in its natural voice. To do otherwise is to bastardize it and to make it - from an intellectually and artistically honest point of view - as deadly and meaningless as the mangled accounts that he has produced. So the Accounts themselves are almost a shaggy dog story - it isn't the accounts that are important, but the fact that they have been translated. They've been taken out of their natural register, an immediately cease to be relevant, interesting or important.

If that was what he intended to do, he's suceeded magnificently. But it is a Phyrric vistory, because the book isn't any more readable just because it is meant to be unreadable.Though I would be interested in reading an alternate version, Untranslated Accounts, to see what was actually going on.
1 - From Translated Accounts, by James Kelman, published by Secker & Warburg, 2001.
2 - From A Disaffection, by James Kelman, published by Secker & Warburg, 1989.

The Fanatic, by James Robertson

An old book review, which I'm reporoducing here before MSN communities are switchedoff in February. This dates from 2001:

I've just finished reading The Fanatic by James Robertson. It is an interesting novel, with two different plots running through it. One of them is set in Edinburgh in 1997, and tells the story of Andrew Carlin, who works as a spook on an Edinburgh ghost walk. The second narrative deals with James Mitchell, a 17th century religious fanatic who attempts to murder the archbishop of St Andrews, and is imprisoned, tortured and finally hung as a result.

What attracted me to this book is that it deals with a period of Scottish history that I know very little about, much to my shame. The only time I can remember meeting the Covenanters in literature before is in Sir Walter Scott's Old Mortality, which I read in my sixth year at school. Robertson slyly drops his name into The Fanatic a couple of times, which is a nice touch. Though a sceptic, when it comes to entertainment I don't mind unexplained forces and supernatural powers. I ahve a peculiar fondness for books with a supernatural element like this, where curious, never fully explained forces influence people centuries later - Peter Ackroyd has made an entire career out of books like this. Robertson isn't half the writer that Ackroyd is, but he does bother to include a plot, which helps.

The main weakness of the book is that the 17th century narrative is so much more interesting that the modern day sections. Carlin is an interesting character, and his profound oddness is well portrayed, but it can't match the bloodthirsty narrative that it is paired with. The 17th century has slaughter, torture, bestiality, incest, witchcraft... The 20th century parts have a lonely loon talking to his mirror. I almost felt Robertson would have been happier writing a straight historical novel, but included the 20th century parts for his own inscrutable reasons - to avoid being consigned to the "Historical Fiction" ghetto, perhaps? Or is it the old Mrztist maxim that history is bound to repeat itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce? Or demonstrating that that we're all just quivering neurotic wrecks, regardless of what century we live in?

There is also an annoying parochialism about it, something I've noticed in Scottish literature. I remember it annoying me when Iain Rankin went on about Irn Bru in his Rebus novels, or waffled on about the character of malt whiskies. We dinnae need to explain everything, and if we try it disrupts the story. For example:

"He raised his glass, souked an inch or more out of it. 'Slainte.' It was only recently that he'd learnt that this was gaelic for 'Health'. For years he'd said 'Slange' thinking it was an obscure Scots term signifying 'Slam your drink down your throat and let's get another in'. It was watching Machair, the gaelic soap opera, that had enlightened him."
The idea of modern urbanite Scots gaining their cultural knowledge from soap opera is amusing, but do we really need to know exactly which soap? It is the sort of precision that dates very quickly. (For all those who don't know, Machair was a real soap, set on a wee island. It was a bit like Eldorado, only colder. It went the same way as Eldorado did).

Sometimes, alas, Robertson slips up - would a country lad in 17th century Scotland really have referred to himslef or his ilk as a "Proletarian"? Dinnae think so. In the 17th century sections he struggles to convey the atmosphere of the time - really make you feel it, the way Ackroyd does. He decides to stage the big trial scene at the end as if it was on Boston Legal - I don't imagine 17th Scots law had quite the same feel to it.

These are the the things I don't like about the book. What dio I like? It is still a good story, despite the reservations. It might have been a better story if he hadn't tried to find a 20th century corrolation. Despite the old slip up, he's not at all a bad writer. He could do with using a few more unusual adjectives and similies, but he's far from alone in this. It does generate a fair degree of excitement - it only take a couple of days to read. And am I being too cynical when I wonder why it is that Robertson climaxes the 17th century strand with the trial of Mitchell, where the Scottish legal system is shown to be a tool of the ruling class, and the 20th century strand with the triumph of New Labour in 1997? I dinnae ken, but the thought made me smile.

Thursday 4 December 2008

They shoot horses, don't they?

According to the Independent, thousands of Mustangs are to be culled because the US government can't afford to feed and care for them in pens.

You might ask what these wild horses are doing in pens in the first place. Good question. The answer, of course, involves money and the American farming industry.

The land the Mustangs should roam on has been converted into cattle ranches and since ranchers have beeter lobbyists in Washington than horses, the Mustangs are probably doomed.

Wild mustangs, those quintessential symbols of the American West for hundreds of years, are facing their most deadly predator yet: the pen-pushing civil servants of the US Bureau of Land Management.

Growing pressure on the horses' traditional habitat has left officials contemplating a programme of mass slaughter to reduce the number of mustangs held captive in government-run pens. More than 33,000 of the animals, almost as many as the number still in the wild, have been rounded up and taken off increasingly barren public land in recent years, to reduce pressure on grazing required by the cattle-ranching industry. (1)
Full disclosure: I am vegetarian. I think it is frickin' obscene that wild animals are to be exterminated and the land they used to roam gobbled up to feed our beef habit. And I think most meat eaters would agree this is a WRONG THING if only they were informed about it.

Surely there is a better way of dealing with this than by killing wild horses and feeding them to Frenchies? Perhaps a levy could be put on MacDonalds et al so that the people ultimately causing this slaughter - the beef chomping consumers of Big Macs and Whoppers - compensate for the damage their self-indulgence is causing. Surely a better solution than leaving it up to an under-funded government agency at the mercy of an adminstration which has been obsessively trying to cut taxes - while waging war - for most of a decade?

All is not lost, however, for we learn that a plutocrat is going to intervene, rather in the style of a wealthy sinner buying indulgences from the Medieval church, and give all the doomed Mustangs a home:
The only hope for many horses may lie with Madeleine Pickens, wife of the Texan oil billionaire T Boone Pickens, who recently announced that she was trying to establish a million-acre refuge where all captive mustangs can be released. Her plan will see private land turned into a rural theme park where Americans can interact with the mustangs. Its announcement persuaded the BLM to grant captive horses a stay of execution until the New Year.

"We will take all the excess horses," Mrs Pickens explained, "and put them somewhere where families can see them and live among them, and camp out in teepees and have bonfires and look up at the stars and get to know this incredible aspect of our heritage." (2)
Which is very nice of her, but it is rather missing two fundamental points - first of all, the government should have the money required to carry out its duties and the benevolent Mr & Mrs Pickens should be paying more taxes to allow this to happen. Also, this is capitalism saving us from capitalism - the problem has been created by US agricultural capitalism, and is being 'resolved' by someone else who has made their money through oil. But who is going to resolve the problems created by Mr Pickens and his ilk in their quest for wealth? The beef farmers?

I've no head for business but I suspect that the amount of money that capitalists are willing to spend on resolving the problems they, as a class, have created, is not going to be anywhere near the amount they gain whilst creating these problems. Nor will the money they give back be enough to genuinely resolve them. Because that isn't wouldn't be profitable.

1 - "Washington plans mass slaughter of America's mustangs," by Guy Adams, published in the Independent, 30th of November, 2008. (
2 - ibid.


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