Several years ago, I came up with a cunning plan. I had so many books, I found it hard to choose what to read next. So I put together a reading plan: a list of ten books I would read each month. But ten proved a bit too optimistic, so after a couple of years I reduced it to eight a month. And then again to six… So, obviously, it’s not exactly worked out in practice. Chiefly because the book you pick up next depends as much on what you feel like reading as it does what you want to read. I mean, there are loads of books I want to read, like Remembrance of things past, but usually Swann’s Way feels like it’s going to be too much like hard work, so I never pick it up… So all five books been languishing on my bookshelves for years. Oh well.
The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro (2015, UK). Ishiguro is one of the UK’s literary treasures – and I’m not the only one who thinks so: last year he was awarded the Nobel, and this year he was knighted. Ishiguro has never been afraid to explore genre territory, indeed his best-known novel these days is probably Never Let Me Go, which has an explicitly science-fictional idea at its core. And The Buried Giant is, by any definition of the term, fantasy. It’s sort of ninth century historical fiction, but it’s also about the Matter of Britain and it makes reference to a number of fantasy tropes. I had forgotten the commentary which came out after the book first appeared three years ago, so I pretty much came to it cold (although I’m entirely familiar with Ishiguro’s oeuvre, having read all of the books prior to this one). Anyway, I’d forgotten the genre complaints against the book, but sort of know what to expect given the other Ishiguro books I’d read. And in the latter respect, it did not disappoint. Axl and Beatrice are Britons, old Britons, seeing out the last of their years in a small Briton village, when they decide to go visit their son in a nearby village. They can’t remember exactly which village, but suppose they’ll figure it out as they travel. In fact, they’ve noticed an increasing forgetfulness on everyone’s part, and they don’t like how it has changed things. Of course, it’s not just the forgetfulness brought on my old age, it’s something endemic to everyone in post-Arthurian Britain. En route, they are joined by a Saxon warrior and a Briton boy believed to have been “infected” after being abducted by ogres and who has been rejected by his village. They also bump into Sir Gawain several times. It’s all very cleverly done. The forgetfulness is real, a magic spell laid on the land by a dragon, and it’s a consequence of the last great battle between the Britons, led by Arthur, and the Saxons. Unfortunately, Ishiguro takes his time getting to the core of the novel, and the first third, in which Axl and Beatrice eventually decided to travel, and then walk several miles to the nearest Saxon village, drag badly. But once Gawain appears on the scene, and the central premise begins to be revealed in hints and clues and glimpses, then things begin to pick up. I finished The Buried Giant a great deal more than I had done halfway in. And, to be honest, I couldn’t really give a fuck about whether it was genre or not. It was beautifully-written and cleverly done, and if it felt a little old-fashioned genre-wise in places that suited the material. I wasn’t so sure on the authorial interventions – or rather, the conceit which presented the narrative as told to the reader by Ishiguro, even though I’m a fan of breaking the fourth wall, as it felt unnecessary and added nothing to the story. Everything in a novel should be part of the story. I thought The Buried Giant, despite its longeurs, a better work than Never Let Me Go.
C, Tom McCarthy (2010, UK). I forget why I bought this, I think it might have been recommended by Jonathan McCalmont, but it sat on my bookshelves for several years, until I decided to take it with me to Sweden to read during Swecon. In the event, I finished The Buried Giant on the Saturday of the con, but didn’t finish C until I’d returned to the UK on the Monday. Chiefly because I found its opening section a bit hard-going. But by the time I was settled on the plane from Arlanda to Manchester, I’d got past that and remained engrossed for the entirety of the flight from Sweden to the UK. The story concerns a young man, Serge Carrefax, who is obsessed with signals. The opening section of the novel details his childhood, with his inventor father, who is working on wireless communication, and his deaf mother, and it was, to be honest, somewhat over-detailed and dull. I like detailed fiction, but the early chapters of C seemed to be sacrificing readability for detail. But then Carrefax’s brilliant sister dies – and, to be honest, I could see no reason why this needed to happen narratively – and the story begins to pick up. Carrefax spends several months at an Austrian spa. He then enlists as an observer in the Royal Flying Corps during WWI – and this section is especially good. And finally, he is sent out to Egypt to help set up a secret British wireless system. It’s when Carrefax is doing things, rather than reacting to things, that C is at its most interesting. There are some parts of the story which seem to serve no narrative purpose – not just the tragic death of Carrefax’s sister, but also his affair with a masseuse in… um, I no longer have the book and I can’t find a single review online which mentions the town, although I do remember that it was Central European and later had links to the Nazi regime. Much, incidentally, in those reviews is made of McCarthy’s cleverness in covering such a wide range of subjects in such detail. Er, that’s what research is for. I like a lot of detail myself, but the cleverness lies in making it palatable not in its presence. And if there’s one thing about C, much as I enjoyed it, that argued against cleverness, it was the lack of narrative cohesion. That is, it must be said a philosophy all its own, but C presented no evidence it adhered to it, no argument that it followed it. But then one of the advantages of not imposing a pattern is that people will find one anyway. I thought C a well-written novel on a prose level, and fascinating, but for me it failed at everything it claimed to want to do.
The Captive Mind, Czesław Miłosz (1952, Poland). I bought this last year in an effort to widen my reading. I hadn’t realised when I purchased it that it wasn’t fiction. It’s a political diatribe written by someone who survived both WWII and the Soviet takeover of Poland, but managed to resist the blandishments of both the Underground during WWII and the Soviet occupiers afterwards. As a writer, an intellectual, with acceptable political credentials, he ended up as cultural attaché in Washington but, disgusted by the responses of his peers to the new regime, he chose to exile himself. Miłosz first points out that intellectuals were a peculiar class of their own in Central and East European countries, and this particularly applied to writers, one that had no equivalent in Western European – or American – societies. After discussing “ketman”, which seems to be a a misunderstanding of an historical Islamic term (now known as “taqiya”), Miłosz describes four writers of his acquaintance and their response to Soviet occupation – and this is where The Captive Mind comes into its own. I’ve no idea who the writers are he describes, although it probably isn’t difficult to figure out, but his dissection of their character and ambitions in light of Polish history during and after WWII is fascinating stuff. I don’t think for an instant that The Captive Mind is a warning against “totalitarian culture” as the book is often described. It is specific to a time and place, and I suspect some of the tactics described by Miłosz are triggered more by an institutional drive for survival than by an y kind of coherent political thought. The Captive Mind was intended to make for scary reading, but its teeth have long since been pulled – first by Solidarność, then by glasnost, although both of course were the end result of long and dangerous campaigns. On the other hand, in 2018 we seem to be staring down the throat of full-blown fascism, despite everything our parents and grandparents fought against last century, despite the clear benefits to all and sundry that progressivism and regulated economies bring… The Captive Mind is an important historical document, but its remit is too narrow, its lessons are too focused, and the passage of time has rendered its general sense of alarm both moot and badly aimed. However. Worth reading, if you’re interested in the subject.
Author’s Choice Monthly 8: Swatting at the Cosmos, James Morrow (1990, USA). I think I read a novel by Morrow back in the late 1980s or early 1990s, but I can’t be sure – actually I can: I record everything I read, FFS, and have done since 1991: I read his City of Truth on 10 December 1992 and The Wine of Violence on 29 March 1995 (at least, that’s the dates I finished reading those books). He’s certainly a name I’ve been aware of, but not one I’ve made an effort to read his books. I’m not sure why. From the material in this collection, I think I’d like his fiction – most of the stories in this short collection interrogate religion in a way which I wholly approve. The opening story, ‘The Assemblage of Kristin’, is especially good, in which the recipients of body parts from the deceased Kristin meet up once a year to indulge in Kristin’s fancies, although the so-called science in this science fiction is almost non-existent. Other stories in the collection recast Biblical stories – the Deluge, the Tower, the Covenant – with varying degrees of success (I seem to remember that least as the most successful). The whole point of the Author’s Choice Monthly series, as I understand it, is that the chosen authors selected what they felt were their best material. That’s almost impossible; and probably changes on a daily basis. Some tried to game the choice by selecting stories to a theme. This is the best of those themed selection collections I’ve so far come across in the series. so perhaps I should read more by Morrow. A short story collection, perhaps.
Fantasy Masterwork 31: Black Gods and Scarlet Dreams, CL Moore (2002, USA). I know more about Moore than I know of her fiction, which has to date meant only a couple of short stories and her novel Judgment Night. Now, I rate Judgment Night highly, it is a superior space opera, especially for its time. This Fantasy Masterwork, however, gathers together all the Jirel of Joiry stories and all the Northwest Smith stories… and they do not present well in such close proximity. The first Jirel story, ‘Jirel of Joiry’, and also Moore’s first professional sale, is a great piece of work, but her follow-ups are somewhat formulaic and not to Jirel’s benefit. The same is true of Northwest Smith – ‘Shambleau’ has real mythic overtones, but the other NWS stories are just the same thing over and over again. And the thing that stands out the most is that the heroes have little or no agency: they get themselves into scrapes and they have to be rescued, sometimes by men, sometimes by women, but they never win through because of their own actions. Or, at least, not entirely. There are a couple of NWS stories where his ineluctable masculine cussedness sees him overcome the evil god of the week, but there’s usually a henchman (or woman) or ally who is instrumental in his escape. Jirel needs help often as not, which is not true in the story in which she first appears. Partly this is because both characters’ antagonists are super-powerful gods from other dimensions, and there’s no way either could plausibly defeat them without some help. But when hero/heroine finds themselves in Yet Another Evil Dimension and they are Powerless, then having someone give them a close, or appear at the last minute with a flame-pistol, does tarnish their appeal. It’s not like they’re intended to be straight-up heroes. Northwest Smith is after all a villain – although he’s never presented as such, it’s told to the reader. Moore clearly found a formula that worked, and stuck to it. It’s not like there’s a huge amount of invention in the world-building either – this is the Solar System as imagined by way of Leigh Brackett and Robert Howard. It feels like a common playground. Moore was an important writer in the early days of genre, and she wrote some important historical works, but I have to wonder if she’s being remembered for the wrong things because the stories in this volume position as no better than an average pulp writer, and I know she was better that that from Judgment Night.
Murder Takes a Turn, Eric Brown (2018, UK). This is the fifth book in Brown’s 1950s-set crime novels featuring thriller writer/private detective Don Langham, and his fiancée now wife and literary agent Maria Dupré. Setting these novels in the 1950s was a cunning move, as it means all the modern technology that “breaks” crime fiction does not exist, like mobile phones or the internet. This is old school crime fiction, and deliberately so. And yet, Brown manages to give Langham and Dupré sensibilities that would not be out of place in twenty-first century Britain (well, the Remain part of twenty-first century Britain, that is). In this instalment, a critically-acclaimed writer invites half a dozen people he had wronged in the past to his Cornish pile with a promise of making amends. One of those is Dupré’s partner in the literary agency, Charles Elder, and he persuades Dupré and Langham to accompany him. Which is quite handy as Langham has been hired by the writer’s daughter to investigate the writer’s new business manager. Needless to say, once all are on site, the writer is murdered… but everyone apparently has an alibi… I had thought the writer, and his travel-writer brother, were based on the Durrells, but Eric tells me the writer figure was actually inspired by John Fowles. Murder Takes a Turn – and the title is a bit of a spoiler – is much like the previous books in the series, although it does have a tendency to reveal information to the reader before it’s revealed to the principles, so you wonder why they’re so slow to spot clues… But the two leads are likeable and well-drawn, and the supporting cast are equally well-drawn, and if sometimes it doesn’t always feel quite like the 1950s (which I say only having read fiction written then), it does at least avoid sensibilities which would offend in the twenty-first century. These books are quick reads, but they’re fun with it, and they’re as satisfying as murder mysteries as they are 1950s-set fiction.
1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131