Tuesday, January 15, 2019

ms kondo, in the library, with the lead piping

I caught an episode of Open Book on Radio 4 in the car the other day, featuring the lovely Mariella Frostrup and including (at about 7:40 in this link) an item about de-cluttering, and whether books could be considered "clutter" and whether you should therefore get rid of some of them. The catalyst for this was the apparently phenomenally successful show Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, wherein a tiny Japanese woman comes round to your house and tries to persuade you that it's probably not necessary to be hoarding four hundred Tesco carrier bags full of your own faeces. More controversially she has apparently made some pronouncements on the subject of books, which have predictably caused a variety of amusingly outraged reactions on the internet.

I do agree that there is some value in de-cluttering, and considering whether you really need all the gazillion items that are lying around your house, and if you come to the conclusion that your life would be enhanced beyond measure by getting rid of 90% of your books, then good luck to you, as long as you dispose of them in a responsible manner by taking them to a charity shop where they can be sold on (probably to me). Marie Kondo's mantra about only keeping things that "spark joy" is a bit teeth-grindingly cutesy but contains a grain of truth. If your things don't enhance your life in some way, consider having fewer things. My mother, just to provide a real-world example, is reasonably good about getting rid of books she doesn't want to keep, which suits me fine as I end up acquiring quite a few of them (my copy of Wolf Hall came to me via that route, for instance).

It just so happens that my entire book collection sparks great joy in me, and if anyone suggests getting rid of any of them they can fuck off. That said I did actually take half-a-dozen or so books to a charity shop the other day, but only because we were having a general tidy-up and they were books I had more than one copy of. They all count, though. There is a point where I am going to have to consider getting a bigger house, though, as you can see from the photo below.

Nonetheless it is worth considering why you keep books you have already read. Is it because you intend one day to re-read them? Well, perhaps; I used to be a fairly regular re-reader of books back when I was younger (and had fewer books), but not so much lately, partly because I now have a huge backlog of unread stuff to tackle (and blog about). Is it because you want to pass them on to your children? Yes, partly: Nia is a voracious consumer of books and I would certainly hope she'd want to dip into my bookshelves when she's a bit older. But mainly you just have to be honest and say: I'm highly unlikely to re-read most of them but just having them in the house brings me joy. And I'm sure Marie Kondo would be fine with that.

In fact the next Open Book item was a discussion about Franz Kafka, which provides a perfect example of what I'm talking about: I own one Kafka book, The Trial, which I bought and read when I was about eighteen, and have therefore been carrying from house to house for the last thirty years. Am I ever going to re-read it? Possible, but on balance unlikely. Will Nia want to read it one day? Possibly. Am I keeping it just to show off to visitors? I suppose it's possible, but I don't think so. For one thing the library is in the bedroom and we don't tend to usher guests in there unless we're having one of those parties.

Lastly, while this article provides a very even-handed view of the Kondo phenomenon, I must just take issue with a couple of sentences, responding to a claim that Kondo's methods amount to nothing more than "woo-woo nonsense":
Less “woo-woo nonsense” and more Japanese-style animism that comes out of the country’s indigenous Shinto beliefs. [...] In Japan, objects can have souls.
My responses to those two sentences are as follows:
  1. "indigenous Shinto beliefs" are “woo-woo nonsense”, just with a bit of cultural acceptability attached by virtue of age and its status as an "official" religion.
  2. No they can't.
I hope that clears up any confusion.

Monday, January 14, 2019

anita get to a hospital

Just trawling through a couple of book-related end-of-year round-ups and I see that I missed a couple of victims of the ongoing Curse Of Electric Halibut, which continues to wreak a terrible toll on the world's population of novelists even when I'm apparently not paying attention.

Firstly, Anita Shreve, who occupies a unique place in the history of this blog as the subject of the first book review of all, back in the heady days of late 2006, and then featured again as the one hundredth entry in 2010. She actually pre-deceased Philip Roth but I evidently failed to notice it at the time. Secondly, Justin Cartwright, who first featured as one of the group of books I read on holiday in Austria in 2008 and then again in late 2013. Shreve therefore inevitably becomes the longest survivor of those who have died, with Cartwright slotting into second place, at 11 years and 10 years respectively. They were both in their 70s which will have pulled the average down slightly, most of the previous victims having made it to their 80s at least.

Author Date of first book Date of death Age Curse length
Michael Dibdin 31st January 2007 30th March 2007 60 0y 59d
Beryl Bainbridge 14th May 2008 2nd July 2010 77 2y 50d
Russell Hoban 23rd August 2010 13th December 2011 86 1y 113d
Richard Matheson 7th September 2011 23rd June 2013 87 1y 291d
Elmore Leonard April 16th 2009 20th August 2013 87 4y 128d
Iain Banks 6th November 2006 9th June 2013 59 6y 218d
Doris Lessing 8th May 2007 17th November 2013 94 6y 196d
Gabriel García Márquez 10th July 2007 17th April 2014 87 6y 284d
Ruth Rendell 23rd December 2009 2nd May 2015 85 5y 132d
James Salter 4th February 2014 19th June 2015 90 1y 136d
Henning Mankell 6th May 2013 5th October 2015 67 2y 152d
Umberto Eco 30th June 2012 19th February 2016 84 3y 234d
Anita Brookner 15th July 2011 10th March 2016 87 4y 240d
William Trevor 29th May 2010 20th November 2016 88 6y 177d
John Berger 10th November 2009 2nd January 2017 90 7y 55d
Nicholas Mosley 24th September 2011 28th February 2017 93 5y 159d
Helen Dunmore 10th March 2008 5th June 2017 64 9y 89d
JP Donleavy 21st May 2015 11th September 2017 91 2y 114d
Ursula Le Guin 6th December 2015 22nd January 2018 88 2y 49d
Anita Shreve 2nd September 2006 29th March 2018 71 11y 211d
Philip Roth 23rd December 2017 22nd May 2018 85 0y 150d
Justin Cartwright 7th September 2008 3rd December 2018 75 10y 89d

the last book I read

They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell.

We're somewhere in Illinois in early 1918. We're also, in the first section of the book, in the head of eight-year-old Bunny Morison. Bunny is a sensitive boy who would much rather daydream on the sofa than be forced to go out and endure "fresh air" and similar hearty bracing horrors outside. Just as Bunny is mildly alarmed by the prospect of, say, a game of football, he is also mildly alarmed by his elder brother Robert, a more shouty and outgoing type despite only having one leg, legacy of an argument with a horse-drawn cart (you see? outdoor stuff is dangerous), and also by his father, a stereotypical early-20th-century American Dad, not much given to displays of tenderness or affection beyond an occasional bluff chuck on the shoulder.

The only people Bunny is not alarmed by are his mother Elizabeth, the centre of Bunny's universe, and her sister Irene, a slightly more volatile character but available for plenty of auntly duties after the disastrous break-up of her marriage. Irene has been around a lot lately, as it happens, and she and Elizabeth have been having some secretive whispered conversations out of Bunny's earshot, with lots of charged glances in his direction. Elizabeth has also engaged him in some odd conversations about how much fun it would be to have a little brother or sister. What's going on? Before Bunny can get to the bottom of these exotic and mysterious adult goings-on he is struck down with an acute fever which turns out to be Spanish influenza, and is confined to bed.

With Bunny quarantined by the doctor, the second section of the book moves the focus to Robert, a big surly intimidating lummox through Bunny's eyes but actually a perfectly normal thirteen-year-old boy, albeit one occasionally vexed by his little brother's propensity for playing with his soldiers and losing or breaking them. Robert's view of the world has him a little more on the cusp between childhood and adulthood, and therefore better able to understand things like Irene's no-good husband Boyd and Irene's indecision about whether to go back to him or not (Robert says not).

Following Bunny's illness (and subsequent recovery) the boys' mother and father announce that they are going to take themselves off to the big city for the birth, leaving the boys in the charge of their aunt Clara. Presumably the rationale for the trip is either that they are expecting complications with the birth, or that they don't want a new-born baby exposed to any lingering flu germs, but it's never completely clear. In any case, off they go and no sooner have the boys submitted themselves to aunt Clara's regime, which mainly involves the ruthless suppression of anything which might involve fun, Robert comes down with the lurgy and has to be quarantined. Not only that, but the parents' flight from the family germs proves to be a futile one, as both of them come down with the flu. The baby is born, and father James recovers, but Elizabeth dies.

Our viewpoint shifts again to James, Bunny and Robert's father, an aloof and slightly terrifying figure up to now, much given to reading out newspaper articles at the breakfast table and getting tetchy if interrupted by anyone, but revealed here to be just a regular guy, trying to do the best by his family but adrift in his own private grief at the death of his wife and facing the prospect of having to bring up two sons and a newborn baby on his own.

In comparison with the two previous books on this list this one provides a good contrast and an opportunity to ask: what is "literary" fiction? You can point to some obvious differences with, say, Orphans Of The Sky: this is less plot-driven, although there is a fairly major plot point involving the death of a central character, and it's more concerned with the inner life of the various central characters: more of the narrative happens in people's heads than anywhere else. Obviously the lines are blurred and near the lines the distinctions are largely arbitrary, as we've seen before with previous entries on this list. In this particular case the majority of the narrative takes place through the eyes and ears of the two children, with Bunny in particular finding certain aspects of adult conversation and behaviour impossible to fathom. In this way it's very like parts of The Go-Between, which also used children and adults' mutual incomprehension as a key plot point.

They Came Like Swallows was published in 1937 (though not in the UK until 2002) and was the second of only six novels Maxwell wrote in his long career. Like many early works it's largely autobiographical - Maxwell's mother did indeed die in the 1918 flu epidemic.

It's shorter than its 174 pages would suggest (my Vintage edition has quite large print), very easy to read and sharply perceptive about how families work and how mysterious other people are, even when they are members of your own family. You've got to keep your book-bargain-hunting wits about you at all times: my copy was acquired for 50p from the honesty box at the village hall in Acton Trussell while we were there for a children's birthday party a couple of years ago.

Monday, January 07, 2019

twas parsecs of time since this blog post did start

It occurs to me that I didn't do a Christmas-related post in 2018, so in the spirit of this music-related one from 2015 (but at considerably less gruelling length) I offer you my opinion that the second line of Chris de Burgh's perennially popular (but nonetheless awful) Christmas song A Spaceman Came Travelling is the worst single line of lyric in the history of music. A bold claim, I know, but I stand by it.

In fairness to Chris de Burgh, many of the established canon of Christmas pop songs are deeply awful. Paul McCartney's Wonderful Christmastime, for instance, is pretty horrible and is redeemed only by some farty rubbery synthesizer noises and the knowledge that he knocked it off in a tea break between sessions for a "proper" album. Some kudos should also go de Burgh's way for at least trying to do something different with the narrative, even if it is a Chariots Of The Gods knock-off.

But there's really no excuse for this:
A spaceman came travelling on his ship from afar,
'Twas light years of time since his mission did start
Broadly speaking there are three crimes committed by this line - two of them are crimes against scansion and general construction of verse by competent adults, and the other is a crime against physics. Note that I am giving de Burgh a free pass on the fact that "start" doesn't rhyme with "afar", and that on reflection it might have set the ludicrous nature of the song as a whole off on the right foot to have adhered to a strict rhyming scheme and have the first line conclude "from a fart". But we'll blow that one off and let that one go, as it were. So:
  • The opening 'Twas here is either a clumsy attempt to squash two syllables into one (ironic since in a minute we're going to be scrabbling around trying to find an extra one) or an attempt to lend a folky, fable-ish, once-upon-a-time air to the song. I actually favour the latter as a theory, since it wouldn't be hard to get an It in at the start of the line if you really put your mind to it.
  • Probably the worst crime of all in my book is the insertion of the "did" to allow the line to end with the word "start". I mean, honestly, you get told not to do this in primary school, and doing it here just makes the line sound like it's been written by a six-year-old. In fact I have a six-year-old in my house, and I'm pretty sure she could do better. Alternative suggestions are pointless given the next problem on the list, but if pressed I would offer these suggestions for fixing the rhyme and replacing the "since his mission did start" bit in (in my opinion) ascending order of awesomeness:
    • on the way from that star
    • in his big airtight car
    • since his spaceship went RARRR
  • Finally, of course, there's the "light years of time" bit. Thankfully, since Chris de Burgh isn't quite such a universal icon of pop culture as Star Wars, there has't been a whole cottage industry springing up to retrospectively decide that it's not wrong at all, like the one that attempts to render the line about "making the Kessel run in less than twelve parsecs" acceptable.
It's easy to mock Chris de Burgh, of course, partly because of his well-documented extreme humourlessness about being mocked, but also because there is just something inherently ludicrous about him that's hard to put your finger on. Well that's all very well, you might say, but just because it's easy doesn't mean you should do it. To which I would respond: I couldn't disagree more.

In conclusion I contend that there are only two Christmas pop songs you actually need: Slade's Merry Christmas Everybody which - despite over-familiarity - is the only properly great one from the rosy-cheeked Christmas jollity end of the genre, and Jethro Tull's Ring Out Solstice Bells to cover the atheist/secular/pagan angle.

incidental music spot of the day

Three in pretty quick succession earlier today which seemed like a blog-worthy thing. And they are:
  • The Funeral by Band Of Horses in the trailer for the new movie Life Itself, which looks epically awful, but which turns out, according to the reviews, to be even more awful than that. I have referred to this song before, here, and I still listen to it from time to time, and still have no other songs by the band, and no particular desire to own any, because I imagine (without any supporting evidence) that all their other songs will be inferior retreads of this one.
  • The You And Me Song by The Wannadies on the advert for the Mercedes GLA. A splendid piece of crunchy Scandi-pop, and also by coincidence the only only thing I own by the group.
  • S.O.B. by Nathaniel Rateliff And The Night Sweats in the opening scene of an episode of Tin Star on Channel 4. I only saw enough to know that a) I had no idea what was going on and b) Tim Roth plays his usual role of gruff slightly violent Cockney Tim Roth. The song, oddly, is in my iTunes library on the strength of a recommendation on Twitter from none other than Stephen King, and is, now I think of it, the only song by the band that I possess. So that's three out of three. Coincidence? OR IS IT?!!??!? Once again, yes, yes it is.

Thursday, January 03, 2019

the last book I read

Orphans Of The Sky by Robert A Heinlein.

Hugh Hoyland and his chums lead a decent enough life: enough to eat, a bit of light-hearted knife-combat training (with the occasional lapse into real-life duelling with the associated stabbings and death, but, hey, just boys being boys and having some TOP BANTZ, innit), a few girls to chase, that sort of thing. Basically it's all good unless you question certain prevailing religious orthodoxies or get murdered to death and eaten by the cannibalistic mutants who inhabit certain areas of the world Hugh and chums find themselves on. This is a world known (and referred to in the religious texts) as The Ship, and comprising, as well as the level Hugh lives on which features various agricultural facilities, other more spartan levels which are just long metallic corridors.

So I'm sure you can see where we're going with this. The religious texts purport to be a set of technical manuals for a large starship but are interpreted by the religious leaders as metaphorical descriptions of an entire universe. Deviation from this worldview (like, for instance, speculating on the existence of stuff "outside" The Ship) is interpreted as heresy and may earn you a trip to the Converter (the nuclear furnace that powers the Ship) as fuel.

Hugh is a clever, resourceful and inquisitive sort of bloke, and is therefore identified at an early stage as potentially troublesome. To minimise his chances of infecting his contemporaries with his fancy book-learnin' ways he is inducted into the guild of scientists, but it quickly becomes clear that even here thinking outside the box (in the most literal of senses, in his particular situation) is discouraged.

A chance to discover more presents itself from an unexpected direction, though, when Hugh is captured by mutants and taken to their leader, Joe-Jim, a creature with two heads. While this does happen, exceptionally rarely, in real life, you, as a seasoned consumer of speculative fiction, will be forgiven for thinking of Zaphod Beeblebrox here. Anyway, Joe-Jim is a bright and resourceful couple of guys and he soon spots that Hugh is a guy of a similar nature; and lucky for Hugh that he does or Hugh would have ended up as dinner for Joe-Jim's mutant henchman, Bobo.

Joe-Jim is also in possession of some information: free of the religious indoctrination and rigid enforcement of cultural rules that Hugh has lived under his whole life Joe-Jim has explored the whole ship, even up to the upper levels where gravity decreases to zero and you can zoom about weightlessly. Even more excitingly, these levels contain a control room where one can not only control the ship (if one only knew how) but see out of a viewing gallery to The Outside, where a gazillion stars demonstrate the falsehood of the religious texts (or, at least, their current interpretation). Hugh is immediately convinced, but finds others less willing to be convinced on his return to the lower levels.

Hugh and his chums eventually resort to further kidnapping activities and bring the ship's chief engineer up to the control room to see the stars for himself. On their return, a spot of judicious mutiny and assassination get the chief engineer appointed Captain, and, Hugh assumes, sanity and proper science will prevail. However, it turns out that Narby, the new Captain, was only feigning being convinced by the stellar light-show, and moreover is a bit keen on consolidating his new power by eliminating various troublesome heretics and mutants. Hugh manages to escape and his party flee to the secret locked chamber on the upper level which he has deduced contains an escape pod. Thanks to his experimentation in the control room he has a rudimentary understanding of the controls and is able to launch the craft, avoid crashing it into the nearest star, and (with a bit of help from the autopilot) land on a conveniently Earth-like planet in orbit around it and emerge, blinking, onto this new world, which, also rather conveniently, contains plant life and small animal life (of the sort which can be stabbed up by trained knife-wielders) but no instantly death-dealing large ravenous carnivores. Nice planet: we'll take it!

As I said in the last book review, Heinlein and Asimov were my guys for science fiction back in the mid-1980s. The Heinleins I read were mainly the late-period ones like Friday (probably my favourite), Job: A Comedy Of Justice and The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, though I did also read his most famous book Stranger In A Strange Land, and also I Will Fear No Evil, although its depiction of a male/female mind-share merges confusingly in hindsight with the plot of the Steve Martin film All Of MeOrphans Of The Sky is a re-purposing of some of the author's earlier work in the same way as Earthlight was, in this case by being a 1963 repackaging of two linked short stories first published in magazine form in 1941. So the material is a bit older than Earthlight, but it seems like a much more modern book. Part of this is because Heinlein is the best writer of the so-called Big Three and much more interested in proper characterisation than the other two, and also inclined to include some sex and humour among all the spaceship-wrangling.

The claim is made for Orphans Of The Sky that it was the first novel to depict a "generation ship", i.e. a spaceship specifically designed with the idea that people would live, breed and die on board and that the people who reached the ship's eventual destination would be the (perhaps distant) descendants of the people who first set out. I don't know whether that's true, but the specific treatment of the idea here, where so many generations have passed that people have forgotten the true nature of their surroundings, certainly inspired other similar works. The paranoia about rooting out genetic mutations in the first half of the novel is very reminiscent of John Wyndham's The Chrysalids, and the wider theme of someone gradually uncovering knowledge about their true place in the world (not necessarily involving spaceships) crops up elsewhere too, for instance in Inverted World, and can't help but be read as a satire of organised religion.

It's very good, and much more exciting and engaging than Earthlight, which is a little dry and staid for my taste. It would be remiss of me not to criticise the ending a bit, though, not so much for the extraordinary coincidence of having the protagonists escape just in time to slingshot into orbit around, and land on, a conveniently Earth-like planet (well, actually a rocky moon of a gas giant), but for the unlikely yet convenient way in which the (male) protagonists are able to stop off and collect their womenfolk (two of them in Hugh's case, the randy sod) just in time to bundle them off to a nearby planet to restart the human race. This new offshoot of the human race is given the best chance of genetic purity by having poor old Joe-Jim take one for the team and hold off the horde of religious nutters to allow the pod to escape, at the cost of his own life/lives. There's a slightly light-hearted approach taken to wife-beating as well; when the younger and more spirited of Hugh's wives questions the nature of the trip they're about to embark on, he corrects her in a loving yet violent way by punching one of her teeth out. The ladies, eh? Bless 'em.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

the last book I read

Earthlight by Arthur C Clarke.

It's two hundred or so years in the future and Earth is getting a bit crowded and, in any case, living on the same old planet where your species originally evolved from small single-celled organisms is sooo last millennium, don't you think? So we had this amazing idea of knocking through to next door! We had the surveyors in and it turns out it's not a supporting orbit, so we moved some of the heavy telescopes into the Moon first and then moved across ourselves a few months later. I mean, it's a bit quiet, and there's not much atmosphere, if you see what I mean, but it's home, isn't it?

We'll come back to the atmosphere later. Actually in this particular imagined future Man has moved out well beyond the Moon, to Mars and some of the moons of the outer gas giants. The organisation that unites these far-flung outposts is called The Federation, a name that will be familiar to viewers of Star Trek and Blakes 7, among others, though their jurisdictions encompassed some considerably more exotic and far-flung places. They are unable to cut their ties to Earth and do the whole to-infinity-and-beyond bit, though, as much as they might like to, because they are reliant on Earth and its unique geology to get hold of certain raw materials that they need. Earth-dwellers, are in turn, simultaneously a bit scornful of these hoity-toity spacefarers, and probably a bit jealous as well, and are a bit grumpy about sharing. So there is a state of uneasy tension, and while there hasn't been a war for a couple of hundred years everyone's taken the precaution of having some continent-melting laser rayguns and the like stashed away just in case.

Into this charged situation comes a man called Sadler, visiting the Moon from Earth ostensibly on a tedious and mundane accountancy audit but actually on a TOP SECRET mission to try to root out a spy who has been sending classified information to The Federation, particularly about the TOP SECRET spacecraft landings and exploratory mining activity happening in the Mare Imbrium, just over the horizon from the main observatory which houses almost all of the Moon's permanent inhabitants.

Sadler interviews most of the major potential suspects, including the observatory's Director, Professor Maclaurin, but beyond categorising his interviewees by how likely he thinks they are to be a mole he doesn't get very far in terms of collecting hard evidence. Meanwhile two astronomers from the observatory have taken a jaunt in a roving vehicle on their day off and have discovered the mysterious dome in the Mare Imbrium, and had their collars felt by its security people into the bargain, so word is all over the observatory. Since they now know of its existence the same two guys get tasked with a vital mission: transport an Earth scientist out to the dome so that he can help implement a new weapon system in time for the attack which is expected to be imminent.

And sure enough no sooner has the boffin been successfully delivered than some giant ships materialise, hanging in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't, and swiftly getting into raining down some serious intergalactic death ray action on the dome, turning most of the surrounding terrain into a lake of boiling lava. The dome remains unscathed, though, at least for the moment, and eventually unleashes its own secret weapon, an electromagnetically-propelled jet of metal plasma which can cut a spaceship in half like a knife through butter. Unfortunately one of the crippled halves of the spaceship falls to earth (well, moon) on top of the dome, destroying it and killing everyone inside, but by this time the battle is won and the Federation ships are in retreat. Hurrah! Lest there be any hard feelings, one of the Earth ships helps to effect a daring rescue of the crew of a crippled Federation warship just before its central reactor explodes, tearful vows are exchanged never to fight again, and peace and serenity reign. There is an epilogue many years later wherein Sadler returns to the now much-expanded Moon settlement to reveal the identity of the mole, but it turns out he did it for well-intentioned reasons and it all turned out OK, so, hey, no biggie.

I was a fairly voracious consumer of science fiction back in the 1980s but this is, as it happens, the first Arthur C Clarke book I've ever read. My guys back in the day were Asimov and Heinlein, with a few excursions into the weirder stuff like Brian Aldiss and more modern fare like Greg Bear's Eon, which borrows a few of its major themes from Clarke's 1973 novel Rendezvous With Rama. What I can tell you on the basis of this one (first published in this form in 1955, though it's an expanded version of an original story published a few years earlier) is that Clarke is very good on the science bits and the interesting ideas, less good on the portraying of actual characters who appear to be normal functioning human beings. The structure of the novel is also, basically: a) everyone talks about how there's probably going to be a war, b) there briefly is one, c) it ends, with the first section occupying the first 120 pages of a 158-page novel.

I would describe it as a fairly minor science fiction novel, for all that there are some interesting ideas, not least the metal-plasma doomsday device (which inspired an actual project called, rather splendidly, MAHEM). One of the ways in which this is interesting is as an historical artifact, since it was written 14 years before man first set foot on the Moon, and proposes some things which we now know to be wrong, like the Moon having a wispy atmosphere that can support some primitive indigenous plant life. But it's good fun, fairly brief, and I've had it on the shelf for something in excess of twenty years, so it's nice to finally get round to it. Clarke himself is of course most famous for his collaboration with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey and for presenting some readily-satirisable TV shows in the 1970s and 1980s.

Friday, December 21, 2018

the last book I read

A Landing On The Sun by Michael Frayn.

Jessel (no, not that one) is a mid-ranking civil servant in some anonymous government department in Whitehall, dutifully producing and reviewing various reports requested by mysterious superiors and then carefully filed and never read by anyone. One day a slightly more interesting piece of work lands on his desk: review the circumstances of the death of Stephen Summerchild, one of Jessel's predecessors in a similar job, who fell to his death from the roof of a government building 15 years earlier (which according the the novel's internal timeline would have been in 1974, in the early days of the second Wilson government).

There's been a cursory report on the incident on file for a while, but it's been rumoured that a television company are sniffing sound for some material for a documentary and might find the incident to be of interest, so Jessel is tasked with having another look and making sure there are no skeletons lurking in the closet. Jessel has some personal interest in the case because he vaguely knew Summerchild through being in an orchestra with his daughter Millie while they were both at school, though Summerchild's death scuppered any fledgling romance.

The first thing Jessel discovers is that Summerchild had been involved with the start-up of some ill-defined government Strategy Unit, part of whose initiation had involved the hiring of an Oxford professor of philosophy, Elizabeth Serafin, and the locating of the Unit (basically just Summerchild and Serafin) in a little-used attic room in a secluded corner of some government building. Jessel finds his way up to the attic and finds it little-changed since the Unit used it, and various boxes of documents lying around which he starts to sift through. Some of these documents turn out to be transcripts of discussions between Summerchild and Serafin which were originally recorded on cassette tapes; it also transpires that after the Unit's transcriber, Mrs. Padmore, resigned, further conversations were taped but never transcribed. Jessel finds these tapes in a cupboard in the kitchen next to the attic room and starts the lengthy job of listening to them.

And a rum experience it is too. The early exchanges are mainly about defining the Unit's terms of reference, which are very vague and have something to do with Quality Of Life, which Serafin takes to mean that part of their job is defining what that phrase means, and by implication (since the two concepts seem to overlap) what "happiness" means. Inevitably discussions around this subject start to pull in details from the two protagonists' personal lives: Summerchild is apparently happily married with a teenage daughter (Millie), Serafin is married to a famous philosopher and has two older sons but we are invited to infer that the marriage is no longer a very happy one, and further to infer that this is because of his repeated infidelities.

To Jessel's further appalled fascination, the conversations captured on the tapes go on to reveal that Summerchild and Serafin were conducting a clandestine love affair in their little attic hidey-hole, to the extent of basically moving in together. They'd brought cooking equipment in, an airbed, and had even taken to climbing out of the skylight in the kitchen to sunbathe on the roof.

But even poorly-defined projects have targets and people whose job it is to monitor them, and eventually the hands-off approach that had been taken to the Strategy Unit is put aside and management types come calling to check on progress. Finding Summerchild and Serafin ensconced in domestic bliss rustling up lunch in the kitchen with the airbed propped up against the wall prompts something of a review of the project's aims and viability, and when Summerchild next arrives he finds that the locks on the attic room have been changed. He's able to get into the room via some hair-raising manoeuvres round the outside of the building, but then finds that the phone has been cut off as well, so he can't contact Serafin to tell her. Escaping up through the skylight onto the roof, he attempts to find another way down, and, Jessel concludes, accidentally falls to his death while trying to scale a wall of the old Admiralty buildings.

There are a couple of things that we have to remember here: firstly that all that we're learning about the Summerchild/Serafin relationship and everything that went on up in the attic room is derived from Jessel's listening to the tapes, and a lot of the time he's trying to work out what's going on from various obscure distant banging noises. So there's a possibility that he's completely misinterpreted things and has constructed a whole fantasy world from some half-heard sounds on a tape; we are invited to assume that Jessel has it about right, though, and we don't get the sort of rug-pull that we get at the end of The Conversation which throws everything that has gone before into doubt. But the possibility remains. Secondly, it would have been fairly straightforward for Jessel, on the wholly justified pretext of government business, to have gone to see Serafin, still alive and living in Oxford, and talked to her about the whole affair, but he doesn't.

Frayn has lots of fun with the early business of the Strategy Unit as Serafin leads Summerchild through some philosophical discussions about happiness - some of this reminded me a bit of the sort of stuff you get in David Lodge's books (like, for instance, Thinks...). We never really get any feeling for why the two main protagonists fall hopelessly in love with each other, or exactly how they conduct their relationship under the bizarre circumstances they find themselves in. If they're humping on the desk then either Jessel is too polite to mention it or they've turned off the tape recorder.

This is a lighter and less serious book than the other Frayn on this list, Spies, for all that it ends with the death of one of the principal characters. It doesn't quite go where you think it's going to go at the start, and once you think you've got into the rhythm of it it doesn't quite go where you think it's going to go at the end either. None of this is necessarily a bad thing, of course, and while I didn't think it was as good as either Spies or Headlong, the only other Frayn I've read, I still enjoyed it very much.

A Landing On The Sun was made into a BBC Screen Two drama in 1994 (Frayn himself wrote the screenplay), starring Robert Glenister (who I have LITERALLY MET in real life, albeit briefly) as Jessel and Roger Allam (best known to those with small children as the narrator of Sarah And Duck) as Summerchild. No clips of this appear to exist on YouTube, although I did find what appears to be a complete Screen Two adaptation of an earlier entry on this list, The Children Of Dynmouth.

The book also won the short-lived Sunday Express Book Of The Year prize in 1991. I have read all but two of these (the entries for 1989 and 1992) and two of the winners have also previously featured on this blog: The Colour Of Blood and Age Of Iron.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

the last book I read

The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks.

It's all ill wind, as they say, that blows nobody any good. Disasters in foreign countries, volcanic ash grounding flights, fewer people going abroad, more people taking staycations, more money for the domestic tourism industry. Everyone in the world going blind simultaneously after unusual meteor shower activity, good news for homicidal ambulant rhubarb.

Even the seemingly no-upside occurrence of a packed school bus crashing through a guardrail and careering down a slope into a watery pit causing the deaths of fourteen children, all from a small close-knit nearby town, presents opportunities for some, specifically lawyers hoping to get together a class action suit and sue someone's ass in a mutually lucrative manner.

So here is Mitchell Stephens, one of the group of lawyers who have appeared in the chilly upstate New York town involved in the tragedy. Stephens tells himself that he is different from the others, though, as he is motivated by a higher purpose: not just the money, though that provides some comfort, but also the public and financially painful punishment of those who are deemed to have failed in their responsibilities to keep people safe. So, in a very real sense, there is a moral obligation to bring legal action in the wake of these tragedies, in order to modify people's behaviour so that future tragedies can be avoided.

At least, this is what Stephens tells himself, and us, in the section of the book which is presented in his voice. But is he being honest with himself, with his potential clients, and with us? The same questions can be asked of the other people whose voices we hear in the book, in particular bus driver Dolores Driscoll and local man and Vietnam veteran Billy Ansel, who are the only people who could give a conclusive answer to how fast the bus was going - Dolores because she was driving it, and Billy because he was following behind in his pickup as he often did, waving to his two kids on the back seat of the bus. No-one wants to blame Dolores - the locals because she is a respected member of the local community, Mitchell Stephens because she hasn't got any money and would be a dead-end in terms of securing a substantial payout. Billy, whose wife died of cancer a while back, has also been knocking off local motel-owner Risa Walker for some time without her husband's knowledge, so he is at least on some level capable of deceit.

The real spanner in the works, though, comes from an unexpected source: Nichole Burnell, who survived the crash but at the cost of being paralysed from the waist down. Mitchell Stephens wants Nichole to testify at the hearing, because she is a real survivor of the crash (unlike all those dead kids who can't speak for themselves) and as a pretty former cheerleader now confined to a wheelchair will present a tragic figure and hopefully jack up the amount of damages that can be won. Nichole is conflicted about all this, for a number of reasons: she doesn't want to lie to the hearing about anything, she is troubled by her being of more value to the lawyers and her family half-paralysed than when she was healthy and, most importantly she can see a way of revenging herself on her father, who has been sexually abusing her for many years.

So Nichole cooks up a story about Dolores Driscoll exceeding the speed limit before the crash, which pretty much torpedoes any chance the lawyers have of making any money out of the case. That's all very cute, of course, and it gets the case thrown out, thus exacting Nichole's revenge on her father, but of course it effectively puts the blame on Dolores for the deaths of fourteen kids, something everyone, not least Nichole and Dolores, will have to live with.

Here is, in some ways, an answer to the question of why people read "literary" fiction, inasmuch as that is a thing that has any meaning. Plot-wise the actual key event is over before the novel's timeline even starts, and is only referred to in flashback, and even then not in any great detail. It's a novel all about people's emotional reaction to the almost unimaginable tragedy of losing a child (multiple children, in some cases), and the train of perfectly natural reactions which follow which only serve to make the general situation worse. That is the thing good fiction does: make you nod in recognition that yes, this is how people act, and also make you sit back and say, well, yes, I hadn't quite looked at it like that before.

I'm very suspicious of statements about how you can only really appreciate certain things once you become a parent, as if it's literally impossible to imagine that you might be devastated at the death of your own child without having a specific child to imagine being devastated about. On the other hand I suppose it does just give a specific focus if you're able to attach an actual face to the child in the back of the bus disappearing off a ravine into the cold murky water, never to return.

Just like Marathon Man, The Sweet Hereafter is most famous for its film adaptation, featuring Ian Holm in the lead role of Mitchell Stephens and the recipient of many awards. Mitchell Stephens is specifically depicted as a tall skinny man and so it's interesting to note that the actor originally lined up to play him was Donald Sutherland, much closer to his physical depiction in the book. I have seen the film, though, a long time ago, and as I recall Ian Holm does a pretty good job.

The novel was based on some true-life events; for once their fictional depiction actually seems less shocking and lurid than the events themselves.