Friday, February 26, 2021

the last book I read

Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo.

Joe Bonham has just a vague inkling that something, somewhere, may have gone Badly Wrong. Drifting in and out of consciousness, he experiences lengthy dreams of his past life: childhood, adolescence, work, friends, girls, right up to the point where he spends a tender night with his nineteen-year-old girlfriend Kareen on the eve of his departure to fight in the First World War.

He gradually starts to experience periods of actual consciousness among all the dreaming and comes to the realisation that something has indeed gone badly wrong and that he is in hospital, unable to move. He recalls being in a trench with a group of other soldiers, a blinding flash as a mortar shell hit, and then nothing.

Gradually the reality of his situation begins to become apparent, bit by bit. I can't scratch my nose - one of my arms is gone! Well, it could be worse. Wait, the other arm is gone too. Well, mustn't grumble. At least my legs are - wait, they're gone too. And I seem to be deaf. And blind. And now I think about it, most of my face seems to be missing as well. Fuck.

This situation takes a bit of getting used to, as you can imagine. Gradually Joe learns to sense what's going on around him through touch and the vibrations he feels as people move around the room, even to the extent of being able to recognise specific doctors and nurses by the weight and pattern of their tread on the floor. He learns to keep track of the passage of time by the pattern of the nurses' comings and goings and the feeling of the sun on his skin through the windows. But how to find out more information, like: where am I? How long have I been here? Does anyone know who I am or that I'm here? And how to communicate my wishes? And, more importantly, what are my wishes?

Eventually he has a flash of inspiration from his army training: Morse code! And so he starts methodically tapping his head on the pillow to spell out S.O.S., hoping that his current nurse will notice. After seemingly doing this for months, and presumably acquiring neck muscles like Arnie, all he has to show for it is the nurse misinterpreting his frenzied headbanging as pent-up sexual frustration and administering a perfunctory handjob. Which is obviously nice, but doesn't really get him anywhere communication-wise.

The breakthrough comes when the regular nurse fucks off on her Christmas holidays and he acquires a different nurse. This one instantly clocks that he is trying to communicate, draws some letters on his chest with her finger to test his receptiveness, recognises that he's using Morse code and runs off to fetch someone who knows how to interpret it to work out what he's saying and tap on his forehead to communicate with him. 

Once the initial thrill of finally demonstrating that he's not a completely decerebrated vegetable has worn off, though, some facts have to be faced. The establishment are clearly never going to agree to his idea of being paraded round the country and displayed as a sort of cautionary exhibit for those inspired to rush off and get involved in future wars. And just as clearly Joe is never going to magically regenerate limbs and a face, so, while the ability to communicate is an improvement, his options for the rest of his life are pretty limited. And he can't even choose to end his life, because how would he do it?

Dalton Trumbo is far more famous as a screenwriter whose credits include Roman Holiday and Spartacus, some of his output published under pseudonyms as he was blacklisted and imprisoned during the McCarthy era. Johnny Got His Gun was by far the most celebrated of the handful of novels he wrote. It was first published in 1939, just in time to be celebrated as an anti-war novel (which it undoubtedly is) during World War II, and then after some years out of print enjoying a surge of popularity during the Vietnam war. This resulted in a film being made in 1971, directed by Trumbo himself, which in turn was the inspiration for Metallica's 1989 single One. I must confess to never really getting the hang of Metallica, or the whole thrash genre in general, apart of course from Enter Sandman which is a cracking tune.

Anyway, I enjoyed this very much, despite it not being, in general, a barrel of laughs, and bluntly polemical in places, its principal point, after all, being that War Is Bad, and that the mythologised idea of heroic soldiers marching off to heroic victory or heroic death has an unpalatable side-effect of a whole host of casualties variously maimed, splintered, shredded, gouged, gassed and rendered generally unphotogenic and whom the pro-war brigade would prefer to sweep under the carpet, exhibit A being Joe here. How do you like your blue-eyed boy, Mr. Death? 

The whole nightmarish idea of being a fully-aware sentient being trapped in a body which does not allow you to express yourself to others is a trope which has been used a number of times over the years, from Harlan Ellison's I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream to the real-life story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, both of which I see I mentioned here in this post from 2009.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

the last book I read

Notes From An Exhibition by Patrick Gale.

Rachel Kelly is a painter, originally American but settled since her twenties in Cornwall (Penzance, specifically) with her husband Antony. Together they have settled into a comfortable old-ish age, their three surviving children widely scattered and living their own lives.

Rachel has at various points in the past been quite famous but her reputation has faded somewhat in recent years, as her work has changed from large, ambitious, chaotic, semi-abstract work to smaller, more figurative pieces. When the gathered family (well, most of it) clear out her attic studio following her sudden death from a heart attack, though, they discover that she has had a late surge of creativity and has been working on a series of abstract works in her older style, on massive canvases.

The impromptu family gathering gives us a chance to get to know the family, and, in a series of flashbacks to various past times and to various different characters' viewpoints, Rachel herself. What is immediately clear is that she was not an easy woman to live with, either as a wife or a mother, and all the children carry some scars from her treatment of them over the years. The main reason for this is that Rachel suffered from bipolar disorder, which at the time would have been called manic depression. Most of the time she took a cocktail of drugs to manage it, but felt that they dulled her creativity, and was not convinced of their safety in pregnancy (this latter reason could of course partly have been a ruse to indulge the first), and so used to take occasional holidays from the regime, during which time her behaviour could be erratic.

Both of her surviving sons, Garfield and Hedley, are slightly timid and wary of asserting themselves, presumably as a result of not wanting to create any ripples to disturb Rachel's calm moods or draw attention to themselves during the darker ones. As a result of this Hedley is having a hard time communicating his discomfort to his lover, Oliver, an art gallery curator, over Oliver's new friendship with another wild and unpredictable female artist. Partly to avoid confronting this situation Hedley agrees to stay on in Penzance to look after his father and assist him with delving into Rachel's early life, something she was extremely cagey about while she was alive.

During this period the last of the children unexpectedly shows up - Morwenna, known to all as Wenn, always the black sheep of the family and the major inheritor of Rachel's artistic talent, but also Rachel's mental disorders, which have meant her living a strange nomadic sort of life with lengthy gaps where none of her immediate family knew where she was. 

Antony's internet pleas for information eventually bear fruit in an unexpected way: Winnie MacArthur, who turns out not only to be Rachel's sister but to have known her by a completely different name, Joanie Ransome. Clearly this warrants some explanation, and Winnie, evidently reasonably comfortably-off and with some free time, agrees to travel to Penzance to share the information that she has. 

And so we come to the last two sections of the book, which finally confront the two questions the reader has been fretting over for most of the second half of the book, both of which seem to have been equally pivotal to Rachel's life: what exactly happened to Rachel's youngest son Petroc, killed in a car accident in his mid-teens? And what the heck is with the Joanie Ransome/Rachel Kelly switcheroo?

Rachel's back-story is a fascinating one including much teenage angst, early manifestations of her mental disorder, commitment to a mental institution and an exciting escape in the company of one Rachel Kelly (remember our Rachel is still Joanie Ransome at this point) and, upon Rachel's meeting an unfortunate demise under the wheels of a train, assuming her identity and fleeing to Europe to start a new life.

The Petroc segment, which is actually the one which concludes the book, doesn't add a great deal to what we already know, since it finishes before the actual moment of Petroc's death, mown down by a drunken driver (almost certainly someone he knew) on a country lane while walking back from a party while Antony and Rachel were on a rare trip abroad to New York for a show of her work. His sunny optimism - he's just lost his virginity and left his older siblings Hedley and Morwenna happily dancing - is made all the more poignant by our knowledge of what is about to happen to him.

To be honest, the sequencing of those two bits (i.e. shifting them right to the end) is slightly odd, and as I said above the Petroc segment doesn't really add much, other than that it was nice that he got to get his end away before he died. The penultimate section is really the key one, in that it explains how Rachel Kelly came to be Rachel Kelly in the first place. This section and the whole sub-plot around Joanie/Rachel has a slightly incongruous Barbara Vine feel to it, not that there's anything wrong with that, but it feels like it belongs in a slightly different novel, and the whole suitcase mix-up which enables the identity swap is a bit of a clunkily implausible MacGuffin

But the rest of it is good, the family dynamics in particular being very convincing, as are the highs and lows of Rachel's moods, and there is a general warmth and optimism towards humanity throughout, even its more damaged examples. You have to balance a sympathy for what must have been a debilitating condition with a recognition of the monstrous selfishness and cruelty of her behaviour towards her children, and the feeling that surely even under the most oppressive moods you retain the power to choose to behave differently. I mean, maybe you don't, I really don't know. There is an amusing/appalling interlude with Dame Barbara Hepworth in St. Ives that Gale's afterword is at pains to stress is a fiction, although she does seem to have been a bit peculiar in real life.

Antony is the character who feels a bit underwritten; as it is he's a bit implausibly saintly and forbearing, although we are invited to infer that this is because of his active involvement with the Quaker movement. I am a bit dim so I found repeated reference to his circle of Friends with a capital F a bit odd until I clocked that this is how some Quakers refer to each other. The only other criticism that one might make of the book is that it's all very white and middle-class; I think this isn't really a fair criticism of one book - it might be a fair criticism of me if books of this type were all I ever read, but I like to think that's not the case.

Patrick Gale's website contains some interesting notes on the writing of Notes From An Exhibition, and a link to a video clip wherein he is interviewed about it by Stephen Fry.

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

the last book I read

The House Of The Spirits by Isabel Allende.

Welcome to a coyly-unnamed South American country, definitely not explicitly referred to as Chile anywhere, but equally definitely Chile if you know anything of South American 20th-century history and the author's own personal history. 

We begin in the del Valle house, where Severo and Nívea live with an indeterminate number of children (it's never quite clear how many), most noticeably Rosa, a supernaturally luminous beauty, and younger sister Clara, possessed of mysterious clairvoyant and psychokinetic powers. Rosa is engaged to be married to a young man called Esteban Trueba, who as the novel opens is away seeking his fortune by overseeing digging operations at a gold mine.

Severo has political ambitions, and his profile rises sufficiently for him to acquire some powerful enemies, some of whom arrange to have him killed. Luckily for him, but unfortunately for Rosa, she drinks from the poisoned wine before he has a chance to do so, and dies. Eventually receiving word of her death and making the long and arduous trek back to the house, Esteban is grief-stricken and heads off to spend the next several years tending his family hacienda. The organisational and management challenges of this perk him right up, as does his habit of enthusiastically exercising his droit du seigneur on the daughters of his tenants, or, to put it another way, being a big old rapist. As an inevitable consequence of this there are a multitude of little Estebans running around the place, all of which he refuses to acknowledge as his own.

Refreshed by a lengthy stint of farm management, horse-riding and rape, Esteban returns to the del Valle house, and, being of a pragmatic turn of mind, requests Clara's hand in marriage instead. Clara is an odd young woman who has spent most of her teenage years entirely mute by her own choice after Rosa's death, but to everyone's surprise immediately abandons her wordless ways and says "yeah, go on then".

Esteban and Clara move into their own house away from Severo and Nívea (who are gruesomely dispatched in a car crash shortly after) and set about starting a family: daughter Blanca and twin sons Jaime and Nicolás. The family divide their time between their city home and the family hacienda, Tres Marías. It is during their time at Tres Marías that Blanca makes the acquaintance of Pedro Tercero García, and they eventually become lovers.

Esteban Trueba harbours political ambitions, and when a potentially powerful supporter, Jean de Satigny, comes to stay at Tres Marías, Esteban encourages him to have the run of the place. While on a midnight stroll Jean happens upon Blanca and Pedro Tercero in a state of naked post-coital slumber after some carefree rutting on a riverbank, reports his find to Esteban, and uses the resulting leverage to request Blanca's hand in marriage. She accepts, seeing an opportunity to legitimise the child (Pedro Tercero's, obviously) she is carrying. Jean de Satigny seems unperturbed by this arrangement, and uninterested in pressing his own attentions on Blanca. The reasons for this are soon revealed: Jean has some more, erm, esoteric preferences which seem to mainly revolve around arranging the household servants into erotic tableaux and then photographing them. Candid photography, he asked him knowingly, etc. Blanca and her daughter, Alba, flee back to the Trueba house.

Esteban, now a senator, detects that change is in the air, and sure enough soon the previously unthinkable happens and a socialist government is elected. Cue much rejoicing from the lower orders, but also outrage from the previously untouchable ruling classes. After some meetings in darkened rooms it is soon decided that the election result cannot be allowed to stand, for the greater good of the country. Fortunately a compliant media and the military need only a small nudge to push them over the edge into full-blown authoritarianism, and a military coup soon ensues, with assurances that the ensuing period of martial law and curfew will be short-lived - just until the immediate threat to the country has passed - as will the accompanying reign of terror visited upon anybody defying the regime's wishes or perceived to be plotting against it. 

This is a problem for Alba, now a feisty young woman, in particular, as her boyfriend Miguel is a dedicated campaigner for social reform and not about to let a little thing like being under immediate sentence of death deter him. No-one is safe, though, and Jaime, a doctor resolutely removed from politics, is arrested on the grounds of having treated the socialist President and therefore being under suspicion as a sympathiser. After being brutally tortured and presented with a confession to sign, he refuses, and is promptly killed. Soon enough the secret police come for Alba as well, and she ends up in the hands of Colonel Esteban García, who reveals himself to be the first of Esteban Trueba's horde of illegitimate children, and to have nursed a lifelong thirst for revenge upon the family. After being subjected to rape and torture, Alba is eventually released (after Esteban Trueba has managed to exert the last vestiges of his influence on the ruling regime), and she and Miguel are reunited. Esteban Trueba, now ninety, dies, Blanca and Pedro Tercero flee to Canada to escape the regime, but Alba and Miguel remain in the family house, awaiting the birth of Alba's child.

As I said at the start, it's never explicitly stated that the country in which The House Of The Spirits is set is meant to be Chile, but the events in the last section of the novel identify it as Chile pretty unequivocally, in particular the overthrowing of the government of Salvador Allende (Isabel Allende's father's cousin) by the military regime overseen by Augusto Pinochet which ruled the country from 1973 to 1990. The character "The President" is clearly meant to be Allende (the circumstances of whose death are still in dispute), and the occasional character "The Poet" is presumably meant to be Pablo Neruda, who also died in slightly mysterious circumstances in 1973 and who previously featured on this blog in a more light-hearted context here

Magic realism is a slightly lazy and unsatisfactory catch-all term for a whole variety of works by a whole variety of authors, many of them South American but many not, many of them featuring vivid multi-generational family sagas with themes both of real-life political struggle and odd supernatural elements, but some not. What you certainly can say about The House Of The Spirits is that it owes a heavy debt to the foundational work in this genre, Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years Of Solitude, certainly in terms of the multi-generational family saga bit, but also in some specifics, for instance: The House Of The Spirits features a character called Rosa the Beautiful and One Hundred Years Of Solitude features a character called Remedios the Beauty; both characters barely utter a word during the novels but are worshipped for their supernatural beauty before dying young.

I mean, clearly there are worse books you could choose to emulate - my only critical comments would be that the way the authorial voice is managed is a bit confusing in places. There are bits that are narrated in the first person by Esteban Trueba and bits (the majority of the narrative) that are written in a third-person omniscient style by an unknown author, or at least unknown until right at the end when the author is revealed to have been Alba, basing much of the text on a series of notebooks handed down to her by her grandmother Clara. Until you know this, some of the transitions between authorial voices are a bit jarring, and the transition between the colourful family saga with occasional tragic bits for the first three-quarters of the book and the full-blown fascist torture nightmare at the end is a bit jarring as well, although of course this could very well have been intentional. The brief and bizarre episode with Jean de Satigny's nudey photo habits put me in mind of the similar episode in Picture Palace

Other books which could loosely be said to fall into the same genre among non-South American authors include Midnight's Children and most of John Irving's back catalogue. You'll recall that I was resolutely unimpressed with Midnight's Children but a big fan of most of Irving's work (The World According To Garp in particular), so you can see that it really depends in the individual merits of the individual work, and I can say without reservation (apart from the very minor ones above, anyway) that I thoroughly enjoyed The House Of The Spirits, which is another book that has probably been sitting on my shelves for the best part of 25 years. The only other thing I would say is: we've all had ex-girlfriends who were quiet, enigmatic, hard to fathom, and those would be the Climbers of the ex-girlfriend world; conversely we've all had ex-girlfriends who were theatrical, intense, and seemingly constantly teetering on the edge of near-hysteria. Spending a significant amount of time with The House Of The Spirits is a little bit like spending time with a girlfriend of the latter sort: exhilarating but exhausting and something you should probably verify that you're in the mood for before you start.

As you can see my copy is a tie-in edition to the 1993 film - if ever there was a book that deserved the epithet "unfilmable" I would have thought it was this one, but they had a go, bless 'em, with a stellar cast (most of them jarringly white) even if they probably had to drop 70-80% of the plot.

Thursday, February 04, 2021

cricizen kane

I was prompted by the recent resumption of near-normal Test cricket in New Zealand, and in particular by the record-breaking feats of Kane Williamson, to revisit a couple of previous posts featuring deep cricket stat-nerdery and do my best to out-nerd them in some way.

Williamson's innings of 238 against Pakistan in Christchurch was of particular interest to me as it was the first innings of 238 in the 145-year history of Test cricket. You may recall my post from a few years back (January 2013 to be precise) about the esoteric study of yet-to-be-made individual innings scores in Test cricket, and the subsequent flurry of pant-moistening excitement in late 2015 when several entries on that list were knocked off in quick succession. 

Since the compilation of my original list by painstaking manual methods in 2013 I have developed some fiendishly clever automated methods for extracting statistics related to this subject, and I am both proud and, yes, all right, slightly aroused to present some of the results here.

The first thing to say is that there was an error in my original list: the inclusion of 114 as a score which was once the lowest un-made score in a Test match was an error, and the first occurrence of that score was not by Herbert Sutcliffe in 1929 but by Jack Hearne in 1912 (Sutcliffe's innings was actually the fourth 114 in Test history). So the revised progression looks like this:

ScorePlayerDateMatchSpan (time)Span (Tests)
100JT Tyldesley3rd July 1905ENG v AUS28y 110d84
110WH Ponsford19th December 1924AUS v ENG19y 169d73
125PGV van der Bijl3rd March 1939RSA v ENG9y 261d90
139ED Weekes11th April 1955WI v AUS16y 39d133
171IR Redpath11th December 1970AUS v ENG15y 244d271
186Zaheer Abbas23rd December 1982PAK v IND12y 12d267
199Mudassar Nazar24th October 1984PAK v IND1y 306d54
218SV Manjrekar1st December 1989IND v PAK5y 38d134
224VG Kambli19th February 1993IND v ENG2y 80d84
228HH Gibbs2nd January 2003RSA v PAK9y 318d423

The five lowest "missing" scores in Tests are now 229, 252, 265, 272 and 273. The last ten innings which plugged a gap on the list were as follows:

238KS WilliamsonNew ZealandPakistan03/01/2021Christchurch
335*DA WarnerAustraliaPakistan29/11/2019Adelaide
264*TWM LathamNew ZealandSri Lanka15/12/2018Wellington
303*KK NairIndiaEngland16/12/2016Chennai
269*AC VogesAustraliaWest Indies10/12/2015Hobart
290LRPL TaylorNew ZealandAustralia13/11/2015Perth
245Shoaib MalikPakistanEngland13/10/2015Abu Dhabi
263AN CookEnglandPakistan13/10/2015Abu Dhabi
294AN CookEnglandIndia10/08/2011Birmingham
293V SehwagIndiaSri Lanka02/12/2009Mumbai (BS)

At the other end of the scale, multiple occurrences of the same score for the same batsman: the highest individual score to be made more than once by the same batsman is 203, by Shoaib Mohammad and Shivnarine Chanderpaul (twice each), the highest individual score to be made three times by the same player is 158 by Kevin Pietersen, the highest individual score to be made four times by the same player is 105 by Alastair Cook and the only batsman to make the same individual score on five separate occasions is Virat Kohli with 103.

The only two instances in Test history of a batsman making two identical scores in excess of 100 in the same Test match were a pair of 105s by Sri Lanka's Duleep Mendis in 1982 and a pair of 101s by Pakistan's Misbah-ul-Haq in 2014, the second of those 101s being at the time the joint-fastest century in Test history in just 56 balls (New Zealand's Brendon McCullum has since taken sole possession of the record).