Tuesday, 6 August 2013

How many books can I pack?

Gore Vidal – purveyor of light fiction?
It's the time of the year of The Book. Or rather, The Books. How many? What sort? Light? Heavy? Fiction? Non-fiction?

This year, the great debate about holiday reading matter has only begun earnestly far later than usual.

An initially rather ambitious list had been sketched out in my mind for some time, but the ensuing weeks had seen it redrafting itself in less literary terms.

It was the moment, I'd decided, for Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain. The chance to spend pretty much entire days reading is the perfect time to get into such a book.

But with a certain rueful sadness, I've been pushing that idea toward touch. Frankly, I'm just too tired.

I had also been contemplating Lewis Lockwood's Beethoven: The music and the life, but have abandoned that in favour of the first volume of Paul O'Grady's autobiography, At My Mother's Knee ... And Other Low Joints, which has been recommended as a damned good – and very funny – read.

But then something rather unusual happened – unusual, that is, because in general, I'm a rather slow reader and because, right now, I'm spectacularly knackered.

Yet in successive weekends, I've swept through The Lady in the Lake and The High Window, with Simenon's Maigret and the Black Sheep (poorly translated, since you ask) in between, so it struck me that a full-blown Raymond Chandler binge seems to be on the cards.

In which case, my Book Club 1979 omnibus, containing Playback, The Long Goodbye and The Little Sister, looks set to travel. It was one of my first real adult books, and it's got Bogart on the cover.

St one time or another, I've read all the Philip Marlowe novels, but with the exception of The Big Sleep, none of them for a good 20 years or more.

No extra Maigret will travel, because they're so short that I've had to take a shed load to make it worth while.

It did raise the point in my mind, though, of the snobbery that still surrounds genre fiction. Chandler's novels are superbly written – there's a poetic quality to the prose – with both intelligence and an understanding of the universal human condition.

I'd suggest that they have far more to say to us (and are a vastly better read) than much of what I've read in recent years that passes as modern English 'literature' (it's a wonder how Blake Morrison's The Last Weekend, for instance – a book that I was handed to review when a positive review was demanded – has ever received plaudits: it has so much less subtlety than anything Chandler wrote, yet it's 'literature').

Jean Gabin: 'Maigret needs you!'
Simenon may not be in quite the same class – although that may not be helped by translation matters – but the Maigret novels are still stylish and tight, with an underlying empathy for the ordinary man and woman in the street.

Only a short while ago, Iain Banks died. Hailed for his literary works such as The Wasp Factory and The Crow Road, but less so for his sci-fi novels, which were even published under the ever-so-slightly different name of Iain M Banks.

Literature and genre fiction, it seems to say, can never quite meet.

But Banks's Culture novels are not simply great yarns -–and they are most certainly that – but they also have depth, and use the world he created to explore some fascinating ideas.

And Consider Phlebas is, for me, that very rare beast: a sci-fi novel that I've read more than once - a stonkingly good space opera that goes beyond any confinements of (sub) genre and into being a good piece of literature.

Terry Pratchett is another who suffers from this snobbery about the divide between genre fiction and Literature, although the volume and overall consistency of the quality of his satire has, to an extent, forced the naysayers' backs against the wall.

Admittedly, that's partly because satire is a very English form of literature, with a long and glistening tradition - even if some people seem to have forgotten that Pride and Prejudice is essentially a satire and not an 18th-century rom-com.

Tom Sharpe – another who has lately departed this life – was a particularly savage example of the species and, as a satirist, his work was never subject to stuck-up-nose syndrome.

Incidentally, if you haven't read them, Riotous Assembly and Indecent Exposure, his first two novels, which are an assault (and battery) on apartheid in South Africa, are well worth a read. Having visited Pietermaritzburg, where both novels are set, it's almost frightening real. Indeed, I'll swear blind I've actually met one of his characters there.

Personally, I think Pratchett is better: where Sharpe most often seems just to be rage, with Sir Terry, there's a deep underlying humanity, and his characters are far more rounded than Sharpe – or, for that matter, PG Wodehouse.

Finally – the light fiction.
Samuel Vimes, for instance, who appears in a number of the Discworld novels, is a delightful and enormously believable creation.

And Pratchett too is the one author I can think of who has made me howl with laughter on one page and shed a tear just a turn of the page later.

If the difference between literature and popular fiction is that, at core, the former makes you think, then Pratchett does that. As does Iain M Banks.

But back to the books list. After such a sudden spurt of reading, I'm back in the mood for some more serious stuff.

So the pile – and it does exist as a real, actual pile – is now made up of a collection of Mann's short stories, including Mario and the Magician and The Black Swan, plus Gore Vidal's Julian and Nabokov's Laughter in the Dark.

Then there's the O'Grady, plus the second installment of Kim Newman's Anno Dracula alternative history/horror/steampunk/fantasy series, The Bloody Red Baron (I read the first part in Collioure last summer and it was very good).

And some more crime fiction in Involuntary Witness, a police procedural from Italy's Gianrico Carofiglio.

Now remind me: this is the easy reading selection, right?


  1. You really should enquire at your local library service as to whether they have followed the Leeds City Libraries model yet and introduced an eBook lending service.

    With a normal, free, Leeds residents library card I can browse their online eBook collection (which is by now very extensive), borrow up to four titles for three weeks, and download them onto a variety of compatible devices - basically every eReader but Kindle as Amazon don't seem to bundle the ePub licensing software, preferring you to pay for your books from their own stores instead.

    Personally I wouldn't consider taking anything but my Sony eReader on holiday - when I went to Portugal in June I took the complete works of Dickens (free to download and keep, all three of the Stieg Larsson "Girl with the..." novels, and half a dozen free eBook novels by aspiring writers from the "Free-eBooks.net" web site - and still only took hand luggage :)

    1. Thing is, Jerry, what happens if you drop that in the water or the screen gets sand blown?

      Nah – I love my pile of books: I love the ceremony of deciding what to take and the way it develops up to the moment of packing. :-)