Saturday, 31 August 2013

So what about all those books?

Phillip Marlowe: more integrity than any Nabakov creation
After all the fuss about what books I was going to cart from London to the south of France, the question now is: was it worth it?

Well, the list ended up very much as I wrote on 6 August: I was half way through Marco Vichi’s Death in August, the first Inspector Bordelli mysteries, and so brought that to finish it.

Then, in order of how they were read, came Gore Vidal’s Julian, Nabakov’s Laughter in the Dark, Paul O’Grady’s At My Mother's Knee ... And Other Low Joints, Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister, Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula: The Bloody Red Baron, Chandler’s The Long Goodbye and finally, a collection of Thomas Mann’s short stories, including Mario and the Magician and The Black Swan.

Briefly: it took me until about half way to get into Vichi’s tale, but once there, I was planning getting the subsequent books.

An intriguing and pleasantly intricate plot, plus some very human development and back story.

The Chandlers are – well, wonderful. Chandler was a poet. And Marlowe is a superb creation.

The Newman was thoroughly enjoyable: I was slightly wary of his era on this one, being as the first world war was so horrific, but I think he gets away with it (it is an alternative history, after all). It’s well written and loaded with very clever literary and history references. This is vampire fiction for people with brains.

Paul O'Grady as the magnificent Lily Savage
The first volume of Paul O’Grady’s autobiography is excellent – I bombed through 500 pages in little more than a day. Massively readable – a superb and utterly convincing memoir of growing up in post-war working-class Birkenhead: funny and poignant and very honest. I look forward to reading the second volume.

Now (cracks fingers) for the somewhat longer considerations.

Vidal’s Julian is superb: light and yet based on serious historical knowledge and understanding. It’s not for nothing that Vidal was so highly regarded as a writer of historical fiction.

It’s witty, catty, bitchy, sharp, and also humane, human, poignant and, in the end – and despite what one might expect – very moving. Remarkably, even though he doesn’t create a set of characters that are intended to be easily likeable, by the denouement, you actually hold the eponymous Julian in enough regard that you care what happens to him and how.

In the meantime, the book has Things to Say. And the biggest thing that it has to say is about the nature of religion as a whole and Christianity specifically.

The dominant point about Christianity that Vidal makes is that none of it was unique: that it was all plagiarised from other, older religions.

But he does it, as you would expect, beautifully.

Then we move to the Nabakov.

Now I’ll say, to begin with that I rate Lolita as an astonishing and brilliant book, and Pale Fire is just sheer genius. I don’t think that anyone in the 20th century used language in the way that Nabakov did.

The Blue Angel – well before Laughter in the Dark
And to be strictly fair, the author himself never claimed to ‘say’ anything or ‘mean’ anything.

But in lacking any morality – for want of a better word – his books leave a certain coldness. And Laughter in the Dark is no exception.

Indeed, the idea of the upright man brought low by a woman wasn’t even an entirely original premise: to mention just one, Heinrich Mann had done it in 1905 with Professor Unrat, which became the iconic movie, The Blue Angel.

So what does Nabakov bring to that theme? Well, nothing, except the cleverness.

Yes, it’s clever: he wrote it in Russian originally, but translated it into English himself – another mark of the genius of the man – but for all the cleverness, it’s lack of a soul is telling.

I wonder how much Nabakov has influenced more recent English literature (and the “English” is deliberate and intended to be quite specific).

How many writers have felt that they wanted to rise to the challenge of Nabakov’s literary brilliance, but cannot offer even that in order to compensate for what are, essentially, the stories of nasty people with no redeeming features?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying I won’t read any more. Nabakov can dazzle. But his entire oeuvre doesn’t have the integrity that Chandler brings to a single short volume.

And it leaves you with a slightly uncomfortable taste – almost as though you were guilty of some verboten indulgence.

And so to Mann. Well, I’ve only just started the collection in question, but what a joy to be back with him. And he makes for a fascinating comparison with Nabakov.

Maybe it’s just my rather puritanical, northern European Protestant background, but I found myself relieved to be back with Thomas: moral, ethical, thinking, questioning, doubting Thomas. Nothing rushed, but everything planned and executed with the greatest care and deliberation.

Mann might have lacked the obvious flair that Nabakov had, but I know which I prefer. And I know which, in spite of the surface cleverness, I think is actually the better writer – and the writer whose work and thought continues to have genuine relevance for our times.

Although the more I think of it, perhaps Nabakov is the writer for our days: all style and no substance. Just as Dalì was an artist that was the father of an art for our times, in much the same mode.

So if you don’t like such depressing thoughts, stick with Mann for real substance: or Vidal, for that matter. For all the literary fireworks, both ultimately show Nabakov wanting and leave him standing. And if that's heresy, I'm with Vidal on that subject.

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