Wednesday, 29 January 2014

When similes go bad

There should be a law about similes. Or at least the over use of them in novels.

A couple of days ago, I gave up reading March Violets by Philip Kerr, as I was on the verge of throwing it at something.

Described variously as “brilliantly innovative” (Salman Rushdie in the Independent on Sunday) and as having “echoes of Raymond Chandler but [being] better on his vivid and well-researched detail than the master” (Evening Standard), it’s the first of what constitutes the Berlin Noir trilogy, with further installments published later.

Set in 1936 in the German capital, it features private detective Bernie Gunther, a former policeman.

It’s a great idea, but what the Standard describes as “well-researched detail” is, in fact, laid on with a trowel – not least when it comes to the aforementioned similes.

Here’s an early example:

“From her coat pocket she produced a small lace handerchief which seemed as improbable in her large, peasant hands as an antimacassar in those of Max Schmelling, the boxer ...”

Now, if you have to explain a simile to the reader, perhaps you shouldn’t bother in the first place.

It was with some relief that, a few pages later, Kerr didn’t feel the need to similarly explain who Horst Wessel was.

The comparisons with Chandler do Kerr no favours either.

If that “well-researched detail” is better, then it’s worth noting that Chandler was not writing anything that claimed to be a work of historical fiction, so such a comparison is unfair.

And while Kerr clearly is a clever writer, the cynicism of his protagonist comes across as forced and too clever by half.

In Chandler’s deft hands, Philip Marlowe’s world-weary persona never seems over the top, and is subtly leavened by, for instance, his observation of the nature of the novels’ California setting – passing mentions of the colour and scent of jacaranda, for example.

In other words, there are sensibilities beneath Marlowe’s hard-boiled exterior.

If you’re going to do ‘clever’ and make historical and cultural references, there are other authors doing it far better.

Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula novels are riddled with references, historical and cultural, but he doesn’t feel a need to signpost them. You either spot them or you don’t – and part of the pleasure in reading the books is in seeing what you do spot.

And the same can be said of Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (not the film).

One of the things that this illustrates is just how subjective book reviewing is.

A review in the Guardian for Mortal Mischief, the first of Frank Tallis’s Liebermann Papers series, finds it to contain “too much history”.

As someone who’s about half way through that book right now, it seems that there’s enough to give and sense of authenticity and atmosphere, but nothing that leaves you feeling that the author is being overly clever or that gets in the way of the story itself.

Choosing to set his novels in fin-de-siècle Vienna, it allows him to explore some of the massive changes that were occurring at the time – not least in making his central protagonist, Max Liebermann, a young doctor who is acquainted with one Sigmund Freud, and who uses the new science of psychology in his contributions to criminal investigations.

Oh – and since it’s set in the Austrian capital, there’s cake. And lots of it.

One of Kerr’s other problems is that of writing a novel set not just in a different time, with historic events at its heart, but also in a different place.

I can think of a host of 1930s novels about Berlin to recommend instead of this if you want to get the atmosphere – Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin, for instance, or Fabian (now republished in a restored, uncensored version, as Going to the Dogs: The Story of a Moralist) from Emil and the Detectives author Erich Kästner.

And there’s always Christopher Isherwood, who was actually there at the time – and yes, almost inevitably, Kerr uses a metaphor about “Kit Kat” girls.

Of course, the different attitudes toward the historic backgrounds of both books could simply be a reflection of the fact that one of those periods continues to obsess British readers and the other does not.

Run a search for ‘Nazis’ in books on Amazon, and it produces 16,330 results – not all of which will entirely fit the bill, but it gives you an idea.

Run a similar search for fin-de-siècle Vienna, and you get 1,279 results – and that too includes things like tourist guides to the city in the very much here and now.

It is, of course, entirely possible to pen a novel set against historic events in a country and culture that’s different from your own – Martin Cruz Smith is evidence of that.

If he set himself an almost impossible standard with Gorky Park, the first Arkady Renko thriller, the second and thirds one, Polar Star and Red Square respectively, are still a very good outing and in the latter particularly, historic events present a backdrop to the story.

The thing is with Smith, he’s good enough to weave fiction and fact together seamlessly and without ever seeming to be over-egging the pudding.

You don’t sit there, turning pages and thing: ‘My god, how clever is this writer?’ Instead, you simply wonder how it’s all going to turn out – and you keep turning the pages.

It might be that the stereotype of the melancholic Russian, steeped in vodka, is just that – a stereotype – but stereotypes also exist for a reason.

And here too, Smith gives his Renko books a great sense of empathy and atmosphere.

Still, as all this just goes to show, literature – even for professional reviewers; and that’s a role I’ve played – is more subjective than objective, particularly where fiction’s concerned.

It’s also always useful to be reminded of what quality is by seeing what it isn’t. And if Berlin Noir did nothing else, the obvious comparison with Chandler made me realise, yet again, what an absolute poet that man was.

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