Friday, February 08, 2008

Clearing the deck

It is mildly absurd, and may also be diagnosed as wearing the taint of procrastination-related rationalization--but just as I can't (unless in chaotic final throes of book-finishing, which I hope will shortly be the cacse!) really sit down to work properly until things are reasonably tidy in the physical world around me, so I feel that I have to mentally clear the deck before I can concentrate on my book manuscript!

So--the light reading backlog...

(I have read an extraordinarily small number of books this past year, partly as a result of life stress and general busyness but also and more obviously as a consequence of my triathlon obsession--it's not just the training hours--the amount of time I have spent contemplating swimming-related matters in the past twelve months is pretty much beyond belief!)

Nothing like reading a Dick Francis novel for the fifty-millionth time when it comes to calming oneself down....

(I am surprised that I have not leached all the pleasure out of every single one of his books by excessive rereading, but it seems they still have the power to lull me in a most attractive way. I have found a few other writers who seem to me to capture some of the Francis charms--the Australian crime writer Peter Temple writes Dick-Francis-died-and-gone-to-heaven novels that are really more like Beckett in their austere and lovely texture, Lee Child's Jack Reacher books produce in my reading brain the same delightful effects as Dick Francis in his prime--but there is nothing quite like a Dick Francis novel. If my spirit took me that way, I would start writing 'em myself, because it came clear to me a few years ago that if there is a book you most want to read and it does not yet exist, you had better write it yourself--that's what I've done with The Explosionist, there were no more unread novels by Philip Pullman or Garth Nix!--and in fact I wonder whether I could not indeed find some way of writing a vaguely Franciscan crime series--I have the premise, it would be series rather than standalone--and indeed it is the same thing as the Upper Manhattan animal shapeshifter novel I have been contemplating for some time--only now my main character is also a triathlete! But with an ethical dilemma about whether she can compete in USAT-sanctioned triathlons, because of her cougar blood--if I write these books, it is possible that all triathlon-related expenses would be retroactively tax-deductible, assuming I could dig out all the receipts...)

I had this for a train ride, only I have put it aside without finishing it, because it struck me as implausible and romanticizing in a way that marred my reading pleasure. (I vaguely mix up Robert Crais and Harlan Coben in my head, only Crais's novels are much more to my taste--Coben is very talented, but his books just don't take me the same way!)

I read Robert Harris's Imperium in dribs and drabs over a couple weeks. I enjoyed it, but any novel of this sort will suffer by comparison with the work of genius that is I, Claudius. Harris's hands are also tied by the decision to write what is essentially a biographical novel about Cicero's career from start to finish. He's got a narrator, Cicero's slave Tiro, a historical figure who really did write a (now lost) biography of the orator, and it seemed to me that there's the germ of a really wonderful novel here--about the invention of shorthand! But neither narrator nor subject are really psychologically developed.

It might have worked better if Harris had decided to write the whole novel around the episode of the trial of Catiline--things pick up, dramatically speaking, in the last part of the book. I felt the novel's shortcomings could be summed up by quoting a series of passages that unfortunately snagged my attention as I read:
At the center of all this whirling activity, as in the eye of a tornado, walked the candidate himself, clad in the gleaming toga candida which had already seen him through three victorious election campaigns. It was rare that I was able to watch him from a distance--usually I was tucked in behind him--and for the first time I appreciated what a natural actor he was, in that when he donned his costume he found his character. All those qualities which the traditional whiteness was supposed to symbolize--clarity, honesty, purity--seemed to be personified in his solid frame and steady gaze as he walked, unseeing, past me. (p. 283)

As I watched him come down the stairs in a freshly laundered white toga, his face washed and shaved and his hair combed and scented, I thought that no one could have guessed that he had not slept for the past two nights. . . . He smiled at [his wife] and said something, and at that moment I realized for the first time just how close they had become over the years, that what had started as a marriage of convenience was now a most formidable partnership. (p. 296)
I give the page numbers because of course the problem resides in having the narrator, so close to his subject, still pondering that subject's fundamental unknowability so late in the novel...

(Hmmm, side note, those "Catiline Orations" of Cicero's really are quite extraordinary; I remember working my way through bits of them in the intensive Latin class I took my last semester of college, and to this day the word extirpate gives me a lovely Ciceronian shiver...)

I've saved the best for last, though the length of this post means that I wonder whether anyone's still reading! Mal Peet's young-adult novel Tamar: A Novel of Espionage, Passion, and Betrayal has my whole-hearted endorsement. At times I felt the territory was a bit too familiar to me (Dutch resistance, WWII-era narrative spliced together with first-person narration by one of the earlier characters' granddaughter in present-day London)--there's very much the feel, for instance, of Sebastian Faulks' Birdsong and Charlotte Grey, both of which I really loved (especially the latter). In the end, though, I really don't think this is a problem--it was a hugely significant time, it is not surprising people should be still writing novels about it...

Reading it, especially the scenes in which one of the SOE operatives nerve-rackingly transmits coded messages by radio from Holland to England, made me think very strongly of my Scottish grandfather, who died almost fifteen years ago but to whom I was very close in my childhood and teenage years as well as through the early years of adulthood.

He was a gentler character in the time I knew him than he had been earlier in his life--he had a bossy or even bullying streak that had clearly been more dominant at one point, perhaps exacerbated by his position as headmaster of a school. His adult life was in many ways very much colored by his experience during WWII, a history he did not speak much about until the last years of his life.

I may have some of the details wrong here, and of course I cannot now check with him (my father will perhaps correct some of these details for me later!), but he was an ordinary soldier in the Royal Signal Corps who had the bad luck to be captured in North Africa in 1941, while my grandmother was pregnant with my father. He spent the whole rest of the war as a prisoner, first in very intensely unpleasant conditions in Italy (he only spoke about this to me once or twice, but it was the Italian part of his prisoner life that was almost unbearable for him to think about, and in fact as I understand it he never could face the idea of setting foot on Italian soil after the war--he was locked up with about a hundred and twenty others in a barn, and at the end of three months more than a third of the men had committed suicide) and then in a huge and Kafkaesque work camp in Germany.

There he was able to receive Red Cross packages and send letters, and to forge alliances with other prisoners due to some talent for and knowledge of languages. Indeed, he had a strange and moving story about being sent as representative of a group of prisoners lobbying for better treatment (I think he weighed not too much more than a hundred pounds when he got home after the war, maybe a hundred and twenty, and he was at least 6' 2", maybe taller, and a person of considerable physical substance in later years--another family story involves him exploding at my grandmother, during his first months home, for throwing away the outside leaves of a cabbage), and having a moment of connection with the military man who was the director of the--what to call it? camp, factory?--when they realized that they had both received degrees in Old English and Anglo-Norse in the same year in the 1930s.

When we were little, he told us about how he escaped in the chaos of the war's final days by stealing a car, with a fellow prisoner, and driving it west across Europe and home to Scotland and my grandmother. We liked to hear this story again and again, and indeed in one respect I expect it fairly accurately described what happened. But Peet's novel conveys the feeling of those days in a more persuasive and wholly unromantic way. Highly recommended.


  1. I like Tamar quite a lot but feel the two narrative strands don't mesh convincingly. Nevertheless, one of our excellent YA writers.

  2. Harris is, IMO, much better in his earlier Roman novel Pompeii, wherein we learn a great deal about Pliny the Elder and details of the great system of aqueducts that was one of the seldom-sung wonders of the ancient world.