Thursday, 24 July 2008

Greedy Appetites

Crime Fiction tends to rely on the glutton rather than the epicure – the criminals always seem to want insatiably - wealth, power, wo/men; the detectives want more and more, almost with a ferociousness, the next clue; and the readers stuff themselves to bursting with the newest publication. Tabloid details are piled high on the table and quickly consumed.

Death in the Truffle Wood is, unashamedly, Crime Fiction.

It does, however, nod in the direction of better cooking in that it titillates the appetite – usually with a dark humour. And there are a couple of good descriptions of the sort of food that gives the French the moral high ground over the English when it comes to ‘measuring’ cuisines.

Commissaire Laviolette, is the detective Poirot might have been if Agatha Crusty had been a French intellectual instead of English ‘madam’: He likes good food, he smokes roll-ups with the class only the intelligent seem to manage, he chases women whilst he’s chasing murderers and he is, according to his bosses, none-descript – he’s given the case of the disappearing hippies because no one will notice him.

He, like his author, Pierre Magnan, is Provencal – The Province – the one that gives its inhabitants the necessary passport to condescend to town dwellers everywhere, and puts the urbane in urban.

Laviolette understands the countryside and country people in a way streetwise Phillip Marlowes in their brick and tarmac jungles will never grasp. There is almost an organic telepathy, an osmosis of thought and feeling flowing between the detective and the community. Clues are a concentration of flavours and scents rather than solid facts … animals play a key role in searching out these essentials – just as Roseline, the truffle hunting pig, searches and earns her keep rooting for what is essentially a parasitic fungus sucking away at the roots of healthy oak trees.

Those truffles, however, feature strongly in both the cooking and the plot – and act as a metaphor for the whole genre – what, after all, is it we are searching for but the rotten feeding off the strong? What is the detective in fiction but a glorified truffle pig?

That is the kind of rhetorical question you end up asking as you read – and points to an element in this book which is missing in the average pot-boiler – intellectualism.

Now, I am of Anglo-Saxon stock, and, even though I’ve denied my father and changed … I haven’t gone so far as to feel comfortable with ‘intellectualism’. Intelligence I can cope with – as long as it does the occasional prat-fall and keeps itself suitably coy – but showy intellectualism is a bit ‘continental’.

All I can say is, “Here it works,” – it is an integral part of the book and gives a dimension to the read which is refreshing to the jaded palate. I am not convinced though that the majority of Morse (who is only intelligent, despite his opera playing) and Barnaby (who is decidedly English Bumbling) fans will take much pleasure from the story.

Of the characters that people the pages there is a real French tart – not the English sticky, sweet, ‘Queen of Hearts’, jam type, but a goat cheese, onion and truffle baked Banon original; a small, lost dachshund befriended by the pig; several braces of warring brothers; and a lightening struck old cow who terrifies all around her and gets the toughest of toughs to open doors, politely, for her. There is also mention but, infuriatingly. no development of a partnership between the local baker and the local priest.

I picked up the book as an intentional anti-dote to the heavy English cooking of ‘On Chesil Beach’ – and have to say, instead of a sorbet, I got something a little more substantial – but equally invigorating.

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Sunday, 20 July 2008

A visit to the bookshop

After the emotional thumping of 'On Chesil Beach' I thought I needed something a bit lighter.

I duly wandered into a couple of the local bookshops and did a browse.
I like browsing.
I end up buying a lot online - I live, after all, in a provincial town in an none-English speaking country: The fact that there are several bookshops in the town with a range of books in English is itself something of a miracle.

Don't try ordering though - the Romanian system can't cope with ordering.

Amazon (the UK one) saves my bacon regularly, even though the postage is unreasonable, almost punitive.

I wasn't sure what I wanted - i just knew it was to be lighter - possibly a Crusty (Agatha), possibly sci-fi; maybe something foreign - as long as it wasn't too intense.

There are some good Chinese and Japanese novels - the publisher Vintage seems to be making inroads into lesser explored territories; and sci-fi is over represented - too much in fact to go through, and the girl stocktaking in front of them restricted my enthusiasm somewhat.

Then two clear choices popped up - a classic, 'Memories of My Melancholy Whores', a García Márquez. I thought that was a good choice after all that sexual frustration of the McEwan.

And 'Death in the Truffle Wood' - whose blurb promises not only good crime fiction, but loving descriptions of French food.

After the early 60's English of the last novel, the French won hands down.

So, expect some delicious crime and good pig fodder next up!

Nobel Aspirations!

There was talk, when Ian McEwan’s ‘On Chesil Beach was up for The Booker Prize, of its shortness:  The implication is of a slight story, of a lack of depth – of ‘all very well, but …’.

I take it the people talking in that way either use a pair of scales to determine the quality of literature or have senses so exhausted from reading too many words as to be unable to determine true quality when it bites them.

This is not a book for literary gluttons – it is one for the epicure.

The plot is simple – we go through the agonies of two people on their wedding night: Both are virgins; both are deeply in love; both are nervous.

A simple tale.

But this is the end of the post war generation – the moment when one culture dies and another hope-full springs on the scene.  In his poem, Anus Mirabilis, Philip Larkin made the point:

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three

and it is as if On Chesil Beach has taken this as a leitmotiv.  The book is set just before this year of wonders.

Sex, sexual relationships, the physical linking of two people is very much an element in the book – but it is not only the physical, it is a psychological and spiritual, a communal and private expression of the moment of giving up a hard-fought-for independence.

As befits such a topic, several of the descriptions are quite explicit – Ian McEwan has the luxury of writing after the, ‘end of the "Chatterley" ban’ and consequently can talk of what is a forbidden subject to the post war generation (at least in respectable circles).

Music is also a key.

Florence is a young, talented, classical musician with an inability to see anything of interest in the popular music of her day; Edward, whilst being a little more flexible, swings a different direction – he dreams of fathering a daughter who would follow her mother into the world of music, possibly as a violinist (but, you never know, maybe with an electric guitar).

Edward gets into brawls outside pubs – enjoying the violent release of energies wound like a clock spring inside; Florence keeps a tight grip on her tensions using the notes on the printed score for her release and dominating, tyrant like almost, the rehearsals of the string quartet she forms.

Both are intelligent, both have a degree of single-mindedness both have families which encapsulate the standards of their time.

Florence’s family is a mix of business and academia – father earning, mother bohemianish philosopher – she knows the right people.  Edward comes from a different end of the same class – his father is a headmaster of a primary school, his mother, well, his mother ‘looks after’ the house.  Both have sisters, both have good childhoods.

How then do we get to the tragedy on the beach - for this is a tragedy – a real tragedy, of Ancient Greek proportions – how do we get beyond the point of no return?

Part of the answer, I think, lies in the hubris of mankind – we fail to make the right sacrifices letting the gods, ‘kill us for their sport’.  One word can make a difference, and we won’t speak that word through pride, or duty, or fear, or, - for whatever reason.

Another part is the downright stupidity of innocence … if there was ever an argument needed for sex education in schools – this is it!  But that is to reduce what is a sublime story to the ridiculous (although I do think Mr Mc knew his was a tightrope walk between tragedy and comedy).

Sublime too is the writing – there are descriptions here to relish: The cold coagulated early 60’s food; the cheap ‘French’ wine; the material of the dresses; the tackiness of bodily fluids.  Part of the intenseness of the story comes from this exceptionally careful use of appropriate description – you are firmly placed in a material world.

Not that this really happened – IM makes very clear on the last page of the book, “the characters in this novel are inventions.”  The need for this reminder is not just a legalistic, ‘someone might sue’, but a reflection of the success and believability of the story – as I read I thought of my older sisters (of this generation) and their wedding nights. I remembered the meals (and could name the wine).

The frightening verisimilitude gives added power to what I believe is a tale of essential humanity – there, but for …

(I also think this is the book the Nobel Prize committee will turn too one day and say – Universal Literature).

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Friday, 18 July 2008

Demon Fowl

Keep it simple, keep it fast and keep it jokey: Perfect entertainment for the mid-teens (and older).

I’ve enjoyed all the Artimis Fowl novels to date – and this latest, Artimis Fowl and the Lost Colony, is no exception.

For those not in the know, Artemis is a teenage genius with a penchant for crime, and a big – very BIG – minder called Butler. He’s been annoying the hell out of the fairy kingdom for years, although, having saved each other from disaster more than once, they have the sort of a love-hate relationship neither side would admit to: Holly, ex-LEPrecon (the fairy police), is his principle contact and Foley (the centaur) the technical wizardry supplier – oh, and there is a singularly repulsive character called Mulch, the perfect manifestation of all younger teenage toilet humour jokes – what comes out of his backside on a regular basis shall not soil these pages, even though it might fertilize the ground (and pollute the air).

In this episode Artemis starts off demon hunting in Barcelona – and catches more than he bargains for.

For starters there is an initially slightly younger female genius just as arrogant, just as rich and just as infuriating as he is himself: And with the surging of adolescent juices, Artemis is getting a little emotional: Not his sort of thing at all – he even has to ask Butler for advice! She’s too busy working on a paper for her first Nobel prize to take much notice.

Then there are the demons – whose own adolescent juices make the trials of the average human no more taxing than squeezing the odd blackhead. One of the demons seems to have a problem of delayed adolescence – but that turns out to be a good thing for all demon kind, although somewhat embarrassing for the poor individual concerned.

The final element is a suitably manic maniac, Kong – the human equivalent of a Polar bear amongst the seals. He had the misfortunes to have had a creative older brother whose embroidered ‘boggy-man’ stories result in a series of very unfortunate events at the top of a very high skyscraper and an exhibition of very accurately detailed stone carving from the Celtic fringes.

Nothing to worry about though – even though Artemis lets Holly die and fails totally at one point, trapping himself forever on the other side – all ends happy ‘til the next episode, in the end.

Great read (parents - steal it off the kids and sneak it under the bedcovers).

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Classic Flop?

Openly expressing dislike of what has become something of a classic of ‘British humour’ is possibly a dangerous thing – But … it is quite beyond me why the Cambridge ESOL Examinations Board should have set Kingsley Amis’s ‘Lucky Jim’ as a text for their CAE examinations, and equally beyond me why anyone should say it is funny.

I first read the thing back in the summer 1975 (I can be sure of the date because it was part of my University set reading – I was going ‘up’ to Leicester to study for a B.Sc. and some ‘wit’ had included this on the list of ‘books to study before coming’ as it was supposed to have sketches of people still teaching at the university in it – if it did, I never met them).

I didn’t find it very funny then, and I find it even less so now.

It is in the genre of ‘campus novels’ – a particularly tacky genre – and is claimed to have been ‘seminal’ – for which I shall never forgive it.

For those who don’t know, campus novels are about College and University campuses; are written by people whose whole lives have been blighted by the college experience and consequently feel it incumbent upon themselves to inflict a similar blight on the rest of their and future generations; they usually attempt to be ‘hilarious’ – and fail.

Campus Novels are loved by academics (a sort of S & M experience, I would suggest) and book critics (who tend to be failed academics - and consequently promote them as some sort of revenge taking experience). They pop up far too often on suggested reading lists and the like.

‘Lucky Jim’ supposedly changed the whole post-war generation … with little evidence to support this, I am firmly ‘in denial’.

Jim Dixon is the sort of lout who, because he had nothing better to do and is too lazy to do anything anyway, enters the University lecturing profession dishonestly – claiming interest and expertise where he has none. The book follows this thug’s adventures through a ‘red-brick’ university where he causes drunken destruction and chaos wherever he goes. He exhibits the sort of socialist rhetoric you’d expect and lands a job at the end with a millionaire.

What is clear to me (although not so clear to many at the time of publication, or since) is that Mr Amis does not like Jim – he is an ‘oink’ of the wrong class and only becomes respectable at the end as he moves into the pale blue conservative world. His luck is in escaping the not-really-university ‘red-brick’ institution, whose academic standards and personnel are only a joke.

The so called humour is in fact barely disguised contempt for the genuine changes brought on by a World War that shattered the privilege of education and class (although not so effectively). Educating this sort of person is obviously a dumbing-down in the eyes of Mr Amis.

The excellent introduction to the Penguin Edition, by David Lodge, also points out the attack being made on Graham Greene – especially on ‘The Heart of the Matter’.

There are obvious connections and references – from suicide to doing ‘the right thing’.

All I can say is I re-read, ‘The Heart of the Matter’ recently and was impressed: I re-read this slight book and found it severely wanting.

Fortunately Mr Amis went on to write better things – unfortunately, his politics went even further in the wrong direction.

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Saturday, 5 July 2008

Golf's Grip

Or the Oldest Member Clubs

P. G Wodehouse’s ‘The Heart of a Goof’ is superficially about golf – and you might need to check-out a couple of key words and phrases, not least mashie-niblick, in order to savour to the full all the delights contained within: But don’t be fooled – Wodehouse, like ‘the Oldest Member’, uses golf simply as the excuse to draw you into a series of nine gripping tales of deceit, love and warfare. I am tempted to say siren-like. In fact I will say siren like: Wodehouse, and the oldest member, siren-like, trap the unsuspecting passer-by in tales of neatly woven passions and barely suppressed expletives.

As befits the short, nine hole course, each story is unique in its play – but some are more unique than others.

Hole one explains the title – a goof in golf is a special type of player, one that has allowed the noblest of games to get to him and, as a consequence, suffers torments at the poor quality of his or her play (for Wodehouse’s is a strangely egalitarian game with regard to gender). Only love and a slight amount of cheating on behalf of a loved one, can save the nascent romance and push the goof to a proposal.

Holes two and three are a touch exotic in that they are played across the water – and involve the most Wodehousian combination of butler and gambling debts and revolve around suffering a long suffering, but not too present, wife. Money is involved here – as you would expect when touching down on American golfing soil. There is also the entrance of what surely must be the most superior of all Wodehouse’s superior butlers.

Hole four is back on terror firma – the horror being the need to contain oneself whilst out on the course with a ‘lady’, and the dangers of failure to achieve self expression. It’s something of a short hole, but the tension is held ‘til the final putt.

Sartorial elegance, the might plus4 and the arrogance of the newly elevated form the matter of hole five: A severe warning to all who value friendship and take up golf.

Hole six has us with the need for a mummy boy to turn hero (and discard some wet woollen underwear) – whereas the last three holes are ‘linked’ in that the players involved form around a trio of Golfing Male, Golfing Female and (yuk) poet. Don’t be fooled however into thinking they will play in a similar way – there are surprises lurking around the bends, and the final entrance of the Golfing Sister stymies all bets.

Damn fine play I‘d say!

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