On Being Blue by William H. Gass was first published in 1976, the year when the Apple Computer Company was formed, the Ramones released their first album and Agatha Christie died. Now, it’s being republished by NYRB Classics, with an introduction by Michael Gorras, and here’s a snippet from his appreciation of the amazing flexibility of the English language in the hands of Gass:
“Say it. Go ahead, stand before the mirror, look at your mouth, and say it. Blue. See how you pucker up, your lips opening with the consonants into a kiss, and then that final exhalation of vowels? Blue. The word looks like what it is, a syllable blown out into the air, and with the sound and the sight of saying it as one. You blew blue, though let’s pause a while before getting on to that, and try it out in the other languages you might claim to know. Bleu. But it’s just not the same, your lips don’t purse as much, the eu cuts the syllable short where the ue prolongs it, sustaining it like a piano’s pedal. Blau — that doesn’t work either, and the ow makes the mouth open too far. It’s not quite a howl, it’s a touch too soft for that, and yet it’s a blowsy sound, and untidy. As for azzurro or azul, well, those suggest something else entirely.”
“The ship’s surgeon was a spotty unshaven little man whose clothes, arrayed with smudges, drippings, and cigarette burns, were held about him by an extensive network of knotted string.” The Recognitions by William Gaddis.
While Michael Gorras pays tribute to the musical language of William Gass in his introduction to On Being Blue, Gass did something similar for William Gaddis in his introduction to The Recognitions: “I particularly like the double ts with which our pleasure begins, but perhaps you will prefer the ingenious use of the vowel i in the sentence with which it ends… or the play with d and c in the same section,” he wrote. Michael Robbins looks at “How perfectly strung-together words can delight the ear” in the Printers Row Journal.Tweet
On 10 May 1953, the old German city of Chemnitz was renamed Karl-Marx-Stadt (Karl Marx City) by its Communist rulers. On 21 June 1990, Marx was deposited in the dustbin of European history and Chemnitz was Chemnitz once more. The city is home to many attractions, including the Lessing & Kompanie bookshop. According to the German book trade magazine, Börsenblatt, the owner of Lessing & Kompanie, Klaus Kowalke, invested €3,500 in an all-day session with a professional photographer taking 1,700 snaps of 127 of his customers in the shop, with their favourite books. The result is a charming Tumblr.Tweet
J.M. Ledgard leads a double life. As a journalist, he covers East Africa for The Economist, but he’s also a novelist and the multitasking narrator of Submergence, James More, reflects Ledgard’s twofold career. Ostensibly, he’s a water engineer based in Nairobi, but that’s just a cover for his activities as a British intelligence agent. When we meet him, he’s been captured by a Somalian affiliate of al-Qaeda, which keeps moving him back and forth across the bleak African terrain, trying to hide from American drones while planning jihad. James is sustained in his suffering by the memory of a brief affair in a hotel on the French Atlantic coast with Danielle Flinders, a brilliant and carnal bio-mathematician, who studies the luminous creatures of the ocean floor. As James sinks deeper into the desolation of his captivity, Danielle prepares for a dive that will take her to the extreme depths of the Atlantic. Submergence mixes language, science, politics, geography and love in a superb story about deserts, oceans, desire and terror.
Saif, the leader of the jihadist group, constantly talks of martyrdom. At one point, he says, “I expect to die soon. I welcome it. I expect you’ll be killed too. That is why I want you to convert to Islam.”
“No,” James said, firmly.
This exchange is followed by a truly extraordinary lyrical passage:
“There was no chance he would convert. It was not just a question of Islam, it was the way life was constructed. A man lived his threescore years and ten, less than a whale, less than a roughy fish, and the only way to come to terms with his mortality was to partake in something that would outlive him: a field cleared of stones, a piece of jewellery, a monument, a machine. Every man was a loyalist for what he knew. Even tramps fought for the tramping life. Life was too short for him to renounce the English parish church, once Catholic, with their knights’ tombs, prayer cushions, flower arrangements, the brass lectern in the shape of an eagle. No, the quiet of those places — the ancient front door, the graveyard, the meadow, the damp — gave him a sense of belonging. He was loyal to them. It was too late to abandon the English canon, from Chaucer to Dickens, the first World War poets, Graham Greene typing through the smog and the drizzle… He had said it before: he was an intelligence officer who reached out, spoke Arabic, read widely, but if the Crusades were invoked — and Saif was invoking them — then he was a Crusader. If he had to die at the hands of fanatics, he wished to remain familiar and coherent to those whom he loved and who loved him.”
J.M. Ledgard has partaken in something that will outlive him and he’s to be congratulated for writing such honest and moving prose. If, in 2014, we are to suffer pain and loss, let us remain familiar and coherent to those whom we love and who love us.Tweet
Earlier this year, the German writer Wolfgang Herrndorf asked his friends if they knew someone who knew someone who could get him a revolver. He wasn’t planning to rob a bank or commit a crime of passion. Rather, he intended to fight cancer — his way. Before long, he was the owner of an unregistered .357 Smith & Wesson and he found it to be a thing of considerable beauty. “It possessed such a comprehensively calming effect that it’s unclear to me why the health insurance provider didn’t pay for it,” he wrote in his diary. On 26 August, he left his apartment in Berlin, strolled along the bank of the Hohenzollernkanal, found a seat, put the barrel of the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. He was 48.
Most modern German writing is unreadable. There’s no shortage of material, but it seems that the writers are more interested in whingeing about the “Kapitalismus” that has given them such an enviable standard of living, or they’re occupied with absurdities such as the Occupy movement, or they’re fomenting hatred of Amazon and Google and generally acting the Luddite when it comes to technological progress. All this is preferable to the hard work of writing. The result is an endless stream of turgid polemical tracts misleadingly labelled as novels and memoirs. Wolfgang Herrndorf was the honourable exception to this rule.
His novel Tschick (English: Why We Took the Car) was published in mid-2010 and a year later Sand appeared. The two represented the most exciting and stylish German fiction of recent times. Tschick was published in 27 countries and one million copies were sold in Herrndorf’s homeland. Along with writing novels, Herrndorf posted regularly at his blog Arbeit und Struktur and it was there that the wider world learned of his battle with cancer. After three operations and bouts of radiation treatment and chemotherapy he decided that he’d had enough of modern medicine and requested the revolver. The book of his blog is now destined to be a posthumous bestseller.Tweet
Given South Africa’s resources, the late Nelson Mandela had the power to become an even greater tyrant than Robert Mugabe. Instead, Mandela decided to become a secular saint. We can only hope that all leaders would act as he did. In 1962, Nelson Mandela was transferred from Pretoria to the prison on Robben Island, remaining there for the next 18 years. This snippet is from his Long Walk To Freedom:
“June and July were the bleakest months on Robben Island. Winter was in the air, and the rains were just beginning. It never seemed to go above forty degrees Fahrenheit. Even in the sun, I shivered in my light khaki shirt. It was then that I first understood the cliché of feeling the cold in one’s bones. At noon we would break for lunch. That first week all we were given was soup, which stank horribly. In the afternoon, we were permitted to exercise for half an hour under strict supervision. We walked briskly around the courtyard in single file.
Robben Island had changed since I had been there for a fortnight’s stay in 1962. In 1962, there were few prisoners; the place seemed more like an experiment than a full-fledged prison. Two years later, Robben Island was without question the harshest, most iron-fisted outpost in the South African penal system. It was a hardship station not only for the prisoners but for the prison staff. Gone were the Coloured warders who had supplied cigarettes and sympathy. The warders were white and overwhelmingly Afrikaans-speaking, and they demanded a master-servant relationship. They ordered us to call them ‘baas,’ which we refused. The racial divide on Robben Island was absolute: there were no black warders, and no white prisoners.
From the first day, I had protested about being forced to wear short trousers. I demanded to see the head of the prison and made a list of complaints. The warders ignored my protests, but by the end of the second week, I found a pair of old khaki trousers unceremoniously dumped on the floor of my cell. No pin-striped three-piece suit has ever pleased me as much. But before putting them on I checked to see if my comrades had been issued trousers as well.
They had not, and I told the warder to take them back. I insisted that all African prisoners must have long trousers. The warder grumbled, ‘Mandela, you say you want long pants and then you don’t want them when we give them to you.’ The warder balked at touching trousers worn by a black man, and finally the commanding officer himself came to my cell to pick them up. ‘Very well, Mandela,’ he said, ‘you are going to have the same clothing as everyone else.’ I replied that if he was willing to give me long trousers, why couldn’t everyone else have them? He did not have an answer.”
In March 1960, Ian Fleming had dinner with John F. Kennedy at the White House. In his book, The Life of Ian Fleming, John Pearson notes: “During the dinner the talk largely concerned itself with the more arcane aspects of American politics and Fleming was attentive but subdued. But with coffee and the entrance of Castro into the conversation he intervened in his most engaging style. Cuba was already high on the headache list of Washington politicians, and another of those what’s to-be-done conversations got underway. Fleming laughed ironically and began to develop the theme that the United States was making altogether too much fuss about Castro — they were building him into a world figure, inflating him instead of deflating him. It would be perfectly simple to apply one or two ideas which would take all the steam out of the Cuban.” Kennedy asked him what would James Bond do about Fidel Castro. Fleming replied, “Ridicule, chiefly.”
In March 1961, Hugh Sidey wrote an article in Life Magazine on JFK’s top ten favourite books designed to show that the president was both well-read and in touch with popular taste. The only work of popular fiction on the list was From Russia With Love. Up until then, Bond had not sold well in the US, but by the end of 1961 Ian Fleming had become the largest-selling thriller writer in America.
“The great trains are going out all over Europe, one by one, but still, three times a week, the Orient Express thunders superbly over the 1,400 miles of glittering steel track between Istanbul and Paris. Under the arc-lights, the long-chassied German locomotive panted quietly with the laboured breath of a dragon dying of asthma. Each heavy breath seemed certain to be the last. Then came another.” Ian Fleming, From Russia With Love
Following a forced and painful interruption, we’re ready to recommence reading Solo, the new James Bond thriller by William Boyd. At the end of the first chapter, 007 is at the Café Picasso in Chelsea in London. He orders a glass of Valpolicella and a portion of lasagne. This is followed by another glass of wine and an espresso. Now, note what follows: “He threw down a pound note and some coins to cover his bill and a tip, stepped out into the King’s Road and hailed a taxi.” Given London prices today, William Boyd is dealing clearly with a distant past in Solo.
Here’s the cover of the fourth Ian Fleming 007 story, Diamonds are Forever, which was published in March 1956 in Britain by Jonathan Cape. The creator of the cover art is to be credited with making an effort to match the author’s attitude.
“Before a man’s forty, girls cost nothing. After that you have to pay money, or tell a story. Of the two, it’s the story that hurts most. Anyway I’m not forty yet.” Ian Fleming, Diamonds are Forever
Amazon has delivered and once some upcoming unpleasantness has been successfully weathered, we’ll be enjoying Solo, the new James Bond thriller by William Boyd. Can’t resist a quick peek at the first sentence, though. Here goes: “James Bond was dreaming.” Hmmm. Sounds, er, promising. Meanwhile, here’s the cover of the third Ian Fleming 007 story, Moonraker, which was published in April 1955 in Britain by Jonathan Cape. The cover art, if one can call it that, marks one of the low points in the history of design. Between the covers, though, the author was splendidly un-PC.
“Unless she married soon, Bond thought for the hundredth time, or had a lover, her cool air of authority might easily become spinsterish and she would join the army of women who had married a career.” Ian Fleming, Moonraker
One would think that in these dramatic days of data mining the old-style espionage thriller would find it hard to compete, but the opposite is the case. Three new novels suggest that there’s a lot of life left in the genre yet:
An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris explores the Dreyfus Affair through the eyes and ears of Colonel Georges Picquart who, as head of the Statistical Section, a clandestine intelligence unit, gains access to the secret evidence used against Dreyfus. Parallels between the resolution of the Dreyfus Affair in 1906 and recent events revealing the power that intelligence agencies wield is not coincidental.
Solo by William Boyd is a continuation of the James Bond saga. M sends 007 to a West African state split by civil war over oil reserves with the mission of destabilizing the rebel movement under the cover of a journalist for a French press agency (France, unsurprisingly, supports the insurgents). So, in 1969, Bond departs for the Dark Continent equipped with Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter and some toiletries. “He who travels lightest, travels furthest, Bond supposed, and that included weaponry. Into a war zone with a can of talcum powder and some aftershave.”
Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan deals with the experiences of its protagonist, Serena Frome, during the early 1970s, when Britain is being torn apart by industrial unrest and terrorism. After graduating from Cambridge she is recruited by MI5, and is sent out to combat communism in the intellectual world. But Cupid strikes and Serena is forced to abandon the first rule of espionage — trust no one.
Reading all three will take some time, but they’re on the list. That same list has been reduced by one with the recent completion of Paranoia by Joseph Finder. Although it was published in 2004, the theme of industrial espionage is as relevant as ever. The problem with the book, however, is that it has aged radically, although it’s less than a decade old. The pace of technological change is so relentless now that a story where LexisNexis is the cutting-edge search engine sounds absurd to our ears. Joseph Finder cannot be faulted for this, but there is a lesson here for would-be novelists and over-reliance on communication gadgets as plot drivers. Robert Harris, Ian McEwan and William Boyd cleverly fix their recent spy stories in the 20th century, which allows them to look back — cynically, humourously, skeptically — at what was once considered the acme of progress and sophistication.
Joseph Finder’s Paranoia was given the opportunity to refresh itself recently via a Hollywood adaptation but the reviews have been universally awful. Describing it as “a ho-hum thriller about corporate spying in the high-tech world,” SF Gate says it “comes off as a lot more preposterous than paranoid, and it takes no more than a few frames for the eye rolling to commence.” Much of the blame lies with the vapid Liam Hemsworth, who was dreadfully miscast as Adam Cassidy, the mischievous, brilliant, vulnerable narrator of the yarn, but the inclusion of Gary Oldman as the villain, Nick Wyatt, is another serious blow to the credibility of Finder’s original. “He had a deep tan, shoe polish-black hair gelled and combed straight back. His teeth were perfectly even and Vegas-white. He was fifty-six but didn’t look it, whatever fifty-six is supposed to look like.” That’s very not Gary Oldman and an over-egged London accent does not make him a convincing corporate shark, either. Ah, well. Solo is sure to be better when it is filmed.Tweet
In 1980, the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz, then living in exile in California. Although he served as a post-war cultural attaché of the newly formed People’s Republic of Poland in Paris and Washington DC, Milosz became increasingly disillusioned with Stalinist dogma and in 1953 he wrote The Captive Mind, which exposed the pernicious effects of Marxist orthodoxy on his generation of idealists. “Written before the Berlin Wall went up, The Captive Mind was a key factor in eventually bringing it down,” noted the critic Clive James in Cultural Amnesia.
When the Polish intelligentsia was being “wiped out half by one set of madmen and half by another”, Milosz found strength in the Bible because it “provided a standard of authenticity against a much more dangerous language, the language of legalized murder,” writes James, a confirmed atheist. Of his own position regarding the Good Book, he declares: “But without the scriptures we poor wretches would be lost indeed, because without them, conscience itself would become just another disturbance of the personality to be cured by counselling. We are surrounded by voices telling us that everything will come right if we learn to love ourselves. Imagine the torment of Jesus in his passion, if, on top of the sponge of vinegar and the spear, they had offered him counselling as well.”Tweet
A quick look at the New York Times Bestsellers earlier in the week — Hardcover Non-Fiction — showed Jesus topping and tailing the list. In first place was Killing Jesus, an account of the life, times and crucifixion of our Saviour by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, and in tenth position, Zealot, a biography of the revolutionary Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan. And there was even more faith in fourth position with I Am Malala, which is about a Pakistani girl who was shot by the Islamist Taliban, while in fifth place was My Story, in which Elizabeth Smart tells of being kidnapped from her Utah home in 2002 at age 14 by a couple noted for their “religious idiosyncrasy”.
All this brings us to Amos Lee, whose fine new album, Mountains Of Sorrow, Rivers Of Song has come into our possession via iTunes. Although the name may not be familiar to all, Lee has built a sterling reputation by touring with Adele, Willie Nelson, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan. Along with composing his own songs, he’s a superb interpreter and his version of Fred Neil’s A Little Bit of Rain is splendid. This is from the Mission Bell album.Tweet