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Tag: novel

Michel Houellebecq: master of timing, seer of change

Monday, 7 January, 2019

With last week’s publication of his latest novel, Sérotonine, Michel Houellebecq has armour-plated his reputation as France’s clairvoyant of terrible vistas. In 2001, his Plateforme, which peaks with an Islamist terrorist attack on a Thai tourist resort, was published just before the 9/11 attacks and the publication of Houellebecq’s Soumission in 2015, which portrays an Islamist political party taking power in France, coincided with the blood-spattered jihadist attack on the offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo on this day in 2015.

Now, comes Sérotonine, which taps into the Zeitgeist, this time in the form of the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protest movement. Although Houellebecq, has not campaigned for the movement, he has been called its “prophet” by France 24.

More Sérotonine here tomorrow.

Houellebecq


The eleventh post of pre-Christmas 2018: November

Sunday, 23 December, 2018

Frederick Forsyth was 33 when his first novel, The Day of the Jackal, was published in 1971. The story of how the OAS (Organisation Armée Secrète) hires an English assassin to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle became an international bestseller and gained the author fame and fortune. On 14 November, here, we welcomed Forsyth’s latest novel, which is very much about modern espionage.

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What if the most dangerous weapon in the world is not a nuke in a backpack but a 17-year-old boy with a brilliant mind, “who can run rings around the most sophisticated security services across the globe, who can manipulate that weaponry and turn it against the superpowers themselves?” That’s the premise of The Fox, the new thriller from Frederick Forsyth. Born in the year of the Munich Agreement, when British, French and Italian leaders agreed to Hitler’s demand for the German annexation of the Sudetenland, Forsyth has grown up in a world that has experienced its share of evil in his 80 years. The latest manifestation, in his latest novel, is the Vozhd, a Russian word meaning “the Boss” or, in the world of crime, “the Godfather”. When Forsyth was 15, the old Vozhd, Joseph Stalin, died. The new Vozhd is Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and one of his prized assets arrived in Russia in 2013, having fled from Hawaii. Snippet:

“When defector and traitor Edward Snowden flew to Moscow it is believed he carried over one and a half million documents on a memory stick small enough to be inserted before a border check into the human anus. ‘Back in the day’, as the veterans put it, a column of trucks would have been needed, and a convey moving through a gate tends to be noticeable.
So, the computer took over from the human, the archives containing trillions of secrets came to be stored on databases… Matching pace, crime also changed, gravitating from shoplifting through financial embezzlement to today’s computer fraud, which enables more wealth to be stolen than ever before in the history of finance. Thus the modern world gave rise to the concept of computerized hidden wealth but also to the computer hacker. The burglar of cyberspace.”

The Fox

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The review of the year as posted by Rainy Day ends tomorrow with the twelfth post of pre-Christmas 2018. The subject is the street-fighting man, then and now.


The innocent internet, safe from prying eyes

Sunday, 4 March, 2018 0 Comments

In 1995, A Crooked Man by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt was published by Warner Books. Blurb: “Part political thriller, part murder mystery, A Crooked Man is a gripping and superbly constructed novel which takes us into the dark heart of American society.”

Those who cannot imagine life without the internet, and many who regard the year 1995 as the Stone Age, might be surprised to learn that the World Wide Web was part of the communications mix two decades ago. The scene: Washington D.C. The players: Senator Nick Schlafer and the Secretary of the Department of Drug Control, Emery Frankfurt.

“Incidentally, we’re getting a surprising amount of support around the country. In the boondocks, even.”
“What makes you think so?”
“We’ve taken polls.”
Emery laughed. “I’d like to see them.”
“You can. I’ll have Segal fax you a printout.”
“Have him send it by modem over Internet. Saves paper and it’ll stay on the computer, out of the way of prying eyes.”
“Fine. I’ll see to it.”

It would stay on the computer and would be safe from prying eyes there. How quaint. And then along came the thieves, chief among them, Edward Snowden, and nothing would be safe on the computer again.

WWW circa 1995


Memorials outlast memories

Monday, 28 August, 2017 0 Comments

In Robert Goddard’s mathematical thriller, Out of the Sun, the hero, Harry Barnett, visits Kensal Green Cemetery and muses upon the erasure that death accomplishes: “The broken pillars still stood, the hollow helmets still echoed. But the thousands of names — and thousands of people they had once been — vanished sooner or later, beneath the lichen of utter forgetfulness. The memorials outlasted the memories. They alone remained, in this petrified forest of ceremonied mortality.”

Graveyard


Fifty years of One Hundred Years of Solitude

Thursday, 15 June, 2017 0 Comments

In June 1967, a newly-published novel began with this immortal sentence: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” Since then, more than 50 million copies of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez have been sold and the original Spanish version (Cien años de soledad) has been translated into 37 languages. García Márquez won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982 and his novel became synonymous with Latin America’s “magic realism.”

One Hundred Years of Solitude

Argentina’s Sudamericana Press printed the first edition of One Hundred Years of Solitude, which García Márquez had intended to call The House. The book’s epiphany had occurred two years earlier during a road trip across Mexico. In January 1965, García Márquez was driving to Acapulco and when he reached Cuernavaca — 86 kilometres south of Mexico City — he suddenly stopped the car. Aged 38, he had already written four books, but One Hundred Years of Solitude, which had been simmering in his subconscious since the early 1950s had erupted. The novel was, he said, “so ripe that I could have dictated the first chapter — word by word — to a typist.”

Gripped by a creative fever, he returned at once to Mexico City, sat down in front of his Smith Corona typewriter and wrote for 18 months from 9am to 3pm every day while his wife Mercedes worked to pay the bills. García Márquez had smoked 30,000 cigarettes before he typed the final full stop, and after receiving the first printed copy from Sudamericana, he destroyed his original manuscript so, as he said, “nobody would be able know either the secret tricks or the carpentry of his writing.” He spared the galley proofs, however, on which he had made 1,026 corrections and changes to the text.

The English translation was published 1970 and in his New York Times review, Robert Kiely summed it up like this: “It is not easy to describe the techniques and themes of the book without making it sound absurdly complicated, labored and almost impossible to read. In fact, it is none of these things. Though concocted of quirks, ancient mysteries, family secrets and peculiar contradictions, it makes sense and gives pleasure in dozens of immediate ways.”

Two things: No film has been made of the novel. García Márquez wouldn’t permit it. It’s “unfilmable,” he said. Second: The novel’s last message echoes: “…races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.”


The Dragon Teeth of Michael Crichton

Tuesday, 23 May, 2017 0 Comments

The brilliant American author Michael Crichton died in 2008, suddenly and much too young, but his work has assumed a life of its own. A new novel, Dragon Teeth, based on an original Crichton manuscript, is being published posthumously today. Set in 1876, Dragon Teeth follows two palaeontologists hunting for dinosaur fossils in the Wild West — and trying to sabotage each other’s work in the process. Excerpt:

Introduction

As he appears in an early photograph, William Johnson is a handsome young man with a crooked smile and a naive grin. A study in slouching indifference, he lounges against a Gothic building. He is a tall fellow, but his height appears irrelevant to his presentation of himself. The photograph is dated “New Haven, 1875,” and was apparently taken after he had left home to begin studies as an undergraduate at Yale College.

A later photograph, marked “Cheyenne, Wyoming, 1876,” shows Johnson quite differently. His mouth is framed by a full moustache; his body is harder and enlarged by use; his jaw is set; he stands confidently with shoulders squared and feet wide — and ankle-deep in mud. Clearly visible is a peculiar scar on his upper lip, which in later years he claimed was the result of an Indian attack.

The following story tells what happened between the two pictures.

For the journals and notebooks of William Johnson, I am indebted to the estate of W. J. T. Johnson, and particularly to Johnson’s great-niece, Emily Silliman, who permitted me to quote extensively from the unpublished material. (Much of the factual contents of Johnson’s accounts found their way into print in 1890, during the fierce battles for priority between Cope and Marsh, which finally involved the U.S. government. But the text itself, or even excerpts, was never published, until now.)

Dragon Teeth

PART I

THE FIELD TRIP WEST

Young Johnson Joins the Field Trip West

William Jason Tertullius Johnson, the elder son of Philadelphia shipbuilder Silas Johnson, entered Yale College in the fall of 1875. According to his headmaster at Exeter, Johnson was “gifted, attractive, athletic and able. But the headmaster added that Johnson was “headstrong, indolent and badly spoilt, with a notable indifference to any motive save his own pleasures. Unless he finds a purpose to his life, he risks unseemly decline into indolence and vice.”

Those words could have served as the description of a thousand young men in late nineteenth-century America, young men with intimidating, dynamic fathers, large quantities of money, and no particular way to pass the time.

William Johnson fulfilled his headmaster’s prediction during his first year at Yale. He was placed on probation in November for gambling, and again in February after an incident involving heavy drinking and the smashing of a New Haven merchant’s window. Silas Johnson paid the bill. Despite such reckless behavior, Johnson remained courtly and even shy with women of his own age, for he had yet to have any luck with them. For their part, they found reason to seek his attention, their formal upbringings notwithstanding. In all other respects, however, he remained unrepentant. Early that spring, on a sunny afternoon, Johnson wrecked his roommate’s yacht, running it aground on Long Island Sound. The boat sank within minutes; Johnson was rescued by a passing trawler; asked what happened, he admitted to the incredulous fishermen that he did not know how to sail because it would be “so utterly tedious to learn. And anyway, it looks simple enough.” Confronted by his roommate, Johnson admitted he had not asked permission to use the yacht because “it was such bother to find you.”

Faced with the bill for the lost yacht, Johnson’s father complained to his friends that “the cost of educating a young gentleman at Yale these days is ruinously expensive.” His father was the serious son of a Scottish immigrant, and took some pains to conceal the excesses of his offspring; in his letters, he repeatedly urged William to find a purpose in life. But William seemed content with his spoiled frivolity, and when he announced his intention to spend the coming summer in Europe, “the prospect,” said his father, “fills me with direst fiscal dread.”

Thus his family was surprised when William Johnson abruptly decided to go west during the summer of 1876. Johnson never publicly explained why he had changed his mind. But those close to him at Yale knew the reason. He had decided to go west because of a bet.

In his own words, from the journal he scrupulously kept:

Every young man probably has an arch-rival at some point in his life, and in my first year at Yale, I had mine. Harold Hannibal Marlin was my own age, eighteen. He was handsome, athletic, well-spoken, soaking rich, and he was from New York, which he considered superior to Philadelphia in every respect. I found him insufferable. The sentiment was returned in kind.

Marlin and I competed in every arena — in the classroom, on the playing-field, in the undergraduate pranks of the night. Nothing would exist but that we would compete over it. We argued incessantly, always taking the opposing view from the other.

One night at dinner he said that the future of America lay in the developing West. I said it didn’t, that the future of our great nation could hardly rest on a vast desert populated by savage aboriginal tribes.

He replied I didn’t know what I was talking about, because I hadn’t been there. This was a sore point — Marlin had actually been to the West, at least as far as Kansas City, where his brother lived, and he never failed to express his superiority in this matter of travel.

I had never succeeded in neutralizing it.

“Going west is no shakes. Any fool can go,” I said.

“But all fools haven’t gone — at least you haven’t.”

“I’ve never had the least desire to go,” I said.

“I’ll tell you what I think,” Hannibal Marlin replied, checking to see that the others were listening. “I think you’re afraid.”

“That’s absurd.”

“Oh yes. A nice trip to Europe’s more your way of things.”

“Europe? Europe is for old people and dusty scholars.”

“Mark my word, you’ll tour Europe this summer, perhaps with a parasol.”

“And if I do go, that doesn’t mean —”

“Ah hah! You see?” Marlin turned to address the assembled table. “Afraid. Afraid.” He smiled in a knowing, patronizing way that made me hate him and left me no choice.

“As a matter of fact,” I said coolly, “I am already determined on a trip in the West this summer.”

That caught him by surprise; the smug smile froze on his face. “Oh?”

“Yes,” I said. “I am going with Professor Marsh. He takes a group of students with him each summer.” There had been an advertisement in the paper the previous week; I vaguely remembered it.

“What? Fat old Marsh? The bone professor?”

“That’s right.”

“You’re going with Marsh? Accommodations for his group are Spartan, and they say he works the boys unmercifully. It doesn’t seem your line of things at all.” His eyes narrowed. “When do you leave?”

“He hasn’t told us the date yet.”

Marlin smiled. “You’ve never laid eyes on Professor Marsh, and you’ll never go with him.”

“I will.”

“You won’t.”

“I tell you, it’s already decided.”

Marlin sighed in his patronizing way. “I have a thousand dollars that says you will not go.”

Marlin had been losing the attention of the table, but he got it back with that one. A thousand dollars was a great deal of money in 1876, even from one rich boy to another.

“A thousand dollars says you won’t go west with Marsh this summer,” Marlin repeated.

“You, sir, have made a wager,” I replied. And in that moment I realized that, through no fault of my own, I would now spend the entire summer in some ghastly hot desert in the company of a known lunatic, digging up old bones.


Monday in Maria Edgeworth’s Ireland

Monday, 13 March, 2017 0 Comments

This is the week of Saint Patrick and in the run up to his big day on Friday we’re devoting our posts to matters Irish. To kick off, we’ve got an excerpt from Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth (1768 – 1849). It was published in 1800 and is regarded as the first Anglo-Irish novel.

Castle Rackrent satirises Anglo-Irish landlords and their mismanagement of their estates. The main characters are the spendthrift Sir Patrick O’Shaughlin, the litigious Sir Murtagh Rackrent, the cruel husband and gambling absentee Sir Kit Rackrent and the generous but improvident Sir Condy Rackrent. The novel is narrated by their steward, the sly Thady Quirk. For Maria Edgeworth, who was born in Oxfordshire and educated in London, the native Irish were a tempestuous people and her observations about their attitudes to notions of authority and time ring true today:

“Thady begins his memoirs of the Rackrent Family by dating MONDAY MORNING, because no great undertaking can be auspiciously commenced in Ireland on any morning but MONDAY MORNING. ‘Oh, please God we live till Monday morning, we’ll set the slater to mend the roof of the house. On Monday morning we’ll fall to, and cut the turf. On Monday morning we’ll see and begin mowing. On Monday morning, please your honour, we’ll begin and dig the potatoes,’ etc.

All the intermediate days, between the making of such speeches and the ensuing Monday, are wasted: and when Monday morning comes, it is ten to one that the business is deferred to THE NEXT Monday morning. The Editor knew a gentleman, who, to counteract this prejudice, made his workmen and labourers begin all new pieces of work upon a Saturday.”

Edgeworthstown House


Munich by Robert Harris

Sunday, 12 March, 2017 0 Comments

Munich’s Oktoberfest, the world’s biggest beer festival, will run from 16 September to 3 October this year and some six million visitors are expected to take part in the annual swilling. It’s a global event and the organizers are constantly seeking ways to broaden the appeal. Their latest innovation is the Oktoberfest 7s, an international rugby tournament. Sevens is a variant of rugby union in which teams of seven players play seven-minute halves, instead of the usual 15 players playing 40-minute halves. The Oktoberfest 7s hopes to emulate the success of the Hong Kong Sevens tournament, which has evangelized the game in Asia and now features teams from Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

Munich While all the scrimmaging and drinking are taking place in the Bavarian capital, Robert Harris will debut his new novel, titled simply Munich. According to the blurb, “Munich is a spy thriller about treason and conscience, loyalty and betrayal, filled with real-life characters and actual events.”

The book is set over four days during the infamous Munich Conference of September 1938, which ended with the signing of an agreement by the major powers of Europe that permitted Nazi Germany’s annexation of portions of Czechoslovakia. Anticipating this act of appeasement, Winston Churchill remarked, “England has been offered a choice between war and shame. She has chosen shame, and will get war.” And that’s exactly what happened.

Between beer and betrayal, Munich shoulders an enormous weight of culture and history with impressive dignity. The past and the present intersect on most streets and one is commemorated as the other is celebrated. Robert Harris has chosen his subject and his timing well.


Tubular Bells for William Peter Blatty

Saturday, 14 January, 2017 0 Comments

The death yesterday of William Peter Blatty, author of the best-selling novel The Exorcist, brought back memories of the music William Friedkin used in 1973 for his film of the book. Friedkin’s adaptation turned out to be a masterpiece, a landmark in horror cinema, a cultural phenomenon and one of the highest-grossing films of all time. Although it made minimal use of music — a choice that gave the film an air of realism despite the supernatural events depicted onscreen — the score was a winner.

Friedkin had originally commissioned music from Lalo Schifrin, who had done soundtrack work for Cool Hand Luke, Dirty Harry and the Mission Impossible TV theme, but he hated Schifrin’s score and threw it out the window, literally. Instead, he used classical pieces by the Austrian composer Anton Webern, modern work by the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, as well as original music by Jack Nitzsche. But what is now considered the “Theme from The Exorcist” is Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield, which went on to become a hit so huge that it gave birth to Richard Branson’s Virgin empire.


The dreary quarrels of Northern Ireland re-emerge

Wednesday, 11 January, 2017 0 Comments

In a time of global turbulence, when we should be focused on issues that will affect stability and prosperity, Northern Ireland threatens to divert attention with a crisis fueled by, well, fuel, and headlined “Cash for Ash”. The bizarre Renewable Heat Incentive scandal is exposing the old tribal antagonisms and the brittle peace is endangered. Nothing new, however. Let us pause for a moment and go back a century to Winston Churchill describing the aftermath of World War I:

“The position of countries has been violently altered. The modes of thought of men, the whole outlook on affairs, the grouping of parties, all have encountered violent and tremendous change in the deluge of the world. But as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again. The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that have been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world.”

High Dive The integrity of that quarrel is central to the latest novel by Jonathan Lee. High Dive centres on an event that took place at the Grand Hotel in Brighton on 12 October 1984. Then, the Provisional IRA terrorists group attempted to assassinate Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet, who were staying at the hotel for the Conservative Party conference. Although Mrs Thatcher narrowly escaped injury, five people were killed including a Conservative MP, and 31 were injured, by the long-delay time bomb planted in the hotel by the IRA.

Jonathan Lee’s book doesn’t offer an analysis of violent Irish republicanism or Tory party politics, but it excels in describing the particulars of the English hospitality trade. Lee, like so many members of the writing class, harbours some sympathy for the “rebels”, but the reader should be aware that the characters in his novel are no idealists. More than three decades after the Brighton bombing, the antagonists of Northern Ireland have turned their dreary, squalid feud into an industry that supplies their claques with cash from ash and other combustibles. The integrity of their quarrel is endless.


Series of the Year: The Night Manager

Thursday, 22 December, 2016 0 Comments

In an age of sleeplessness and over-extended streamed series, The Night Manager manages to get in and out in six, 90-minute episodes. That’s a serious plus for the time constrained. This co-production by the BBC and AMC is a lavish update of a 1993 John Le Carré novel that feels a bit like James Bond meets Tom Ripley. In fact, Hugh Laurie meets Tom Hiddleston in the most picture-postcard parts of Egypt, Britain, Switzerland, Morocco, Spain and Turkey.

Laurie plays arms dealer Richard Roper, whose ability to fly beneath the radar has frustrated British intelligence agent Angela Burr (Olivia Coleman) for more than a decade. She’s obsessed with catching this Big Fish and her angler turns out to be Hiddleston as Jonathan Pine, the hotel night manager of the title.

Director Susanne Bier pans between the treacherous, charming Laurie and Hiddleston, a former soldier turned stylish night manager at upscale hotels. Elizabeth Debicki is the elegant American arm candy for Laurie’s character and her attraction to the attractive Hiddleston gives the storyline a needed touch of animality. Typically le Carré, the plot features elaborate conspiracies at almost every turn. Add in lots of drinking and you’ve got what’s needed to make The Night Manager our Series of the Year.

The Night Manager

“Promise to build a chap a house, he won’t believe you. Threaten to burn his place down, he’ll do what you tell him. Fact of life.” — Richard Roper, The Night Manager