It’s been a slow start to the reading year, which I ascribe to the fact that with two, count them, two ‘phones to occupy me on the train, my reading is taking a good kicking. (Why two phones? Because my company refuses to push out email to personal devices; and I run the whole rest of my life off my iPhone.)
Still, I have managed at least to get through a few things.
Alms for Oblivion – I had already read the first 4 books in the series, and I chain-read the next 6, because I heart Simon Raven and am now running a one-woman campaign to bring him back into fashion, and the books back into print. They are a fantastic counterpoint to Anthony Powell, so let us hope that University of Chicago Press picks them up and does an equally handsome printing job.
From what I can gather, Raven had no respect for anyone or anything, and so the characters in his series lie, manipulate, cheat, fuck, murder, blackmail and generally disappoint their way through life. Politics, academe, religion, the film industry, the army, private school all come up for vilification, and Raven had personal experience of most of them.
I think what I particularly enjoyed was that he was so exact and direct in his writing. Here’s an extract from The Survivors, the final book in the series. Captain Detterling is listening to a speech from a Bulgarian delegation at the annual International PEN club meeting. Out of desperation, he starts listening to what the speech sounds like in other languages:
He turned the arrow to French. Absolute silence; how appropriate – French, a precise and civilized language, had no equivalent for this rubbish, so the translator, one assumed, had simply given up. German: great throatfuls of congested inflections, ejaculated in a tone at once whining and aggressive. He removed his earphones to hear what the speech sounded like in Bulgarian itself, and hurriedly put them on again. Finally, for want of an alternative, he turned the arrow back to English.
That mix of dismissiveness, superiority and contempt is perfect characterization for Detterling, but the colourfulness is pure Raven.
Simon Raven was sacked from Charterhouse for excessive homosexuality, left Cambridge after failing to do any work at all, ran away from his wife by joining the army, from which he was then allowed to resign rather than being court-martialled for bankruptcy. The army at the time was apparently far more concerned with money than morals: his punishment for setting up a brothel for his men while stationed in Kenya had been only to send him home as a training officer. Raven died in 2001, and this is from The Guardian‘s obit:
The death of Simon Raven, at the age of 73 after suffering a stroke, is proof that the devil looks after his own. He ought, by rights, to have died of shame at 30, or of drink at 50.
I am so glad he had no shame and could hold his drink.
At the entirely unsalacious end of the spectrum, there is Ruby’s Spoon, an assured debut novel by Anna Lawrence Pietroni. And I’m not just being nice because I was at school with her and we are bonded by the shared trauma of school PE lessons. In fact, I’d be far more likely to be jealous, because we had the same English lessons up to a point and yet she writes like that while I write like this. Oh well.
Ruby’s Spoon won me over by the use of dialect, because I grew up in the Black Country in Birmingham and in my youth that’s probably how I sounded. The book deals with the irruption of exotic Isa Fly into the small, suspicious, close community of Cradle Cross, a manufacturing town still struggling to recover from the blows dealt by the First World War. Over the course of a couple of weeks, Isa’s presence acts as a catalyst in encouraging minor acts of vandalism, theft, and rebellion, all while ever darker secrets are rising to the surface. She has a particular appeal for lonely, semi-orphaned Ruby, whose long-held desire to get away from the town is sharpened by the sense of possibility Isa’s arrival brings.
I liked the story a lot, although because it’s a YA novel there were a few tricks of exposition I could have done without. But I really liked the depth, structure and rhythms of the writing:
Too late, Ruby remembered where she’d seen the dress before: the home-leave photograph of Beth and Jamie Abel, stuck in her Almanac.
“Eggs, and ends of bread; bits as I was keeping in the larder – all week things am going missing.” Nan Annie sat back on her heels. “I says to Em you wor brung up to steal, but Em’s been telling me some more about this half-blind girl who’s made a pet of Truda Blick. Her says this girl is using your two hands to do her thieving.”
“Her cor blame Isa! Got soaked in that storm, her did, and needed sommat dry.”
” Yo took it an yo never asked: yo stole it. Yo was so caught up wi your fancy for this stranger that yo gid her sommat that wor yours to gid.”
“I forgot as it was Beth’s.”
“Yo forgot?” Nan Annie stabbed the trowel so hard into the ground that it stayed there, fixed, upright. She stood, her hands pressed on her thighs, and marched past Ruby to the porch. “Forgetting is a luxury yoom blessed with, Rube, so doe delude yourself that yo has got it hard.”
That’s Ruby, fighting with her nan after mistakenly giving away a dress that belonged to her deceased mother, Nan Annie’s daughter. Nan Annie loves Ruby, but in a hard, possessive way that does as much to drive Ruby away as her father’s apparent abandonment of her. No wonder she is so easily caught by Isa Fly, although you’ll have to read the book (and it’s worth it) to find out if that turns out for good or bad.
And finally, there’s the two Modesty Blaise books I re-read. These are sheer, camp fun, written in the 60s and based on a successful newspaper strip. Modesty Blaise is the ultimate action heroine: beautiful, intelligent, young, and wealthy with a fortune she made by running an international crime syndicate. She can fence, shoot a gun or a bow, fight hand to hand, navigate by instinct and will kill calmly and efficiently when she has to. These days she’s on the side of law and order and she and the adoring Willie Garvin (a sort of working class Bond with Q-like gadgetry ability) get involved in ‘capers’ at the request of a shady branch of the British government. Invariably, Modesty and Willie are pitted against ruthless villains in impossible circumstances, and invariably their peculiar (and peculiarly fortunate) set of skills sees them through. It’s refreshing that Modesty saves Willie as often as he saves her, and that both of them get the shit kicked out of them with equal ferocity.
For a change of pace while I’m away, I’m taking A Biography of Latin by Nicholas Ostler, and The Doctor’s Wife by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. If this trip is anything like the last one, they’ll come back unread.!