Friday, July 29, 2016

My Log 522 July 28 2016: Good writing, even unique writing, is to be found in all sorts of places: Patricia Highsmith and Robert B. Parker and the pleasures of their prose mastery

Ever since I started to write for a living in 1945, I have been devoted to the English language, and astonished by the many forms in which good writing can appear. I admit I am no model of writing, but I have always had before me the hope that I can express clearly what I am trying to say. In that I have always thought Bertrand Russell is a model, because it seemed he could take any subject and make it comprehensible to any reader.
I think I can say I have read widely, although my preference has always trended away from really serious writing such as great novels (I am an extravagant admirer of, for example, Dickens, Balzac, Stendhal and Tolstoy, although I am very far from having read all of their works, or even having studied any of them in extenso.)
I grew up with a ridiculous prejudice that held that only fiction was serious writing, only fiction was “creative”, and I have expended a lot of energy fruitlessly in writing novels and plays, of which I have hidden away somewhere in drawers probably as many as 10 or a dozen. It has taken books such as “Memory of Fire,” Eduardo Galeano’s monumental and thrilling three-volume history of Latin America, and such a masterwork as “The Age of Extremes: a Short History of the 20th century,” by Eric Hobsbawm, a book that seemed to be describing my own life, to convince me that “creative” writing need not be works of the imagination, as fiction is so often described.
Recently I have begun reading a work that has been enthusiastically recommended to me by my partner, The Stone Angel, by Margaret Laurence.  I once interviewed this remarkable woman author, child of a poor family in Manitoba, and I also interviewed another Manitoba woman novelist,  Adele Wiseman, whose Afterword in the edition of Laurence’s book explains in letters she received from Laurence, the agony, uncertainty, self-doubt, and yet ferocious certainty that always seems to accompany the birth of a real work of literature. I interviewed Wiseman because I was a reporter in Winnipeg when her first novel The Sacrifice was published in  1956, establishing what became a theme in her career, that of the experience of immigrants from the Old World, especially of Jewish immigrants, and their difficulty in coping with the New World in which they found themselves. She, too, like Laurence, went on to become an important figure in Canadian literature as a chronicler of the life of the Jewish ghetto, as it might be called, in North Winnipeg. She was born in the same year as me, 1928, and I was surprised to discover that she died at the age of 64 in 1992.
(Incidentally, I myself dipped into the life of North Winnipeg on one occasion when I wrote a 40,000-word unpublished monograph about the father and mother of a friend of mine, a wonderful couple whose early life was lived in such intense poverty that as a child the husband’s  family used to change their residence every month because they could never pay the rent. The mother worked for years in laundry sweatshops; the father worked for 50 years as a printer for the same company. Yet they put all three of their sons through university. So much for the common prejudice that Jews are all rolling in money!) 
The Stone Angel purports to have been written by a 90-year-old woman, Hagar, and to reveal by stages everything about her life. I have read only 30 or so pages so far, but already I am beginning to doubt that I have the stamina to see it through. Perhaps if I had been younger I might have taken more easily to it, but I am myself almost as old as the heroine of the book, and I am not sure I want to examine any dying life in such detail, just for pleasure. With similarly meretricious argument, I keep on putting off reading more of the novels of Dostoevsky, although I have been a great admirer of those few I have already read. I feel it would probably be just too hard a slog to get through them. I need something lighter these days.
Which brings me on to the purpose of this essay: to defend two lesser writers whose skills I immensely admire, even though I know some critics would say that neither of them plumb the depths of human experience as do the master novelists.
First of these is Patricia Highsmith, an American who spent most of her life living in Paris and Switzerland, where her 22 novels (of which I find I have read 12), are regarded as psychological novels in the full sense of the term, although classified as mere thrillers in Britain and the US.  She was a master in creating characters who found themselves trapped by circumstance and forced to do things that they would never normally consider doing, thus creating a sense of mounting horror, as her characters struggled to fulfil what began to seem to them like their destiny. Her first popular success in 1950 came with Strangers on a Train, in which a perfectly innocent man became embroiled in a weird conversation with a stranger that led to sickening and horrifying results when his new-found “friend” turned up and forced him to fulfil some promises that he claimed were made during their casual conversation.  I found Hitchcock’s film of the novel, though still a highly regarded one, not a patch on the terror of the novel. And when I began to read others she subsequently wrote, I found she had perfected the genre so that one became caught up in the self-imposed trap the characters had created for themselves to the degree that it became entirely rivetting, impossible to put down. In her later years, the criminal element of the stories disappeared from her work, it seemed, and what was left, as in the book I recently read, People Who Knock on the Door, were simply the horrors into which family life can descend.  It is the story of an ordinary family living in a small American town, an inadequate father, insurance-salesman type, pompous and self-important, an obedient wife, and two sons. The eldest son Arthur is clear-eyed about his parents’ weaknesses, and refuses to follow his father when he ascribes the youngest son’s miraculous recovery from a severe illness, to the work of God. The father almost overnight becomes a born-again Christian, and the book is a pitiless examination of the horrendous consequences that this kind of absolutist belief can have on everyone connected with the believer.  The eldest son opposes his father at every turn, but the youngest son becomes a believer even more fanatical than his father, and when the father disappoints him the result is truly tragic.
Highsmith was not a flowery writer, no purple prose: she just had this intense concentration, told in simple plain language, on the events happening in the lives, and usually in the minds, of her characters. I have no hesitation in recommending her to anyone, especially to anyone enjoying psychological  novels.
A few years ago I developed a taste for the detective novels of Robert B. Parker, whose character was Spenser, a wise-cracking private eye in Boston who, whenever he got into a scrape that nothing could save him from, had the benefit of an alter-ego black man of doubtful moral stature, called Hawk, who could overcome anyone.  I enjoyed them immensely, because they were sparsely written, witty, and immensely readable.
Recently I picked up a couple of his books at a remainder-table, and found both were about a new character, Chief of Police Jesse Stone,  in a small town called Paradise.  I read all of the first of these, called Split Image, on a train journey to Toronto from Montreal, something I would never have believed myself capable of.  Much more than when I read Parker years ago, I was impressed by his style: he seemed to have discovered a new style, written around  characters  who seldom talked more than in monosyllables, or short sentences, and yet somehow, by what seemed to me an infernal skill, he managed to tell a story that was complex enough to maintain the interest to the end.
I gave that book to my son Robert (with whom I have exchanged many thrillers and the like over the years) and when I returned home I found the second Jesse Stone epic lying there. This one is called Killing the Blues and once again I was astounded by the brilliance of its writing technique. Jesse Stone, a police chief who prefers everyone to call him Jesse, is a guy who really would have liked to be a baseball player, but was stopped from making the show, as the Major Leagues are called, by wonky knees. He had worked as a policeman with the LAPD, but was severed from that in mysterious circumstances, the details of which haunted him for the rest of his life. Early in this story, as he went through his daily routine of dealing with minor crimes, he was advised that a man whom he had viciously attacked as a Los Angeles policeman, had recently been released from jail, and was expected probably to make his way to Paradise to exact revenge on Jesse.
While steeling himself for this coming attack, Jesse had to confront an incident in which a cynical high school student had taken a gun to her headmistress and held her hostage.  Against everyone’s advice, Jesse went in to talk to the girl, discovered she had been mercilessly bullied at school, and was exacting revenge from those she held responsible for having ignored her plight.  Eventually he talked her into giving him the gun, and won her confidence as he told her those responsible would be made to pay. Of course, in the end, the headmistress saw the error of her ways, the class-master who had routinely abused girls was arrested, and the bullying clique of girls offered to stand evidence against him, and to reform their own practices against weaker students than themselves. “Wow,”  said the young hostage-taker, the first favorable or sympathetic thing heard from her, her conversation normally being peppered with obscenities. The headmistress offered to resign, but Jesse told her it wasn’t necessary, so long as she was determined to pay more attention to the girls under her control. This was typical of Jesse, who, still, however had a tendency to drink himself blind when something did not go as he expected.
Meantime Rollo Nurse was on his way, and like the old convict he was, he was making life difficult by staging a series of crimes --- such as breaking the necks of neighbourhood dogs --- that he knew would unsettle the police chief.
Needless to say, Jesse emerges whole from all these trials. But once again I was totally bedazzled by the technical writing skill employed by Parker. It almost seemed that, like Damon Runyon, for example, whose tales of New York low life of the 1930s were told in an entirely new kind of prose, with his own manufactured tense that makes his prose instantly recognizable --- imagine how rare that is! --- I was almost convinced Parker  had invented a new form of prose that would be instantly recognizable to anyone who had read him.
Parker’s Jesse Stone, I realized as I finished the book, is unlike any police chief who ever has, or probably ever could be. But he seemed to be a model for any chief of police who might be interested in really doing the job he is chosen for. And maybe this book should be required reading by all Chiefs of Police.  
I could not be so presumptuous as to recommend Robert B. Parker to anyone ---- his books have already sold millions of copies ---- I just put him forward as an example of mastery of a prose style, found in a totally unexpected place, among the practitioners of popular fiction, from a guy who wrote five hours every day of the week except Sunday, and produced 68 books of different style and content that reached an audience of millions.
Don't knock it: it was a phenomenal achievement by any standard.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

My Log 521 July 17 2016: France on my mind: recollections of a wonderful 1952 holiday on a tandem; in thrall to the Tour de France; delighted by a superb film

France has been very much on my mind in the last week or two, not only because of the horrendous killings in Nice, but because I have been following the Tour de France on TV, and last night I watched again one of my favorite movies of all time, Cycling With Moliere.
I have to confess to being an inveterate francophile, which I became in 1952 when my wife and I took off for a month on a pre-war tandem bicycle that became the most memorable holiday in my life. Not that there was anything special about it: we simply rode every day from about six am to early afternoon, when we usually stopped in the camping ground of some small village --- taking advantage of the fact that in those days at least every tiny village had its campground that provided at least running water and a place to wash in, if nothing else, at a cost that was close to no cost at all.  At first it was fairly rough going, across the ups and downs of the beautiful Normandy countryside, steep enough to require that we had to walk our tandem up the hills, which might take us up to an hour or more, and then coast down the other side, which we could do in five minutes. But we were young, in our early twenties, and if we were not exactly fit on takeoff, we quickly became fit, so quickly that I can remember the exact stretch of road between a small town called Bellac and one called Confolens when the southward lay of the land finally came to be in our favour, and a helpful back wind allowed us to feel that we were flying.  We stayed that night in a field as usual, went to a neighbouring farmer to ask for water, or eggs, and were invited in to share their magnificent apple pie as they were gathered around for dinner.
South of Bordeaux we paused for a drink on a long, lonely road, and we read in a newspaper about an English family called Drummond having been murdered in a place that seemed to us to be not too far from where we were. But further on, in a town called Mont de Marsan, a few miles short of the foothills of the Pyrenees, that I became  a lifelong  francophile; a couple of ruffians, we decided to go to a local hotel, the Richelieu (which the Internet tells me is still there),  for our first French meal. Wearing only shorts and t-shirts, brown as veritable berries, tousled by our battle with the winds, we were greeted in their dining room not as bums, but rather as if we were a king and queen, ushered with ceremony into the formal dining room, for a wonderful meal which convinced us that French cuisine must be the best in the world (a judgment I have had reason to modify since that day.)
We went at the beginning of August, were in France for a month, and it rained only once, giving me the entirely false impression that it never rains in France in August. Anyway, not to bore my long-suffering readers, this was the first of many trips to France in the following two decades, eventually with three small boys in tow,  and my impression has always been of it as a wonderfully beautiful country whose inhabitants live a civilized, relaxed existence that should be the envy of most other countries. (I recognize this is an unreasonably favorable view of France and the French, but wot the hell!)
I watch the Tour de France every year not only because of the glorious eccentricity of the race itself, but to catch a glimpse of the beautiful little villages the  impressive landscape, the many remarkable chateaux and other buildings that the following helicopters favour us with.
For anyone who doubts the eccentricity of the race, hear this: an Englishman, Mark Cavendish, has won four of the 15 Stages so far contested, taking his overall stage wins to 30 over the years, certainly making him one of the world’s leading cyclists, right?  Yet after his fourth win, yesterday, he still lies 165th in the field of 185, lying almost  two and a half hours behind the leader. Figure that one out, if you can. This is a race like no other on earth, 21 days equivalent to running a marathon every day, a race studded with spectacular crashes, some of them caused by the insanity of the spectators who line the road, pressing out into the path of the cyclists , waving flags that get caught in the wheels, often running flat out alongside so close to the competitors that on an early stage this year, the leader, another Englishman, Chris Froome, actually lashed out with his fist at a spectator and caught him a hefty blow on the jaw. On an even earlier stage Froome was brought down in a spectator-caused imbroglio, and had to run on foot to the finish line so as to retain his place in the race.
Finally, just a word of two about Cycling with Moliere. It is a delightfully amusing, brilliantly acted French comedy about a matinee star on TV, played by Lambert Wilson, appearing suddenly at the home on the Isle de Re off the Atlantic coast of a retired film and stage actor played by the brilliant Patricio Luchini, with the objective of persuading the retired actor to return to play Le Misanthrope together on stage. The actor was not interested, because he was offered a secondary part, but when the star suggested they could alternate in  the main part of Alceste, he became interested. For day after day they rehearsed, the old actor throwing everything into his declamation of the sacred words of Moliere, and each of them often using the playwright’s words to describe their dissatisfaction with each other.  The action is interrupted from time to time to allow the visiting star --- recognized immediately by everyone for his role as a doctor in the TV series --- to pretend to be examining houses with a view to buying them, a pretence needed to convince the elderly actor of his sincerity.
On one of these occasions the owner wanting to sell her house is an explosive, extremely attractive woman, beautifully played by Maya Sansa, an experienced actress I had never seen before,  who denounces the very profession of acting vehemently, declares she hates actors  and hurries them out of her house. Later, calmed down, she offers a lift to the old actor, and they begin to arrive at a rapprochement. Cycling around the island both actors are at different times thrown into the sea by the lack of brakes on the old actor’s bicycle…. .these quarrels are interspersed with moments of intense feeling  as the players begin to approach and even like each other, while each maintaining his reserve, as befits actors, they said.  Needless to say, it is the woman who unwittingly comes between them, and  the ending is not a happy one. A wonderful movie that has such depths that I could see it repeatedly.
In just the same way that I cannot resist, each year, the Tour de France.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

My Log 520 July 14 2016: Appointment of the ineffable Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary proof of the continuing effortless eccentricity of the British Tory party

Who could have imagined that the vote for Brexit could have thrown so much of the politics of our Western world into such turmoil? Especially that of the United Kingdom (as it is laughingly called).
One would have imagined that the appointment of Theresa May as UK Prime Minister --- no need for an election, chaps, not at all! ---- would have stilled the fires of idiocy that seemed suddenly to have overcome everybody. Who was this woman, risen from the depths of the Conservative Party to absolute power? We were all just groping around, wondering what to think of her, wondering how much she meant her pledge to care for everybody in the Kingdom, a pledge as far removed from Conservative traditions as it is possible to be, wondering what her occasional sallies of humor might have meant --- for example on one occasion she said that Boris had once tried to negotiate with Europeans, and had returned with three half-working cannons! -----  when the news came that she had appointed the man himself, the unpredictable Boris, as Foreign Secretary. 
The newspapers since have been full of his past gaffes, wallowing in them to such effect that probably everyone reading this has already seen them all, gaffe after gaffe. His insult to Erdogan, of Turkey in a poem he wrote calling him a "wankerer" to rhyme with Ankara, suggesting he had had sex with a goat; his description of Hillary Clinton as having the face of “a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital”; his description of Africans as “piccaninnies”; his description in Israel of people who oppose Israel’s occupation of Palestine as  “really just a bunch of corduroy-jacketed…lefty academics”; 
 --- and so it goes on, the guy has a definite gift for ill-timed description.
Fresh out of 10 Downing street this morning with his new remit in hand in the traditional red briefcase, he had difficulty finding his car, and tried three before he found the right one.  Sounds typical, and perhaps a stirring harbinger of the Tory approach to Europe in the coming days: complete disorientation.
I have, of course, a personal interest in British politics, having lived in that country for eleven years, during eight of which I was employed to write about their politics. I was always astounded by the sheer effrontery of the Tory party, always so unashamed as to be almost admirable, and remember vividly how even the more intelligent of their ministers could stand there before the gathered tribe of Tories and solemnly dedicate them all to serving only the interests of the nation, because of their unshakeable sense of duty.  Tory duty, inculcated at every public school, where the ministers were usually educated because of their wealth and privilege. In those days I had a low opinion of the Tories, but I did develop a slight admiration for Harold Macmillan, descended, as he always reminded us, from a Scottish crofter, the man who picked up the reins after the disastrous Anglo-French  attack on Egypt, led by the bewildered Sir Anthony Eden soon after he took over from Sir Winston Churchill, after a lifetime of being second fiddle.
Macmillan, now that one can see him in the perspective of the past half century, was a remarkably sophisticated Tory who was able to shrug off the attacks of his opponents as if they were annoying flies.  I remember once when he had sacked half his Cabinet, and immediately left for a trip to the Soviet Union shrugging it all off to reporters at the airport as “a little local difficulty.”
He was the only politician I have ever seen who, when he was telling one of his convolute jokes, actually seemed to stick his tongue into his cheek, as if to announce to the dimwitted amongst us that everything he said was said with tongue in cheek! Got it, Harold, we got it, and we were all laughing….
But Macmillan ran up against  De Gaulle, who pushed him away because he didn’t trust the British to be wholehearted Europeans. And was the General ever correct about that! Still Macmillan never was like our modern right-wingers, who, nurtured at the teat of Thatcher and Reagan,  are ready  to pull the whole edifice down around their ears. Although he didn’t hesitate to throw Britain’s ancient allies under the bus when it became clear to him that the country’s best interests lay in becoming closer to Europe, Macmillan  maintained the essential features of the welfare state that had been built largely by the post-war Labour government.
Nowadays, the Brexiters --- that is to say those who are pursuing  the exactly negative reasons for which they joined the European Community in the first place, that they think they can do better outside Europe than inside it, are shoving off from Europe without a second thought, once again abandoning their friends for some higher, poorly explained purpose that leaves only a sense of betrayal.  Talk about wanting to have your cake and eat it too! The British are experts at that.
We are all awaiting developments from the slightly eccentric figure who has risen to the top in Britain.