Book Corner – August 2019 (2)

Nice Work – David Lodge

This is the third book in what can loosely be described as Lodge’s Campus Trilogy. Loosely because the book, published in 1988, is set around the University of Rummidge and a few of the old faithful characters, Phillip Swallow, Morris Zapp and their two wives, make appearances and there are fleeting references to incidents in the earlier books. But that is all and the book probably stands on its own. Having given us his take on mediaeval romances in Small World, Lodge takes on the Victorian industrial novel. In a nutshell, it is what happens when Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South meets Thatcherism.

Left wing, feminist, English literature lecturer at the University of Rummidge, Robyn Penrose is Lodge’s Margaret Hale to his John Thornton, Victor Wilcox, an older, conservative, senior manager who lives a humdrum suburban existence with a wife, family and a house with four bathrooms. You get an insight into the mocking humour in the first couple of pages where Victor’s wife, Marjorie, is described as sitting in bed reading her favourite book, Enjoy your Menopause, and takes great pride in her en suite, in avocado, naturally.

This unlikely pair are brought together courtesy of a government initiative in which someone in academia, Robyn, gets to shadow someone in industry, Victor, an arrangement neither of them look forward to with any degree of relish. Through this construct Lodge is able to view their respective worlds through each other’s eyes. Initially, Robyn is disgusted by capitalism red in tooth and claw and through her well-meaning but misguided interference leads to an industrial dispute. Victor, on the other hand, has a poor view of academics, questioning what they contribute.

During the course of the book they grow to begin to understand each other and see that what seemed initially to be two distinct and unconnected worlds are really both trapped in their particular little bubbles. Victor becomes infatuated with Robyn and they have a fling. Robyn tries to distance herself from Victor but the industrialist’s clever ruse is to become Robyn’s shadow.

Lodge doesn’t seem to miss an opportunity to puncture the pretensions of academics. In a seminar Robyn takes on Tennyson’s Locksley Hall, she uses the line “Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change”. Written in 1835, just six years after Stephenson’s Rocket was built, Robyn sees it as Tennyson using the imagery presented by the new-fangled invention to great effect. The pragmatist, Victor, points out that trains do not run on grooves and that Tennyson was, if anything, describing a tram. The image is fatally flawed. It is a delightfully comic moment.

I will not spoil the book save to say that at the end all the characters find some form of inner peace and their financial fortunes are turned upside down. It seemed a little too tidy and the ending appeared a tad rushed, as though Lodge had exhausted the potential of the plot. That said, I found it to be a witty and clever book, a light enough read but with sufficient interest and occasional thought provocation to mark it as a work of some quality.

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Book Corner – August 2019 (1)

Uncommon Danger – Eric Ambler

This was Ambler’s second novel and his first shot at a thriller, published in 1937. He originally wanted to call it Background to Danger, the title by which it is known in the United States, but his publishers objected to the use of Background and so in all other English-speaking countries it became Uncommon Danger.

Although this is only the third Ambler I have read there are already some consistent themes emerging. The protagonist, in this instance Kenton, a freelance journalist on his uppers, is an innocent who is drawn into the murky world of espionage. The Soviets, at least in Ambler’s Weltanschauung, are the good guys. The Nazis, even in this pre-Second World War era, are the baddies, who are trying to jockey into position to impose their brand of Fascism on reluctant European states.

But the biggest theme common to the books is the evil nature of international capitalism. In Ambler’s view it is the power of Business rather than the deliberations of statesmen that shape the fortunes of countries. As Andreas Zaleshoff, the Russian spy, says, people “like Al Capone and John Dillinger are products of America’s corrupt administration and clumsy law-making. Sarizda (the Nazi henchman) and his kind must be the products of the world business system.” The difference between the two is that Capone was operating to increase his own wealth whereas Sarizda was increasing the income of his principals. The reason why men like Sarizda are necessary, opines Zaleshoff but really the mouthpiece for Ambler, is that “at some point or other in the amazingly complicated business structure of the world, there is always dirty work to be done”. Coming to this book from the wrong direction, The Mask of Dimitrios was that later book, there is an enormous sense of déjà lu.

The eminence gris pulling all the strings is Mr Balterghen, boss of the Gracechurch Street-based company, the Pan-Eurasian Petroleum Company. We meet him and his fellow directors in the prologue in which he is given carte blanche to scupper the current arrangements for the concessions for oil in Romania. We don’t meet him again in the book but he is the real villain of the piece. Balterghen has commissioned a double-agent by the name of Borovansky to steal Russian plans to attack the oil fields in Bessarabia which, if made public, will increase the likelihood of the Fascists assuming power in Romania.

Borovansky is taking photographs of the plans to Vienna by train but he is being tailed by a Spaniard called Ortega commissioned by the Russian agent, Zaleshoff, to recover them. The impecunious Kenton finds himself in the same carriage as Borovansky and is grateful to accept 600 Marks to deliver a package (the photos (natch)) to a hotel for his travelling companion.

And thus, Kenton is drawn into a fight to the death, the result of which the world’s security may well depend. The pace of the book is fast and furious as Kenton, through a combination of ill-luck and hot-headed impetuousness, lurches between falling into the clutches of those who intend him harm and those, he eventually deduces, are out to help him. The characters are vividly drawn and believable. Ambler is not a literary stylist, an irritating stylistic quirk is to call Kenton the journalist, it is his profession although not really germane to the plot, but he knows how to tell a story and to hold the reader’s interest.

Book Corner – July 2019 (5)

The Mask of Dimitrios – Eric Ambler

Published in 1939, this book, acknowledged by those who claim to know these things as Ambler’s finest, is known to American audiences as A Coffin for Dimitrios. I haven’t read enough of him to judge but I was astonished how deep the book was, exploring themes that you wouldn’t expect to appear in what at first blush appears to be a page-turning piece of disposable entertainment. Indeed, for a thriller, there is remarkably little direct action, save for the ending which, as the genre might suggest, is exciting and thrilling.

Charles Latimer, a former academic and now a successful writer of English detective fiction, is in Istanbul researching his fifth book. He is introduced to and meets the head of the Turkish intelligence, Colonel Haki, we have met him before in Journey into Fear, an aficionado of detective fiction. Haki shows him the body of a murderer, Dimitrios Makropoulos, and lends Latimer a dossier detailing what the Turks had deduced about the felon’s career. Somewhat bizarrely, Latimer decides to turn his hand to real detective work and reconstruct the biography of Dimitrios. There is a distinct Conradian theme to the book, Latimer’s search resembling that of Marlow’s to find the real Kurtz in Heart of Darkness.

Inevitably, Latimer discovers that Dimitrios is not what he seemed. Rather he is a much more sophisticated individual whose actions are logical and consistent, “as logical and consistent in the European jungle”, Ambler observes, “as the poison gas called Lewisite and the shattered bodies of children killed in the bombardment of an open town”. In his travels around central Europe on the trail of Dimitrios’ former associates and enemies, Latimer comes to realise that he was the sort of cold-blooded enforcer that modern-day capitalism in the shape of politics and shady multinational businesses needs to cement its hold on society, taking on the tasks that “civilised men and women” decline to do. There is a very modern feel to the book, the crimes involving people smuggling and drugs with murky financiers in cahoots with corrupt public officials pulling the strings.

Latimer enters the seedy demi-monde of pre-Second World War crime and espionage as he slowly works his way to the truth. Ambler uses lengthy dialogues, principally, in truth, monologues and exchanges of letters to furnish Latimer and the reader with the details necessary to reconstruct Dimitrios’ past. This means that the pace of much of the book is relatively stately but as a reader you find yourself sucked in, wanting to know what Latimer discovers and realising that he too is beginning to put himself into danger. Each character has their own axe to grind and none of them are all that they seem.

Perhaps the most fascinating character is Peters aka Petersen, a Dane who was part of Dimitrios’ gang but was stitched up and served time in jail. He wants his revenge on Dimitrios and his share of the loot that the drug running operation. Realising that Latimer holds a vital piece of information that will unlock the real identity of Dimitrios and his whereabouts, Peters skilfully inveigles the naïve Latimer into helping him in a dangerous enterprise, causing, at the same time, Latimer’s moral sensibilities to wobble.

The book builds up to a thrilling crescendo, which I won’t spoil. Suffice it to say it makes up in action what the earlier portion of the book lacked. It also gives a fascinating insight into pre-war Europe. Well worth taking a copy with you on holiday.

Book Corner – July 2019 (4)

The Sum of Things – Olivia Manning

This is the final book of the so-called Levant Trilogy and was published posthumously in 1980 as Manning had rather inconveniently died. This probably explains the rather loose and rather unsatisfactory ending.

The book picks up the stories of Harriet and Guy Pringle and the young army officer, Simon Boulderstone, where they were left at the end of The Battle Lost and Won. Harriet decided at the last minute not to board the evacuation ship bound for England that Guy had wanted her to take. It was a good job, too, as it was torpedoed. Instead she joined a couple of women friends, in all senses if you read between the lines, and travels to Damascus. She doesn’t tell Guy of her change of plan, feeling the need to get away from their dying relationship. Guy assumes she is on the ship and assuming that she has died, has to come to terms with his loss.

He does this by taking on as a project bucking up Simon Boulderstone who was seriously injured at the end of the last book and is languishing in the Plegics ward. Simon recovers sufficiently to get back to duty but is frustrated that the severity of his injuries means that he cannot pursue death or glory on the front line. Harriet’s absence and presumed death encourages her friends to criticise Guy for his treatment of her, barbs which clearly hurt as he reacts rather defensively to them.

Harriet’s travels around the Middle East are entertaining, not least the description of the religious ceremony in Jerusalem. But there she meets the only survivor of the evacuation ship, the coincidences are astonishing and truly Anthony Powellite in the way enable the plot to move on, and realises that Guy must think her dead. Despite her disillusionment with her marriage, Harriet decides to return to Cairo to be reunited with him. Tellingly, although Guy is overcome with emotion when he sees Harriet alive, he still goes out that evening, missing the celebratory dinner, to give a lecture to his students on self-determination.

Unlike the Balkan Trilogy and the first two volumes of this trilogy, the Pringles are no longer in imminent danger of invasion and being forced to flee from the enemy. The tide of the war has turned, the North African campaign won, and the Allies are now pursuing their foes through Italy. There is a sense that the war and events have left the motley collection of British ex-pats, some of those we have met earlier pop up from time to time like Adrian Pratt, Bill Castlebar, Lady Angela Hooper, Dobson, and Edwina, rather high and dry, leaving them to reconcile themselves to their redefined lot in life.

For the Pringles this means continuing their unsatisfactory and disappointing marriage which, as Harriet notes, “in an imperfect world, was making do with what one had chosen”. Castlebar dies of typhoid, leaving his estranged wife and mistress, Angela, to fight over the body, the latter eventually settling for the role of a carer. Pratt commits suicide, again a victim of Guy’s lack of human empathy and Simon, as well as losing his military ambitions, also allows his intense feeling of grief for his brother, hero and role model, Hugo, die “like a face disappearing under water”.

Despite Guy being an insufferable prig and Harriet being a fool for putting up with him, the reader is left with a desire to find out what became of them. That is why the coda is disappointing and Manning’s death a tragedy. Still, I enjoyed the trilogy, entertaining and well-paced making it a fairly undemanding read. If you are looking for something to get your teeth into on your hols, you could do worse.

Vandal Of The Week

It may be my age but there’s nothing like settling down in the evening with a good book. The expectation is that the volume is complete and woe betide anyone who spoils my enjoyment by spoiling the plot.

As a fan of detective fiction, I was intrigued to learn of a curious case which would have exercised the little grey cells of Hercule Poirot. The book ripper is on the loose in the Kent resort town of Herne Bay.

Staff in the Demelza Hospice Care charity bookshop began to notice earlier this year that some of their books on their shelves had a page and in some instances all of their pages ripped horizontally, rendering them useless. Since April the ripper’s activities have increased and around 15 books a week are being damaged.

This strange vandal has also targeted the town’s library, damaging some 20 paperbacks, evading the CCTV cameras in the process.

The hunt for the book ripper is now on, involving the local police, and charity staff and librarians are said to be on high alert. It is a strange form of literary criticism, for sure.

There’s nowt so queer as folk.

Book Corner – July 2019 (3)

Journey Into Fear – Eric Ambler

It is always good not to get set in one’s ways. I don’t usually read thrillers but a combination of a BBC Radio 4 serialisation of his works, a snippet of which I heard, and a good deal from Penguin Modern Classics encouraged me to pick up this book. Written in 1940 and imbued with the atmosphere of the phony war stage of the Second World War where major conflict has not broken out, where alliances are still somewhat fluid and both sides are jockeying for position.

Stuck in the middle of all of this is a British engineer, Howard Graham, who has been working on an important munitions project in Istanbul (or Stambul, as it was known at the time) on behalf of the Turkish government. On returning to his hotel on the eve of his long-awaited return home and after an evening out at a seedy night club where he was conscious of being stared at by a man, he is astonished to find an intruder who takes several pot shots at him. Graham is only slightly injured and thinks that his assailant was an opportunity thief whom he had disturbed.

The scales fall off Graham’s eyes when he is advised by Colonel Haki of the Turkish Intelligence that this was no ordinary thief but an assassin. So important is the project on which he has been working that the Nazis are determined to kill him, thus delaying the upgrade of the Turkish military capabilities until the following spring at least. To protect Graham, his travel plans are changed and he is advised to sail to Genoa in an Italian freighter. Despite having been told that his fellow passengers have been vetted, not all of them are all that they may seem. Part of the essence of the book is Graham’s struggle to work out who he can trust and who is out to get him.

And Ambler has assembled a motley collection of characters. Each is skilfully drawn and there is enough ambiguity in each of their characters to keep the reader and, of course, Graham guessing as to their true colours and motivation. There is the seductive night club dancer, Josette, whose charms Graham seems unable to resist and plans to spend some time with if and when he gets to Paris. This romantic dalliance adds some complications to his escape plans. Her seedy husband, Jose, seems to make his living by turning a blind eye and pimping her out.

Then there is the seemingly charming German scholar, Dr Fritz Haller, who delights in boring the assembled company with expositions on archaeology and the rather clingy and annoying Turkish tobacco importer, Mr Kuvleti. There is a French married couple, whose political views are the polar opposite of each other’s but are united enough to sit on the same table as the German as a gesture of enmity. Their discourses allow Ambler, a Communist at the time, to take aim at international capitalism.

There is an air of a locked room mystery, a plot mechanism beloved of crime writers of the Golden Age of detective fiction, about the book or, perhaps, more accurately a who will do it, Ambler masterfully wringing out as much tension as possible from seemingly trivial, social engagements and the exchange of niceties. The tension is ramped up a few notches more when the man, whom Graham had spotted at the night club and whom he had subsequently been told was a notorious political assassin, joins the ship.

The final third of the book changes from a tense psychological thriller to an action-packed page turner as the boat docks and Graham tries to escape from the clutches of his assassins. I will not spoil the story save to say that the ending has a somewhat melodramatic twist.

I enjoyed the book immensely and will certainly read some more of Ambler.

Book Corner – July 2019 (2)

The Battle Lost and Won – Olivia Manning

Published in 1978, a year after The Danger Tree, this is the second book in Manning’s Levant Trilogy, set in Cairo during the Second World War. The stories of Harriet Pringle, a character loosely based on Manning herself, and Simon Boulderstone, a character to whom we were introduced for the first time in the first book, are picked up from where they were left off and run parallel through the book.

For me, Boulderstone is the more interesting character. He has just lost his brother, Hugo, in the North African campaign, cuts short his military leave and throws himself into playing his part in defeating the enemy. We see the consequences of the Battle of El Alamein through his eyes. “Hugo’s death”, Manning observes, “had brought his emotional life to a close”.  This part of his story closes with Simon being wounded and the death of his batman, ironically as Simon was beginning to get close to him.

Harriet, on the other hand, is still enduring a miserable existence amongst the ex-pat community. She is holed up in a diplomatic flat and her companions, Lady Angela Hooper, whose child was killed in an IED incident, and Edwina, whom Simon thought was Hugo’s girlfriend, are chasing doomed romantic liaisons. Edwina’s affair with the dashing peer, Peter Lisdoonvarna, ends when he tells her that he is already married. Angela’s affair with one of the bar flies, the poet and lecturer, Bill Castlebar, comes to naught initially when his wife turns up unexpectedly as part of an ENSA concert party until they eventually pluck up the courage to elope together.

These liaisons make Harriet reflect on her unsatisfactory marriage. Her husband, Guy, is a much more peripheral figure in this book but is as infuriating as ever. He continues to throw himself into his work and barely seems to give Harriet a second thought. She is finding it difficult to cope with the climate and eventually succumbs to amoebic dysentery, following a trip to Luxor. Even then he can barely spare the time from his busy if somewhat futile schedule to visit her in hospital.

Whether for selfish reasons or because he was genuinely concerned about her ability to cope with a climate and the boredom of life in Cairo, Guy moots the idea that Harriet returns to Blighty. Initially aghast at the thought, during the course of the book the idea becomes more attractive and she eventually agrees and books a passage on the next available boat. But at Suez she has a premonition about the ship, rightly as it turns out, and joins a companion she has met to go to Damascus, to experience “all the wonders of the Levant”.

Perhaps the key passage to understanding the book, which, frankly, is lighter and less substantial than the others, is this: “She thought, ‘Everything has gone wrong since we came here.’ The climate changed people: it preserved ancient remains but it disrupted the living. She had seen common-place English couples who, at home, would have tolerated each other for a lifetime, here turning into self-dramatizing figures of tragedy, bored, lax, unmoral, complaining and, in the end, abandoning the partner in hand for another who was neither better nor worse than the first. Inconstancy was so much the rule among the British residents in Cairo, the place, she thought was like a bureau of sexual exchange.” These are the personal battles lost even though the fortunes of war are turning.

There are moments of comedy and tragi-comedy. The insufferable Lord Pinkrose makes a cameo appearance, to be assassinated by Egyptian nationalists who mistake him for a British politician, Lord Pinkerton. It is an easy, light read, By now I have lost patience with Harriet. She is finally doing what she should have done several books ago, leaving Guy to his own devices and live a bit, explore the world.

On to the next one.