A few years back I resolved to save valuable reading time by allowing myself to trust my instincts and just give up on books that weren’t doing anything for me. Blow edification. Sometimes I keep going when I have reasonable expectation that something will be revealed, that the denouement justifies the means. Sometimes it does; I hated Cormac McCarthy‘s The road for most of its length but the last few pages are magnificent (and it is a short book). Of course, being in a Book Group (I think the capitalisation is justified) must involve an element of self-sacrifice but on the whole we haven’t done too badly and there have been some nice surprises. The one Book Group book I really hated was E.M.Forster‘s Howards End, so it was particularly satisfying to come across Katherine Mansfield’s dismissal of it recently while searching for quotations to feature in a literary quiz I’m doing some questions for (it’s an annual event locally, we were aiming for an honourable second but miscalculated; part of the ‘prize’ was to set the next year’s questions). Anyway, here’s our Kate, back in 1915:
Putting my weakest books to the wall last night I came across a copy of ‘Howards End’ and had a look into it. Not good enough. E.M. Forster never gets any further than warming the teapot. He’s a rare fine hand at that. Feel this teapot. Is it not beautifully warm? Yes, but there ain’t going to be no tea. And I can never be perfectly certain whether Helen was got with child by Leonard Bast or by his fatal forgotten umbrella. All things considered, I think it must have been the umbrella.
Amen. But I digress.
If Peter Ackroyd‘s Three brothers (Chatto& W, 2013) had been a bigger book I wouldn’t have seen it through to the end. I had my reasons (of which later) but I seriously doubt if Three brothers would have got beyond the publisher’s slush pile if it hadn’t come from an established writer. Here’s how it starts, under the promising chapter title of Cheese and pickle:
In the London borough of Camden, in the middle of the last century, there lived three brothers; they were three young boys, with a year’s difference of age between each of them. They were united, however, in one extraordinary way. They had been born at the same time on the same day of the same month – to be precise, midday on 8 May. The chance was remote and even implausible. Yet it was so.
Yup. Two danger signs right off. That “in the middle of the last century” is a nice touch but I know, and Peter Ackroyd knows, that at the time the book starts, when the three young boys were all living in the same council house, there was no ‘London borough of Camden’ – it would have been the metropolitan borough of St Pancras – because the London Borough of Camden didn’t come into existence until the London local government reorganisation of 1965, so what exactly is he trying to pull here? And if it’s a deliberate slight fictional dislocation, then, well – so what, and, at the very least, it’s annoying?
And, never mind the coincidence, I also happen to know that May 8 is VE Day (Victory in Europe, 1945) so is he setting us up with some sort of allegory of what has happened to London, England even, since the end of the Second World War? If he was it’s too subtle for me. Also, I don’t know how much input Ackroyd had with choosing the photo on the book’s cover, but given the disparate lives the three brothers pursue (or let happen) – very quickly their contact with one another becomes random, Dickensian, coincidental – they were never going to hanging around together, leaning on that lamp-post at the same time, never mind all dressed like so similarly.
Not quite a roman à clef – though there are some box-ticking stock early ’60s characters like a Rachman figure, a gangster, a newspaper baron, a callow reporter, all the corruptions – the travails of Harry (from chancer to national scandal sheet editor), Daniel (swot, Oxbridge, gay, literati) and Sam (drifter) are worked out in surprisingly flat prose with the occasional brief mystical eruption from London’s past. The most interesting character is Sparkler, an artful dodger cum-rent boy and fixer, whose path in and out of all sections of London society intersects with the very separate lives of all three brothers. There’s some self-indulgent bitchiness arising from the competitive nature of the London literary scene which I have to admit is quite funny and presumably self-deprecating on Ackroyd’s part. But as a whole this novel never quite catches fire, which, given his triumphs of the past – Hawksmoor, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, the Blake biography and more – is disappointing.
Looking back to how I started this post, and just to show I can actually practise what I preach as far as the DNF (did not finish) aspiration goes – even if it is probably to my own disadvantage – I had a look at John le Carré‘s latest novel A delicate truth (Viking, 2013) and gave up almost immediately. Opening para, elegant though it undoubtedly is, is for me just a snoozathon:
On the second floor of a characterless hotel in the British Crown Colony of Gibraltar, a lithe, agile man in his late fifties restlessly paced his bedroom. His very British features, though pleasant and plainly honourable, indicated a choleric nature brought to the limit of its endurance. A distraught lecturer, you might have thought, observing the bookish forward lean and loping stride and the errant forelock of salt-and-pepper hair that repeatedly had to be disciplined with jerky back-handed shoves of the bony wrist. Certainly it would not have occurred to many people, even in their most fanciful dreams, that he was a middle-ranking British civil servant, hauled from his desk in one of the more prosaic departments of Her Majesty’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office to be dispatched on a top-secret mission of acute sensitivity.
Is it reasonable of me to ask what other kind of sensitivity can there be in a spy novel? It’s not a genre I’ve spent much time in and I’m probably doing the book a great dis-service, and I know prose style comfort can be a very personal thing, but … pass.
The Kinks in literature
The reason I was looking at A delicate balance – and indeed one of my excuses for persevering with Three brothers – was that I was in pursuit of potential additions to the annals of The Kinks in Literature, one of the more anorak-minded pages maintained here at Lillabullero, wherein I log sitings of … drum roll … The Kinks … in … ta-da! … novels or poetry (and because it’s a classic, a particular episode of the tv comedy Green Wing). I’d had a tip about the le Carré – fortunately with page reference supplied – but an uncredited “They seek him here, they seek him there” would in context seem to hark back to Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel rather than Muswell Hill’s finest (well, them and Richard Thompson). And for all the other ’60s stuff in Three brothers, acknowledment of the coming pop culture is scarce indeed. Oh well. But if anybody out there does come across any Kinks references in the novels you’re reading, I would appreciate being given the nod.
December’s Scribal Gathering was the first which has ended with those gathered participating in a duel. With guest master of ceremonies, Andy Powell, well-known banjoist of the parish. Playing Duelling banjos. Earlier Sam Mooney had played a mean old blues on electric guitar that got everyone going.
Featured poet Ash Dickinson introduced himself as “the thinking man’s Axl Rose” and went down a storm, almost certainly breaking the Scribal sales record flogging his slim volume. You can find various delights on his website (from which this graphic has been lifted), though not the epic dissertation delivered on the state of modern music, which worries him. Wish I’d written it down, but there was a bit in the middle of said epic wherein he said the name of one band, then declaimed “Not just a band“, the name of another band – “Not just a band“, then (the one I can remember) “Nine Inch Nails – not just a band“, then the name of a band I can remember too but I’m not giving the game away, and: “Just a band” to great cheers. Other highlights include Chiller queen – the fridge falling in love with him and communicating via the medium of fridge poetry (which is on the website) – and an account of a haiku death match in Canada. Great stuff, and in all another fine evening’s worth of rhythm and rhyme.