British Literature

Still the Greatest Name in Literature

As I’ve mentioned more than once, I have a habit of perusing used bookstores.  There are some books that I invariably grab whenever I happen to be at one of them.  Any Wodehouse that I don’t own gets added until such a time as I happen to run across an expensive edition I shouldn’t buy but do so anyway.  Likewise anything by Gerald Durell (not his brother, though).

There’s also one set of books that I buy exclusively at used bookstores and of which I’ve never owned (or indeed seen in person) a new copy, and that is Ian Fleming’s original James Bond series.  The most recent one of these that I’ve read is Goldfinger.

Goldfinger - James Bond - Ian Fleming

Of course, the first thing one wonders when reading these books is how well the movie (all of which, of course, civilized people will have watched multiple times) follows the plot of the book.  In Goldfinger, I’m happy to say that the movie is, in fact strongly based on the original material… which is always a relief.

The book is one of the better Bonds, as anyone who has seen the movie would have suspected, and I won’t talk about the plot here.  Instead, I’ll discuss how society has advanced and also how it has regressed since the book was published.

The advance is simple and easy to explain: Fleming was a Brit writing at the tail end of the Empire.  His attitude with regards to everyone else on the planet was one of paternalistic condescension, racist assumptions and stereotyping.  I found it quaint, but I’m sure it will appropriately infuriate certain people who make it their life’s work to be offended by such things.  Cue the book bannings.

Also, it was a reminder of why a James Bond actor who isn’t believably originated in a 1950s public school England (or descended from a man who was) is a travesty, and you might as well call the character something else entirely because no matter what you call him, he is no longer James Bond.

Pussy Galore

The place in which we’ve regressed isn’t quite as obvious at first glance, but it becomes glaring once you stop to think about it.  I’m referring, of course, to Pussy Galore.

Let’s start with the first question: did Fleming know what he was doing?

Yes.  He knew exactly what he was doing.  He used the name in the modern way, which, back then, was likely either soldierly slang or something said by sailors.  The important part, as far as Fleming was concerned, was that the upper-class censors and publishing house officials that would be looking at the books would have no clue… and he just barefacedly left it in the MS and, as expected, raised no eyebrows.

By the time the film was made a few years later, most people got the joke, but the British producers kept it anyway… only the American censors attempted to take any action, but in the end, they left well enough alone.

Cue 2018… could a name like this, unless used as a purely satirical element showing that the writer or producer is a socially conscious person of obvious virtue, make it onto the big screen in a mega-popular production?

No way.

We live in an age of neo-puritanism, in which the political correctness has replaced religious fanaticism as the scourge upon humor.  Of course, both were proposed by “good” people, but the situation appears to have reached the point where we’re shocked by character names that made it past the censors in the 1950s… that can’t be a good thing, can it?

Anyhow, this is a good book to start from if you’ve never read a James Bond novel.  Familiar enough to be Bond, but interesting in its own way.  As Fleming’s writing has slowly moved from trashy-bestsellerdom to classic, and is recognized as the inspiration for so many others, it’s also important reading as more than a guilty pleasure.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s Outside is a tense tale of disaster and mystery.  You can have a look at it here.

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Woolf Comes Out Second Best

Virginia Woolf and James Joyce

Perhaps she was tired of the comparisons, or of being perceived as a practitioner of someone else’s art form, but when Virginia Woolf famously dissed Ulysses–and she held absolutely nothing back in her assault–she created one of the unintentional ironies of the time.

Her criticism came after she had written the subject of today’s post: Mrs Dalloway.  Incensed by the comparison between her work and Joyce’s magnum opus, she claimed that Joyce was just striving for effect, doing schoolboy tricks to make his work stand out.  She also claims to have been bored by the book and abandoned around page 200… so I assume she never read Molly’s sentence at the end, which would likely have enraged her…

Now, while I’m not going to say that Ulysses is either fun or particularly entertaining–and she joins millions of other readers in having given up on the Joyce–calling any book boring is a bit rich coming from a woman who defended Middlemarch–a paragon of absolute stultification–as one of the few novels suitable for grownups.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Woolf’s problem is that, unlike Joyce, she appears not to have realized–at least in this book, I still need to read To the Lighthouse to give a final verdict–that interior monologue doesn’t need to be prim and proper.  Where Joyce delves into the deeper depravities of the psyche, Woolf contentes herself with excellent writing and conventional morality.

Joyce has been proven right by history.  His work is more widely read today (or more widely abandoned, at least), and the prurient passages are a big reason for it.  I bet millions of undergrads have opened the book to scan for the masturbation scene.  And the schoolboy tricks–the endless sentence, for example–have attracted an equal number.  I’ve heard Molly’s monologue referred to as “that sentence”.

In contrast, Mrs. Dalloway is… properly experimental in form.  (No matter what we might think of the plot and its comparisons with Joyce today, we need to remember that Woolf was helping to build the foundations of modern fictional style.  Even if her work is dull by today’s standards, it is still hugely influential).  But it’s boring and unmemorable.

My conclusion is that Woolf encountered the same problems that Joyce did in the development of modernist literature: where to cut off the internal monologue to keep the reader from becoming bored.  Joyce decided to use the literary equivalent of clowns and dancing bears to keep his readers with him, while Woolf stuck strictly to the manifesto.

Joyce, apparently, chose more wisely.

So Woolf still has one book that I recommend heartily, A Room of One’s Own, but apart from that, I’ve been unimpressed by both her fiction and her criticism of others’ work.  Perhaps To the Lighthouse will change all that, but I’m much less enthusiastic about reading that than I was after reading A Room of One’s Own.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer with more than two hundred published stories.  His latest collection is Virtuoso, which you can check out here.

The Chameleon of Spy Writers

A few years ago, I was bored, so I raided my father’s library for something to read.  Having already read through his collection of Ludlum books–my father likes his spy fiction–I chanced to find a book entitled No Comebacks by Frederick Forsyth.

Unexpectedly, this one turned out to be a collection of short spy / secret agent / international terrorism tales.  Now setting aside the obvious question this poses (namely, could anything be more seventies than a collection of short spy stories?  Didn’t think so), I still vividly remember the plot and twist of the title story more than twenty-five years later.  That doesn’t happen to me very often (I read hundreds of short stories every year-only a handful stick with me).

So when I picked up a couple of Forsyth books published recently, I was expecting good things.

The Cobra - Frederick Forsyth

One thing I wasn’t expecting was how well Forsyth has managed to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to writing about modern espionage and international affairs.  Though his contemporaries (notably Ludlum) have died, I watched them fall a little behind; by their final few books the seventies espionage writers had mostly become dinosaurs reliving the cold war or trying to superimpose its values on more modern conflicts.  Still fun reads, but slightly off.

The Kill List Frederick Forsyth

Apparently Forsyth is immune.  The two books I read recently, The Cobra and The Kill List, treat modern issues with a modern approach.  Well, they are modern in the sense that the people and situations surrounding the main characters are described with an extraordinary sensitivity for how society at large feels about the issues.  Fortunately, however, the main characters are still Neanderthals for whom life and death are separated by a few bullets, which is a beautiful escape from a world which has become just a little too civilized.

The Cobra deals with a creative and final solution to America’s drug problem.  It’s stunning, brilliant, violent, accurate and though I won’t spoil the ending here, I just wanted to say that I was rooting for the Neanderthal to get away with it all through the book.

The Kill List deals with the other major scourge of the era, terrorism.  This one is a bit less imaginative, perhaps, but it does what it’s supposed to: entertain from start to finish and kill a hell of a lot of people in the process.

So yeah, I’d take Forsyth over any number of newer writers.  He still has that magic that can make a story read as a teen still resonate years later.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is the author of Outside, a science fiction tale that answers the question of what, exactly posthumanity might entail.  You can check it out here.

Debuting The Culture

Consider Phlebas - Iain M Banks

I’ve been (sorta) binge-reading the first books in a number of far future, deep-space series.  We’ve already discussed The Expanse and Pandora’s Star, so of the three initial books in this particular project, only Consider Phlebas remains to be discussed.  For those of you unaware, this is the first book in the late Iain M. Banks’ Culture series.

This book is a little strange.  Though I certainly enjoyed the whole more than I did Peter F. Hamilton’s long buildup, of the three modern Space Operas, it was the one I found least memorable… and I’m not entirely sure why.

It’s certainly a high-stakes, well-paced and well-written novel, with a sympathetic cast.  Perfectly acceptable in other words, and the Culture itself is often hailed as a mature galactic civilization.  At least one writer I respect a lot has told me that he adores these books.

So, yes, I enjoyed it, but it certainly didn’t stick in my mind.  Without being exactly certain as to why, I’ll take a guess: I think it’s because the Culture itself doesn’t appeal to me as a galactic society.

Yes, I get it.  Within a certain number of years, any society in the galaxy is going to lose its frontier vibe and establish social patterns that, if you ignore the scale, can be very similar to what happens on earth.  Hence, a paternalistic socialism based on the logic of computer overseers is not farfetched.  I can also see certain people–perhaps farmer mind types–being attracted to this.

I found it unattractive.  I like my deep space SF to be wild and wooly, and my societies to be very much a grab bag of opportunists, depots and empire builders.  If one of the belligerents is a more expansive version of Scandinavia, it might turn off the centers of my mind that are interested by things.

Maybe if they’d been painted as the bad guys, I might have taken more notice.  A computer-controlled society of extreme conformists, mindlessly colonizing everything with their bland goodness (which reminds me of the San Angelinos in Demolition Man) would be a terrifying enemy.

But they aren’t, they’re painted as the choice of logic.

I’m willing to give this series a further chance on the sheer strength of the writing and the fact that the buildup was much less annoying than Hamilton’s.  Keep an eye on this space for further installments.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s space opera, Siege, has untidy, ragged good guys and a whole bunch of really bad entities as enemies.  He promises that you won’t find it bland, and you can check it out here.

The Big One

First Edition of the King James Bible

There are some books that all aspiring writers MUST read, no excuses accepted.

In English, I can think of two obligatory tomes.  The first, and one which we’ve discussed here before, are the complete works of William Shakespeare (yes, even Cymbeline).  I’ve never really found anyone who argues this point… I’ve found a lot of would-be writers who haven’t read this, but all of them think they should have.  After all, much, if not all of what came afterwards was built upon the structures created by old Bill.  It’s so deeply ingrained into the literary language that we take it for granted, and when, as the BBC has recently begun to do, his influence is made explicit, we shake our heads in wonder.

The other book seems to be more divisive, but is a book that is even more influential.  It is, of course, the King James Version of The Bible.

A lot of writers, mainly for political reasons, absolutely refuse to read this one.  Some will be angry that I’m mentioning it here.  As an atheist myself, I can tell them that they’re not very smart; reading the KJV has nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with understanding the roots from which the tree of English-language literature, including the most radicalized leftwing tracts of today, grows.

But its influence doesn’t end with the dozens of sayings and cultural and moral baselines that it has injected into society.  It is also a book that took the best of the oral traditions and, over the years, honed them until each became the most convincing version it could be.

Of course, the bible does mix it up a bit.  On one hand, you have compelling narrative spots (the extremes, Genesis and Revelations come to mind), but it also has mind-numbingly boring spots (Leviticus, I’m looking your way).  In fact, I’d say that about half of the text itself has little to no impact on the public consciousness today, especially when it comes to the Old Testament (although I’d love to know just how strictly modern Judaism keeps to some of the tenets – if anyone knows, would love to hear from you in comments).

Sistine Chapel Ceiling

So reading it is a slog of rules and names and measurements of temples in arcane units at times (broken up by the narrative bits, which are quite good).  This isn’t Dan Brown.  You won’t find it un-put-downable.  But the time invested is worth the effort (my own payoff came when, during a game of trivial pursuit, someone asked me how many psalms were in the Book of Psalms… A question I would never have been able to answer before reading all 150 of them – hopefully, your payoff will be deeper than this).

The upside is that you’ll get to read firsthand stuff you hear or read about every day.  From Samson to Adam and Eve, from Jonah (man was he minor) to Jesus, it will be an important element in your cultural toolbox.

So I read the whole thing.  It took a while, but it was definitely worth it.  I wouldn’t, probably, do it again, but I would definitely recommend a cover-to-cover reading of the KJV as one of those bucket-list experiences that a writer needs to have under his belt.  It will make you a better author.

And yes, you’re allowed to take my name in vain as you struggle through Leviticus.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s novel Incursion is supposed to be even better than his popular book Siege.  You can check it our here.

Controversy Isn’t What It Used to Be

Lady Chatterly's Lover - D.H. Lawrence

I’ve recently read a book that, in its day, and despite an utter lack of social media on which people could vent their anguished outrage, sparked a firestorm seldom seen in the literary world.  Lady Chatterley’s Lover, probably D.H. Lawrence’s most famous work, sparked obscenity trials and bannings across the globe, and on every continent.

As you can probably imagine, I approached this controversial book with a lot of curiosity: what kind of naughty, explicit, sticky and uncomfortable prose would cause such a stir.  Making it more interesting, the book was published in 1928… in the middle of the Roaring Twenties, an era described by our experts as the greatest epoch of partying ever.

So, how was it?

From a literary and sociological point of view, it was a great book which probably deserves its current status as a classic in its own right which just happened to get off to a rocky start.  Lawrence was a good writer whose characters are motivated by realistic forces and who struggle against class restrictions that, though they no longer exist, are easily relatable by the reader.  In fact, this, not the sex, is the focus of the novel: Lady Chatterley’s “bit of rough” as Mellors is described in the book’s introduction is, you can tell, an object of sneers and knowing looks.  That sets a brilliant tone, and will likely be the book’s enduring legacy.

Lady Chatterley's Lover Interior Illustration

The supposed obscenity, on the other hand, is essentially a non-issue today.  Yes, there is sex, explicitly described, in this book, but it isn’t remotely erotic sex.  Mechanically described, and with only the kind of overwrought and unrealistic wording one might find in the words of a pre-Raphaelite poem it’s the weakest part of the book.  The prose style there was more suitable, perhaps, to a medical journal.

That isn’t to say that the sex scenes aren’t important.  They are.  Editions in which the sex have been omitted are worthless, because of the supreme importance that they have in the character’s development, and because Lady Chatterley’s actions during and reactions to sex are paramount to the story.

So what happened?  I think it’s a conjunction of two things.  The first is that Lawrence knew he was breaking all the taboos when he wrote this.  One thing is to poke a socialist finger into the holes in the unraveling British class system… quite another to talk openly about intercourse in the way of the lower classes.  Lawrence knew it perfectly well.

The second, and the impression I get when reading, is that Lawrence himself had a complicated relationship to both women and sexuality.  I might be wrong on that score, but it’s certainly the sense a modern reader has when laboring through his descriptions of what is supposed to be illicit pleasure.  Of course, compared to his contemporaries, Lawrence was a regular Hugh Hefner, so maybe that is just a modern impression.

Nevertheless, it’s the lasting impression I left with.  As a writer, I’ll write erotica if either the market or the story calls for it.  The main thing one strives for is that the sex actually be sexy, provocative and, if possible, titillating.  One can fail spectacularly, of course, but that is the aim.  If your readers are reading one-handed, you’ve succeeded.

Lawrence either wasn’t aiming for this, or simply missed his mark.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose popular novel, Siege, has no sex in it (but people liked it anyway).  If you’re curious to see what he does when sex is involved, please check out Sinisterotica, an anthology that contains his story “Top of the Food Chain” and has one of the greatest covers ever created (and do you imagine the stir that one would have caused in Britain in 1928?).

Remembering a Time when Political Discussion was the Province of Intelligent People

Social media seems to have given us a new paradigm: everyone, no matter how uneducated or unprepared for public discourse, posts political opinions, and we’re supposed to respect them, even if they’re moronic.

So what we end up with is that someone with perhaps four working brain cells posts a political statement which is based on a popular view or a piece of news fabricated by the Huffington Post or by Fox News – both sides are equally stupid when it comes to this, so not making any distinctions by party today).  Perhaps they just copy and paste some one-sided meme. Then, an equally ignorant individual from the other side jumps in and refutes the argument.

No one, of course, uses the media bias chart where everything under the midpoint of the yellow rectangle needs to be ignored if you have aspirations to being an intelligent human being… And any news further to the right or left of “skews” is worthless.

Media-Bias-Chart_Version 3.1

Eventually, the discussion dissolves into name calling in which people who aren’t racists get called racists, people who aren’t Nazis get called Nazis, and people who aren’t Communist get called Communist.  Of course, all of the people who call people these things are idiots…

Like all religions, politics has become dogmatic: if you don’t agree with the virulent left, you are a racist, if you don’t agree with the virulent right, you are a commie.

And then there’s Trump, who stirs the pot for unknowable reasons of his own which only makes things worse.  But this isn’t limited to the US… it’s a worldwide phenomenon.

A Room of One's Own - Virginia Woolf

in 1928, things were different.  Back then, political discourse was for thinkers.  There were expendable idiots even then, of course, but they were just rank-and-file members of different political parties who could be counted on to grab king’s horses or die trying.  But the actual thinking was done by individuals with qualifications.

Which is why, ninety years later, A Room of One’s Own holds up so well.

Now, those who know me well, know that I think extreme leftist thought (like extreme rightist thought) is hugely unproductive.  Making everything about identity politics, attempting deconstruction and brushing off a hundred years of evidence that shows that certain economic models simply don’t work unless you hold the population to them at gunpoint don’t strike me as the actions of intelligent people with everyone’s best interest in mind.  In fact they are more akin to the thinking of the religious fanatics they supposedly oppose.

Worse, I’ve gone on record disagreeing with Woolf’s opinions about Middlemarch, so I’m emotionally invested in disagreeing with her in particular…

Nevertheless, any fair reader will admit that Virginia Woolf wrote a revolutionary, angry book that is, at the same time, cogent and calm in its delivery.  As a means to attain a goal it strikes me as a hugely superior method than going out and calling everyone a racist.

In fact, this book-and the speech it was based on-are a political tract disguised as a bit of advice given to a group of women who wish to make their way in the world as writers.  It highlights an inequality by way of a series of remarks about a fictitious women’s college and then focuses on the one thing that would help the women in her audience overcome that unfortunate reality.  It doesn’t put everyone in a position to help them in the role of the enemy (which, at best is counterproductive and at worst can lead to Trump and Brexit).

So, am I recommending that you read a political essay from ninety years ago, from a side of the spectrum that isn’t my favorite?  Yes, I am.  I believe more people need to read this and to think about why it works, and why it hasn’t been out of print since its initial publication in 1929 – and long after its initial goals have been reached (remember that, today, there are many more female writers than male writers being published).

Maybe if more people did so, political discussion would return to something approaching semi-evolved subhuman intelligence.  Even that would be a vast improvement.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer who prefers to explore the ramifications of technology as opposed to politics.  This makes him very different from almost all science fiction writers published today.  His novel Outside is a prime example of this preference.

An Unexpected Classic

We’ve all heard the premise that, if you were to perfect a time machine, the first thing you’d be obligated to do with it would be to go back in time and kill Hitler before he gained power (as always, the XKCD take on this is likely the greatest ever).  But that’s what people think in the 21st century.

But what about in 1939?  We know that a lot of Americans saw Fascism as a great thing, but how about the rest of the world?

Rogue-Male-by-Geoffrey-Household

Well, at least one British novelist was pretty clear on the subject.  In 1939, Geoffrey Household wrote a slim volume entitled Rogue Male which deals with exactly this subject.  It’s the story of a British gentleman hunter who braves the wilds of Europe to attempt to get the most dangerous game of all into his crosshairs: the most well-defended dictator in Europe.

Though Hitler is never named (remember, 1939 was pretty much appeasement-era Britain, and Household probably preferred not to be shot for treason), not much is left to the imagination.  It can’t really be anyone else.

So we have the answer to our question, at least in one very specific case.

The book itself is probably more significant because of the audacious and unsubtle way it deals with the Hitler issue, but otherwise seemed unremarkable to this modern reader.  I suppose, though, that such an iconic stand more than justifies its status as a classic.  And, of course, the fact that it literally starts with a cliffhanger…

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this one for me was, that as someone who isn’t an expert on the history of the international thriller (except for The Thirty-Nine Steps), I actually stumbled onto this one.  On the same day that I grabbed The Inscrutable Charlie Muffin, I picked up a seventies paperback (see image) with the most lurid pink lettering ever.  Were it not for the cover blurb, I would have been convinced that this one was one of those suburban wife-swapping tales from the decade that taste forgot (“Rogue Male” would have worked rather well as a title for one of those)…  Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Recommended for students of the genre, for anyone interested in cultural expressions around WWII unsullied by modern revisionism or just fast-paced thrillers.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose novel Outside is a tight thriller that deals with the coming issues of post-humanity.

Queen of Crime: A Midlist Report

Elephants Can Remember by Agatha Christie

If you’ve never read a book by Agatha Christie, you’d be silly to begin with anything other than The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or Murder on the Orient Express.  These are clearly the two “must read” Christies, and act in the same way that The Great Gatsby does for Fitzgerald: the rest of the books might be decent, but there’s a reason these two in particular stand out.

But, as witnessed by the fact that she is the best-selling novelist of all time, it’s pretty clear that most people don’t stop at these two.  They read on and on and on.  The questions we aim to answer today are: 1) why? and 2) is it worth it?

In order to make a run at these, I’ll use three Christie books I recently read: Elephants Can Remeber, Nemesis and Murder on the Links.  These three are a couple of Poirots and a Miss Marple, so a reasonable selection.

Before answering the question, though, I found something interesting: Nemesis was not set in a soft-focus prewar era, but actually in a much more modern milieu.  That ultimately made little difference to its effectiveness as a mystery but somehow, cozy mysteries are just that bit less cozy without some kind of Edwardian-ness about them.

Anyhow, with these three as the star exhibit (I won’t go into plots here – anyone aware of Christie’s methods knows it’s difficult to avoid spoilers if one gets into details) I’ll try to answer the quesions.

Nemesis by Agatha Christie

1)  Why do people read more that one or two of the non-superstar Christie books.  I think there’s a couple of reasons for this one.  The first is the fun of trying to work out who the killer is alongside the detective.  Christie’s lesser work might not be quite as good as her best, but with her, you know that the mystery is going to be interesting and fair to the reader.  You’ll be given a chance to solve it.

Another reason is, I believe, comfort with the characters and scenario.  The grisly, life-shattering effects of any murder are glossed over to focus on the surviving characers and the detective.  No scenes of blood spattered bathrooms or bodies in excrement-filled sewers here, just a clean dead body that starts a process of deduction.  Also, the characters speak in familiar ways and plow familiar furrows.  They are books you can relax into.

Finally, they are entertaining.  Whatever their status as classics, you can certainly count on them to help you pass a pleasant two or three hours and, really, what else can you ask from a book of this kind?

The Murder on the Links

2) Is it worth it?  That’s the crux of the question, isn’t it?  There are more books out there than any human can possibly hope to read, so why bother with anything other than an author’s best?

Well, the reasons above are a good start, but they clearly don’t work for everyone.  Many people will answer the question above with “Don’t bother with anything else,” and they’d have a perfectly valid point.

In my own case, I find that a little Christie novel is the perfect balm after reading something a bit more literary and dense, an Eco, maybe, or some Joyce.  I enjoy a good mystery as much as the next fellow, and these are pretty much always decent, if not necessarily brilliant, and I don’t have to worry about subtext and symbolism (the body was buried in a bunker on the eighth hole… is that symbolic of something?  Sand being the end of all life?).

To others, Christie is exactly the right level for all their reading.  Even very well-educated people might not feel like diving into Kierkegaard after a hard day at the office, and that’s just fine.  And some people can’t be bothered to read anything harder than this – which is also fine; at least their not watching a reality show featuring a Kardashian.  That counts for a hell of a lot in my book.

Whatever the theoretical answer, reality has already given us the real response: Yes.  To many, many people it certainly is worth it.  The illustrations above show the most recent editions of these books, but most, if not all, of them have been continuously in print since they were first published – and the most recent was released in 1975: 43 years ago.

Yeah, she knew what she was doing, and even the internet age hasn’t dulled that.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer.  The characters in his novel Outside face a 500-year-old mystery that has a completely unexpected resolution.