British Literature

A Reasonable Voice from the Past

As someone who already has way too many hobbies, I avoid politics like the plague.  My main exposure to politics in those times when Argentina is not close to a national election (one month every couple of years where you can’t listen to the radio in the car without being bombarded) is on social media.

I watch in amusement and horror as lunatics on the left and right register their unworkable, extremist views for all to see.  The arguments between left and right are always fun, but those between left and left are usually the best of all.  Since history tends to argue hard against the more extreme forms of socialism, these tend togo down some spectacular theoretic rabbit holes.  Anyone caught arguing for common sense, moderation or even a slightly less fantastic dogma is vilified and is subjected to one of those famous internet pile-ons.

All of this has led me to believe one of the old jokes from the right, the one that states that the preferred battle formation of the far left is the circular firing squad.

And it’s always been that way.  It’s popular among the ignorant (or the unscrupulous with a political axe to grind) to speak of George Orwell‘s Animal Farm or 1984 as allegories against capitalism, but the truth is they are both direct strikes at the heart of the Soviet Communism in the 1940s written by the most famous overtly socialist writer of the 20th century.

No one would say these were measured strikes.  But Orwell was capable of subtlety, too.

Down and Out in Paris And London - George Orwell

Which neatly brings us to this.  Down and Out in Paris and London is also by George Orwell, and it is also a book which looks to further his socialist agenda.  But instead of attacking his enemies within the party using bitter satire, he uses the one tool that is always effective, even with people who don’t share his views: promoting understanding.

He, the gentleman writer of impeccable breeding, credentials and education, takes us on a guided, first-person tour of life in the lowest slums of Paris, displays how to get work as a kitchen helper and then joins the tramps of the London environs.  The difficult nature of these lives is brought to life in his words–it’s not a coincidence that Orwell is a celebrated novelist; regardless of subject matter, his writing brings the action to life.

There isn’t much plot to speak of, of course, as this is mainly a descriptive exercise, but it is still packed with incident.  Even better, it is a mix of nostalgia in the vein of In Search of England with a reveal of a social class the book’s readers will be unfamiliar with (as will all modern readers, since the life depicted therein no longer exists).

In a world where it seems that the accepted way for politics or activism to be discussed is with anger and the utter denial that an opponent might have any good qualities, books like these (see also  remind us that public discourse was once the province of people with intelligent arguments.  Remember those days?  Now it seems to be the place for people who only read things that agree with their point of view and let their little, inconsequential echo chambers and their confirmation bias do the rest. (and end up with conclusions like Trump wants to be dictator for life and Bernie is a communist who wants to put everyone on collective farms).

Social conditions have changed for the much better since this book was released.  There is no post-war scarcity, and the world is mostly democratic today, but the book still resonates.  Apparently, unlike social media controversies, good writing and clear thinking are timeless.

The edition I read was–ironically–a Folio Society book (ironically because reading socialist books in luxury editions seems somehow wrong).  I can’t post a link here because it’s no longer available from Folio, but I do recommend tracking down a copy as the reading experience is certainly better than what you’d get from cramped text and yellowed paper.  Besides, buying this one second hand seems perfect, considering the subject matter.

Highly recommended, even–perhaps especially–if the online screaming has turned you off politics forever.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose book Love and Death intertwines stories to form a novel spanning generations and crossing social barriers.  You can buy it here.

Greatness that Smacks You Right Between the Eyes

Greatness often isn’t recognized in its own time.  Think of all the memorable films that didn’t even garner an Oscar nomination while the Best Picture winner languished in obscurity after a couple of years*.

Other films (the same can be said of books, of course) are slow-burning, becoming classics long after their first run bombed or otherwise made little impact.  A literary example illustrates this beautifully: HP Lovecraft.  He was a minor writer in the literary landscape of the 1920s and 30s, who was recognized after his death as the unrivalled master of a particular brand of fiction.  Hell, as a writer, I’m not entirely certain if we’re allowed to write the word “eldritch” unless we’re doing a Lovecraft pastiche.

But some just hit you between the eyes and you have no question that it’s a great one.  In the Noir Era, The Big Sleep is one that stands out.  There is no doubt that, perhaps without breaking any new ground, it brings a certain type of film to a supremely high level.  I have yet to watch one that I think is better.

Today’s subject is one of those.

The Third Man Movie Poster.jpg

Brilliant from the outset, The Third Man is an atmospheric study of postwar morality and the awful realities of a terrible time but, unlike The Bicycle Thief, it treats the subject matter as a way to tell a great story as opposed to using it as a political canvas.

And the story holds up its side of the film.  This isn’t just an atmospheric crime movie–and it most definitely isn’t noir–but a well-blended mix of high-quality ingredients.  Acting, setting, story and darkness combine to put you in Vienna in 1947.  It is utterly perfect, and quite possibly the film that best uses the fact that it’s black and white… ever–I still have a few of the greats to watch, but color was making strong inroads by the time this one was released in 1949–because it is one of those movies which would have lost a lot if they’d been in color.

So everything comes together beautifully, and the semi-twist ending (I won’t give any spoilers here, even though both film and book are well known, as many people will have forgotten how it ends), as well as Orson Welles’ few onscreen minutes, almost, if not quite, a cameo, make it about as close to the perfect movie as I’ve ever seen.

Also, the book is quite good as well, if I remember correctly (it was assigned reading in the eighth grade, so it’s probably high time I reread that one).  A Graham Greene Classic.

If I had to watch one movie from the forties, and one movie dealing with the effects of WW2, I admit I’d probably go with Casablanca over and over again.

But this one comes dangerously close.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is Jungle Lab Terror (just released–you could be one of the first readers!).  You can buy it here.

 

 

*Which, in the current “politics matter more than quality” climate, will actually happen more often.  I shudder to think of how future generations will laugh at the current Oscar dynamics.

The Origin of the Wonder

Readers of this blog know that I have a serious soft spot for the writing of Gerard Durrell, a man I’ve always considered the ultimate eccentric, as well as the ultimate civilized human.  Reading one of his books is to leave angry political discourse on Twitter–what I consider to be the ultimate lack of civilization–far behind.

My Family and Other Animals - Gerald Durrell.jpg

My family and Other Animals, part of Durrell’s Corfu Trilogy is a particularly lovely read because it tells the story of a period of years which he spent on Corfu as a boy of ten to about fourteen years old.  It shows how his already-present love of animals and the natural world flourished in this formative age.

Better still, the tale is told by Durrell who has one of the greatest eyes for the odd and not-quite-sane that I’ve ever encountered.  despite his obvious affection for his family and friends on the island, he leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind that they are all at least slightly nuts.

As I was reading (locked in coronavirus quarantine), I looked at the children around us, obsessed with their devices and wondered, not for the first time, if modern idiocy is the fault of kids who who lost their way before becoming adults or helicopter parents who didn’t let them collect scorpions when they were eleven.  Or row out to sea in a homemade boat as a pre-teen.

I blame the parents but, that aside, it’s wonderful to see how independent children used to be before he world went stupid, and this book illustrates it gloriously.  From one anecdote to the next, a sense of the slightly unreal, despite the fact that every single one of these events happened, probably exactly as described, permeates the book.

If, like me, you’re stuck inside during these strange days, I recommend giving this one–or any Durrell–a go.  He has the rare ability to completely remove your surroundings and take you outdoors.

And this one takes you to a Greek island for the cost of a paperback and without coronavirus risk.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist whose book set in Greece is very different from the one described above.  It’s a fast-paced sexy thriller called timeless, and you can buy it here.

A Book about England by the Man Who Scooped the King Tut Tomb Opening

I bought a bunch of used books at my local Anglican church about a year and a half ago, and I’ve been working my way through the ones I decided to keep.  The nice part about doing this kind of thing is that I invariably end up with loads of books I would never have bought anywhere else.  Lesser work by authors I’m already familiar with (such as Barnaby Rudge or Silas Marner) and books by writers I’d never heard of before lead the list.

Today’s entry is of the second kind.  When I picked up In Search of England, by H.V. (Henry Volland) Morton, I had never heard of book or author.  But I can’t resist a book which promised a tour of the English countryside, so I saved it as a keeper.

In Search of England - HV Morton.jpg

It was a good choice.  The first thing I noticed is that, unlike Laurens van der Post, who was a workmanlike writer with an emotional bent that makes his work special, Morton is a virtuoso of the pen whose broad historical background made me (as a writer), shake my head in admiration.

But even if he’d been a lesser mortal, the subject is so charming that it would have warranted a place on my shelves.

The story is an account of an automobile journey that Morton undertook around 1926 (the book itself was published in 1927) which started in London and followed, roughly, the contour of England (it ventured into Scotland only following an interesting historical anomaly and only for a few miles).

In search of England Interior.jpg

Avoiding many of today’s tourist traps, the narrative focuses on the villages and unique quirks that make England so special.  The Furry Dance in Helston (there are no people dressed as animals, strangely), and the Chester Rows are prime examples, as are churches large and small and the Bristol Camera Obscura, which I need to write a detective story about.

Of course, he also covers the larger stuff such as Bath or Hadrian’s wall, but he does so with a historian’s eye to minutiae that others would simply pass by.  In each place, he endeavors to tell us something that the average tourist would never learn… and it’s wonderful.

The most poignant part of it all is when he stands on Hadrian’s wall and looks out over Scotland.  You can almost feel the weight of the Roman Empire pushing on your back, and the darkness of the unknown ahead.  Immensely good writing.

As a travel journal, it still holds up today.  By concentrating on things with roots deep in history, Morton manages to avoid the problems of old guide books.  He almost doesn’t mention hotels, gas stations or other stuff that have been superseded by modern life.

It was only after I finished reading and went onto the internet to investigate his life did I learn that both Morton and his “In search of…” series were (or are, depending on your interests) very famous.

Morton, it turns out, was the journalist on the scene when King Tut’s tomb was first opened, and managed to scoop the Times.  In 1923 scooping The Times was a big deal… and Morton became an instant celebrity.  That’s the kind of serendipitous discovery you never make when buying on Amazon or B&N… and it means I’ll continue to peruse the shelves of unlikely places for overlooked gems.

And the series? It was a bestseller in its day and is still in print today.

Well-deserved.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer with hundreds of published stories to his name, as well as several books.  His latest book is perfect for anyone who loves to discover relatively unknown quirks of distant cultures. It’s called Pale Reflection, and Morton would have loved it.  We think you will, too, so check it out here.

 

 

A Reasonable Ending After a Terribly Weak Start

It’s no secret that, unlike Virginia Woolf, I’m not a fan of George Eliot.  Hell, I often think she hid behind a pseudonym not because of the rampant sexism of the time (although that undoubtedly existed), but because she wanted to avoid destroying the cause of female writing forever.  Also, if she proved that women are capable of writing the worst drivel, she would have had to spend the rest of her life avoiding the vengeful ghost of Jane Austen.

Silas Marner - George Eliot

Having said that, I’m happy to report that Silas Marner isn’t as bad as Middlemarch.  Much of that has to do with the fact that it’s a much shorter book, of course–I’ve found that Eliot improves with brevity–but it’s also slightly better.

Basically, this one follows the lives of a few country characters in stultifying detail, and reminds one that detail, when not wielded by an expert (such as Austen or Dickens) can easily go from delightful to boring, and yeah, the first two-thirds of this one were a bit slow.  Also, the “tension” that Eliot creates is not of the delightful kind but of the kind you just want to stop.  Like Dickens at his worst, it’s just piling suffering upon suffering on someone who was already miserable to begin with.  I’m pretty sure no one reads the Book of Job for pleasure, so why read Eliot?

Aside from the style problems, this one shares another issue with Barnaby Rudge, my least favorite Dickens so far, and that is the first part of the book is essentially table-setting and all the action happens at the end… years later.  Essentially, they both bore you explaining who is who and then say: “a few years later we find…”

In both cases, the second pat is where all the interesting stuff happens (except for two incidents in Silas Marner which I won’t spoil for you).

Anyway, focusing on the good side, the end of this book is satisfying.  It isn’t the riotous insanity that actually saves Barnaby Rudge from the scrap heap, but it’s fine.  Had this one not had a decent ending, I would probably have had some sort of apoplectic fit.  As it was, I was merely disappointed to confirm that my impression of Middlemarch was correct.

Not one I’d recommend to people who prefer books to be interesting or entertaining.  If you read the book of Job for fun, though, you might like this one…

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose book Love and Death is available here.  He believes it will entertain you more than Silas Marner, but then, he wrote it so it’s not a surprise that he’s saying that.

 

 

A Mystical Journey to Find the Lost Bushman

Let me ask you a question–if I told you that I’ve read a book written by a British South African of Afrikaner descent born in 1906 about the indigenous race of the southern tip of Africa, what would you think?

If you think it would be some kind of racist, supremacist screed, you need to check your prejudices at the door.

It turns out that Laurens Van der Post is a very different kind of man, and the book, The Lost World of the Kalahari, is a very different kind of book.

Lost World of the Kalahari - Laurens Van der Post

But that’s not what I was thinking when I picked up my copy.  I actually was thinking it would be a typical “white man enters the savage wastes and tells people about it” story.  I like those stories because they not only evoke simpler times that I never experienced, but also because, despite ignorance, the actual descriptions of places and people that no longer exist are usually very well done.  A good case in point is the book on the White Nile I read a while back.

This one, as I said, is different.  Mainly because the author is different.  Van der Post was, apparently, a hippie before hippies were a thing (the book is from 1958, and he was 52 at the time).  The trip into the heart of the Kalahari is a mystical experience as much as it is a geographical and anthropological one.

It makes for a weird read.  He does the basic job of telling us about the Bushmen (a nearly-extinct race of lighter-skinned Africans who were the original inhabitants of the southern part of Africa before darker-skinned people immigrating from the north and Europeans settling in the south squeezed them nearly to extinction.  About 100,000 of them still survive today), but he also goes mystical on you every couple of chapters, giving great significance to omens and spirits.

Normally, this would be a huge turnoff for me, but, for this book, it works.  The primal nature of the African wilderness suits itself to magical thinking in ways that few other places do, and this unexpected mystical side makes Van der Post himself appear more human than just another macho explorer trekking through the veldt and hunting to eat.

Most of all, though, the author comes across as a man who utterly loves his subject, especially the Bushmen themselves, of whom he’s heard since childhood but never actually seen until the expedition.  For those who might be curious, the expedition also filmed a documentary for the BBC, parts of which are on YouTube, here.

It’s a touching book, and one that is a strange departure from that genre’s more usual fare.  I certainly wouldn’t want every exploration book to be like this one, but it was an interesting change of pace.  The spice of life and all that.

Recommended, and I don’t even have to apply my usual disclaimer that anyone who is offended because people in the past had a different attitude about indigenous people than we do should avoid it.  Anyone can read this one without being offended by it.  So go ahead!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer from Argentina who, like Van der Post, is fascinated by cultures other than the usual Western fare.  His book Off the Beaten Path is a collection of short science fiction and fantasy stories set in non-typical places and cultures.  He thingks you’ll love it, and urges you to buy it here.

Dickens Drudgery

I normally view Charles Dickens as a treat, something that will be a long read and certainly more involved than the more usual light fare, but absolutely worth it.  Anyone who’s ever read David Copperfield will know what I mean, and I was coming off an absolute blast in the form of The Pickwick Papers.

CharlesDickens - Barnaby Rudge

The next one that popped up in my to-be-read pile was Barnaby Rudge, and the edition I had in hand was an old Collins hardcover in a format that is smaller than the mass-market paperbacks of today.  It seemed innocent enough until, on closer inspection, I realized that it was 600 pages long, the thin paper making it look much shorter.

Well, most Dickens books are long, so I wasn’t particularly worried…

Unfortunately, this one is at least 300 pages too long (when reading, I would have said 400 pages too long, but I’m feeling more generous now).

The problem is that old Charles indulges a little too passionately in his love for drawing characters and gives un a first section of the book in which nothing too interesting happens, and what does occur does so at a snail’s pace.  That makes it… difficult to get through.

Which is a pity, because the final 200 pages are among the best in Dickens.  The mess of character threads that had been lying loosely all over the place suddenly tauten and turn into a story… and a thrilling one at that.

But most modern readers aren’t going to get that far.  They’ll drop off in the middle for something more immediately rewarding (pickwick, perhaps), so maybe that this book isn’t among the author’s better-known works is not so bad.  After all, we wouldn’t want people to be turned off Dickens because of one bad beginning, would we?

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose books do not begin slowly.  They tend to start in the middle of the action and go on from there (except for one which leads off with a sex scene).  His literary fiction can be sampled in Love and Death–buy it here!

A Wonderfully Sordid Little Piece

I’m pretty eclectic when it comes to the books I grab off random bookstore shelves, but apart from classics I’d been meaning to read for ages, the stuff I’m most likely to grab are thrillers from the golden age of crime fiction (I have a pretty wide definition of when the golden age of crime was, but I’d generally say it starts somewhere in the 20’s and ends in either the late sixties or early seventies.  Your mileage may vary depending on taste, but that’s my wheelhouse.

The problem, of course, is that I’m no expert on the genre–I read it because I like it, so people like Lawrence Block are subject to curiosity (for those, like me before reading that one, who don’t know, he was a major figure in the crime genre).

Another one I had no idea about was John Creasey.  The Cover of my old Pan paperback copy of his book A Case for Inspector West claimed that his sales (in 1961) exceeded 20 million… but I hadn’t read a single word he wrote.

I will likely not commit that error again.  A Case for Inspector West is one of those books that goes so quickly and pleasantly that you end up wondering where the heck it went.  It’s short, but not that short; the speed is because it’s a fun, well-written work.

A Case for Inspector West - John Creasey

Fun, in this case, is a relative term.  You need to like to have people murdered in cold blood, front and center (no cozy-mystery off-camera murders for Mr. Creasey) to enjoy this one, and you also need to be rooting for the death penalty.  This one was written in England in a time where murderers were hung.

If you’re OK with all that, then yeah, this one is a blast.  It has everything you could want of a nice, ugly case of betrayal and counter-betrayal with a very satisfying body count.

One of the nice things about doing book reviews is that it’s one of the few instances in 21st century life in which you’re allowed to applaud violence and depravity without being criticized for it.

So yeah, Creasey gets two thumbs up from this former Creasey virgin, and I will be on the lookout for his stuff in the future.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose thriller Timeless is not lost in early sixties England, but is bang up-to-date and global in scope.  Also, you can get an ebook, so there’s no need to hunt down an old Pan paperback.  You can check it out here.

A New Favorite Dickens

I probably read Charles Dickens in the wrong order.  My first exposure to the man was a volume called Hard Times which didn’t impress.  This was followed by Oliver Twist, probably also a mistake.  The overly melodramatic and emotional has never been my cup of tea.

Things began to look up with A Tale of Two Cities which, by dint of being about something other than suffering, immediately took the top spot in my personal rankings.  At the time I enjoyed it a lot.

Enough, in fact, that I went on to read David Copperfield.  That one was a masterpiece, and probably, if one is objective, the best of Dickens’ work.

Luckily, though, I didn’t stop reading with that one.  His minor work (Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol) was duly consumed and found reasonably good, and I did enjoy Dickens’ London, a compendium of sketches by Boz and other essays.

But now, I can say that I’ve finally found MY Dickens. (Yes, that does sound unfortunate when you read it out loud.  Don’t read it out loud.  Especially in a crowded train).

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, better known as The Pickwick Papers, is one of the best books I’ve ever read.  Certainly the one book by old Charles that creates a feeling of wonder as opposed to simple admiration about how well the guy writes on a sentence level.  This one is also entertaining, a bit kooky (yes, that is a technical term reviewers use all the time) and just as well written as his heavier works.

And therein lies the rub.  This one un very un-Dickens-ian in the sense that it’s a light-hearted romp through several counties of English countryside (some, perhaps all, apocryphal) as opposed to a worrying grind through an urban landscape.  It’s like reading Wodehouse written by Dickens, which is always a treat (more on that particular angle in my forthcoming review of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop).

Essentially, it tells the adventures of four friends who, though wealthy enough to go on the kind of lark one would usually enjoy, are utterly clueless when it comes to everything else, apparently.  Hilarity ensues.

As such, it’s a pleasure to read.  Every singe page is fun stuff, and Mr Pickwick must rank among Dickens’ most memorable characters, which is quite a feat in itself.

For those who think that humor is somehow a guilty pleasure, you can rest assured that it’s all right.  No one will shake their heads at you in disapproval at your next literary gathering because A) Dickens is a classic writer, B) it’s 800 pages long so most of your literary friends won’t have read it and C) it has redeeming social commentary, so you can pretend you read it only because of that.

So you can enjoy every one of those 800 pages without having to make any excuses at all.

Perfect.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  His laters book is a collection of short genre fiction set in non-traditional places entitled Off the Beaten Path.  You can check it out here, and it’s worth having a look for the cover art alone.

A Wonderful Escape into a Lost Era

On Thursday, I spoke at length about a fantasy book, or at least a book set in a world that never existed, which is as good a definition of fantasy as one might give.  The interesting thing about Gormenghast, though is that the book never felt as much like I was escaping the real world as it did that I was navigating a maze that never truly let me forget the outside universe.

When you think about it, it’s strange that a fantasy book of that stature finds it hard to create the escapist objective of literature while the very next book I read, a non-fiction work, immediately plunged me into fantasyland and made all my troubles disappear–for a time.

The Whispering Land - Gerald Durrell

Of course, a world where one is free to roam about and collect animals for one’s private zoo is actually much more of an escape than one that talks about mad rulers.  And, besides, Gerald Durrell was a better writer than Mervyn Peake (and most of today’s socially conscious genre writers are worse than both).

When you take both these factors into consideration, The Whispering Land is one of those books that transports you to the wonders of a simpler time.  Yes, it’s based on the assumption that the British Empire is a civilizing force, and yes, if you tried to create something as barbaric as a zoo today, you’d get lynched by the ecologists, but both of those realities, far from offending, make the book even better, as they are so gently couched as to be wonderful as opposed to antisocial.

To be completely honest, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this one as much as the incredible The Bafut Beagles and A Zoo in my Luggage, mainly because the book was set in Argentina in the 1960s, which, to my mind is a much less interesting and exotic locale than Africa in the 1950s could ever be.  Though a bit far away to be familiar to most, Argentina is essentially similar to southern Europe, if the poor were a bit more poor.  It’s not a truly exotic locale.

But Durrell’s wonderful writing and uncanny knack for finding kernels of wisdom and wonder even in the mundane, combined with the fact that he was actually spending time well on the fringes of the country, in the cold, desolate, penguin-infested coasts of Patagonia and the northern jungles make this one nearly as good as his African classics.  Even the foibles of third-world corruption are cheerfully presented as facts, and become quirks to be smiled at as opposed to anchors dragging down nations.

Seen from the perspective of the twenty-first century, Durrell’s work becomes the preemptive counter-strike and perfect library partner to Notes from a Small Island, in the sense that Bryson looks and Britain from an outsider’s perspective while Durrell looks at the rest of us from a distinctly British point of view.  And yes, he is well aware that that point of view is eccentric as hell, made more so by his insistence on running a private zoo.

At the risk of gushing I’ll just close with my recommendation: buy anything by Durrell you can get your hands on and read it.  If something therein offends you the problem is yours (have a doctor check you for an over-inflated sense of outrage and underpowered capacity for whimsy), and if you can’t lose yourself in his mid-century world, then you need to try to remember what wonder feels like.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author whose latest book is a collection of 22 short stories set in places far from the First World.  It’s called Off the Beaten Path, and you can check it out here.