Monday, 31 August 2009

Shakespeare and Company - two photos

I found these on the web, here. It's nice to keep them and be reminded. I'll be back.

The wall in the photo below is where George Whitman likes people to leave messages. Do check the photographs of the other bookshops via the link. And mind the hairless sphinx cat on your way through.


I am reading through the many entries for the Stephen Spender Poetry Translation competition for which I am one of the judges. As ever, when reading a great deal at once it is the oddment, the bold move, the slightly piratical or the eminently simple but perfectly balanced that stands out. This isn't fair on the merely very good. It is like looking at the smaller paintings in the Royal academy Summer Show. Hardly an inch between them.


The books I have read while away are:

1.) Henry Sutton's yet-to-be published novel Get Me Out of Here. Since it isn't published yet I can't say anything about it here, except that it is compulsive, disturbing, funny, scary and remarkably well constructed;

2.) Jim Riordan's memoir of his communist days in Moscow, playing (twice) for Moscow Spartak, Comrade Jim;

3.) Mark Sarvas's Harry Revised;

4) Adam LeBor's dark post-1989 thriller, The Budapest Protocol

All enjoyable. All recommended.

Mark Sarvas's is a quest book, in which Harry, a gormless doctor whose socially superior and somewhat smotheringly loving wife has just died, sets out to rebuild his life by way of Victor Hugo's The Count of Monte Cristo. It could easily have been a simple and rather dull story, the case of a seven stone psychological weakling who goes on a Charles Atlas-Dantés course of dynamic tension and finally kicks sand in the bully's face, but it is much better than that. Essentially it is about the nature of what appears to be a good marriage. It is sharp on social class, and best of all, on the complexities of love and control. The main story is not really where it's at. It is the dead wife who provides the most substantial material. She is the lodestone of the book. The true quest is not about the doctor at all: it's the voyage into the wife. That's the better book.That is why I read it.

Adam LeBor gets something very right in his understanding of the political mindscape of Hungary. That is where the power of his book lies. As a thriller it does thrill very well, particularly through the first half of the book where everything is still implicit. LeBor imagines a far right coup and its temporal and international dimensions. He registers the underlying brutality of a perfectly real nationalist mood that looks to make the Roma scapegoats for everything (the Roma first and then the Jews of course). The webs of conspiracy are finely spun: the spiders appear at the end. I'm not really a reader of thrillers, and I don't think I read this book exactly as a thriller either. Something in me always reads a little against the grain. I suppose I just look for what I want to find.

I didn't quite find it in Jim Riordan's memoir, friendly and enlightening as it was about working class life in Portsmouth after the war. He is very good on the fiercely antagonistic sense of us against them, where them is the bosses or the middle class. He joined the Communist Party early and stuck with it through 1956 and, as I remember, 1968 too. He is good on CP tensions in those times. He did his national service as a listener-in to Russian broadcasts then went to Moscow to the international Party school. He got to play for Spartak. All this is good story and interestingly privileged point-of-view. But there is, throughout, a sense of something withheld, something not quite true about the inner level of perception. In the end he tells it as yarn, but - going against the grain once more - I dont see it as yarn, but as a spiritual history that remains untold. A bluff. What did he really think of 1956 or 1968? He seems remarkably blithe about everything. Sorry. Don't believe it. Not sorry I read it. Not at all. But I simply don't believe it where it matters. Playing for Moscow Spartak? Yes, that's no doubt true, but it doesn't matter.


James said...

Riordan's book is being pushed very heavily up here in Scotland - football, "them", left-wing: slap down the middle of something for Scots. And time in exile, of course. Which is not to criticise.

"He seems remarkably blithe about everything" - something of a feature of far-left biography to add to the enviable easy certainty.

Speaking of envy, what pictures of Shakespeare's. One day, and I hope it'll still be there...

George S said...

Too blithe.

He's an intelligent man. He should do better.

Incidentally, I find Donny Osmond on an ancient unmoderated comment from you. Notification of it appeared in my tray today. If not Donny, let's get Tommy Steele for the London Olympics.' What a marf, what marf / what a norf and sarf / Blimey what a marf 'e's got!'