The Terror of 403

Apologies if you have been trying to reach this site in the last two weeks or so. A terrifying error-message which blazoned the word FORBIDDEN in capital letters was all you would find. A virus attack had occurred at the ISP, but it has now been sorted by my son Simon. (A million thanks!) He and I have changed ISP, and things should be back to normal.

But I ask a favour: I understand that after a change of ISP anyone who has a link to my site will not be able to re-connect, except manually. I have no access to social media, and I’d be grateful if this renewal could be made known. The URL is unchanged: www.christopher-priest.co.uk.

Thanks!

Ineffective Art — The Last Days of New Paris

In George Melly’s autobiography, Owning Up (1965), he describes how he became the victim of a violent assault outside a hotel in Manchester. He had been singing with Mick Owning Up (Melly)Mulligan’s Magnolia Jazz Band and at the end of the gig he was standing on the steps of the building, breathing the fresh air, while the rest of the band were still inside packing up their instruments. A group of young thugs approached – one of them had earlier been ejected by Mulligan for pulling a razor on him, and he and his mates were now looking for revenge. One of them had a bottle, which he started tapping with increasing strength against a brick wall. Melly writes, ‘When that breaks, I thought, he’s going to push it in my face.’ The assault began with a head-butt, making Melly’s nose bleed.

Melly, who says he was ‘anaesthetized by fear’, reached into his pocket for the only thing that might work as a defence: it was a book of Surrealist sound poetry, written by Kurt Schwitters, the Dadaist. Melly briefly explained to his attackers what the poems were, and started reading aloud from one called ‘Ursonate’. The first four lines go as follows:

langerturgle pi pi pi pi pi
langerturgle pi pi pi pi pi
Ookar.
langerturgle pi pi pi pi pi (… and so on)

‘Slowly, muttering threats, they moved off,’ writes Melly. (George Melly had a lifelong commitment to Surrealism, being a noted collector, critic and lecturer in the genre.)

I kept remembering Melly’s anecdote, which I interpret as evidence of how effective art can be when well deployed, all the way through my reading of China Miéville’s new novel, The Last Days of New Paris. Much the same thing happens.

Last Days (Mieville)The story, such as it is, describes the aftermath of an ‘S-Blast’ (Surrealist Blast, I assume) set off in Les Deux Magots in Paris, in 1941, during the Nazi occupation. The S-Blast unleashes a nightmare brigade of beasts and ‘manifs’ from the world of Surrealist art. These empower but also threaten the small band of Surrealists still hiding in Paris: La Main à Plume. Soon a violent three-way battle is convulsing Paris, between the ‘manifs’, the Surrealist fighters and the Nazi occupiers. The war, an extension of the Nazi strategic plan Fall Rot (‘Case Red’), continues until at least 1950, which is when much of the novel is set. The only surviving member of La Main à Plume is one Thibaut, who insofar as the novel has a leading character other than the narrator, is the leading character.

There is hardly any trace of story, but what there is describes the appearance of one Surrealist icon after another, which either attacks or is attacked or avoids being attacked. At the back of the book nearly all of these manifestations are carefully cross-referenced to the original artwork, or sketch, or pensée, by page number. (Thus, very early in the novel what appears at first to be two women crazily riding a tandem bicycle, soon turns out to be a ‘manif’ of Leonora Carrington’s Goya-like pen-and-ink drawing called ‘I am an Amateur of Velocipedes’. This is a bicycle-like machine with a female figurehead mounted on the handlebars – a reproduction of it is quickly discoverable online. An endnote exists. The narrator of the book, in a dialogue with an elderly Thibaut, carefully documents the source. No one can be left in any doubt about what it is.)

As the novel proceeds a whole bestiary of Surrealist oddities enters the book, each similarly traced to source by the narrator. Some are famous: Max Ernst’s painting of an elephant-like metal bin, ‘Celebes’, is one, and ‘Exquisite Corpse’, a collage by André Breton, Jacqueline Lamba and Yves Tanguy, not only comes alive but takes a prominent role. Soon, the unstoppable carnival of spinning Surrealist images becomes dizzying.

I hoped and intended to like this novel, assuming it was a return to form for China Miéville after a period of some uncertainty. After finishing it, I felt Miéville should be congratulated on writing a unique novel. It is ambitious, obscure, unusual, difficult, provocative, fantastic, vainglorious, and not at all too long. His language is at its best bizarre, experimental, sometimes daringly impressionistic. I cannot recall another novel like it. All this is to its advantage. However, it also presents a congeries of literary problems, serious ones.

‘Weird’ is a word sometimes applied to Miéville’s work, often by the author himself. In fact, there is little about the novel that is weird. If you accept the conceit of the S-Blast, and the madness of war extended almost indefinitely, much of the novel reads like the catalogue of a Surrealist exhibition, or a Thames & Hudson book of art reproductions. We move from one ‘manif’ to the next, programme notes to hand, like captions to illustrations or narrative cards attached to the wall beside the piece of art. The reader is not given a story to follow, or the emotional lives of the characters to grow with. We know nothing of the lives of the characters outside the events in the novel – where do they live?, what do they do at the weekend?, how do they eat?, etc. There is as well a lack of comprehensible dialogue, no plot to speak of, and an extremely poor sense of place – Miéville writes ornately, but the ambience is thin. There is none of the evocative descriptive prose of (e.g.) The Scar.

And because it is a narrative totally lacking in atmosphere, sensuality, character, motivation, and much more, it becomes a struggle to maintain interest. This is the kind of book you press on reading not because you have found something to enjoy or be intrigued by, but because you are determined not to be beaten by its extraordinary flatness.

Like the Surrealist art that the novel describes, The Last Days of New Paris is not weird at all, Dali Clock Aug 2016but odd and fanciful. Surrealism developed from Dadaism, which was based bizarrely on anti-war feelings in the years 1914-18, and is full of fancy. Trains emerge from fireplaces or chug through someone’s beard, ants crawl across melting watches, lovers kiss with their faces shrouded, skeletal bones clutch an egg, a urinal is presented as an object of beauty and usefulness.

Miéville’s novel, by adding nothing to these fanciful works of art beyond making them move and cataloguing them, is full of fancy. It even becomes more fanciful still, because a novel is itself a work of art and this one should have brought something to the intriguing subject of Surrealism, more than being simply an illustrated list of examples.

The early work of J. G. Ballard (notably his stories in the collection Vermilion Sands) is wonderful proof that the images and feelings of Surrealism can be summoned and enhanced in English prose. Ballard, like Melly but seemingly unlike Miéville, was dedicated to Surrealism. Throughout his career he often cited its images and manifestos as being major influences on his writing.

Fancy is related to fantasy, but it is a slot lower. While fantasy literature draws on psychic archetypes and symbols, images of the dream state and the human wish for a sense of otherness, it also inspires imaginative ideas unconnected to the reader’s experience of reality. Fantasy often summons a series of pleasing or exciting or gratifying mental images, serving the reader’s need for the feeling of well-being not present in the real world – equally, it can suggest frightening or disturbing or warning images, again satisfying a need for excitement or menace or apprehension not often encountered in real life. Written well, fantasy is powerful stuff, ultimately based on reality and psychological experience. And yes, fantasy is often genuinely weird.

On the other hand, fancy is a whim, a surprising thought, an unexpected juxtaposition, an anachronism, a party piece. It treats the ridiculous with unfruitful solemnity. It lacks metaphorical depth. While fantasy can move, excite, depress or stimulate a reader, fancy gains only a reaction: at first it is one of amusement, or even of being impressed or astonished, but when fancy piles on other fancies, as in Miéville’s novel, then it is all too much. It becomes risible, annoying, irrelevant, even unsurprising – it provokes irritation, anger, a wish for better things.

An example from Last Days: It was one thing for the poet Paul Éluard to suggest fancifully that L’Arc de Triomphe should be turned into a giant urinal – it is quite another order of fancy for Miéville’s ‘manifs’ to tip the monument on its side, then have it streaming with self-generated urine. Self-generated urine? Where does that sort of image lead us, what does it mean, what on Earth was the author thinking? (P 54.)

A sense of the author’s abstraction, or distraction, recurs too often for comfort. Miéville is presently at the top of his game, and we expect him to be committed to his work and thus give a great performance. Far too often in Last Days there are lapses of style, grammar. The narrative is told in two tenses, the present and the past perfect – we switch between the two without apparent purpose. On pp 68 and 69 there are two such switches: from present to past perfect, to present again. This is a sign of something going wrong: either the author was not concentrating on what he was doing, or it was a meaningless stylistic mannerism he rather liked, or he didn’t realize he was doing it, or he didn’t care that he was doing it. Whichever of those four betraying signs is the one, it’s a no-win.

He has also not been well served by his copy-editor. She was not much older than Thibaut, he thought. She looked at him with urgent eyes (p 6). Who thought that? Who is ‘he’? The entire passage before and after this is in the third-person, and it is about Thibaut, but in the first of these sentences Thibaut appears to be thinking about himself. In the second: how can passive organs like eyes ever be ‘urgent’?

This sort of carelessness is a betraying detail – there are more than a few others, and it would be tedious to list them all. The four revealing conditions under which the author allows changes in narrative tense apply here too.

I found myself breaking a personal rule and began making pencil underlines of dodgy words and phrases. Like most of its kind the thing is obviously in pain. But that size, whatever its injuries or sickness, they will not help him (p 19). We expect better writing than this from a serious and successful author — we are entitled to expect better.

The expansive and dynamic early Miéville novels find few echoes here. The Last Days of New Paris is, I am sorry to say, a thinly achieved novel, apparently book-learned, lacking narrative and descriptive skill, lacking passion.

The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville — Del Rey, 2016, 205 pp, $25.00, ISBN: 978-0-345-54399-8

Owning Up: The Trilogy by George Melly — Penguin, 2000, 594 pp, ISBN: 0-141-39001-8

The Sound of Things Falling

A male hippopotamus escapes from a private zoo – it is shot with high-powered rifles and the marksmen pose with the body for photographs. The entrails are buried on the spot and the head and legs are sent to a research laboratory in Bogotá. This particular hippo was one of several who broke out of their enclosure — most of them were not hunted and are now feral in the surrounding area. The zoo was owned by one of the richest men in the world and was part of a heavily guarded private compound called Hacienda Nápoles (“Naples City in Italy”). As well as the zoo, the compound contained an artificial lake, numerous pieces of sculpture and life-sized models of dinosaurs and a mammoth. The compound was owned by Pablo Escobar, a drug lord, trafficker and terrorizing murderer – over the gate was a replica of the single-engined aircraft in which Escobar’s drugs were delivered to the USA. After Escobar was cornered and killed, and his cartel dismantled, his former fortress has been opened to the public

Things FallingAll of this is real, not fiction, but it provides the opening image of the novel The Sound of Things Falling, by Juan Gabriel Vásquez. Vásquez is a Colombian writer, born in Bogotá in 1973, but who moved to Europe after he graduated from university. He lived in France, Belgium and Spain, returning to Bogotá four years ago. Although Things Falling is his sixth novel, it is only the third to be translated into English (all of them by Anne McLean, who has won several awards for her work).

Vásquez pays tribute to his eminent predecessor, Gabriel García Márquez, but distances himself from magical realism, claiming that the genre requires the reader to reinvent history, or the truth. Things Falling is a realist novel, with a strong narrative voice. Even so, the style is leisurely, considered, evocative of landscape and feelings and character.

The story is about Antonio Dammara, a disaffected law professor living and working in Bogotá. He is seriously injured when he is struck by a stray bullet while in the company of an acquaintance from his youth called Ricardo Laverde. He has not seen Laverde in many years, who has aged badly and has become a withdrawn, enigmatic person. Laverde is killed in the drive-by shooting. After a long and painful recovery, which indirectly causes his marriage to start to fail, Antonio determines to find out the reason for the murder. This involves an exploration not only of Laverde’s past but of his own, growing up in Colombia while the country was held to violent ransom by the drug wars caused by Escobar and his cartel. His discoveries about Laverde’s life, the story of Elaine, Laverde’s American wife, and his only daughter, Maya, make up the substance of the book.

It is a highly unusual and ambitious novel, one of the best I have read recently.

The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez. Bloomsbury, 299 pp, £16.99. ISBN 978-1-4088-2579-2

Jerzy Kosinski — tainted

Kosinski 3I have been reading this biography* of the Polish-American writer Jerzy Kosinski, a figure of deep ambiguity, a man of endless contradictions and apparent deceptiveness. He was a liar, a plagiarist, a shameless social climber, a hater and abuser of small dogs, a manipulator of women, a constant user of whores, an annoying player of unfunny and sometimes dangerous practical jokes. All of this was routinely denied by Kosinski, while most of his strange and dysfunctional acts were known and witnessed by many others. I knew none of it myself at the time, while not seriously doubting it when I became aware of what had been said. Rumours and accusations followed his career (intensifying after his death by suicide, a quarter of a century ago), with many people coming forward to claim that they had actually written his books for him. Some successful writers attract hostility and jealousy – Kosinski suffered these in spades. Everything is described in detail in the biography. Whatever the truth, for me Jerzy Kosinski was a novelist I found inspiring and influential.

Kosinski 2I first came across his work in 1968, when his second novel, Steps, was published in the UK. I had never read another book like it: almost every page was a shock, a revelation. This was partly because of the period – Steps seemed to fit naturally into the social upheavals of the time – but also partly because I was a young and beginning writer, trying to write and sell my own first novel. I was seeking a voice, seeking encouragement, seeking almost everything. I was dissatisfied with the conventional narratives of the novel, knew that there were ways to try to break out into more adventurous methods, but I was also stricken with a kind of stage fright, a nervousness about my own limitations.

Incautiously reading Steps was for me like suddenly throwing open a door without knowing what might be on the other side of the steep wall that contained it – there was what seemed to be a burst of light, revelations, openings, possibilities, a view of scenery I had not suspected was there, or ever could be. Steps consists of many short narratives, told in an icily clear, unemphatic voice. It is all description, with hardly any dialogue. It is written in a detached narrative voice, first person, unemotional, worryingly dispassionate – but the steps in Steps are violent, abusive, sometimes disgusting, dangerous, always unexpected.

I have not re-read Steps since that first time, but its images still haunt me. I soon found Kosinski’s only other book available then: it was in fact his first novel, The Painted Bird, published a couple of years before Steps. The Painted Bird is a more linear narrative, but also Kosinski 4consists of a series of shocking scenes or events. As the Germans invade Poland in 1939, the middle-class parents of a young Jewish boy place him for safety with peasants in a remote part of the countryside. This arrangement quickly breaks down, and the boy endures the rest of the war alone and sleeping rough, fending for himself in a strange and hostile landscape. He witnesses, or endures, appalling events as the Holocaust goes on around him – what you read in Steps is mild when compared with The Painted Bird. Some of the material is so horrifying that it is almost literally impossible to read. Again, Kosinski’s narrative voice was hypnotically calm, but because of what I knew about the author’s personal background (from the brief author descriptions on the book jackets) I assumed it was an autobiographical novel. If so it was unlike anything of that sort I had ever read.

Most people made the same assumption. By the time his novels were published, Kosinski had social-climbed his way into the upper echelons of the New York literary establishment. A regular at dinner parties, he repeatedly told his horrifying anecdotes: parental abandonment, trying to pass as a non-Jew, the violence of ignorant peasants, mutilation by criminals and SS members, being struck dumb. When he worked these stories into a book the publisher, who had heard them from Kosinski’s lips, accepted it as a non-fiction work. Kosinski insisted it was fiction, and as such it was published. When people read The Painted Bird, thinking as I did that it was a novel heavily influenced by personal experience, Kosinski would say in public that “it was all true”.

Who really wrote his books is a question that I think will never be answered. There have been various allegations of plagiarism or cheating. Perhaps the most damaging of these was that one of his most successful novels, Being There (1971), appears to have been a rewrite of a minor best-selling novel, published in Poland in 1932. The plagiarism would be obvious to many readers in Poland, but the original novel was never translated into English. One George Reavey, an unsuccessful poet, came forward and claimed that it was he who had written The Painted Bird. Others said that Kosinski had worked in some mysterious (and undescribed) way with the CIA – his escape from communist Poland and entry into the USA was suspiciously easy and his political background was always undefined, but the thought of CIA spooks collaborating with him on a novel about the Holocaust is too ridiculous to be taken seriously. His first two books (non-fiction, about the Soviet Union, published with the by-line Joseph Novak) were dictated in Polish to a bilingual secretary. She then fleshed them out into readable English. It is no secret that Kosinski employed a private editor to work as rewriter and adviser on many of the novels, or that Kosinski produced many different versions of his manuscripts, bearing multiple changes with each appearance.

I knew none of this when I read Kosinski’s first two novels, nor, for that matter, when I caught up with his later books. The books existed, they worked as books. Of course, as an author I believe the name of a writer on a book is a sort of guarantee, a brand, a vouchsafing of true identity. But many books are published under pseudonyms, many books are heavily edited by third parties before publication. Were his actions just a matter of degree?

Knowing what we know about Jerzy Kosinski, or strongly suspect, adds something to the intrigue, not something that is particularly flattering, but it made him different, odd, disturbing. Anyway, the novels were for me a terrific stimulus. I often went to read sections of them when I was stuck on one of my own books, not to copy or imitate the style, but partly to try to renew that first revelatory discovery of Kosinski’s unique way of showing the art of the possible.

Kosinski 1Reading James Park Sloan’s biography I frequently felt glad that I had never been part of Kosinski’s circle, that I had never met him. But then, suddenly, I remembered that I had met him once, very briefly. In 1983 he came to London to deliver the annual Scott Dawson Memorial Lecture to members of P.E.N. (of which Kosinski was a past president). It was held at the Royal Festival Hall, and the place was packed. In the interval I saw Jerzy Kosinski in the foyer, so I boldly approached him and asked him to autograph my copy of Steps. He looked at it, checked the print information, then said, ‘Have you any idea how rare and valuable this edition is?’

I said I did, and watched as he used a felt-tip pen to double its rarity and value.

* Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography, by James Park Sloan. Dutton, 1996, ISBN 0-525-93784-6

A Dish Best Served Cold?

This is a recommendation to the Argentinian film Wild Tales (Relatos Salvajes), which we watched on DVD last weekend. It came out last year and has won prizes and awards at film festivals all over the world, although largely in South and Central America. It gained nominations for the Oscar and BAFTA awards (in the categories embarrassingly and chauvinistically called respectively “Foreign Language” and “Not in English”). It was also nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.

Somehow, though, perhaps because it was thought to be “foreign”, it did not gain a theatrical release in the UK, and opened on a paltry four screens in the USA. Traditionally, English-speaking audiences are assumed by distributors to loathe sub-titled films. (It is exactly this kind of unthinking chauvinism that is ultimately behind the current controversy about actors in this year’s Academy Awards.) Whatever the reason, Wild Tales can be fairly said to have slipped through the Anglophone net. More fool us.

Wild TalesIt is a wonderful film, one of the best made and most enjoyable I have seen in a long time. It is, though, difficult to describe and review, because of the form it takes. It is a portmanteau film, consisting of six individual short stories, without linking between them. In Wild Tales the stories have nothing in common beyond the theme: they are all about revenge.

The wish for revenge is an intriguing subject, and here it is treated with flourish. Each of the stories is original and unusual, each is well told and skilfully filmed. The cast consists of actors who are not instantly familiar to British and American audiences, but are obviously well known in Argentina – perhaps the most familiar of the actors is Ricardo Darin, who was the lead in such (Argentinian) films as Nine Queens and The Secret in Their Eyes. But the ensemble acting is terrific throughout.

Each of the episodes is imaginatively constructed: there is an ingenious plot as well as the story, and the characters are properly and convincingly drawn. There are memorable images galore: you will never forget the astonishing image with which the first story ends, but it’s not a film of cinematic trickery. The concluding story, for example, is based entirely on character and good writing, and leads up to a most satisfactory and surprising ending.

Wild Tales was produced by Pedro Almodóvar, and was written and directed by Damián Szifrón. I hope Szifrón has a long and successful career ahead of him. I can hardly wait to watch his film again, and I suspect others will enjoy it as much.

However:

During the same weekend we saw a second film. This, oddly enough, had several features in common with Wild Tales. Much of it was filmed in Argentina, for instance. A lot of the dialogue has subtitles in English. It too is about revenge.

It was (perhaps not obviously from that brief summary) the recent blockbuster vehicle for Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy: The Revenant.

Whereas Wild Tales glories in superlative writing and storytelling, The Revenant is minimally scripted, has hardly any story at all and no plot to speak of. It is no more than an anecdote, padded out for two and a half hours. You will know the anecdote before you go into the cinema: DiCaprio is savaged by a bear, left for dead by his colleague Tom Hardy, and after he recovers he goes off in search of Hardy to exact revenge. There is nothing more to the film than that: apart from a lot of hanging around in cold weather, fabulous photography of cold weather, a dip in a freezing river, endless violence in cold weather, a lot of cruelty in the snow … and a quest for revenge.

Wild Tales was budgeted at $3 millions. The Revenant spent $135 millions. Wild Tales, as I said, opened on a mere handful of American screens. The Revenant opened on more than three thousand.

Wild Tales is the better film.

George Clayton Johnson

Mr Johnson died on Christmas Day — my obituary of him appears here. I never had the pleasure of meeting him in person, but after intensive researches while drafting the article I rather began to wish I had.

Part of my researches involved having a look at what online extracts I could find of the film of his novel, Logan’s Run, released in 1976. (He co-wrote the novel with William F. Nolan, who survives him.) I remember reading Logan’s Run when it came out in the mid 1960s. By the more modest standards of that long-ago era it was fairly heavily hyped by the publishers, but when I read it I found it was a straightforward dystopian satire, better done than some of the other books of that type but not exceptionally so.

It was filmed a few years later, directed by Michael Anderson from an adapted script by David Zelag Goodman, and starred Michael York and Jenny Agutter. I can’t remember much about the film beyond the fact that I did go to see it, so looking at some of it again was a revelation, especially in the context of the currently released Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

The ‘first’ Star Wars film was released less than a year after Logan’s Run, and of course transformed forever the interest of Hollywood in the science fiction idiom. The two films came out less than eleven months apart — because of the amount of process work that followed the live action shooting, Star Wars was probably filmed in the UK around the same time as they were making Logan’s Run in Hollywood. Yet they seem to come from different decades, not to say that they emerge from bizarrely different imaginative cultures. Logan’s Run is slow, preachy, unconvincing. The sets and special effects look phoney, the acting is coy, forced and lacking in conviction. As for the costumes: the scenes of life in the community are rather like an especially demented Abba video. Young extras tirelessly walk to and fro, holding hands, chatting and smiling in groups of two and three — the chaps all wear body suits and have blow-waved hair, the young women are in diaphanous one-piece mini-dresses. It’s a ghastly reminder of the awful ‘styles’ that were prevalent in the 1970s. ‘It begins where imagination ends,’ promised the trailer. Never was a truer word —

We saw the new Star Wars release a day or two before Christmas. Whether or not I liked the film is neither here nor there: in terms of the visual effects, acting styles, the costumes, the kind of writing and storytelling, the type of humour, The Force Awakens is entirely consistent with its predecessor, made nearly four decades earlier. Neither film dates the other. Of course, special effects techniques have changed out of all recognition in that time, and there are gentle in-jokes about some of the original actors looking a bit faded, but everything is put to the same service as before. And even in those pre-CGI days, the Star Wars miniatures were convincing, the script had wit, the explosions were not wobbly and semi-transparent, the costumes were non-specific to passing fads and hairstyle fashions. For the full embarrassing truth, check out the Logan’s Run trailer here.

There has long been a plan to re-make the film. Not in itself surprising, but I was astonished to discover how many top film makers and writers had been dragooned into the project, and for how long it has been going on. Efforts to make a new version go back to at least 2004, with directors like Nicolas Winding Refn and Bryan Singer attached, and writers such as Carl Rinsch, Andrew Baldwin and Alex Garland commissioned to write new screenplays. All have come and gone. As recently as July 2015 the experienced producer and writer Simon Kinberg was taken on to re-boot the old project.

I tended to see all this from the point of view of George Clayton Johnson himself. A modern remake of his book would obviously have brought him some welcome recognition, and an injection of cash. I went through something similar a few years ago, while I waited for a Hollywood studio to get around to filming my The Prestige — but in the end I had to wait only five years for the project to be greenlighted, and another twelve months to see the finished film on the screen. For Mr Clayton, the inexplicable process was going on for at least the last ten years of his life, when he was elderly and unwell.

I hope when they get around to it, they do him justice.

The Art of Incidental Murder

I have been reading a lot of Patricia Highsmith recently, notably her novel This Sweet Sickness. I carried the book with me on a recent journey to France, one that took several hours in both directions and involved much hanging around in airports and train stations. It did what I hoped it would do, and that was distract me from the endless noise and discomforts of travel delays.

This Sweet SicknessThis Sweet Sickness (1960) is about a clever, educated and not unattractive man called David Kelsey. Kelsey has become obsessed with a young woman, Annabelle, whom he hopes and intends to marry. He has constructed a secret alternative identity, which he adopts every weekend. Under a false name, William Neumeister, he goes to stay in a house in the countryside close to where Annabelle lives. Here he lives out a fantasy in which he imagines himself greeting his paramour, showing her proudly around the house, preparing lavish meals for two, opening bottles of fine wines, and so on. Between all this he writes letters to Annabelle, pleading with her to give up her present life and move to be with him (but she has married someone else, and has had a child). Sometimes he telephones her and sometimes he goes to hang around the place where she lives. From time to time Annabelle relents and agrees to meet him, but only to emphasize forcefully that he must back off and leave her alone. Kelsey always wrongly interprets these contacts with her, wilfully blinding himself to reality. Kelsey is, in short, a stalker. A death takes place, partly caused by Kelsey’s actions, and to try to divert police attention from his own role in the incident, Kelsey poses as Neumeister and approaches the police with a false story about an accident. ‘Neumeister’ having diverted suspicion from Kelsey then contrives to disappear into the web of lies that has sustained Kelsey’s fantasy life. For most of the book Kelsey manages to keep Neumeister at a distance from himself, but later there is another semi-deliberate killing.

It’s an interesting study of the psychology of a stalker, but also a fascinating illustration of the way apparently harmless lies create an inescapable trap, as only new and more complex lies must be devised to evade justice. Kelsey moves slowly to an inevitable (but not entirely predictable) fate.

Highsmith’s novels intriguingly often feature non-murders, or semi-murders, almost as if the author shrinks away from the brutal act.

The BlundererHer third novel, The Blunderer (1954), is typical. Walter Stackhouse is plotting in a blundering sort of way to kill his unstable wife Clara, when she happens to die anyway. Because Walter was closely shadowing her movements at the time, the police treat her death as murder and start to investigate. Meanwhile, Walter becomes obsessed with a similar unsolved crime, in which a bookseller appears to have murdered his own wife. The two men meet. The cop investigating them both is a dangerous psychotic.

The Cry of the OwlThe Cry of the Owl (1963) is about another stalker, or more accurately a Peeping Tom. Robert Forrester is spying on Jenny, fantasizing about her life in the house where she lives. Jenny spots him one night as he lurks in her darkened garden, and unexpectedly befriends him. A weird relationship develops, but her fiancé Greg is unsurprisingly not too pleased. Robert and Greg fight violently, and Robert comes off the better. Greg’s body then disappears, leaving Robert in the familiar Highsmithian dilemma of not knowing for sure if he is a murderer or not.

A Suspension of MercyA Suspension of Mercy (1965) is one of my favourites, with a plot not dissimilar to The Blunderer: Bartleby, an American writer living unhappily in Britain with his young wife Alicia, plans to kill her. While Alicia is away visiting a friend, he rehearses how he would actually perform the deadly act, and this includes acting out the murder, then going through the motions of moving her body away from the house and concealing it. Unfortunately, Bartleby’s rehearsal is witnessed by an elderly neighbour (or is it?), and he is incriminated. When Alicia does not return from her visit, and appears to have gone missing, the police start investigating.

Those Who Walk AwayIn Those Who Walk Away (1967), a man called Coleman blames his son-in-law Ray for the recent and premature death of his daughter, even though Ray too is of course mourning his loss. Coleman attacks Ray while they are in Rome and leaves him for dead. Ray however recovers and escapes to Venice. Coleman follows him, not certain if Ray actually died or not. Ray seizes an opportunity for revenge and Coleman is apparently killed, but again there is no certain evidence of Coleman’s death. The two men stalk each other through the wintry alleys and along the dark canalsides of Venice, both descending into a web of concealment, deception and sudden violence.

These books are classic page-turners and any of them would make a great film, as some of her books already have. My first awareness of Highsmith’s work was in the early 1960s, when Alfred Hitchcock’s film of Strangers on a Train was briefly re-released into cinemas as ‘classic Hitchcock’. (His film Psycho had been a major success in 1960.) This was a time when I was starting to take note of writers who wrote films, or whose work was adapted. I had never heard of Highsmith – Strangers was her first novel, published in 1950 – and I began looking with interest for her books. In spite of Hitchcock’s film she was not then a well-known or widely distributed writer, and the only book of hers I could find was a paperback tie-in of the film.

Over the following years Highsmith built her reputation steadily through her novels. Most of her books were initially published in hard covers, although in Britain at least the editions were usually cheap-looking, aimed at library buyers. An early adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley was made in 1960 in France as Plein Soleil (or Purple Noon), directed by René Clément and starring Alain Delon. Other films have followed, including The Cry of the Owl in 1987, a remake of Mr Ripley in 1999, directed by Anthony Minghella and starring Matt Damon, The Two Faces of January in 2014, and Carol in 2015. Highsmith’s books are now much easier to find, both new and second-hand.

Gradually, her work is coming to identify in a loose sense with America in the early 1950s, although through nearly all of her working life she was living in Europe. In Highsmith’s novels most of the characters have regular jobs, they drive cars, buy houses. In those pre-internet days they make phone-calls and write each other letters. They become engaged and sometimes marry, and they do not, usually, have pre-marital sex. They drink a lot but rarely do drugs. Other than Tom Ripley her characters are not career criminals, but are ordinary people with slightly dysfunctional lives, who drift into murder on an impulse, or by mistake, or as a consequence of an earlier, lesser crime.

There’s a good biography called Beautiful Shadow by Andrew Wilson (2003), and she wrote an excellent book about thrillers called Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966).

Less than a Manifesto

A Muslim is ‘one who submits’ – Michel Houellebecq’s new novel is called Submission, and it describes the Islamization of France in the near future. A self-aware novelist, Houellebecq makes clear his particular, peculiar understanding of Islam. The title in French is Soumission, and the straightforward translation to the English equivalent is obvious, but ‘soumission’ has a secondary meaning in English, and probably in French too: submissiveness. There’s a fine difference. Authors often pick titles which use secondary meanings to suggest another way of interpreting the novel, a deeper level of intent.

SubmissionOn page 217 Houellebecq describes what he thinks the real meaning of Islam might be. The narrator of the novel is François, a middle-aged university lecturer, who is having the new French world explained to him. Houellebecq puts the words into the mouth of one Robert Rediger, a charismatic French academic who has reacted opportunistically to the democratic rise to power of an Islamic régime in France. Rediger has joined the new government and converted with alacrity to Islam. With several young female students, he has quickly caught on to the attractions of polygamy. He and his multiple wives now live in a sumptuous house in rue des Arènes, in the 5th arrondisement of Paris, the same house, apparently, where Anne Declos wrote the novel of female sexual submissiveness, Story of O. Through Rediger, Houllebecq makes a link so crass that it is momentarily stunning. Rediger explains to François:

‘… there’s a connection between woman’s submission to man, as it’s described in Story of O, and the Islamic idea of man’s submission to God.’

Houllebecq is notorious for causing offence and presumably saw this political satire as an affront to the French bourgeoisie – it seems more likely that the elders of Islam are going to be upset by a comparison of their faith with Anne Declos’s graphically described novel of male sexual dominance.

Houellebecq is confusing the trappings of Islamic culture with the tenets of Islamic faith, a fundamental error made by many Islamophobes in the West, but the consequences of that are his problem. I’m more concerned with his novel.

There are superficial similarities with Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, few of them flattering. Rediger, for instance, fulfils roughly the same sort of role here as O’Brien in Orwell’s novel: he is the party insider, who explains and defines the new and authoritarian régime to François, the book’s narrator. His function is first to explain to François where he has gone wrong, then to offer him salvation. Rediger’s passages of explanation are maddeningly dull – they seem to be based on political party handouts, or newspaper articles, or debates on TV current affairs shows.

Rediger has no literary function beyond exposition, which is why the apparent similarity to Orwell is a trite one: O’Brien was a false-flag operative, luring Winston Smith into a feeling of trust before betraying him, a crucial and memorable sequence which Orwell used as an illustration of the ruthlessness of the Big Brother régime. Houllebecq lacks that kind of subtlety, or any sense of drama. Rediger finishes his explanation and François now is ready to convert to Islam, presumably much taken with the idea of a new beard and some polygamy with his young students. In his own way he too is now loving Big Brother.

Houellebecq has hardly any story to tell: a presidential election in France in 2022 leads first to an inconclusive result, then after the run-off a Muslim politician called Ben Abbes, leader of the so-called Muslim Brotherhood (but not the same one as in Egypt), forms a government. Almost overnight the constitutionally secular French Republic is transformed into an Islamic nation, rather along the model of Saudi Arabia. All women wear veils in public, alcohol is banned, universities are closed, beards are grown, Shariah is introduced.

François has a job at a university, but loses his job at the university. For a while the novel feels like a watered-wine version of The Day of the Triffids – the old order is breaking down and survival is imperative! Riots on the streets of Paris! Shortages in shops! Time to get away from civilization! François jumps into his car and drives out of Paris in his powerful VW Touareg – ‘a turbo-diesel V8 and 4.2 common rail direct fuel injection, it could go 240 kilometres per hour’. He thus speeds down ‘strangely empty’ motorways while everything in the country seems to be ‘broken’. He finds a hotel in Martel (TV not working, no food), then a more congenial one in the Christian shrine village of Rocamadour. He settles down comfortably and spends a lot of time sitting in a church (this is where we and Houellebecq part company from Triffids). After a return to Paris, where the riots appear to be over, or more likely forgotten, he leaps on a TGV (SNCF still working OK) and escapes to become an oblate at a monastery, returns to Paris, listens to Rediger explaining and explaining …

A secondary theme in the novel is François’s interest in the 19th century novelist J.-K. Huysmans, who was the subject of his dissertation years before. Huysmans worked as a civil servant for many years, and was noted for his pessimism and interest in the decadent movement. He became a religious convert after he spent time as an oblate in a monastery. This is the same monastery at Ligugé that François flees to. What sort of point is Houellebecq making here? Are we being invited to see a parallel between François and Huysmans? So it would seem, but Houellebecq’s infilling about him is sketchy to say the least. The thinness of the connection looks perilously like a bit of sophistry, a factitious attempt to give some kind of literary extra meaning to his otherwise uninteresting story.

Speculation about the near future seems these days to be increasingly attractive to writers who would otherwise disdain the idea of writing what they appear to presume is trashy genre science fiction. Houellebecq is just the latest and by no means the worst … but he’s close to the worst. The point is that the literary requirements of all fiction remain necessary when writing speculative or fantastic fiction.

In the first place, a metaphorical level is required: the basic theme of the novel (in this case the Islamization of France) needs poetic irony and resonance: a sense of place, or dread, or rationalism, or humour, or distance, or invention. If you write as Houellebecq has written here – spouting the knee-jerk fears of the tabloid press, or the homilies of ambitious politicians, or the sonorities of newspaper leader writers – then you end up at best with a sort of manifesto. But if you fall below that best, as Houellebecq does in Submission, you do little more than rehash clichés and generalizations and ignorant assumptions and political gobbledegook. Islamophobia is already familiar to us, the daily stuff of headlines, politics and journalism. And in a novel even metaphorical content is not enough on its own: a novel of course requires characters, a mood, a sense of place, a love of language, a story, a plot, a reason for the book to exist that is greater and more lasting than the passing fears of the moment. Houllebecq delivers none of these novelistic qualities, but at least his book is short and soon over. The translation, by Lorin Stein, is well done.

Submission by Michel Houellebecq – William Heinemann, 250 pp, £18.99, ISBN: 978-1-78-515024-1

For Openers

I have recently returned from a longish visit to France. Once again I was the beneficial recipient of many compliments from readers about the first line of one of my novels. In its day (now more than forty years ago) this opening sentence had a startling effect on many French readers, helping to keep the book popular ever since. The novel is called Le Monde Inverti (1974), and here is the first line:

J’avais atteint l’âge de mille kilometres.

When I hear these compliments I am of course delighted, but I also feel the slight unease of worry that it was not wholly earned. What I wrote in English at the beginning of Inverted World was an OK sentence, similar to the French version, but somehow it did not have the same kind of grand resonance: “I had reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles.” Furthermore, because of the belated intervention of the American publisher, who would not leave well alone, many editions in English had a three-page Prologue shoved in before the true first sentence. Sensibly, the French publisher (Robert Louit, working with the translator Bruno Martin) dumped the unnecessary Prologue, metricated the measurement, rounded it down and created the beautiful sentence I have been dining out on ever since. Good publishing and good luck often come into these things.

But calculation comes into it too. People who run writing courses, or who publish books on the subject, often emphasize the importance of coming up with an opening line or image that will ‘hook’ the reader. I notice that the writer Andy Weir, author of The Martian (2014), has published his Four Tips for ‘Breaking the Seal’. The first of these concerns coming up with a good first line. As an example Mr Weir quotes George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949):

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

It’s a good choice, even if it has become slightly outdated. The 24-hour clock is now in widespread use throughout Europe, and even in Britain and the USA, since the appearance of digital technology, watches and clocks have for years been striking, or at least showing, thirteen hundred hours. The sentence still works, though. A chill sense of difference is neatly established.

As an adult reader one of the first amusing and intriguing openings I came across was in a Cold War spy thriller called Tree Frog, by Martin Woodhouse (1966):

I was in my coffin. Why had they buried me face downwards?

That’s clever. It’s racy, sharp, memorable, and contains a nonsensical question that will spark the reader’s interest. The problem is that Mr Woodhouse doesn’t follow up – his narrative becomes unfocused, it tries to raise more weird questions, the reader is given nothing back, and a long thriller written in short sentences follows.

Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915) starts with the following sentence:

This is the saddest story I have ever heard.

The trouble here, again, is that it is not entirely relevant to the rest of the book. As many critics have pointed out, The Good Soldier is not an especially sad story at all. The interest of the book lies elsewhere: it’s one of the first examples of a novel written by an unreliable narrator. Therein lies the enduring importance of the book, and it’s a classic. But it’s not sad.

Some writers get the whole thing wrong, simply by being seduced by the irresistible attraction of a clever or original image. Here’s the opening line of James Blish’s Black Easter (1968):

The room stank of demons.

This is a startlingly effective opening to a fantasy novel. In five words the author economically creates an ambience, a feeling, a situation, even a background. It’s really good writing: the use of the word ‘stank’ is perfect. However, here is the paragraph that immediately follows, one I suspect few readers can get through without falling asleep:

And it was not just the room – which would have been unusual, but not unprecedented. Demons were not welcome visitors on Monte Albano, where the magic practised was mostly of the kind called Transcendental, aimed at pursuit of a more perfect mystical union with God and His two revelations, the Scriptures and the World. But occasionally, Ceremonial magic – an applied rather than a pure art, seeking certain immediate advantages — was practised also, and in the course of that the White Monks sometimes called down a demiurge, and, even more rarely, raised up one of the Fallen.

Some novelists get it completely right, though. Here is one of my personal favourites, the opening sentence of David Lodge’s brilliant campus comedy Changing Places (1973):

High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1,200 miles per hour.

The scene is set, the tone is set, the story is under way. It goes on very much as it has started. The reader settles down to enjoy a novel where the author knows exactly what he is doing, and does it well.

Anyway, I was interested to read Andy Weir’s advice to other writers. No matter how long you have been at the game of writing, this sort of thing always has a fascination. You never know – it’s never too late to learn, and you might pick up something useful. Apart from a few minor quibbles about emphasis, I don’t dissent from anything Mr Weir offers as advice. But as he is the author of a famously best-selling novel, which has sold thousands of copies to thousands of presumably well satisfied readers, it did make me wonder how his own opening to The Martian goes. Here it is:

I’m pretty much fucked.
That’s my considered opinion.
Fucked.

It stinks of something to me, but not of demons.

“Open Your Balls”

I went to see the new film Mortdecai (2015) with a feeling of duty to an old friend. (Kyril Bonfiglioli, who wrote the novels.) The reviews of the film have been almost universally awful, and after Nina and I saw the trailer last week I couldn’t help thinking it was going to be something to get through and keep quiet about afterwards.

Bon was such a great and long-lasting friend. He bought, published and even paid for my first story (eight guineas!), but that was not the sole basis for a friendship that lasted twenty years. In the mid 1970s he began writing the Charlie Mortdecai novels, completing three of them before the dread consequences of the demon booze caught up with him in 1985. He also wrote a non-Mortdecai novel, All the Tea in China (1978). After his death, an unfinished fourth Mortdecai novel was found in his papers – this was completed a few years later by Craig Brown.

Product DetailsProduct DetailsProduct Details

The Mortdecai books have recently been reprinted by Penguin Books. I read them as they came out in the 1970s – they struck me then as fabulous: fast-moving, extremely intelligent, funny, self-awarely xenophobic, ingeniously nasty, and full of bits you want to read out aloud to others. At the beginning of the first book (Don’t Point That Thing at Me) he wrote: “This is not an autobiographical novel: it is about some other portly, dissolute, immoral and middle-aged art dealer.” I would recommend the books without qualification if it were not for the fact they are now more than 30 years old, and the way we perceive the world has changed a bit since then. Well, all right, then: give them a go!

MortdecaiThere is also a book called The Mortdecai ABC, by Margaret Bonfiglioli, published by Viking in 2001. This is a wonderful compendium, arranged in a kind of alphabetical order, of everything and a bit more about Bon. There is, for instance, a series of biographical sketches – a few sample headings include Car Crashes, Hidden Jokes, Food, Lies, Parrot, Waistband and Waistline, Tea. All his editorials from Science Fantasy are here, and every short story he ever wrote. Letters to his publishers. And letters to friends: a whole chapter reprints some of the correspondence between Bon and myself in the 1970s. In her Introduction, Margaret (Bon’s ex-wife) writes: “How did I happen to put together this book? Laughter began it.”

How sad it was to read the previews and reviews of David Koepp’s film Mortdecai. Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian wrote: “The poster is awful. The premise is awful. To be frank, quite a lot about it is awful: a middle-aged comedy caper of the kind not seen since Peter Sellers’s final outings as Clouseau and Fu Manchu.” Geoffrey Macnab in The Independent said: “an incredibly convoluted script involving a stolen Goya painting, random changes of location (we are whisked, for no particular reason, from London to Moscow to LA), too many gags involving vomit and rotting cheese, and some incredibly dull and dim-witted dialogue that would barely have passed muster in a bad British 1970s sitcom.” Things were no better in the USA, where box office takings were said to be some $50 millions below budget. Josh Slater-Williams in SoundOnSight wrote: “a cataclysmically unfunny, unbelievably tedious disaster of baffling misjudgments and multiple career lows that feels as long as Shoah, and only a little less harrowing.” The end of Johnny Depp’s career was doomily predicted by all and sundry.

Well, we went to see it anyway. I loved it. Nina loved it. We both laughed out loud several times, laughed quietly most of the time, and at very worst were agreeably amused for the rest. The audience enjoyed it too. It has a tremendous pace, scurrilousness, wit, a ridiculous heist, stupid violence, jokes about moustaches and penises and vomit and smelly cheese and foreigners. What more do you want?

Do try to catch the film while it is still around in theatres. And don’t miss the books!