‘Call for the Dead’ by John le Carré

One of the greatest spy novelists of all time (some would argue the greatest spy novelist), John le Carré first introduced George Smiley in this 1961 novella.

Call for the Dead is a relatively minor work as a recently divorced Smiley investigates the death of senior civil servant, Samuel Fennan. According to the top brass, suicide is the cause, but Smiley is unconvinced. There’s just too many East German connections sniffing around.

It is the introduction of Smiley – the foil to an overly public, glamorous  James Bond – that makes Call for the Dead an important, of-its-time, read. Short, overweight, balding and wearer of thick lensed glasses, Smiley has, according to his superiors,  “the cunning of Satan and the conscience of a virgin.” He is a true career intelligence officer (unlike Bond) but, in 1960 and Call for the Dead, he is working at a menial level, security-clearing civil servants.

It develops into a suspenseful conceit of espionage and deceit, a realism-based thriller that is minor in its narrative and plotting but which, of course, leads le Carré and Smiley into the classics of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

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‘Time’s Arrow’ by Martin Amis

What is the sequence of the journey I am on? What are its rules? Just a couple of questions asked early in Amis’ narrative by narrator Tod Friendly. The answer soon becomes apparent for the comfortable medical retiree living in the north-east of the US. 

That sequence is a life heading backwards. The narrative opens with Friendly surrounded by doctors at the moment of his death. This is the beginning of Time’s Arrowand the relatively short novel takes its reader through a disorienting reverse chronology. It’s Friendly’s consciousness or hindsight that tells the tale – unable to change the past but simply observe or occasionally comment.

That reversed version of reality sees people become younger (to the point where they return to the womb and cease to exist); relationships start with huge arguments, end with passion and are followed by a period of nothingness or cool distance; meals at restaurants begin with a payment; doctors create harm; taxi drivers are paid at the outset and provide such a service that time is spent at the end of the journey waving farewell. 

The telling of the story of Tod Friendly in such a manner is disconcerting – particularly as it soon becomes apparent that this is not his name and there’s a secret to his past to be kept just that – secret. But with its reverse chronology, Time’s Arrowsoon reveals Dr Odilo Unverdorben and his odious past in the Nazi death camps of the Third Reich.

The main problem with Time’s Arrowis that as a conceit, it simply becomes repetitive. A good-looking German doctor, having fled the concentration camps to escape to the US via Lisbon where he becomes a relatively successful medic but something of a failure in any long-term relationships with women. That’s the essential storyline. It’s surprisingly slight. But, told in reverse chronology, the cleverness, well told, the knowledge that street cleaners drop rubbish before good citizens collect it, becomes a gimmick and a clever writing exercise. And then there’s the experiments on Jews in the concentration camps that result in improvement in health prior to being sent home. Uncomfortable reading…

Time’s Arrowis Martin Amis’ only Booker Prize shortlisted novel and lost out to the 1991 winner, Ben Okri, and The Famished Road.

‘Possession: A Romance’ by AS Byatt

possessionMassive and complex AS Byatt’s multi-awarding novel may be, but this overwrought piece of pretentiousness left me perfervid and polysyllabically frustrated (I can do it too!).

The writing was on the wall almost 30 years ago when I first purchased the book – it has stayed on the bookshelf since then. Now a yellowed, vintage copy (appropriate – a large part of Possession: Romance is entrenched in 19thcentury poetry and letters), pages and pages of varied fonts, indented prose, academic musings incorporating footnotes into the main body of the novel alongside stereotypical characterisation and humour that falls flat results in a fetid indulgence of epic proportions.

I long gave up on the exploits of the nerdy, academic researcher, Roland Michell, wanting to make a name for himself in the world of 19thcentury English literature and the poetry of Randolph Henry Ash. Naturally his boss, James Blackadder at Prince Albert College in London, is mean spirited and threatened by all and sundry – but in particular the wealthy American, Mortimer Cropper, patron of the Newsome Foundation in Arizona. That upstart is also interested in Ash – and is purchasing all paraphernalia even vaguely related to the poet, including all research papers, original writings and letters.

So right from the off we have academic confrontation and competition – made even more profane when Roland keeps quiet about his discovery of a potential connection between Ash and Christabel LaMotte, a scorned lesbian poet long forgotten until recently championed by feminist academics. Cue more stereotypes of lesbians and feminists that can be added to brash Americans and batty, socially awkward academics as Roland heads of to the Women Studies Centre in the north of England where he meets LaMotte expert, Maud Bailey.

Professional rivalry ensues in the tedious literary detective story that unfolds from their research at the final home of Christabel LaMotte.

Possession: Romance is a series of writings and genres from different periods: epic poems, diaries, letters, lists, academic papers, contemporary prose. But it’s simply too self-consciously clever and sits alongside stereotyped characters and clichéd events and plot development. Byatt herself takes an academic approach to biography whether in fiction or semi-fiction. You may not be able to fault the research and command of language but, as a novel, this is an impenetrable, self-promoting, self-indulgent entrapment. Literary with a capital ‘L’.

Possession: Romance was awarded the 1990 Booker Prize.

‘Satin Island’ by Tom McCarthy

satinislandAn unexpectedly accessible and engaging cerebral read, Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island is a state-of-the-world stream of consciousness as corporate anthropologist, U., navigates his way through contemporary life and his role in the multi-national, multi-government epoch-defining Koob Sasson Project.

Tasked by Peyman, his boss, with the writing of the book to define the age, U. spends his time in a sporadic oscillation between global and localised catastrophes (oil spills, Lagos traffic jams) and page five news about a dead parachutist – along with the occasional sexual encounter with Madison, a woman he met at a conference in Budapest. His purpose is to accumulate information from which the identification of a codex can possibly be developed – so that he can write that defining tome.

Satin Island is no domestic narrative of the mundane and the every day – it’s about airports and overseas conferences (London, New York, Paris, Seattle, Turin, Vienna), data analysis and expounding theories of human and corporate behaviour. It’s about disappearing into screens, power point presentations and decoding the world.

But what prevents Satin Island from slipping into a miasma of intellectual and theoretical inaccessibility is the wry humour and lightness of touch by Tom McCarthy. Contemplative and challenging it may be as U. scrutinises everything around him in what is essentially a novel without a plot. Madison features occasionally, as does Petr, a friend dying from cancer – but that’s the limit to the human-interest story. The remainder of the relatively short novel is about connection and events, a Chaos theory for the 21stcentury that will enable U. to write that book.

Shortlisted for the 2015 Booker Prize, Tom McCarthy lost out to Marlon James, the first Jamaican author to win the award, and A Brief History of Seven Killings.

‘The Siege of Krishnapur’ by J.G.Farrell

siegeofkrishnapurTo the north of Calcutta, (the fictional) town of Krishnapur and its British garrison is laid under siege by rebelling sepoys during the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Essentially the retelling of the (true) siege of Lucknow, Farrell’s engrossing novel is based partly on contemporary accounts, diaries and letters of the British residents themselves.

Imperialism is placed under the microscope as a complacent community, with the exception of our hero, Mr Hopkins (the Collector), ignore all danger signs. Hopkins is a rarity in that he is a man devoted to progress and contemporary culture. Yet even his values and ideas about civilisation, religion, community – even the essence of Englishness itself – come crashing down around his ears amidst the terrible privations, disease, inhumanity and death during the months under siege in almost unbearable heat.

As Indians encamp in their hundreds on the far banks of the dry river bed to watch the spectacle, the folly and illusions of colonialism are driven home. Cholera cares not for the British class system and, after several months of water rationing, personal hygiene may not be high on the priority list. Food is so scarce that the capture and satisfying crunch of a beetle elicits jealous rage and, of little value, silver cutlery ends up being sequestered for (effective) canon ammunition.

The Siege of Krishnapur, through humour, cutting wit and more than a little moral high ground (the now discredited phrenology, for example, looms large throughout), draws out the drama of events as the characters are subjected to changes in rules almost unfathomable to the privileged many.

Farrell himself (who died tragically at the age of 44 in a fishing accident) said that he wanted to show “yesterday reflected in today’s consciousness” – and his incisive prose and biting wit suggests that he more than achieved this. Occasionally, however, Farrell slips into preaching, particularly when it comes to the discussions and arguments about religion. But a minor caveat for a book that looks not to why the rebellion happened from the Indian perspective, but from the perspective of the ingrained, misplaced superiority of the colonialists.

JG Farrell was awarded the 1973 Booker Prize – and The Siege of Krishnapur is regarded by many critics as the best of all the winning novels.

‘Headlong’ by Michael Frayn

headlongMichael Frayn is a successful novelist and playwright equally at home with farces, comedies and profoundly serious dramas. Throughout, he explores the extreme lunacies of life and the thin dividing-line between order and chaos.

Headlong is a ‘classic’ Frayn, incorporating a farcical narrative where a young academic and wannabe art historian believes he has stumbled across a missing Bruegel masterpiece with scholarly investigation and art history. And like so many farces of wrong doors, missed opportunities, inappropriate clinches, dropped trousers and general absurdity (Frayn wrote Noises Off after all), Headlong is a frustrating, bumbling, infuriating novel.

Martin and Kate Clay, with baby Tilda in tow, head for their country home (a damp, slightly squalid cottage some three hours drive from London) for a year’s sojourn of research and writing (both are university lecturers). On arrival, they discover their neighbour, Tony Churt awaiting them. Never having spoken to any of the local residents, the part-time country folk are surprised by an invitation to dinner at Upwood, the very dreary, run-down Churt manor house. Evidently looking for quick cash, Churt introduces Martin in particular to the family Giordano in the hope of advice on an under-the-counter, avoiding-inheritance-tax deal. But among many other paintings in the freezing house, Martin is convinced he has spotted a Bruegel.

Cue initially fascinating research into the (little known) life of Pieter Bruegel and the politics of life in 16th century Protestant Netherlands under Spanish Catholic rule. Theory and counter theory abounds along with the following of historical lines that may prove the authenticity of a missing (or several) Bruegels from the series of works in The Seasons. Martin’s research also explores the ideology that, like so many paintings of the time, the works were iconographic in their messages – symbols of oppression by the ruling Spaniards. More and more convinced of his discovery, Clay looks to defraud the Churts.

But a convoluted plot evolves where Martin looks to find a ‘mysterious buyer’ for the Giordano (to the Curts, the centrepiece of their collection) and who will throw-in a few thousand pounds for three or four other works (including, of course, the Bruegel).

In the course of looking to validate his discovery and secure purchase (including hightailing it out of the mud-splattered valley to London driving an ancient Land Rover towing the Giordano wedged into a horse box before parking it illegally outside a Mayfair art gallery), Clay comes close to destroying his marriage, bankrupting the family, having an affair with Laura Churt, the glamorous wife of Tony, killing himself in a road accident and defrauding Sotheby’s.

Headlong is a story of prejudice (city culture and rustic ignorance) and miscommunication, a so-called comedy of misattribution (misunderstanding motives, whether in the English countryside or the oppressive imaginary landscapes of the 16th century) and missed opportunities (Clay constantly forgetting to check known recent auction prices for Giordano is the equivalent of the farce dramatist’s ‘wrong door’). It’s infuriating – and, after a while, a little too academic for its own good.

Favourite to win the 1999 Booker Prize, Michael Frayn lost out to J.M.Coetzee and Disgrace.

‘Empire of the Sun’ by J.G. Ballard

empiresunBased on his own childhood experiences, J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical Empire of the Sun is a compelling war torn story of deprivation and starvation as teenager Jim Graham looks to survive the Japanese Lunghao Airfield internment camp south of Shanghai.

A life of chauffeur-driven privilege in the International Settlement of the Chinese city is permanently changed by the Japanese entering the Second World War with the destruction of the American fleet at Pearl Harbour. That same morning, two Japanese warships scuttle American and British gunboats in dock and seize control of the Yangtze River. Confusion reigns: Jim loses contact with his parents and is left to fend for himself.

Roaming free for several months, Jim survives by breaking into the homes of wealthy Europeans, living off water from the soda syphons and cocktail biscuits. But a sense of exhaustion and fear sets in, resulting in his surrender to the Japanese.

Interned in Lunghao, Jim is exposed to the deprivation and cruelty of the Japanese guards. In his three years at the camp, he faces hunger, disease and death. But in his determination to survive, Jim ingratiates himself with prisoners and guards alike to gain food and gifts to later barter for food.

It’s in the detail that Ballard shines. The evocation of the teenage boy’s inner thoughts and confusion, his desperation to avoid slipping into a sense of uselessness along with a sexual awakening in his attraction to Mrs Jenkins: we see Jim grow. He admires the American prisoners and, strangely, identifies (in part) with the Japanese – the pilots in particular. It’s this dislocation of ‘loyalty’ (he has little respect for fellow Brits and the homeland he has never been too) and Jim’s dawning awareness that, as the end of the war approaches, it is likely safer in the camp. Resourceful and wily, having attached himself to other ‘survivors’ (Basie, Dr Ransome), Jim sees the danger that comes with the confusion of the end of the war – starving peasants, rogue Japanese, Chinese communists, bandit camp-survivors. An extraordinary number die after the final days of the war – so many that Jim wanders if World War Three has begun. The dead piled up by the side of roads, bloated corpses floating in the nearby irrigation canals, the sounds of Chinese peasants strangled by soldiers.

A new order is already beginning and the last vestiges of the Empire of the Sun, of the European Empires, of the Chinese Nationalism of Chiang Kai-shek are slowly dying out. Survivors battle survivors for food, booty, a passage to somewhere.

Ballard’s novel is an extraordinary achievement – a semi-fictionalisation of his own personal experiences (a teenage Ballard was interned in Lunghao with his parents and sister). From the pool parties of the International Settlement to deprivation and starvation, from the disregard of local Chinese workers to imprisonment and abuse, Ballard has created a haunting sense of time and place.

The Empire of the Sun was shortlisted for the 1984 Booker Prize but, much to the dismay of the literary world, lost out to Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac.

‘Hotel du Lac’ by Anita Brookner

hoteldulacFollowing an initially undisclosed indiscretion, Edith Hope, writer of romantic novels, is packed off for an out-of-season sojourn on the shores of a Swiss lake. In the solicitous yet stolid hotel of the title, she is shown into her room, the colour of over-cooked veal. Nothing describes Anita Brookner’s somewhat turgid, thankfully short, novel better!

Brookner, through Edith Hope, delights in cruel portrayals of the few other hotel guests – particularly the wealthy yet vulgar Mrs Pusey and her attentive spinster daughter – and it is at these times, through gently acerbic prose, that Hotel du Lac is at its descriptive best. Regarded merely as the listener to the older woman’s tedious observations, Edith is soon bored by the self-indulgences of the Puseys. And, equally quickly, so are we.

Yet a lonely, isolated Edith continues to find comfort/solace/company with the two women as they drink their after-dinner coffee in melancholy surrounds. But that all changes (in temperament if not pace) with the arrival of Mr Neville, post Geneva conference.

It’s at this point that Hotel du Lac becomes overtly contrived in its narrative. Small talk between guests evolves into a level of unexpected absurdity (no spoilers here) that upsets the balance of what had been a well-written but mundane literary short story.

Somewhat controversially, Hotel du Lac was awarded the 1984 Booker Prize over the critically acclaimed Empire of the Sun by J G Ballard.

‘Our Fathers’ by Andrew O’Hagan

ourfathersA controlled, assured first novel, Our Fathers is an elegiac yet dark stroll down a Scottish memory lane. It’s 1960s Glasgow and the time of social reform and urban renewal. Out with the slums and in with the new – clean, modern, light-filled high rise tower blocks.

But 30 years later, the legendary Hugh Bawn is dying from cancer on the 18th floor of one of those same tower blocks he helped create. His grandson Jamie returns from England to watch over him  – and it is he who is Our Fathers narrator.

It’s a story of nationalism, socialism, alcoholism, pride and hopes – of three lives dictated and determined by the values and drive of one: Hugh ‘Mr Housing’ Bawn. He may be frail and dying in a flat where the lifts are constantly vandalised, but Hugh Bawn’s history is one of municipal principles and righteous politics. But it came at a cost – an alcoholic son who could never live up to expectations and who, in return, deeply traumatised and rejected his own son, Jamie. Even those same tower blocks, standing ‘proud as a Soviet gymnast’ are now being demolished, built as they were with substandard materials. And with them go the idealism and aspirations of the old working class socialist values.

Andrew O’Hagan is in the territory of writers such as Jack London and Robert Tressell,  with its overt celebration of social (socialist) working class realism. In writing almost a century later, however, Hagan records the loss of much of its associated idealism (it’s no coincidence that Jamie has moved to England and is a demolitions expert – both anathema to his grandfather).

But in looking to that recording of social realism, O’Hagan misses a crucial element to his narrative – emotional empathy. Consequently, whilst Our Fathers is an informative construction with rich prose and savvy dialogue, the heart yearned for a little more emotion and less emotional detachment.

Shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize, Our Fathers lost out to J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.

 

‘Elmet’ by Fiona Mozley

elmet-1A brutal debut, Fiona Mozley’s novel is as bleak as the legend of the Yorkshire countryside in which it is set.

Life on the margins as a young Daniel – our narrator – heads north in search of his sister, Cathy. His earlier, rural life with Daddy and elder sibling has come crashing down amid violence, anger and a terrible vengeance.

It’s a dark tale beautifully wrought, a British gothic simultaneously pastoral and fraught with a sense of foreboding. The fiercely loyal trio eke out a living in a home built for them in the woods by Daddy apart from the village. He wanted to strengthen us against the dark things in the world. The more we knew of it, the better we would be prepared. And yet there was nothing of the world in our lives, only stories of it. They forage and hunt interspersed with periods of plenty. A huge, fierce man full of simmering anger, the father is a much-sought undefeated bare-knuckle prizefighter.

Elmet is fierce and biting, a family saga interspersed with periods of incredible violence. A semi-squatter on the land that is Elmet, they are inevitably drawn into the greed and corruption of the local landowners and landlord farmers. As outsiders, the family is ostracised and, to some extent, feared – imagined threats founded in nothing more than his physical presence. Cathy is like her father, driven by anger and a sense of justice and family loyalty; Daniel is like his (absent) mother. It is he who keeps house.

Lyrical and visual, Mozley’s prose beautifully captures the ‘badlands’ of the poetry of Ted Hughes’ Elmet (Yorkshire’s West Riding) and its ancient mythical legend. The narrative veers dangerously close to melodrama towards the end but nevertheless Elmet is a powerful debut novel.

Fiona Mozley was shortlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize but lost out to American author George Saunders and Lincoln in the Bardo.