Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Post-Operative Paradise

Apart from inadvertently growing a beard, I have achieved very little this week. I'm not sure how long it takes to recover from surgery, but I'm in no hurry to return to work. I can't say I miss being surrounded by malevolent bulls and surly, limbless farm workers. Also, I think I'm temperamentally suited to indolence.

But does reading count as indolence? I'm not sure. Particularly when the authors include Paul Theroux, Michael Blakemore and John Williams. As this is supposed to be a literary blog, I thought I'd recommend the best books I've read recently:

Paul Theroux - The Last Train to Zona Verde

"A tourist doesn't know where they've been. A traveller doesn't know where they're going."

Many things have been said about Paul Theroux: he is not a travel writer, but a writer who travels; he regards himself as a novelist, but the reading public don't buy his fiction; he hasn't written anything decent for 30 years; he is pompous, self-important, cynical and grumpy; even his brother doesn't like him...

I could go on - everyone seems to have an opinion on the author. But who is Paul Theroux? Even he doesn't seem to be quite sure and wrote two novels - My Secret History and My Other Life - which narrate the alternate histories of a character called Paul Theroux.

However, I liked the Paul Theroux that I met in The Last Train to Zona Verde. Written ten years after his African travel memoir, Dark Star Safari, Theroux is now in his 70s and realises that he is making his last journey on the continent. He has loved Africa since he taught there in the 1960s, but is depressed by the growing corruption and squalor that surrounds him. He asks himself the question that all travellers ask at some point: What am I doing here?

"Suffering has no value, but you have to suffer in order to know that. I never found it easy to travel, yet the difficulty in it made it satisfying because it seemed in a way to resemble the act of writing - a groping in the dark, wandering into the unknown, coming to understand the condition of strangeness."

In a Daily Telegraph review, Kevin Telfer criticises Theroux for writing a book that "feels more like a description of Theroux's inner state than what is around him." This not only seems to be rather missing the point of good travel writing, but is also woefully inaccurate, as one of the strengths of The Last Train to Zona Verde is its vivid accounts of the landscape and people.

If Theroux is 'grumpy' about sub-Saharan Africa, it is because he is comparing the present day reality of the continent with the idealism of the 1960s:

"We have bestowed on Africa just enough of the disposable junk of the modern world to create in African cities a junkyard replica of the West, a mirror image of our own failures. Such places are transit camps filled with people who have been abandoned by their fattened and corrupt governments."

But this is not a relentlessly gloomy book. Time and time again, we meet people who rise above the limitations of their backgrounds to triumph against the odds and Theroux is as keen to tell the stories of others as he is to ask himself what a 70-year-old man is doing on a journey that might end in death.

I enjoyed this armchair journey to somewhere I never intend to visit and would recommend it without reservation.

Michael Blakemore - Stage Blood

The mark of a really good book is one that makes you care about a subject you've never been interested in. In spite of having in-laws who worked in the theatre, I'm woefully ignorant about the subject and wouldn't have chosen to read this book if it hadn't been for this brilliant review by Simon Callow.

Whether you're interested in the early years of the National Theatre or not, Stage Blood is a gripping read in which the octogenrian Michael Blakemore settles an ancient score with Sir Peter Hall. In the hands of a lesser writer, it could have been an unedifying read by an embittered old man, but this memoir sparkles with generosity and wit.

Blakemore's portraits of figures like Olivier and Tynan are immensely entertaining, as is his description of Anthony Hopkins' disastrous, alcohol-fuelled performance of Macbeth. But it is the growing tension with Sir Peter, culminating in a terrible showdown, which rises Stage Blood above the level of an ordinary memoir and gives the reader a vicarious, visceral thrill.

John Williams - Stoner

When you read a book that has been universally praised and selected as every other person's book of the year, it is hard not to feel a certain resistance. How could any novel possibly live up to this amount of hype?

But Stoner did.

Alexander Lernet-Holenia - I Was Jack Mortimer

One of the best small publishers around is Pushkin Press, who specialise in discovering and translating lost classics, particularly European ones. I discovered them ten years ago, when I read Antal Szerb's wonderful Journey By Moonlight (originally published in Hungarian) and managed to get the book included in an 'Undiscovered Classics' promotion that I organised, across 130 branches of Ottakar's.

I Was Jack Mortimer is an short Austrian novel, published in 1930, that reads like that bastard offspring of Franz Kafka and Raymond Chandler. It also reminded me of Antal Szerb and Jiri Weil, with its highly developed sense of the absurd.

The plot is simple enough: a taxi driver picks up a passenger at a station and is asked to drive to the Bristol Hotel. After a few minutes, the driver asks the passenger to clarify whether he wants the Old Bristol or the New Bristol. There is no reply. He repeats his question and is once again met with silence. When he is finally able to turn  round, the driver is horrified to see that his passenger has been killed. But how?

What follows is an enjoyably absurd story that vividly evokes the spirit of Middle Europe between the wars. It only takes a couple of hours to read, so I'd recommend it for a journey.

I've also enjoyed Trollope's Can You Forgive Her? - a great comfort read, full of wit and insight. I'd always regarded Trollope as a bit of an old windbag until I took the plunge a few years ago and read He Knew He Was Right.

Perhaps I'm just getting old, but I find Trollope's novels increasingly appealing.

Finally, I'd also recommend Max Hastings' book Bomber Command - another book about a subject I knew relatively little about. I had no idea that at the beginning of the War, British bombing was woefully inaccurate, with navigation equipment so rudimentary, that pilots were often miles from their targets.

Occasionally, if a magnetic storm affected their compasses, they even flew in the wrong direction and one pilot - a man named Warren - unwittingly bombed an English city (from then on, his colleagues called him Baron von Warren).

Although Max Hastings tries to be even-handed, it is clear that he doesn't have much time for 'Bomber' Harris, whose obsession with destroying every city in Germany allegedly clouded his military judgement and resulted in the unnecessary loss of life of both airmen and civillians.

If I had to recommend just one book, then it would have to be Stoner, but you've probably already read it.

At some point my wife will stop waiting on me hand and foot and I'll have to resume selling books, but in the meantime, I'm going to enjoy every moment.

Finally, this has nothing to do with books, but I watched The Happiest Days of Your Life with my mother the other day and thought that this scene alone made the whole film worthwhile:


Thomas at My Porch said...

Yay. Another Stoner fan. Thankfully I read it in 2010 so I didn't steer clear of it, as I would have if I had discovered it post hype.

Steerforth said...

I initially avoided Stoner because I assumed from the title that it was some sort of Beat novel. How wrong I was!

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

A coincidence - I am devoting next week to writing about Can You Forgive Her?. At first I thought, a Trollope novel like the others, so I probably will not write anything. But then I saw something new, and then something else. It is a rich book.

zungg said...

I too on first glance assumed it was a weed novel. But I read it anyway - in 2008, ha! - and agree with your assessment. I also recommend "Butcher's Crossing", by the same author, a Western you won't regret.

Anna said...

I, too, resisted Stoner because it was so hyped everywhere, and like you, it took illness (only 'flu in my case...) to make me read it, but I'm so glad I did. Stoner, his integrity and his strength of mind seems to me like the very best example of the goodness of the ordinary person - compare and contrast with the daily revelations about the lack of integrity in our society...
I'm glad you're feeling better, Steerforth and thanks for the glimpse of the bony knees...

Steerforth said...

Tom - I found Can You Forgive Her?very funny - funnier than Dickens, whose characters are wonderful, but never feel quite like real people. I read Little Dorrit earlier this year and whilst I loved it, I felt that Trollope wrote about a world that I recognised as my own.

His observations about human nature, particularly behaviour that we would now call 'passive-aggressive', were absolutely spot-on.

It's a serious novel, but also one that consistently amuses and entertains.

Zungg - I suppose some people must have read Stoner when it was first published. Why weren't they shouting from the rooftops? Perhaps they were, but nobody heard them.

One of the great things about social media is that it has supercharged the 'word of mouth' process.

I'll overcome my aversion to Westerns and try Butcher's Crossing.

Anne - Not bony, muscular ;)

I'm not a reading group sort of person, but I'd love to discuss Stoner with other people. The spare prose managed to say so much, but also left so many unanswered questions. A really haunting book.

Martin Hodges said...

Whenever I visit here, I always leave with something worth having. Stoner is now on my list of books to read. An extremely long list...

Steerforth said...

Martin - I'd let it do a Slade - straight in at No.1.

zmkc said...

I love Theroux for being so demanding of the world. I always wonder why there are so many Hotel Bristols and no Hotel Hulls or Portsmouths.

Annabel (gaskella) said...

More book reviews please! I must read Stoner - wish I'd discovered it pre-hype.

Anonymous said...

Love Trollope and yes I did discover him in my senior years...

The Trollope audio books read by Timothy West are superb.

Will look out for Stoner.


Lucy R. Fisher said...

Theroux's In Sir Vidia's Shadow is brilliant, and I've even read one of his novels, about a blind photographer (much better than it sounds).

Steerforth said...

Zoe - I've always liked Theroux, so I can only conclude that I share his vices. I've noticed that the hotel rule also applies to furniture suites - always called the Cheltenham, never the Croydon. But the one exception is Gloucester, which is apparently a rough old place, but still has a certain kudos.

Annabel - I think it's hype-proof. I have the same aversion to reading or seeing anything that people rave about, because you come to it with the burden of high expectations. But from the first page of Stoner, you forget about the hype and become totally absorbed in the narrative.

Sue - One of my biggest faux pas was when I was a youngish bookseller and was selling a Trollope novel to a middle-age woman. She recommended Trollope and I replied "Yes, he's one of those authors I can imagine reading when I'm old." I think the inflection in my voice clearly implied that she was well over the hill, although she was probably younger than I am now. She looked appalled.

Trollope's novels have a cosy image - the Werther's Originals of literature. But actually I think he appeals to the more mature reader because of his shrewd observations about human nature. We enjoy Trollope because we recognise the stereotypes and the relationship between them. When I was in my 20s, I didn't really know enough about human nature to fully understand the subtle observations and gentle wit of a Trollope novel.

Or maybe I'm just getting old.

Steerforth said...

Lucy - I read Chicago Loop, which was rather disappointing, but a friend raves about My Secret History.

I'd love to read the book about Naipaul - there's nothing I enjoy more than a literary spat.

TEL Dranlor said...

Some years ago my eldest daughter brought me a copy of The Great Railway Bazaar by Theroux, a wonderful read of middle Europe and Asia in 1975 set in the context of an epic rail journey (the early abuse of oil rich countries by the USA etc) I agree later works fade and are sadly jaundiced.

This past weekend I have been visiting family at RAF Waddington, from early 50's Trenchard apprentice to Vulcan bomber ground crew, it's in my cousins blood. Around the corner towards Lincoln a memorial to bomber command is being erected - 'perhaps it's better left as allotments' was his comment. A wonderful Youtube of the latter day brill cream boys can be seen here - worth it for the music alone.

Steerforth said...

Thanks for the YouTube link Lord Dranlor. I like the Thunderbirds-style music and general optimism. You'd never think there was a Cold War, would you? Amazing to think that this was such a short time after the days of Lancasters.

I was also impressed to see the TARDIS appear at 1:41 in the credit sequence - if you look carefully, you'll see its light flashing.

Debra said...

I browsed through several passages of "Stoner' after your recommendation on amazon.
Perhaps I will buy it later, although I would like to read it now, but getting my hands on English books is just not as easy as it is for you.
In a French publication, I read about amazon, and thought you would be interested in this : in Japan, the outfit... recruited goats to graze in a plot around a warehouse, and promptly equipped them with badges with photos and the ubiquitous... bar code, just like all the other two footed workers.
Amazon uses chaotic storage in their warehouses, so men's undies get shelved next to the collected works of Marcel Proust, and a salad spinner, in order to rationalize space and cram all the stuff in.
Everything, of course, is sorted and retrieved thanks to that heavenly bar code, and the sophisticated technology that goes along with it.
Sweating yet ? Employees in a workplace like that tend to feel like Buchenwald residents, I fear (with important differences that I will not minimize, thank you).
Savor paradise. Think about work at
I haven't read Trollope, but I probably will.
Am currently reading "Women in Love".
If you want a laugh, check out the comments section in Amazon U.S.A. for "Women in Love", so you can see what the, uh, average ?, totally entitled but perhaps not totally literate ? person is writing about Lawrence.
I tell a friend that Lawrence is as timely now as he was way back then in what is STILL a puritanical society that giggles while pawing over its pornography, and incessantly congratulating itself on how enlightened and liberated it is.

Steerforth said...

Debra - It's interesting how Amazon's corporate image has changed so much in the last 10 years, from being quirky entrepreneurs to a company that has taken capitalism to a whole new level. Every now and then, people set up a rival business, for customers who prefer not to use Amazon - 'The Book Depository', for example. Amazon respond by either buying them or driving them out of business.

I wonder what will happen in the long run? They have such a good business model, they seem untouchable, but we'll see.

Miguel (St. Orberose) said...

I've put I Was Jack Mortimer on my list of books to buy; this sounds like a quirky take on crime fiction.

Canadian Chickadee said...

It's good to hear that you like Paul Theroux...I find him hugely irritating. In fact,one of the few books I ever allowed myself to destroy was one of his. The Kingdom by the Sea, I think it was called. It bore absolutely no resemblance to anything I've ever come across in England, and I took serious umbrage!!!

Steerforth said...

Miguel - I think you'll enoy it. My only complaint was that it was too short.

Carol - I think most people would agree with you - it's probably Theroux's least popular book. I also gave up on The Happy Isles of Oceania. I did recognise some aspects of England in it and I wonder if some people objected because they didn't like what they saw in the mirror, but it was unnecessarily misanthropic and unrepresentative. Theroux's at his best when he's on a train.

Canadian Chickadee said...

Maybe we could put Theroux on a train and leave him there, like Charlie on the M.T.A., in the song made famous by the Kingston Trio?

Dale in New Zealand said...

Gee CC you must be as old as I am,I still sing Kingston Trio numbers too.

I gave up on Theroux with the Oceania book too. I knew two of the people in it and they were badly misrepresented. He said afterwards he was depressed while on that journey - no excuse, you don't have to tell lies to cheer yourself up.

It was at that point that I realised he was guilty of bending the truth to make a good story, so I doubted everything else he wrote. Bruce Chatwin was another fibbing travel writer. Hard to know who to trust, isn't it?

Exits warbling "Oh les fraises et les framboises...."

Steerforth said...

Dale - Chatwin was an appalling fibber, right down to the story about the 1000-year-old Chinese egg. But I suppose all good storytelling requires a little artistic licence.

The problem with The Happy Isles of Oceania was that Theroux's bleak mood pervaded every encounter, so that the book became a tediously predictable succession of disappointments, both for him and the reader. Also, we all know what a New Zealand accent sounds like - did he had to keep mocking it by repeating certain words in jokey italics, e.g, "camera lense - kemra leenz"? It just seemed sneery.

But at his best, Theroux is a great travel companion. I like his sense of the absurd and the quiet dignity of his writing. I really enjoyed his latest book and Dark Star Safari.