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Wednesday 17 February 2010

Siege Mentality - Open and Shut Genres

Recently I wrote two blog posts on Javier Marías, a writer for whom words are (almost) everything.

This one involves Arturo Pérez Reverte, another Spanish writer, for whom, to round this out in a shorthand way, plot is (almost) everything. Although his historical research, particularly in technical matters, is extraordinarily thorough, and he has a great love of the Spanish language in the Golden Age, Pérez Reverte’s priority in his books is to move the story on, and the writing can skate on cliché and sometimes mangled syntax.

The two writers are about the same age, both are usually based in or near Madrid and, naturally, they are very good friends and have been so for a long time. Pérez Reverte is the Duke of Corso in Marías’ imaginary Kingdom of Redonda.

Presumably because they are such different writers, this mutual regard upsets certain commentators who get their limitations and principles mixed up and forget there is life outside books.

As a result, Marías is sometimes accused of writing in English though using Spanish, and Pérez Reverte often gets called ‘a good bad writer’. Both charges are beside any worthwhile point.

Many years ago, when I was studying for English Literature O' level, Professor Christopher Ricks brought out a book with a number of points for students to consider. One of these was that if a student were to write about Hamlet and Hitchock’s Vertigo as if they were strictly comparable, he or she might get into difficulties, most of them absurd.

He was right, of course. It may seem simple stuff, but it is often forgotten. Vertigo fails hopelessly as a verse play. That may be because it isn’t one and it had never crossed Hitchcock’s mind it should be. As Professor Ricks put it – the student has to have some grasp of the author’s intentions, priorities and aims.

Or again, one of my greatest difficulties in Spain was persuading students that the term ‘tragedy’ did not exclude humour in Hamlet. They knew ‘tragedy’ was grim. They found it difficult that a great writer like Shakespeare should have ignored Aristotle’s take on genre.

Recently a book of mine was reviewed with eight others by a Professor of Creative Writing. This very large bundle was very loosely tied with some generalizations about social concerns and the literary quality or otherwise of the books. Washington Shadow got away quite lightly – one of the cuter kittens in the sack about to be tossed off the bridge and into the river. None of the review struck me as an advert for the Professor’s Creative Writing advice because not one of the writers had signed up for the social concerns school; each one had begun with a different intention and none of us had foreseen that we would all meet up in the Professor’s airy overview.

Now, as it happens, I am not a big fan of Arturo Pérez Reverte’s books, but we read for all kinds of reasons – and the reason I will read his new book is Cádiz, where I once lived and where my first book is set.

For a time during the War of Independence or Napoleonic Wars, Cádiz was Spain. While the rest of the country was under French rule, Cádiz remained independent, if under siege. In March, Pérez Reverte will publish his new book El Asedio (The Siege) in Spain – seven hundred pages about this remarkable time.

In 1812, a new constitution was drawn up for Spain and for those countries that had been colonies. This constitution – colloquially called La Pepa – was a product of the Ilustración – or Enlightenment. It did away with an Absolute Monarch, feudal land laws and the Inquisition, and replaced the Old Regime with a new liberal arrangement without slavery, with education for women and with a form of international democracy.

Naturally, it didn’t have a chance of success but, just for a while, Cádiz looked like a dream of the future. Apparently this is the background rather than the subject of the book. There is a murder story, but I take Pérez Reverte at his word that it also involves a plot like a chess problem, artillery, and shifts in the wind, real and political.

I don’t know when the English translation will appear - but look out for it.


Philip Amos said...

I was not entirely sure what part of Perez Reverte's oeuvre was being addressed here. But may I just say that, while his Captain Alatriste and related books are not for me at all -- swashbucklers, though sometimes with an admixture of mystery -- his true crime fiction works, namely The Flanders Panel, The Dumas Club, and The Seville Communion are exemplary crime novels and have been well-acknowledged as such. His publishers, one in particular, have confused the matter by trying to use cover blurbs re the crime novels to sell the swashbucklers, and likely vice versa, and the consequence, evident passim, is that some people are never quite sure what sort of book lies behind references to him. Anyway, I highly recommend those three works to anyone whose first interest is in exemplay European crime fiction.

Aly Monroe said...

Thanks for your comments, Philip. I was thinking of his historical books. I like your 'admixture of mystery' - but surely the word 'historical precedes it in two of the books you mention. And in the third - 'La Piel del Tambor', or 'The Seville Communion' in English - the use of genres multiplies.
Perez Reverte was by no means alone in Spain in re-examining literary traditions in the post-Franco 80s and 90s.
Have you tried Eduardo Mendoza? I believe a number of his books are gradually being translated into English.