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Friday 28 May 2010

Ludwig & Norbert

Despite my intentions on April 29 (see previous post 'Northern Brightness') I have since succumbed, and read Sally’s in the Alley by Norbert Davis (The Rue Morgue Press). As I said then, apparently Wittgenstein was a fan of Norbert’s language, his humour, and his lack of sentimentality.

What this description doesn’t make clear is the extraordinary separation of the hard-boiled from the low-down in the book. According to Jack Adrian (pseudonym of Christopher Lowder), Norbert Davis’ “fatal flaw” was his ‘sense of humour’ - preventing him from being published more frequently.

That's not quite right. Sally’s in the Alley, at slightly short of forty thousand words, has a plot that is as consequential as that of an early Lubitsch film or even a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie. It also has farcical elements of the Wrong Box variety – bodies get moved around; there are a couple of set pieces – a chase through an old Hollywood film set and a flash flood in the desert; and there are some contemporary references to WW2 – Goering gets a going-over and Doan, the private eye, uses the alias I Doanwashi when pretending to be a Japanese spy. He also uses the name H. Pocus.

Far more time is spent on Carstairs - a sort of canine Jeeves of immense size and usefulness in a pinch - than on most of the human characters. I’d hesitate to call him a precursor of Brian in Family Guy, but there is something there of a conventional moral sense (the only character who has one in the book) having to come to terms with being a dog.

The attraction for Wittgenstein? For most people language meets mathematics in logic. Take this passage:

‘Start at a town called Heliotrope.’
‘Where’s that?’
‘Either in California or Nevada.’
‘You said either?’ Doan asked.
‘Yes. The State of California is now suing the State of Nevada in the Supreme Court to
compel Nevada to annex it. Nevada has started a countersuit to compel California to annex it.’
‘What’s the matter with the place?’
‘Just everything. ….’

I can see how such an exchange would appeal to someone who wrote ‘A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.’

Though perhaps a better quote here from Wittgenstein, given what happens in Norbert’s story to Susan Sally (in a room, not in an alley) would be ‘Death is not an event in life.’

Wednesday 12 May 2010

Tinned Pears

Two Saturdays ago, 1918 met 2009, when my father-in-law met his fifth great-grandchild again. The meeting was amiable and involved quite a lot of ‘and the little one said roll over, roll over’, and the very amusing sound/word ‘oink’.

I mention this because of a recent conversation I had with a reader on the term ‘historical novel’.

Throughout the history of the novel, any number of writers, Henry James, for example, have believed that it is not possible to write historical novels with any claim to honesty or real accuracy. How can you seriously do justice to the people who were alive then? Isn’t what a novelist is producing a more or less wistful twist on motives, mores and attitudes for modern tastes?

To some extent I agree. But I am, certainly in theory, comfortable with that. The novel has been going long enough for, say, historical novels of the 19th Century and later, to tell us something about the time in which they were written, as well as the time they describe.

My own confidence levels and my history are not up to portraying the eighteenth, let alone the fifteenth century. Why? As John Updike put it, nothing disappears faster than motive. I can admire Hilary Mantel, but I can’t emulate her.

In any case, as I told my reader, I am not sure I do write historical novels. Period pieces perhaps? No. I write about the ample edges of living memory, because I want to trace the progress of a lot of the attitudes towards Empire and World War 2 as they have come down to us and remain with us.

I suggested ‘generational novel’ as a substitute. No, it is not terribly good. But it is probably snappier, if less accurate, than ‘after effects novel’.

After the birth of his first great grandchild in 2002, my father-in–law was persuaded by the baby’s father, my nephew, to write down some of his experiences in WW2. He did this in ‘real’ time. That is, he wrote down, day by matching day, what he had been doing in Burma in 1942, sixty years earlier. I haven’t read this account, which was kept safely for great-grandchild number one to read in the future, but I do know he walked about six hundred miles, cannot bear the smell of tinned pears – too reminiscent of the smell of dead refugee bodies –and that the account ended when he could no longer remember because he had contracted malaria and pneumonia. When they weighed him, after being carried by stretcher for the last part back to India, he was six stone. The doctors told him he should not look forward to a long life.

Let me put it this way. Every time I hear someone explain that something awful happened a long time ago, in 2003 or 2006, but things are now different, I think of pears in tins.

It may be – I don’t know – that the recent elections mean that the UK is finally coming to terms with a new role in the world, less imperial in both money and lives. It is certainly time.