Tuesday 23 December 2014

Five times five stars

Not wanting to plunge into the intercalary days with a snotty review headlining the blog (see how superstitious I am for a rationalist?) I am reposting my Goodreads 5-star reviews for the year. Have a happy Christmas, Yule, or whatever, and I'll see you on the other side.

Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon

I never quite know if I'm using the term antihero correctly, but I offer Frank Friedmaier for your consideration. Frank is 19 years old, but he's gone far beyond the moral event horizon where a character like Pinkie Brown, damaged angel that he is, still hovers. We're only a few pages in before Frank has committed a spur-of-the-moment murder for motives that not even he knows. He has no pity, especially not for himself, and doesn't even attempt to turn on the charm that makes us root for an utter devil like Humbert Humbert. Most people he knows are afraid of him, and even the few who love him don't really like him much (with one possible exception, but no spoilers here). According to save-the-cat writing doctrine we should have no interest in Frank's future, just as he has no interest in it, but in fact he's fascinating - like a young John Lennon on the loose in his Berlin days, with only slightly fewer scruples.

The writing style is true hardboiled: spare but brilliantly evocative. The atmosphere of the setting (which I took to be Nazi-occupied France, but might be Allied-occupied Germany) is corrosive, bleak, and relentless. Brandon Robshaw's review in The Independent concluded: "Simenon ought to be spoken of in the same breath as Camus, Beckett and Kafka." On the strength of this, I agree.

Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote

How did it take me so long to discover Capote? I'm going to blame the movie. The novella is an unrecognisably different animal - a snapshot of an intriguing character told in prose that ought to be sold at Tiffany's alongside the diamonds.

Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake

It took me more than 30 years to read this book. After originally abandoning it a few chapters in, I nearly gave up at the same point. There's a whole world and a lot of characters to introduce, and Peake wasn't writing for an audience of TV-weaned YA goldfish. He takes his time but suddenly it pays off. You really know these characters because he has put care into making them individuals. His prose is beautiful and he has the most vivid visual imagination of any author I've come across.

It is, in short, a masterpiece. Normally I reserve 5 stars for books that I feel affect me profoundly and permanently - that "change my life", as all great art should on some level. I regret not coming to Gormenghast a lot sooner. If I'd read it 32 years ago it would have stretched me to create more interesting fantasy worlds in my own books.

Death is a Lonely Business by Ray Bradbury

A magic realist whodunit in which the young Bradbury is himself the protagonist. Only, being Bradbury, it's never as simple as that. The murderer seems to be more existential than physical, the familiar landscape of LA suddenly far more fantastical than Mordor. The one flaw is that Bradbury, as a writer who notoriously disdained plotting, allows an important character to slip out of the story while two others, introduced later and in whom we are consequently less invested, become more prominent than they really should. But imagine it as a sixtysomething author getting up and just improvising a prose-poem of dread, beauty, loneliness and the desire to connect with others and you can't help but applaud.

Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler

They say write what you know, and after six years in the Communist Party and being a prisoner of Franco, Koestler knew all about the horrific absurdities of logic bent to serve fanaticism. This is one of the most powerful novels I've ever read, taking you through the whole spectrum of human emotion, politics and philosophy, but that's not the only reason for the full five stars. It's full of the little inventive touches of a master artist, and the lean writing style (my translation was by Daphne Hardy) gives it all extra impact.

No comments:

Post a Comment