The disappearance of Adele Bedeau by Graeme Macrae Burnet (Contraband)

adelebedeau

“It was an evening like any other at the Restaurant de la Cloche.”

YOU are on page 88 of 244 before the character cards you hold start to reveal themselves as a full house of a plot. Here the main character Manfred is older than the protagonists in Burnet’s other books Project and Accident although he has the same disconcerting awkwardness with his own actions and a tendency to predict the worst. He is the kind of man who has the same suit hand made for himself each year. He drinks wine by the glass, a snobbish affectation although he knows it would be cheaper to buy the bottle.

My book jacket calls this a psychological thriller – as opposed to the usual and much cliche’d psychopathic one – and there a touch of the psychotic even hysterical lurking under the surfaces. Any one of the villagers in sleepy old St Louis feels like they might suddenly stand up after lunch and run screaming out of the door, so fraught are they with real, small-town tensions like tightly knotted string dolls. And drunk, of course. The only reason they don’t one suspects is that Burnet has not yet get round to picking the skeletons out of their closets and lining them up on his mantlepiece. As yet, there is time.

Inspector Gorski, we learn, was inspired to become a detective by policemen visiting his father’s pawnshop looking for stolen goods. “I have been a policeman for 23 years. In my experience people say they wish they could be of more help, they very often can be.” The only drink he ever refuses is a cup of coffee.

The French provincial cafe society lures Burnet in, the public intersections of life lived smoking cigarettes – but not in the dress shop –  and drinking carafes of wine, the daily set meals by which you can set your diary for pot au feu. The public life of an unremarkable Alsace town that still needs dressmakers and bank managers to make them presentable and settle their affairs.

And an inspector to keep them in order should things get out of hand, which most of the time they don’t, but 20 years ago…Burnet moves his plot like chess pieces, flashbacks to childhood and adolescence fill out his characters – there is a fair bit of fumbling in the bushes – which gives his main people an arc of a life, a memory, motivation, concerns, history…and paranoia.

As with his other works he top and tails everything with a literary conceit. He is not the author but the translator of a forgotten French novelist whose biography appears at the end and allows him to blurr lines, shift the plot box, like a dolls’ house moved one position to the right…

 

 

Advertisements
Posted in 101greatreads, fiction | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Rogue Lawyer by John Grisham (Hodder)

roguelawyer“My name is Sebastian Rudd, and though I am a well-known street lawyer, you will not see my name on billboards, on bus benches, or screaming at you from the yellow pages.”

THERE is a library near me, beside a rather tasty estate, where the only fiction books in stock are crime novels. I am wondering in the same way if John Grisham might not also be popular with prison librarians looking for It Weren’t Me Guv stories or It Was A Fit Up, Yr Honour. Wikipedia assures me he has sold 275 million copies worldwide of this kind of pondlife despondency. I am taken aback. If some people actually think this is ‘reading’ we may need to redefine the word. This is to mainline on useless violent nonsense.

Firstly I have some difficulty in envisaging this town where everyone seems to hate each other, be on the take or down and out, if not all three at the same time. Maybe Mississippi is like that, maybe more like Minsk.

Secondly Seb Rudd is a pretty nasty piece of work. He does not like to talk much. His wife only lets him see his only son for 36 hours a month. What he likes to do is fight – there is a whole macho sub culture going on here about when it is reasonable to hit anyone at all. Seb tries to channel it into the courtroom where he can beat you up in cross examination. It is not even tough stuff, just a bit nasty.

Our Seb, we are continually being told, by him, is on the side of right – it is just everyone else – police, judges, prosecutors, special agents, you name it have all got it sooo wrong. It is called ambulance chasing. He gets the cases no other lawyer wants.

He is not so much the Tom Cruise from the movie The Firm but more a pugilistic, mumbling Sylvester Stallone…

You want to take him to one side, carefully because he might detonate at any moment, and ask him why? What is an intelligent capable attorney like you doing this for?

He would answer for sure: because no one else will. He is the lone vigilante.

Yeah sure, Seb, but how come you present your own backyard in these dystopian, disfunctional, disfigured terms? (Grisham in fact served 10 years as a Mississipi attorney).

Everything here, aspiring writers please note, is reduced to a sort of plot. Seb tells you that his client hasn’t got a hope. Seb tells you that his client hasn’t got a hope. Seb tells you that his client hasn’t got a hope etc, as often as necessary to rub the point home. Then, blow me, maybe…You get my drift, it is hardly even story telling, it is certainly not character building, it is not scene setting, it is not even cause and effect, it is just a pendulum swinging from one set of circumstances to another. A circus trick, a wave from the high wire.

There is an arguement about American right wing politics that it is many fractured different elements who are bound together by a rabid paranoia as to the others…and what those others might do to them. Grisham puts it like this:

“This is what happens when the cops act on one of their smart hunches, and march off in the wrong direction, controlling the rumours and taking the press off with them. The prosecutor joins the parade early on, and before long  it becomes  an organised and semi-legitimate lynching”.

I would call it financial fascism. In this form of noxious nazism just read affluence for ayran. It is not my kind of reading, in part because I don’t believe it, and in part because I dislike books that promote it.

 

Posted in Biography | Leave a comment

The accident on the A35 by Graeme Macrae Burnet (Contraband)

accidentona35

“There did not appear to be anything remarkable about the accident on the A35”

THE pleasing aspect of Graham Macrae Burnet’s writing is that he is an old school story teller. From the first you know you are going to be spun a yarn. He is a Ronnie Corbett of fiction. And as with His Bloody Project he sets himself slightly aside. In Project it inferred that it was family story. Here he declares himself the translator rather than the author of a long overlooked manuscript by an obscure French novelist.

It is something of a relief to find something in the tradition of Simenon rather than today’s usual compulsive obsessions with serial psychopathy.

He paints his characters carefully, the head, the hair, the clothes, a defining feature. His detective Gorski is a fundamentalist, somewhat in awe of his late predecessor Ribery who hovers like a ghost over the investigation. For Gorski “procedures…had to be followed without prejudice”. His debt to the community.

And he drinks. Quite a lot. A pichet of red at lunch, a sherry at his first interview, a beer at the bar, a whisky at his next appointment and it is not six o’clock as yet. Then another glass of wine. A return to the bar. When he gets home he opens a half bottle of wine. And for a nightcap he has another beer. This is a town where the barber slips out or a drink between customers.

yt

As in Project, St Louis is a real place, north of Basel on the French side, an obscure backwater, a town of strict social codes. When the precocious, young, Sartre-reading Raymond heads north to Mulhouse, he is intoxicated with the anonymity of the city. Everyone is on the cusp, in their own way. Raymond with his adolescence, Gorski with his marriage. Things are about to change. The sub theme is coming of ages, different ages. He makes St Louis feel like a Peyton Place. His characters are ready to walk into your living room. Or rather you might like to walk into their dull but well-restauranted town.

The tale is sandwiched between another literary fiction surrounding its publication which also lets Burnet review himself. “Agreeably old fashioned” is his version.

Where to read this ideally? On a train to Basel perhaps with the prospect a glass of cold, sweet Riesling at the other end.

 

Posted in 101greatreads, fiction | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A legacy of spies by John Le Carre (Viking)

legacyofspies

“What follows is a truthful account, as best as I am able to provide it, of my role in the British deception operation codenamed Windfall..

 THIS sequel to the Spy Who Came in from the Cold is probably best read when you have some time alone. To let the paranoia set in, as it were. We are in the now. There are skeletons in the Circus closet. A youthful and more abrasive team are in charge. New rules apply. Peter Guillam is summoned to explain. Explain covert events decades back.

There has been quite some heft behind this new Le Carre in our local Waterstones. Queues for a signing. Screening of the original film of the Spy movie starring a suitably pre-occupied Richard Burton. Invitations to a come-dressed-as-a-spy drinks party. The Smiley generation has been out in force.

Some of the rich descriptions of other books have been held back for the moment. We are in business-like mode. And the business is interrogation. The interrogator interrogated, held to account by the new generation. Given the backdrop of Stasi era operations, it is not without its disquieting irony.

The prose is spare, fast and tight, punctuation scaled down:

“We have an ouzo, then another. Straight, no ice, her idea. So she is a lush, is she on the make – me at my age, for Christ’s sake – or does she think alcohol is going to loosen the old fart’s tongue?”

It is worth (re-)- reading the Spy Who came in from the Cold first – or grab a look at the movie – to pick up all the Carre (or Smiley) subtleties, intrigues, bluffs, counter bluffs that swirl like so many storm clouds. The books are a pair or in fact a trilogy if you also include his first book Call for the Dead, which is also, albeit slightly less, relevant, written in 1960.

This is brave book that goes beyond the usual story telling and overlays the question of how we might react today to the derring-do adventures, the no-questions-asked, secret, so secret, Machiavellian machinations just so long as we get the result. Would we applaud and approve or be concerned about civil liberties. Looking back are we proud or appalled?

Smiley’s Marylebone labyrinth has been dismantled and moved south of the river – the monstrosity blown up in Skyfall in a parallel Jameds Bond fable.

It asks, which is what great novels do and lifts this out of the genre, accomplished as all the detail and story telling is. The narrative is broadened with testimony, with old records, with reports of the time to create a series of stepping stones, one realization follows another.

The characters bristle; Scottish Mollie who runs the safe house, the new kids Lara and Bunny are scary. The love (is that love?) interest Catherine speaks of an ideal of today not then. And then we have the jargon and diction. Smiley’s “velvet arguments, the crash telegram, exfiltration, scalphunters section…” He always chooses good names for his characters, so we have a new bureaucrat in Pepsi, a new lawyer in Tabitha.

Did all this really happen? We open with the statement that this is a “truthful account”. In the acknowledgements there is a thank you to one Jurgen Schammle for “finding the escape route”. John is now Sir John. You wonder how much all this hokus pokus is based on real events…real paranoia for sure, real subterfuge, real mistrust, real terror, real bumbling Britishness too…the theme being in the grander scale of things an examination of treason.

Le Carre will be 86 next month. He has carried this fiction with him for 57 years. He is as sharp as ever, the author of his generation.

Posted in 101greatreads, fiction | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Vodka politics by Mark Lawrence Schrad (Oxford Uiversity Press)

vodkapolitics

“Nikita Khrushchev was an oddly disarming fellow: five foot three and nearly as wide, with a face that seemed to be made from putty”.

THE big argument in this lush, brutal academic history of Russia is how vodka has fashioned its statecraft, set off revolution and doomed its people to centuries of poverty. How it might play in Russia is an interesting conversation:

– No, I don’t think we should get you a bear like Peter the Great, Vladimir. It would not play well on YouTube…

– Don’t upset yourself Vladimir, he is an American, a capitalist, a professor, he sits around reading all day, thinking, thinking…

– He’s probably a teetotaler too. You cannot distill 600 years of history into a bottle or two of vodka..

– I will check the tax revenues, it cannot still be as high as one third of all revenues from vodka, surely

– At least we have Coca Cola now. The new cold war – ethanol versus sugar. The Americans get drunker. We get fatter

– So where are our writers today?

– Quiet…

– Good, let them keep drinking, it is better that way

Both of Russia’s great titan authors Leo Tolstoy and Alexander Solzhenitsyn were teetotal. It was a political abstention, a protest that between them spans the best part of two centuries. The state ownership of distilling has been a catastrophic vice reaching a nadir after Tsar Nicholas insisted on bringing in prohibition (it would not last). That helped spark the revolution. While the state was busy printing more roubles to pay for war, the peasant could still brew his own in the backyard and for a time in the desolate, bleak early 1920s a bottle of vodka was a more valid currency than money.

This is rich in memorable anecdotes from Ivan the Terrible’s drinking to a worse-for-wear Leonid Brezhnev being put to bed by President Richard Nixon and how Crime and Punishment was originally titled The Drunkards.

“Drunkeness is our great national tragedy,” said Andre Sakharov.

Posted in Non fiction | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The trip to Echo Springs by Olivia Laing (Canongate)

echo springs

“Here’s a thing. Iowa City, 1973. Two men in a car, a Ford Falcon convertible that’s seen better days. It’s winter, the kind of cold that hurts bones and lungs, that reddens knuckles, makes noses run. If you could, by some devoted act of seeing, crane in through the window as they rattle by, you’d see the older man, the one in the passenger seat, has forgotten to put his socks on.”

AS you gather from such an opening paragraph Olivia Laing has picked up a few tricks from the writers she follows – Scott Fitzgerald (to whom she ascribes the perfectly weighted novel in the Great Gatsby – Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, John Berryman and Raymond Carver. The two men in the car are Cheever and Carver.

Notionally the title suggests this is a book about why writers drink and chronicles the slide of all six into alcoholism but you could also make a case for other factors like having a father who shot himself, like smoking too much, like the drugs, like parents who were alcoholics, like their latent or not so latent homosexuality, or womanising, the insomnia: A whole cross section of what you might term as mid 20th century social diseases, a veritable smorgasboard in fact of white male, middle class, mid-life neuroses which have been given the aggrandisment of print. Is there a connection?

And all these central figues, being writers, knew each other as compatriots and also rivals. They kept diaries and wrote letters and probably, no certainly never, thought that a diligent reader like Olivia would take the time to study all their output and and give it a social conscience. In a sense she is your world’s worst hangover, a historical one.

She is involved. She is from an alcoholic family although not so po-faced as to not allow herself a beer here and there. She is embarking on a travelogue to find the places they lived and wrote to fill in the landscape of where and when, an odyssey that might put more than a few aspirant authors off the task in hand. Or to put that glass down.

Or maybe it was just the era. People drank more in the middle of the last century. Or it was remarked on more. But as she points out alcoholism – a subject of which she is as well read on as any of the writers themselves – was not really recognized as a condition until the 1970s.

She writes elegantly herself, precisely detailed not unlike Fitzgerald in her prose, and it is her personal observations that colour the text. The people she meets on the way intersect with the main biographies. I am not a great fan of what is termed the I school of journalism (I as in me, me, me) but she is a fan, sympathetic, curious, intelligent and loves her subjects as if they were coveted ornaments on her mantelpiece which they probably are.

The title is from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, where Brick goes to the cabinet to try and get his ‘click’ from the echo spring. It is a very brave, beautifully researched, elegantly orchestrated mirror that reflects a time and asks a more serious question about writing and fame.

This passage describes the river where Ray Carver liked to fish: “Morse Creek cut out through a stretch of blackish sand, over stones that ranged in size from pebbles to boulders. It ran very fast now, maybe four feet deep, humping and shouldering, the surface breaking apart in pleats. I knelt and dipped my hand, wincing. It had come straight off the mountain snowmelt, old ice, clear and as astringent as gin”.

Why did they drink to excess, she asks, but unfortunately her chronicles explain rather too well why. Hemingway for one was being tracked by the FBI because of his Cuban connections. He eventually agreed to secret electrical therapy to dry out. He never wrote another word after that and shot himself 18 months later (as did his brother and sister, as had his father) A bad trade, you might think.

 

 

Posted in 101greatreads, Biography | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The 7th function of language by Laurent Binet (Harvill Secker)

7thfunction

“Life is not a novel. Or at least you would like to believe so.”

How good is this tornado of a novel?  The plot is wildly ambitious, an intellectual version of the da Vinci Code, and mixing real-life characters with fictional ones is controversial. But it is a hugely brilliant swirl through multi layers of plot, character deceit, sex, intrigue, violence. The writing for a start, even in translation, is sometimes achingly beautiful.. “Crumb is famous for for the way he drew women, with their big, powerful thighs, their lumberjack shoulders, their breasts like mortar shells and their mares’ arses.” The structure of story telling is fresh, surprising, novel and alive.

Essentially it is a book about the philosophy of language.  Almost overshadowing it is Paris of the 1980s described in forensic detail, not just the architecture but the dinner parties, the gay clubs, the snobby academics, the shadowy politics, the rough edges of class politics. And yet how piquant of our own (UK) politics is this line: “If the dominant class has lost its consent, in other words if it no longer directs but merely dominates…”

There is (at least one) astonishing sex – I might have liked to have known more of some the fabulous women he describes but then he assigns them off stage to decorative retirement after starring vignettes. And there is in part shocking, unexpected violence, but it is a grown up, intellectual book about ideas which also insinuate in subtle ways. The cars are always in semiotic code R5, 2C or 504. One of Simon’s girlfriends speaks in Italian, albeit just little trackable observations rather anything off-puttingly incomprehensible. We are in the world of words. Simon at one point even wonders if he is not in the novel, which of course he is, which is the point. The real fictional characters sometimes have to get an epithet to denote that they are a fiction, not real people. “For Little Red Riding Hood, the real world is the one where wolves speak”.

So carefully are some of these characters sculpted that when we finally get to meet, presidential candidate Francois Mitterand he does actually speak like a brilliantly cunning statesman. Others are caricatures, Jean Paul Sartre smoking, Jane Birkin flipping across a party floor. And some of the central characters were equally obsessed – Umberto Eco wrote a tome called Foucault’s Pendulum – we will meet both as we go. The imagery is also grounded in great reading and is delivered with panache, maybe even a smirk or more. The core unlikely relationship between academic professor Simon and his gruff, bumbling detective partner also moves agreeably with the overall romp of events. Overall it is grand satire.

I am tempted to read the original French version. This is a very French book, with Gallic presumptions, especially about language. Having done translations from the French, you are aware that French vocabulary is much smaller than English. It is a social code to be used in certain ways, and you might equally say the same about Italian, both of which suit these high faluting academic arguments. But English has much greater vocabulary so the balance is different,  the sense of being able to articulate is that much more developed and therefore precise. There is usually a word for anything, where in French or Italian they may need a whole phrase or paragraph to overcome the lack of words. Enter the French masters of bombast.  Sam Taylor’s translation is masterful on the linguistics – because yes they do come over as really interesting, the ultimate science in one thesis – but I tripped on a couple of food bits, they order a bacon sandwich when surely in Paris it would be jambon or ham, they order a bottle of chardonnay where surely a Frenchman would order burgundy, but in other areas he may, quite deliberately I suspect, have you stretching for your dictionary. Hard work but great fun.

Posted in 101greatreads | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment