Loving Roger by Tim Parks and The Bleeding Tree by Angus Cerini

I want to rant and rail against the system. Loving Roger is a wonderful – let me shout that, WONDERFUL – novella which is, 25 years or so after being written, neither fish nor fowl. Not old enough to be considered for Classic status. Not young enough to be modern. It’s the sort of book not read because its date is wrong.

On top of this, to add injury to insult, Tim Parks is an all rounder. Every bit of it is connected to writing. It isn’t like he does spin bowling and writes novels. No. However, he just won’t specialise and that’s considered plain unseemly now and for some time past. One isn’t allowed to be good at more than one thing. The very hint of it smacks with the suspicion that maybe one isn’t very good at either. Or, in the case of Parks, more.

He’s a teacher of literature. He writes novels. He writes memoir. He translates. He writes important books about translation. As far as I can tell, he’s damn good at all of these. But he must suffer the fate of the all rounder and somehow escape the much higher praise he would have been awarded for any one of these, if only he could have stuck to it and only it.

Grrrrrrr. I regularly get very cross about this!

It’s hard to talk about this book without giving away things that are best left discovered in the reading of. He is amazingly good at doing a female perspective, in the process making many sad-amusing digs at males. This makes me want to reference The Bleeding Tree by Cerini, of which we saw a wonderful production on Saturday night. Both start off with a killing which one might describe as a murder. In each the murderee is male. In neither does one wish to see him as a victim. From that start, Cerini and Parks go in very different directions, but nonetheless they share a point which is to talk about how it transpires that women may do these things. In the process the reader will not have the tiniest sense of sympathy for the blokes. There is nothing to be generalised here, they aren’t ‘people’ doing these deeds, they are ‘women’ and the dead body in each case was up to that point a ‘man’.

The styles of these two pieces are very different. Cerini’s is poetry, very stylised, but this, as one or more reviewer have mentioned, gives an impact which a more natural approach could not produce. He uses ordinary colloquial language as would have really been used by his characters, in his chosen setting. The action is swept along in the rhythm and cadence of the lines. Parks’ story is presented in a very naturalistic and true way. The murderess, who speaks to us from page one, is transparent. Yet at the same time, in that subtle way in which Parks excels, one realises as things go on that something is changing. Or perhaps that despite all that transparency, things were hidden. He has such a good ear, as no doubt a master translator must have.

These are both short works. Two writers who are able to distil the essence of what needs to be said without any padding. Fifty-five minutes from Cerini. One hundred and fifty-seven pages from Parks. Bravo gentlemen!

Crisscross by Pat Flower

Yikes. Another wonderful book shelved on ‘books you won’t read before you die’. I’d been told that Pat Flower was these days undeservedly unknown and with that in mind I now have half a dozen on my to-read shelf. And what better time than now, imprisoned by Covid-19, to start?

flower pat - AbeBooks

I am not the first person to comment on blogs here that concentrating on reading is a little tricky at the moment. You really want something to lose yourself in and Crisscross definitely fulfills that requirement. Comparing it with Simenon’s non-Maigret books and Patricia Highsmith says it all. Ruth Rendell on a good day. She’s a highly competent writer who captures that falling apart sociopathic anti-hero perfectly. Loved the mid-seventies Sydney backdrop. Ecology, do-gooders, and bad pottery; ah yes, they were the days.

Looking forward to the rest and highly recommend them to those who are not afraid to read books from the period shunned by so many. Don’t think of forty years ago as ‘old-fashioned’. Think of yourself as being ahead of the trend, she will most definitely be thoroughly revived sooner or later.

picture sourced from ABE Books

 

The Scarecrow by Ronald H Morrieson

On the way home from somewhere, I noticed that our local op shop had a bookshelf out on its verandah. I picked up six books for which I still owe $3, the shop being shut then, and for the duration of the Thing. Luckily for me, one of the books was The Scarecrow. The copy is the text classics edition, one of the series inspired by Di Gribble.

New Zealanders will have to forgive me for listing this under Australia. If you want our dole money then quit complainin’. The rural setting and the appalling drinking surely could come from the Australian backblocks. But this has an assurance and a ‘I’ll do this how I darn well please’ attitude that are pure NZ.

The assurance is not polished, it’s the confidence of existing with no natural predators. That’s NZ for you. Only a confident and inexperienced writer could even think of writing this book, let alone bring it into the world. The young teenager’s view is honest, witty, scared, sexual, full of the bravado which shows its true colours fast enough. All this creates a really beautiful small town story and that, despite the ugliness of it. Yes, it stacks up though it’s hard to understand how.

The author’s sad short life explains why he was so able to capture the setting of this and his other books. More on that here. And please, despite being thus referred to on Wiki, it is not a horror story, not even close.

There is a movie, but I have so far no luck in getting hold of it.

Highly recommended for: those who like reading. Those who want to understand a bit more about the rural areas which are so important to the ethos of Australia and New Zealand. That said, I am pessimistic enough to file it under ‘books you won’t read before you die’. Prove me wrong, please.

Text Publishing — The Scarecrow: Text Classics, book by Ronald Hugh

 

A Connoisseur’s Case by Michael Innes

Hard not to love an archetypal English countryside mystery first published 1962, that has a homage to Tom Lehrer in it.

‘A piano, you idiot?….I’m not expecting a piano. What should I want a piano for? To play myself to sleep with Mozart and that crowd?’ Channing-Kennedy gave a short, sharp bellow of laughter on this, so that one had to suppose he considered it a considerable witticism.

It is undeniable that the story line is thin – a fan tells me that is often the case – but it isn’t why you read an Innes. You read it to share his lighthearted love of language, the fun he has with it, the droll wit. It’s so jolly English, what.

I complained in my review of Donleavy recently that he is frequently described as having a staccato style, which I think is predicated on a misunderstanding of how he writes, perhaps because Donleavy himself played the master of the manor. But here Innes captures exactly that staccato upper class English way, that inability to construct sentences. Having read these books back to back it really struck me, the contrast between this, and the dreamy melodic nature of Donleavy’s prose.

‘I’ve no idea, my dear. I’ve never heard him mentioned for years. Went off the rails, they say. But I don’t know how badly. Sad thing, when a decent family produces a rotter. Came across it once or twice in the Regiment. Honoured name, you know. And then suddenly you have a boy forging a cheque or cheating at cards. Embarrassing.’ For a moment Colonel Raven looked extremely serious. Then he brightened. ‘But I see that Tarbox has let us have the Stilton,’ he said. ‘Dig into it John. It’s really not bad – not as Stilton goes nowadays.’

The words make pictures in your mind, it’s hard to believe that Appleby’s stories haven’t been filmed. And I wonder if Sir Humphrey Appleby, the star of Yes Minister, is deliberated named as a tribute to Michael Innes for word games in the English language.

Wiki’s done a good job of summarising the nature of these books:

Between 1936 and 1986, Stewart, writing under the pseudonym of Michael Innes, published nearly fifty crime novels and short story collections, which he later described as “entertainments”.[1] These abound in literary allusions and in what critics have variously described as “mischievous wit”, “exuberant fancy” and a “tongue-in-cheek propensity” for intriguing turns of phrase.[1][3] Julian Symons identified Innes as one of the “farceurs”—crime writers for whom the detective story was “an over-civilized joke with a frivolity which makes it a literary conversation piece with detection taking place on the side”—and described Innes’s writing as being “rather in the manner of Peacock strained through or distorted by Aldous Huxley“.[4] His mysteries have also been described as combining “the elliptical introspection … [of] a Jamesian character’s speech, the intellectual precision of a Conradian description, and the amazing coincidences that mark any one of Hardy’s plots”.[1]

For: when you want to be entertained with a deft touch that keeps a smile on your face
For: appreciation of the English language
For: the butler

A Demon in My View by Ruth Rendell

Written in 2017:

Late last year we were offered the library of an avid, widely read deceased uncle of a friend. He had a habit of writing angry comments at the front of the books he disliked. I can do no better on this occasion than quote him: ‘Another bad one.’

I’m really surprised that this is a seventies Rendell, I thought her work from that period would read better. Have I overrated her in the past?

I do wish I could have kept the entire library of this stranger-to-me. Going through his books, picking one and discarding another – as it was, we kept maybe a couple of hundred of them – his scathing commentaries almost urged me to read the books, I could see some companionship in agreeing with him. Can you get anything like that from a kindle? With the book comes so much more than the book. Books, paper and glue books, touched in ways that are passed on to the next reader, value added, if you like. Long may even the bad ones live.

Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance by Matthew Kneale

Looking at the newspaper review of this, I see a variety of interpretations including the obvious one. Nice white people turning life into shit for others, not directly intentionally, but nonetheless doing so.

But it seems to me there is a completely different way of looking at this collection of short stories. They are all about negativity and how that affects behaviour and the course of life. Whilst I’d be the first to distance myself from the delusional ‘think positive’ that has been imposed upon the American population in order to aid the dismantling of their society, at the same time, ‘think negative’ is at least as bad.

The first story sees a nice white family think the worst of the Chinese person hanging out the moment something goes wrong. They think he has stolen from him. Well, he hasn’t, the mother has simply misplaced something. But by then it’s way too late. Chinese person is dead, having been reported to the authorities by the family. If their mindset hadn’t been negative in the first place, none of this would have happened. There is, too, the negativity which sets off the trip in the first place. We don’t go on the right trips….

The last story is about a would-be Palestinian suicide bomber. Only ‘would-be’ because he wimps out, after thinking in a very negative way about what he is doing which leads to a stalled climax. He ends up in the worst place, caught, no doubt with some dreadful punishment to come, and nothing to show for it.

The lawyer who sees his life as a failure – if not for this negativity he wouldn’t have taken the bag of coke that sets him on an ultimately failed path of crime. The arms dealer who thinks he might be able to turn a leaf, but gets all negative about it. The women whose negativity translates into an affair that might ruin her family. The wealthy woman whose negativity sees her taking extremes to expose an employee she suspects of stealing…some small pantry items. The engineer whose life is defined by his negativity towards his fatness. And so on.

Any good games player knows how costly negativity is and this comes through in the book, we see the price paid on each occasion. Winners are not negative. Winners are realists with a streak of positivity. That’s so in games, and I rather think it’s so in life as well.

One critique of Kneale comments that he is acknowledged for his skill in creating ‘voices’. This collection is a time to show that off and indeed, I thought his voices were all eminently convincing.

Even if you don’t like short stories I can see why a reader might like this collection. It was hard to put down and that’s probably a particular compliment for short stories.

This is How by MJ Hyland

Hyland speculates, in one of the reflective interviews she gives, that ‘None of my fiction (so far) offers redemption or relief from the hurts inflicted and this might explain why my endings are categorically unpopular (and why my books don’t sell very well).’ Tin House

I suspect another reason for the lack of sales is her failure to satisfy any genre. It’s fiction. It contains crimes. But it isn’t crime fiction. Yet because it contains crimes it is no doubt belittled by the anti-crime fiction brigade. And then, she believes strongly in characters and story-line, which makes her damned elsewhere.

The novels that taught me to write, the ones I still love to read, do more than merely describe life; they expose life, show it ‘on a slant’. And the books I most admire are usually tragedies made of everyday, quotidian terrors; written without self-consciousness and as though the writer was seized, couldn’t stall or stop or stagger or lean on easier or more ‘popular’ ground. I don’t read—and can’t write—in certain styles; such as the all-seeing epics with large-casts, or the countrywide gaze of 19th century novels, or the calculated and indifferent difficulty of some of the modernists, or the experiments of meta-fiction, which impress, but fail to feel. And I can’t stomach mucking about with form, especially when the insistence on ‘making it new’ refuses the linear tale; denies the highest pleasure of story-telling.

I highly recommend reading all of this erudite interview.

As for the book, it couldn’t have provided a starker contrast with Cave’s And The Ass Saw The Angel, just abandoned. I’m sorry to say this, as a Cave admirer, but none of the words matter in his book. You could omit any of them, rearrange the lot, it wouldn’t matter. Whereas Hyland’s words are required, so, and so and just here and precisely there. At some point in a future which has different value judgements from those of the literary canon presently, her books will be viewed with a shining light that puts her right up there with the very best. I hope there are more to come.

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

Having sat on my to-read shelf for years, I took this on a plane trip recently. I expected to leave it abandoned in my seat pocket for another person. Instead I found it hard to put down.

The premise of the story would never happen in reality – at a party of adult friends and their children, Hugo, a four year old, goes to wack another child with a cricket bat and the father of the target stops this happening by slapping Hugo on the face. The parents of Hugo insist on police involvement and the police take it to court. Because there is so little crime in Australia, that this stands out as a good use of police time and court resources. Not. It just wouldn’t happen.

But let’s pretend it could, because it makes for a great story, as the relations between the various adults are tested by the way in which Hugo’s parents behave and expectations by all concerned. A story gripping enough that not only was an Australian TV series made, but the US made its own – I’m almost curious to see what they did to it. Every main character in the story is ghastly. I’m truly impressed with the author’s ability to make such a readable story out of such shits as they all are. Young and old, they are all materialists whose high points are buying clothes, getting haircuts, drinking and drugging, getting bikini waxes and making entrances. The women are ghastly, the men, the Australians, the Indians, the Greeks, the young, the old. But having said that, the fact is that they are all utterly ordinary. People muddling through life in a self-centered – I, closely followed by my family, are what matters – way.

Tsiolkas is no great prose stylist. Why does he split his infinitives I wonder? Why does his editor let him? But it doesn’t matter. Mostly it is his characters speaking and their voices are all believable. The structural gimmick used – successfully, it might be added – is to unfold the story line through each character’s perspective. My friend Peter on GR wanted it to end with Aisha and I see the logic of that.  I recommend his review. But I can’t help admiring Tsiolkas’ ability to squeeze out of this fuckup of a story the hint of a happy ending, and this is done by ending with one of the teenagers. I said every character is ghastly, but in truth Richie was almost likeable and the nearest thing to a person for whom one wishes the best.

The story is very Australian, and very Greek. It all rings totally true. Looking at reviews on GR, I’m fascinated to see that non-Australians can’t cope with the book at all, whereas Australians love it. As they should.

 

Earthly Remains by Donna Leon

The last Leon I read was in 2010 and I really thought I’d call it a day. It was Through a Glass, Darkly and was irritatingly thin on plot, but big on fillers – politics/environment. A couple of weeks ago, however, I spotted this for a couple of francs at a church sale and couldn’t resist. Had things changed?

Well, yes and no. I can’t even say this one’s thin on plot. It has virtually no plot whatsoever. But it seems much less didactic than Through… It’s a melancholy meander through what I think of as the outback of Venice, the islands and their lagoons, in the oppressive heat of summer. The environmental issues are the more effectively presented by being done in a gentler way.

If you are looking for a whodunnit or a police procedural that has your heart beat pumping away, this isn’t it. But in the most quiet of ways, I did find this hard to put down. If you want an authentic slice of Venice with an environmental subplot that is, alas, entirely believable. Indeed, I wonder if the controversy over the poisoning of workers and lagoons which resulted in a not guilty verdict for the Porto Marghera plant, was the inspiration.

We, the Accused by Ernest Raymond

I was given this, along with CS Forester’s early novel Payment Deferred, by Kate McCallum, author of checklists of mystery fiction, published by Copperfield Press. I’ve had my periods of reading vast amounts of the stuff, but not for years of late. Nonetheless, with such a well-informed recommendation, and the books handed to me, I was not going to say no!

Neither of these is a mystery. They are both early examples of sitting behind the shoulder of the murderer, following developments as he does. And partly because of the books’ titles, but also because of the period in which they were written, one knows in broad terms, how they will end. No murderer would have escaped his fate back then. A price had to be paid.

In fact, in the case of We, the Accused, we watch everything, it’s something of a police procedural. It’s incredibly detailed with striking and awful descriptions of what happens after the police get onto it. The chase, the trial, the period of three weeks before he hangs. But it is equally detailed in its description of scenery, neighbours, childhood – the lot. Overall I don’t think Raymond is a good enough writer to do this justice, but, he does it well enough. After a slight irritation early on as yet another tangent started, I got into the zone and found it hard to put down. He’s at his weakest when he is in the shoes of the female and as these are critical points – her agreeing to sex, her deciding to accept that he has murdered and still love him, her salvation at the end – I find none of these convincing. Indeed, the ending involving the stranger who saves her is plain silly.

The bottom line in both of these is that although the murderers knew what they had to do to get away with it, they weren’t able to – they weren’t psychopaths and both their humanness and their humanity let them down.

I might add that my own prejudice is in favour of minimalist, so of the two books, I prefer Payment Deferred. Nonetheless, as Kate urged me, I urge anybody reading this and interested in this sort of writing to pick both of these up, you won’t regret it.