Twelve Angry Men

As an afterthought, to my post about CP Snow’s The Affair, into which I brought this play, I think it is worth mentioning something about the maleness of both. Females are involved in none of the overt process of decision making in either work. But nonetheless, there is a striking difference between them. Twelve Angry Men is just that. But The Affair has a strong female presence. The men who have wives are highly influenced by them. It is the women who impel the men to action and it is the women who want justice at any cost. Behind the throne, yes, but more or less in control of it. It would be nice to think that this reflected well upon male academics, but I somehow doubt it’s the case.

I guess Twelve Angry Men had to be called that. Twelve Angry People or An Angry Gender-balanced Jury or An Angry Jury of people representing the entire spectrum of sexuality doesn’t really work – I hope I’m not just being old-fashioned in saying that. Please don’t ban me from your university.

Still, I don’t think I really noticed the maleness of Twelve Angry Men despite the way it was blatantly put forward to me in the title before I’d even bought the tickets, until I watched Amy Schumer’s take on it. These are just two excepts from it and really worth watching. Wonderful cast led by Jeff Goldblum.

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The Silent Angel by Heinrich Boll

I must make a few notes here before I forget all about this book, read soon after finishing After Romulus and then Romulus, My Father. These books are written about life after escaping from Europe after WWII. The Silent Angel is about the first days in Cologne after Germany gave in. The town was particularly devastated by the Allied bombings.

It was Boll’s first novel and he couldn’t find a publisher. It is easy to point at the subject matter for that. I gather he is known as Germany’s post-war conscience and it isn’t clear that Germany wanted to have one. As a huge number of Nazis, as well as sympathisers must have done well politically and economically in the reconstruction, one can see that the market for such a book would be uncertain at best. And yet, one can’t exactly say he gets stuck into his compatriots either. He portrays one wealthy bad man, bad before, during and after the war. But that’s it. Everybody else is okay. As if the odd bad man were enough to explain the whole appalling rise and spread of the Nazis. I hope his conscience took stronger hold at some point in his work.

I found it easy to read, but I skipped chunks of description and I am left feeling it reads like a first novel. He really struggles to communicate to the reader the horrors which are his subject. He wants to be poetic, he wants to be spiritual and he wants to be matter-of-fact: all the things that Gaita manages to perfection in his books. Both writers are talking of people who have nothing. Cologne was devastated by the Allied bombing, which meant uncertain or no electricity, most buildings in a state of ruin, food so short in supply that people are perpetually hungry, money that means nothing. Romulus and his son Raimond live in a raw shack with no electricity and a diet which reflects their poverty. But somehow the spiritual in Gaita is leaden in Boll and the matter-of-fact has a tedium that I imagine doesn’t have to be there. As for the poetic failing, given it’s in translation, maybe that’s the most forgivable failing.

All in all, I think Boll did the right thing by incorporating many bits of this novel into other works. One for the die-hard Boll fans and no doubt interesting for anybody reading about that immediately after the ceasefire period. But I hope others have done it better.

The ending is splendid. Carry on just to get there.

Harry Harrison and Christopher Fowler: aka the good bad and the bad bad.

Deathworld I admit it. Harry Harrison’s bad style irritated me. For a while. Mainly it was these. The short sentences. If you can call them that. Sentences.

I did manage after some encouragement from the ranks to get over that and I’m glad I did. It’s a good bad-book. The Wildside edition I read was horribly proofread, but not nearly as badly as the academic books I’ve been reading lately. Nothing, at any rate, that distracted me from a punchy story, good characterisation as sci fi goes and a really interesting idea for world in which the story takes place.

As it happens I next picked up The Invisible Code by Christopher Fowler. I thought this was going to be another good bad-book for a few pages, but it doesn’t take long to discover it’s a bad bad-book. Really so bad on all levels that I don’t know what I find more mystifying: that is is consistently praised on goodreads or that it is the tenth in a series. The tenth! It’s messy, heavy handed, repetitive, characters so badly drawn that one never recognises any of them and this in turn adds to the confusion of dialogue set out so that it is impossible, as a rule, to tell who is speaking. In fact it’s the first thing I’ve read that makes me wonder if Harry Potter might be well written after all. Yeah. Maybe I should upgrade HP to a good bad-book.

The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead

If Shakespeare had written this, we’d call it one of his ‘difficult’ plays. If Donna Tartt had written it we’d be dead from the shock. As exquisitely tailored as The Goldfinch is, this book is not. It’s a meandering, repetitive quagmire.

Christina Stead, who was capable of great neatness in prose, took it upon herself in this book to write as people actually live and actually speak. The result makes one realise how important the writer is to the process of making ourselves bearable in print. Writers may need editors, but they are nonetheless the front line of editing themselves. Can a writer get away with telling it – really telling it – how it is: every mundane statement, tedious repetition, tawdry detail. I’d say, based on this book, a qualified ‘yes’.

People are divided on this, some saying it is not only her great masterpiece but a great masterpiece, others trying to escape from it. For me it is important that it has content – something to say about the world – which The Goldfinch does not. Donna Tartt is wonderful at characterisation but whilst this may be perfect in The Goldfinch, her characters themselves are not interesting, maybe because they all seem to be moral vacuums. Stead’s characters are far more interesting and complex than Tartt’s. I can’t understand why Louie isn’t a star in the category of lead child characters in literature. Let me put that in big letters: A STAR. She survives her ghastly father, refuses to have her spirit and independence crushed by his grotesque tyranny. Whatever the title of the book may imply, I consider this is a book first and foremost about this stoic, inspiring girl.

I read The Man Who Loved Children immediately after The Goldfinch, which is why I was absolutely stunned by the differences between them. The Goldfinch is technically a tour de force, but utterly trivial – how much blood did Tartt sweat over characters who are intrinsically unloveable? The Man Who Loved Children is experimental, it’s brave, it’s important. And – reader’s jackpot – it’s a darn good read too.

Little Portia by Simon Gray

Three things that go together for me.

Little Portia
Ken Loach’s early work on the working class in England
The dining scene from Carry on Up the Khyber

In their way they are all about that reserve of the English, the complete incapacity to demonstrate emotion which is such a strength and weakness.

Little Portia sits in the middle, between the comedic scene where Sid James and his guests maintain standards whilst their dining room is being bombarded and the heartwrenching attempts of the British working class to escape their exploitation by those who live off them. It is is an easily read tale of Cambridge youth which hovers between smiling and sad, never tipping the balance in favour of one or the other.

Gray is one of those writers we don’t read today because he is from that period the treatment of which I keep complaining, the one that is old-fashioned, too close to ‘now’, whenever ‘now’ is. People read ‘now’ or a long distance from ‘now’ whilst misguidedly ignoring wonderful work because it is the wrong vintage. What a shame. Wouldn’t we give Gray a chance simply because Pinter thought so much of him?

Speaking of whom, I like this story:

One famous theatre story has it that Pinter, the master of minimalism, wrote a poem about cricket. It read, in its entirety: “I saw Len Hutton in his prime; another time, another time.”

This gem was circulated to friends and after a few weeks Pinter, hurt that he had not heard from Gray, telephoned him. “Have you got my poem? What do you think of it?” he inquired. “Er, yes, Harold. I haven’t finished reading it,” Gray replied.

Candide by Voltaire and Two Lives and a Dream by Marguerite Yourcenar

Right from the start I knew how I was going to write about Candide.

Voltaire and Emilie du Chatelet, aka I don’t need to say, do I?

Emilie: What the fuck, Voltaire. You have work to do. You are supposed to be writing that science book, remember?

Voltaire: But this was so much fun. All my friends down at the tavern liked it. They all think I should do more.

Emilie: Did they buy any copies?

Voltaire: Well, no. I took that one copy I wrote down and they’ve been sharing it around. Actually, I think there’s a page missing, now that you mention it.

Emilie: So they didn’t buy any copies, but it was [scornfully] ‘fun’.

Voltaire: Yeah, it WAS. They all bought me drinks. I know I’ll have to go into exile again, but it’s so worth it, I’m SO popular now.

Emilie: [wagging her finger] Well, this time, I’m not getting you out. You can stay exiled for all I care. I’m sick of having to do your work during the day and my own science in the middle of the night, only to find you are writing this populist junk again. You’re an addict.

Voltaire: But sweetheart – ……

Emilie: Yeeesssssssssssssss? Mmmmmmm. That’s……

But by sheer coincidence, whilst Candide travelled about Seville being read in lunch breaks – what fun at one point reading it in front of a table of priests in frock – the book next to my bed in the hotel room was Two Lives and a Dream. And the first in this group of three novellas is the story of Nathanaël who, like Candide, is Everyman, an innocent, reacting to the vagaries of life in the same way. Struck as one is by the easy entertainment Candide still supplies – no mean feat for any humorous work – nonetheless, the moving nature of ‘An Obscure Man’ quite overshadows it. I imagine the stern, unyielding Yourcenar would not care in the least to know that a tear was dropped during her rendition of Reality-Candide. She strikes me as the type who would be disapproving except at some level, perhaps, of which even she is not aware.

What I am not sure about, however, is whether I would have felt so strongly about this story if I hadn’t been reading it in tandem with Candide. This is my second attempt at Yourcenar, having put Hadrian away after a miserable start. Maybe this period and place – seventeenth century Europe, Amsterdam in particular – or the lack of creepiness (Hadrian is a seriously creepy creation) make it easier. But my very best advice is read it as I did. Candide. Nathanaël. Everyman. Splendid.

The Strange Case of Dr. Simmonds and Dr. Glas by Dannie Abse

Abse has a hard act to follow here. Doctor Glas, which I’ve discussed elsewhere, is a superb existential story of alienation, told from the point of view of a doctor who by virtue of his position in society is both especially connected to people – he is privy to their secrets – and especially disconnected – he is privy to secrets. The very fact that his job is to be privy to their most private thoughts means that the nature of his social relationships is compromised and ambiguous. He finds it hard to understand what his relationship is to individuals and that is connected up, of course, to his relationship to society.

Abse continues on this theme with the profound understanding that comes of being both a doctor and a poet. He is at the time of penning this, furthermore, an eighty year old Jewish doctor and poet. So the fact that this is set in Swiss Cottage and thereabouts parts of London straight after WWII, means he is writing with the most intimate knowledge of his subject. One wonders if he personally has been tortured by the questions raised in these books – when and how and why is it ethical for a doctor to kill?

Not that this is the truly important theme of either book, it is merely the backdrop. Both novels are about the angst of loneliness and of not fitting in. Of not being able to stand what is normal, what the people the protagonist has to call his friends and companions (such as he could use these terms) see as a desirable way in which to while away the gift of life we have randomly received. This happens to be a subset of twentieth century literature which has greatly attracted me over the years and I’m not sure if Abse has got it quite right.

For a start, the journal isn’t properly written as a journal. It is a novel written in the form of a journal, which isn’t the same thing at all. I think the technique of how Dr. Glas is written – without quotation marks, for example, to distinguish speech, because it isn’t being written as speech, it is being written in different way altogether – is important. Perhaps because of this – and odd when it is Abse that is the poet – Dr Glas, even in translation, has a rhythm that demands being read out loud. Not once did I feel so inclined to thus read The Strange Case.

But the trouble with writing criticisms like this, is that I don’t find it possible to judge if they merely come from the prejudice of having read Dr. Glas. On the other hand, I don’t see it is possible to read Abse without having read the book with which his is so closely connected.

If I may abandon attempts to be critical, I think the misgivings I have about this book are at least in part deliberately constructed by the author. Kudos if I am right in this. There is no reason why the reader should have it all spelled out to him. Anti-semiticism is important to the book. But IS Dr Simmonds anti-Semitic? The reader’s gut feeling, and the reader’s voice in the book (there is one) both say yes. But, without wanting to spoil this review with too much information, Abse clearly didn’t want the reader to be sure. Gut feelings aren’t always right. Isn’t that part of Dr Simmonds’ terrible dilemma?

I don’t really understand why this book is so neglected. Is it a curse, perhaps, to be on the Booker long list? goodreads has exactly 3 lines of review of this book. A modern book by such a prominent UK writer? So you can’t read everything and yeah, there are a lot of books out there in the world, but there is a lot of fashion. One of the things that seems a pity to me is that goodreads is season driven. This year the big names are all reading blah blah blah. Blah blah blah is the new black this year. I hope I don’t associate too much with the sad cases like Simmonds and Glas, but if you stand apart from the crowd, you get the chance to read all sorts of things that the cognoscenti isn’t into right now. All in all I’m happy to be in that isolated, alienated lot.