WAITING FOR SUNRISE
BLOOMSBURY, £18.99 353PP
ISBN 978 1 4088 1774 2
Is there a future for the spy novel now that, according to Julian Assange, technology gives state intelligent agencies the ability to ‘spy on the entire population at once’? William Boyd clearly thinks so.
His 2006 award winning novel Restless told the story of a young woman recruited by the British Secret Service in the Second World War. In his latest novel it’s a young man and the First World War. As spying moves to industrial scale, Boyd seems intent on working backward to a time when it was an individual and personal pursuit and technological assistance took the form of a small gun.
Generally speaking, the best spies have the best names. Lysander Rief, Boyd’s protagonist here, is an awkward handle compared to the loaded simplicity of, say, Bond or Smiley. Still, it is a name with implications. Rief, according to the character himself, means ‘thorough’ or ‘wolf’ or perhaps a combination of the two. Lysander has Sparta and Shakespeare in it. A serviceable enough name, then, for an actor turning spy.
When we first meet Rief him he is in Vienna in 1913 just as Kim Philby was twenty years later when the seeds of his real life spying career were sown. Vienna is the city of Freud and psychoanalysis and Rief is being treated for his inability to ejaculate. Here too there are echoes of Philby (though stretching now) and the debilitating stutter that sometimes rendered him unable to form words.
His inability to express himself is cured by bedding fellow patient Hettie Bull whois not as simple as her simple name implies. Rief’s immediate recovery is the first of many suspensions of disbelief the reader will be asked to make in exchange for a good yarn. But at least it releases him, so to speak, for the many assignations ahead.
In fairness, Rief also attributes his cure to a psychoanalytical technique called parallelism. The basic principle of parallelism is that the world is ‘flat, empty, bereft of meaning and significance’ and patients need to use their imaginations to fill it ‘with purpose, feeling, colour
and emotion’. He is able to apply this to a nightmarish episode from his childhood, re-inventing the parts of the story he can’t bear to create something he can live with. The implications for the self-deception and duplicity of the spy trade seem clear enough.
At this stage Boyd’s primary concern is to examine the characteristics that will eventually make Rief an effective spy. To transform him into one, however, he uses a well-worn device. Rief’s relationship with Bull unravels and eventually requires him to make his escape from Vienna with the help of the boys at the British Embassy. He racks up a hefty bill in the process and it is no surprise when the impoverished actor is held to account for it.
Rief’s spying career is a breathless thing. He investigates, surveils, disguises, distrusts and deceives, kills, tortures and gets shot. His private life involves a son he never sees and a gay uncle who is his closest ally. Rapid page turning is the order of the day.
However, a reader with parallelism available to him might be tempted to use it to make a good book into a very good one. He could, for instance, go back and remove all the little details from the text where the narrator forgets what year he is supposed to be in e.g. the use of ‘common law wife’ forty years before it was in common usage. More seriously, he would excise the passages that are so unconvincing as to make him wonder why they are there at all.
First amongst these is an extended episode when Rief crawls around the trenches in order to fake his own death. Even the protagonist doesn’t see the point of this and opines that his death could have been just as easily been faked in a safer way. Worse, the entire scene descends into farce with insults in French and English called across the mud like John Cleese on the castle wall in Monty Python and the Holy Grail and other bits of dialogue channelling characters from Blackadder Goes Forth. A second re-imagining would also remove an entirely contrived ‘accidental’ meeting with the real Sigmund Freud. Rief swans over to him in a Vienna coffee shop and embarrasses himself and the reader.
The novel ends as it began with a brief shift into a ‘there he goes – have a look at him’ narrative. This is a technique that drew some criticism when Boyd used in his previous novel Ordinary Thunderstorms but here it works well. The spy being spied on is a nice conceit and the reader is invited to compare the man after his experiences to the way he was before them.
Neither the anachronisms nor the occasional poorly rendered scene are game breakers. It is easy enough to recover and turn again to the intrigue and action that is the heart of the story. Boyd’s reputation as a master story teller won’t suffer any damage from Waiting for Sunrise even if the novel would benefit from some tightening up and leaves the impression that he is a master who is in a bit too much of a hurry.
FREIGHT BOOKS, £8.99 PP176
We become different people in warmer weather. It’s not merely the sense of liberation that comes with a change of country. Look at the way the Scottish murder rate inches upwards on those rare occasions the sun stops being so stingy with its store of rays. This sense of recasting ourselves in the heat, but also of immolation, is captured in the title of a new short story collection, Furnace, by Wayne Price. In practically every one of Price’s tales, the sun acts almost as another character, its light blinding his protagonists to their landscapes, both outer and inner.
The tone is of early period Ian McEwan. There are hints of incest, nods towards acts of cruelty, dissipation, and self-destruction. An old woman is murdered, and a young man rots in the desert after a fatal bout of hash-spiked paranoia leads him to go walkabout. Price is drawn towards characters with handicaps, often introducing them to the action with a sexual twist. In one story, a girl appears to buy off with sexual favours the tormenters of her mentally-handicapped brother. In another, a teenager is tempted to take advantage of an attractive young woman whose brain has been damaged in a fall, but not her body. Proceeding through the collection, we spend time with others who lust after chambermaids with harelips or dwarfish shop girls. None of these people struggling with disabilities appears actually to exist in their own right, only as evidence of a disturbed sexuality. Despite the provocative nature of his material, Price tends to mute its impact. Often, the action takes place offstage, and even when it doesn’t, there is an airless, calculated, yet still half-hearted, feel to Price’s deployment of sensational tropes.
A heavy sense of craft hangs over Furnace. There is an anxious adherence to the credo of showing, not telling, while the sentences are smooth, or more accurately, frictionless. Indeed, the first-person narratives are tonally flat. They’re similar to each other, and in turn they resemble Price’s third-person narratives; there’s no attempt to capture different rhythms of speech or thought. In ‘Underworld’, a barrister, disturbed by the news someone he once knew has died, attempts to get his thoughts in order on the page. The subsequent account reads not like a confused man pursuing his present upset into the past, but like a short story written by Wayne Price.
The endings in particular observe current conventions regarding such things. ‘The Golfers’ concludes, ‘…we were out of sight and out of sound, swallowed up completely by the same spreading fields that come back always and would swallow up everything soon enough.’ Note the whisper of the enigmatic and of out-of-puff poetry. ‘Who could say if they’d ever come back now?’ the abandoned heroine of ‘In the Valley’ thinks at the close of her episode. ‘And who knew where anyone ever really was, anyway? Even when they were right beside you. Even inside you. Even that.’ There’s a fair amount of soulful brooding on the mysteries of character that tempts Price, or rather his ciphers, into glumly philosophising. ‘Most of life just happens and disappears, he thought. People and places, days and years, all sliding into the dark as if they’d never been.’ The quality of thought wavers between the obvious and the adolescent. ‘There was no depth to life, I remember thinking suddenly, and it seemed like a moment of final clarity and truth to me, the great lesson of my long trivial summer. There was a shifting, fascinating surface to people and the things they felt and said, but underneath all was just a strong simplicity.’
Price teaches creative writing, and his tales do seem representative of a certain style popular with graduates of the country’s fiction factories; stories that attempt to offset a certain blandness of thought with a dash of the perverse, a formal conservativeness with a ‘literary’ style, and an absence of feeling and humour with a baggy profundity.
LEAVING ALEXANDRIA – A MEMOIR OF FAITH AND DOUBT
CANONGATE, £17.99 PP358
Richard Holloway, erstwhile Anglican priest and bishop, has written many books. The latest is his autobiography, and it may well be his best. The story of his life is told deftly and entertainingly. He whisks us along in a fast-moving journey from Alexandria in the Vale of Leven to the English Midlands, to West Africa, to the Gorbals in Glasgow, to Carrubers Close in Edinburgh, to Boston in the US, to Oxford and, at last, back to Scotland for the long and magniﬁcent coda to his rich life – and amid all this he intersperses brief religious and theological reﬂections which have a genuine profundity.
This carefully crafted technique allows the book to be thoughtful as well as colourful, meditative as well action-packed. It is also, in an unshowy way, exceptionally well written. Holloway is a great phrasemaker. Just two examples: ‘The Clyde was a majestic river, but she was a worker as well as a queen’; ‘Scotland’s largest regiment, the drinkers.’
This is the candid memoir of a deeply religious man who could never give himself completely to God. It is the account of a dedicated and busy non-celibate priest’s very full life. For much of it Holloway was doing his best for people who were needier than he was. Happily married to Jean, and in most ways fulﬁlled, he was a good man doing good things.
He was often mired in controversy, yet by his own account – and I believe him – he was not a natural rebel or troublemaker. When he disobeyed his church’s rule on marrying divorced people, or when he ofﬁciated at his ﬁrst gay wedding as early as 1972, he was, as he saw it, responding to people who needed ‘a kind of mercy’.
As he notes, the ultimate test of belief is obedience. Holloway could not reach the requisite level of obedience.
He is not deﬁant or truculent. He is a conﬁdent and clever man, and this is not a modest book, but neither is it self-serving. Holloway’s prose has poetic grace. He has the poet’s eye for the insidious telling detail, and he can switch from the general to the particular with an ease which makes for unusually rewarding reading.
The book starts particularly well. The long opening passage tells us of his love for Kelham Hall, by the River Trent, which housed the Anglican religious order that trained him for the priesthood. Holloway had an uneventful childhood in a happy working class home in Alexandria in the Vale of Leven – he describes this in a warm glow of fond reminiscence which is very moving – and then he was packed off to Kelham when he was 14.
As he puts it, he fell in love with both the place and the high purpose it served. He duly became a priest, and eventually, the distinguished Bishop of Edinburgh and a respected theologian.
He describes the simple rhythms and routines of life at Kelham with a soft numinous beauty. He also writes about adolescent longings. There is quite a lot about sex in this book, though not as much as I expected. As the young Richard stared at the breasts of a girl called Lily at a farm near Balloch, he saw exactly what his life would be: ‘An endless struggle with the ﬂesh.’
When, still a young man, he went off to West Africa to be secretary to the Bishop of Accra, he was indeed battling his ﬂesh, trying to make his body submit to the spirit. He was ‘electriﬁed’ by the bare-breasted women he saw in Africa. ‘I had never seen anything so beautiful or so tormenting. It ﬁlled me with a longing that was as much sadness as lust.’
Holloway compares erotic longing with spiritual longing; both promise more than they deliver. He muses on the unavailability of the Great Lover, and the parallel ‘Great Absence’ of God.
Before I met Richard Holloway, I disapproved of him. I thought he was a serial self-publicist, who had made overmuch of his doubts and his eventual loss of faith. We met in an unlikely setting: a small community centre situated between two bleak housing estates in north Edinburgh. I was moderating an event at which he was discussing some of his books.
He addressed the small audience brieﬂy and well. Then, at the questions, I noticed how he never patronised anyone, but answered sometimes halting and confused queries with understanding, empathy and clarity. He created a warm solidarity, and the evening became an unlikely success.
I became a Holloway fan then and I have been ever since. This very ﬁne book conﬁrms and indeed strengthens my admiration for a questing, unquiet man who is good, gifted and gracious.
JONATHAN CAPE, £12.99 PP560
Choose your scapegoat; blame the Thatcher government, blame the system, blame the social workers or the teachers, blame the parents. When the powder’s ﬁnally cut, the answer is devastatingly simple and predictably delivered by Leith’s very own Schopenhauer. Why did a generation of young Scots turn on and switch off to heroin? Poor housing? No jobs? No fun or future? Or was it, as Mark Renton says, simply the Everest conclusion: because it was there. And though local rhyming slang favoured a more homely and immediate outcrop (Salisbury Crag = skag) there were Himalayas of heroin around Edinburgh in the 1980s, little Alps of dirty snow and future need, a Pakistani knock-off of the medical-grade stuff that had been skimmed off the pharmaceutical business before the security crackdown and used to demonstrate that good old 1980s principle of supply-side trickledown, which basically means addicted ex-squaddies today and primary kids tomorrow.
Skagboys is a “prequel” – and that’s the ugliest word you’ll hear today – which bookends Trainspotting from the perspective of 1984, as Porno did from a decade after. It is a mark of the new book’s darkly confident quality that it grips so strongly and doesn’t suffer from our knowing already its various outcomes. Indeed, it benefits from and perhaps depends on our awareness of the central characters and their voices.
Welsh’s ventriloquism is beyond good. His Dickensian idiolects are obvious even from a random page sampling: Sick Boy’s Machiavellian flourishes (he’s never more “Edinburgh” than when he’s most Italian, blood from his mother’s side); Spud’s phatic redundancies and tender-hearted pre-liberalism (he should be handling cat litter and hamster bedding, not dope); Renton’s studied nihilism (he’s a student in Aberdeen at this stage, though gravitating away from Marischal College and towards the docks).
We don’t get any sense of Begbie’s inner life, mercifully enough. He may be like that all the way through or he may be a Dalek, a carapace of aggression over a little peeler crab of vulnerability and need, but we’ll never know. There is a glimpse this time of Alison’s inner life – this is a novelist who apparently did his MBA dissertation on equal opportunities employment – as she juggles a job at City Chambers, a women’s poetry group, and some unsuccessfully dabbled lesbianism against more familiar things. Her environmental duties are a reminder that there was another epidemic in Edinburgh in the 80s, along with junk and AIDS: Dutch Elm Disease was reshaping the cityscape, an anti-pastoral moment soundtracked by chainsaws and the crackle of petrolly bonfires, shocking in its own way.
As usual, we get much of these hinterlands. Music (‘sounds’) provides the datelines, though there is a handwritten prologue that describes Renton’s role alongside as a fellow-travelling flying picket at Orgreave during the miners’ strike. Sick Boy’s home life is a masterclass in philandering. Renton’s own is more complex, its primal scene the moment he’s discovered masturbating his multiply handicapped younger brother to images of Mary Marquis reading the news. Blame the parents? Or pity them?
I gained a minor notoriety among friends for having predicted no market and no future for Trainspotting in a review for New Society. The spirit of Margaret Thatcher often visits me in low moments to cackle ‘There is no such thing as New Society, Brian’, and she’s right, but so in a particular sense was I. The problem with Trainspotting was not that there was no leash on its extremity but that there was a constant authorial presence, Dickensian in the wrong way, clutching at a clipboard and mouthing normative values. In order for that to work, Trainspotting either had to provide ‘redemption’, or it had to find a way of demonstrating the final philosophical and practical redundancy of those values. There is plenty extremity here, from Wee Davey’s squawking pleasure in front of the six o’clock news to a Monday morning shiting contest at Renton’s holiday job in a joinery works (a tantalising glimpse of old fashioned craft just about holding out against nail-gun bodging), and there is, of course, the squeamish stage business of self-injection, and you don’t have to be an aichmophobe (fear of sharp objects: it’s the kind of word Sick Boy would collect and use on an ‘A’ day) to be put off by them.
Skagboys is a better novel than Trainspotting, even if it leans heavily on the earlier book’s characters and charisma. It has structure but not too much visible scaffolding. Its voice-over element is reduced to short ‘Notes on an Epidemic’ which could/should simply be dropped, and its sense of time, in the sense of duration, flow, reverse, rather than fashion and cultural context, is quite remarkable. The last three words – ‘all time collapses’ – pretty much sum it up, not in ‘drug’ or nostalgia terms, but as a guide to the book’s distinctive literary language and syntax. Where is the snow of yesteryear? Ripeness is all; aye, fuck all. A la recherche du . . . what? . . . perdu.
WASTED IN LOVE
CARGO, £11.99 194PP
Let us begin at the beginning, which in this instance is the publicity material which accompanies review copies. I’m intrigued. ‘The book is released on October 11th in trade paperback, ebook, iPhone app, audio download and the Blackout limited edition version.’ The Scottish publisher, Cargo, is clearly well up on how this game is played in late 2011. ‘Check out [their website] for Allan’s forthcoming gigs, free short stories, audio tracks and more.’
It could almost be music which is being promoted.
Recent changes in publishing have been great. I feel that I’ve been asleep for two years and have just woken up. I am now busily Kindling between such diversions as reading Allan Wilson (in pbook form as we now call book-books) and typing this.
Short stories, so long the bane of publishers, are coming into their own again. They suit this age of mobility and snatched gratiﬁcation. People can read them on their phones.
I always was a fan of commercial short ﬁction: those 2,000 worders on radio (now, bizarrely, mothballed) of which I did many, and the sort written to be consumed on a bus journey or in a dentist’s waiting room.
Of late we’ve had sudden-ﬁction, ﬂash-ﬁction, which is very short, and I relished the challenge of 800-1200 words with a year’s worth of weekly newspapers stories not so long ago.
Allan Wilson’s are the new species. They interest me because they are so lean. No sting-in-the-tale either, which used to be one of the best ways of wrapping-up if you could pull it off. Wilson’s endings are throwaway, because that’s how he sees life, as jumpy and dislocated and carrying-on-whatever. His stories are far from what has been coming to us out of London publishing houses, mostly American, those very overwritten and altogether self-conscious pieces of Beautiful Writing.
Some of the stories here concern a couple, Annie and Alex, who have jobs and a degree of social mobility. Their aspirational dreams of Spain dwindle, Alex ending up there alone, washed out, broke, and fucked up. (No asterisks in the stories.) The others in the cast of Wasted in Love are further down the evolutionary scale.
Here’s a flavour:
Cullen said we should get a game of darts at Steiny’s until the rain went off. I’d spoken to him earlier and he was away to Glasgow Green with his family for the big display. Cullen said we should crack a window and climb in anyway. Get a game then get out. Mark said it was the best idea he’d heard all day. Cullen said he needed a shite. He went down a lane and we waited on him.
He washed his hands in a puddle then flicked the water at me and Mark.
‘Kebab shop?’ he said.
It was one of those three-in-one places that did curries and pizzas as well. The guy that worked there would say ‘One ned at a time please. Don’t you see the sign?’ There was no sign.
There’s no point in suggesting that the author try making a foray to, say, salubrious Newton Mearns: he knows where he’s most comfortable, with the shat-upon.
He doesn’t go after description, and succeeds in making it seem like the padding it too often is. Yet a striking (cinematic) image will suddenly come out of left-ﬁeld: those ﬁfty rats Wee-Man-Jamie sees being swept downstream in a canal, disturbed
by some event ominously waiting for him round the next corner – or McKellar unhinged by life on beneﬁts and no hope who parries with Job Centre personnel as keenly as any prosecution lawyer in court, and who ends his mere two-page story running between the trafﬁc on Great Western Road, slapping the sides of cars, heading vaguely for Loch Lomond but deﬁnitely the sea.
The author’s dialogue is spot-on: brutal very often, and either in-yer-face or else burying its meaning, self-delusional, lapsing into convenient jargon-speak. In an illogical world (here it’s a jaggedly cubist place called Glasgow), the words we speak are nothing and – by another view – they are our best defence.
Anything at all that gets said must surely have some value.
‘Get some of that down you Stevo ma man.’
Here is communication of a very basic but legitimate kind, if you can listen out for the strange music.
‘ You wereny meant to have it all Stevo fuck sake!’
‘Fucking hell Stevo ya bastard. You’re a right bastard Stevo. That was to last me. Stevo. Fuck sake man.’
Lightly punctuated, the stories skilfully hurtle on their way – not towards any destination in particular; their sense of an ending is deliberately provisional, with grim and stimulant-assisted life sputtering to suspension dots…
The publisher calls it an ‘explosive debut’. Hyperbole? That’s understood. But if you can take the 19 stories in Wasted in Love, these snapshots of the human comedy will certainly shake you up, and impress you often enough to make you want to keep reading through to the last.
BRING ME THE HEAD OF RYAN GIGGS
TINDALL STREET PRESS, £12.99 PP288
In Bring Me the Head of Ryan Giggs, a darkly comic fiction, Rodge Glass charts a man’s downward spiral from optimistic youth to dangerous loner. At fifteen, Mark Wilson is a lad with a spring in his step and a nifty way of landing balls in the back of the net. He believes in himself, trusts his potential to make it as a sporting hero. But by the time he hits middle age, Mark is nothing more than a zero in his own terms. Stuck in a job he despises as a sports kit salesman, he tortures himself with what might have been. The more bitter he becomes, the more the successful career of Ryan Giggs figures in his twisted consciousness as an insult to his self-respect. On reaching the point when nothing in life makes sense any more, he decides that he and Giggsy are like conjoined twins, and one must die to save the other. This is the fateful delusion that propels him into the headlines at last, bringing him an ephemeral taste of fame, or rather, notoriety.
Back in the early 1990s when Sir Alex Ferguson made a call to Ryan Giggs’ home and plucked him out of obscurity into stardom, Glass has it that a similar visit was made to young Mark’s family. This is one of the three ‘beginnings’ for Mark as he looks back at his life, the others being his dad playing football with him in the back garden and taking him to his first match at Old Trafford, and the birth of his little boy.
Mark is shorn of his relationship with both father and son. In the big bad world outside his cosy domestic circle, his dad’s gambling habit has got him into serious debt with dangerous types, circumstances that are only revealed to Mark years down the line. At the time, all the family knows is that he’s done ‘a Houdini’ and they are left reeling with shock at his disappearance. Over the years Mark’s dad keeps in touch by phone from his hideout in Spain, but their conversations are frustrating for Mark; each withholds what they need to say. Typically, they end up hanging their emotions on the peg of football chat.
Through the characters of men for whom football is a vernacular of the heart, a tradition that offers a reliability absent from the rest of life, Glass explores aspects of the male persona in contemporary British society. He draws out the importance of group identification and hierarchy and what happens when an individual loses their sense of place, how violence becomes a ready option when personal feelings can’t be articulated. He looks at the demands and expectations placed on men.
The souring of Mark’s identity as a Man U fan acts as a metaphor for his personal disintegration. The anger at being a comet that lost its glow is as nothing to being a father who has lost his son, his rage being a key factor in his exclusion. The undertow of violence means that sometimes the thing he kicks is not a ball but a battered body that serves as a substitute for the real target (the rejecting club or father or lover). Interestingly, Glass shows the obsessive focus of the football fan as a socially legitimate form of stalking. He develops this idea as Mark’s personal pressures cause it to slide into a form of stalking that ceases to be benign and becomes sinister.
Glass is spot on with the sort of detail that will convince football fans of whatever persuasion. You can practically smell the Bovril at half time. He captures the nostalgia for the days when the big name players played for love of the sport, before money turned the game into something not quite as beautiful as it once was. And through Mark he shows football fandom as a glorious tribal cult that in the end is no substitute for life lived to the full.
ON CONAN DOYLE, OR THE WHOLE ART OF STORYTELLING
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS, £13.95 PP202
I shared an ofﬁce with Arthur Conan Doyle in summer of 1966. More precisely with his MD photograph, in the room in which I worked as a sort of trial archivist to the Royal Inﬁrmary of Edinburgh. This was in the former Medical Superintendent’s House built in 1870s Franco-Scottish by David ‘Baronial’ Bryce: empty and shortly to be knocked down, but resembling with its brooding, elaborate gables the houses to where, in outer London or Surrey, “games afoot” took Sherlock Holmes and John Watson by suburban train.
Twelve years earlier Doyle scared me out of my wits when I read ‘The Speckled Band’ in St Boswells Schoolhouse: for weeks afterwards I couldn’t look at a ventilator (there were three, high on the walls of the classrooms) without expecting something writhing and lethal to slither out. In 1966 I re-read the story. The terror didn’t return, and the mechanics seemed predictable. But after moving to Buckinghamshire and the Open University in 1969, Holmes became as handy a guide as John Betjeman or Osbert Lancaster in venturing to Reigate or Leatherhead via the railway system that Dr Beeching preserved in the south-east.
Conan Doyle wrote when London was in its pomp and, sooner or later, every monarch or millionaire, Janissary, or Cham, hale or sick, would turn up. His Irish family produced two generations of artists and caricaturists sensitive to that fact. His uncle, Dicky Doyle, fashioned the famous Punch cover, with the little man fondling that intriguing scroll. His cartoon of the 1860s ‘A Drawing Room’ – Dundrearied mashers pursuing nouveau-riche heiresses in Belgravia – has all the argument and energy of a volume of Trollope. Doyle’s multiculturalism, which Michael Dirda brings out in his book, On Conan Doyle, is inarguable and formed by the times and city he lived in, as well as his own background.
Dirda, we learn, has been a great fan of Holmes’ creator since he was a child when The Hound of the Baskervilles was the first adult book he read. He proves an implacable and encyclopaedic defender of Doyle’s reputation. And tolerant reverence is required when considering his career. Was Doyle marked down by some critics for writing thrillers or falling for fairies? Doyle was taken in by teenagers faking pics. Dirda, as a long-time member of the Baker Street Irregulars, a society of Holmes fanatics, isn’t fazed, has even read ‘most’ of two of the books Doyle wrote on spiritualism. For their amusement, they take as their starting point that the Great Detective and Watson were actual historical characters; they attempt to fill in the gaps around Doyle’s stories.
Dirda goes gyte though when he ‘documents’ Langdale Pike, a Yankee gossip who features in the Holmes adventure ‘The Three Gables’ (published in 1926), a piece that has its origins in a paper presented to his fellow Irregulars. He fakes a DNB entry where he claims Pike fathered Winston Churchill through hanky-panky with Jenny Jerome in the 1880s. One shall merely say that Lord Randolph married Jenny in 1874, six years before Pike is said to have arrived in the UK. Their first, legal, coupling produced young Winston.
Considering his legacy, what has endured of Conan Doyle is that metropolitan theatricality he shared with Wilde and Shaw. Somewhere in the Holmes stories there must be a left-luggage caper, and Shaw re-created Baker Street, first with Doyle (!) and Broadbent in John Bull’s Other Island, then brilliantly in Pygmalion with Higgins and Pickering.
Dirda digs out further possible influences: how, for example, T S Eliot nicked a central passage in ‘East Coker’ from ‘The Musgrave Ritual’. This allows me to make a connection of my own. W B Yeats raided John Buchan’s ‘The Watcher by the Threshhold’ for ‘Byzantium’. Senator Yeats gave his minders thrillers to keep them up to the job, and the ones Roy Foster cites are by Buchan. The Watcher’s tale of a Scots laird menaced by Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora would fill out that haunted city of 1930:
At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit …
Spirit after spirit! The smithies break the flood,
The golden smithies of the Emperor! Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity, Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented
Sometime in the 1870s Benjamin Disraeli rode out of Whitehall in his carriage, and noted in the grand ‘Medical Superintendent-style’ houses of Hampstead or Canonbury a suppressed, crazy romanticism, game for bold ventures, sacrifice if need be. In their various mass-market ways, the Irishman and the Calvinist Scot tapped this and fed it up the culture-and-politics chain. Dirda’s positioning of Conan Doyle at a vast web of cultural connections is infectious.
MY SON, MY SON
HARVILL SECKER, £16.99 PP288
Novelist Douglas Galbraith’s ﬁrst foray into memoir is a tale so fantastic it reads like ﬁction. The book’s premise and opening might have been culled from a thriller. One day in 2003 Galbraith returned home to Fife from London to discover a locked door and his four- and six-year-old sons gone. On the doormat was a letter with a forwarding address in Japan. He has never seen his children since.
My Son, My Son examines his loss, but Galbraith is too good a writer to dwell on sentiment and too interesting to restrict his account to that of a child-hunt. Instead his narrative branches off to explore wide-ranging and often controversial topics such as child murder and violation of children’s rights, the limitations of international conventions, and culture shock. This last theme is particularly crucial because Galbraith discloses from the outset that his children were not snatched by a stranger but abducted by their mother, his Japanese wife who could no longer stand living in a foreign land.
Galbraith soon learns he is fighting a losing battle. Inefficient policemen and money-grubbing lawyers are sympathetic to his plight but ultimately his wife is mother to her children and so cannot
be classed as kidnapper. Worse, she is termed ‘an unextraditable absentee defendant’. Galbraith writes expertly on his powerlessness, never dimming his anger towards the person who, in his eyes if no one else’s, committed this ‘meticulous and thorough burglary’. He veers off on another tangent that covers the disenfranchisement of fathers and the dangers of exclusive female control of child-rearing. Along the way the sanctity of motherhood is examined and questioned: ‘Motherland is good, fatherland always has boots on and a helmet and a weirdo marching.’
The book is at its best when Galbraith explores his subject tangentially, moving away from the bare facts of the kidnapping. This is not because his private catastrophe is dull or trivial (quite the reverse), but because his scrutiny of these weighty side-themes is arresting. Spiriting one’s own children out of the country they were born in is one thing, but what would possess a parent to kill their child? Which punishment is more just, death of the perpetrator or stripping him of something he holds dear and forcing him to live without it? And on a less ethical note, are children a hindrance or a boon in creating great art? Galbraith puts the childless Larkin in one corner and the formidable child-begetter Tolstoy in the other, whilst quoting Cyril Connelly’s famous judgement: ‘There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.’
Galbraith’s personal story is shocking and heart-rending but there is an in built emotional threshold. Simply stated, although this may be one of the most extreme actions taken in marital conflict, we are still only presented with one side of a story. Galbraith never adopts a woe-is-me attitude but by the same token he fails to provide a list of his own faults which may have led his wife to do what she did. Does this really matter? It does when in one of those engaging digressions he muses on how a writer’s weakness is ‘preferring a good phrase to the truth’. Also, his memoir is about memory, that Sebald-esque preoccupation with recapturing history and making sense of it (the interlarded case studies, court rulings and pictures are redolent of Austerlitz). Not once do we doubt his grief, but at times we wonder if a memory really was so ‘pin-sharp and colourfast’, and to what extent hindsight,
or artistic licence, has buffed those murky recollections.
At least the quality of his prose is clear. Despite the occasional baroque description (he lives in an ‘introspective cul-de-sac’; ‘Catastrophe is nature’s Viagra’) Galbraith writes well, especially when critical. He is good on Scotland and its ‘unswallowable diet’ and ‘ceaseless demented bagpiping’, and good on his wife’s growing hostility to her husband’s homeland, which resulted in ‘creeping nipponism’ at home. The opening chapter, describing the trauma he arrives home to find, could be the best prose of his career – quiet and unhysterical, and all the more arresting for it.
Cultures have clashed before in Galbraith’s work; we think of The Rising Sun which dramatised the calamities that arise when one culture imposes itself on another. My Son, My Son is a magnificent though harrowing portrait of a worst-case scenario. We read it entranced but with guilty pleasure. As with the best art, only suffering and loss can create such brilliance.
THE MISSING SHADE OF BLUE
ABACUS, £12.99 PP320
When is a first novel not a first novel? When it’s written by Jennie Erdal. Her memoir, Ghosting, is an account of her career as amanuensis to Naim Attallah, the larger than life proprietor of Quartet Books and would-be novelist. In The Missing Shade of Blue, she gets to see her own name on the cover. Her ‘debut’ draws on another side of her professional experience: translation.
Edgar Logan has come from Paris to Edinburgh to translate Hume’s essays into French. The passion for Hume is inherited from his Scottish father, Edgar being ‘much more versed in literary fiction, in particular the sort of novel that is set in the emotional landscape of the British middle class’. Almost as soon as he arrives in Edinburgh, he enters that landscape when he becomes involved with Harry Sanderson and his artist wife Carrie. ‘If I had met Sanderson in a novel he might have been difficult to like,’ Edgar decides, but the disgruntled philosopher emerges as a lively and compelling character.
What follows is an atypical ménage a trois; by using the phrase I risk coming across like one of the academics that Erdal lambasts in the novel. In the company of Edgar, bon mots drop haplessly from their lips as the academics he encounters as part of his job compete to display their familiarity with French. The contemporary university, with its Research Assessment Exercises and grim portents of Research-Inactivity, is enjoyably pilloried as being, like its Head of Human Resources, ‘impermeable to irony’.
Sexual tension is almost absent;
Edgar spends more time fly-fishing with Sanderson than fantasising about his wife. A cleverly constructed novel, it gives us an outsider’s view of a marriage that’s complex, in which Carrie loves her husband but thinks of Somerfield while having dull, duty sex.
As we might expect from ‘a philosophical adventure’, the real action takes place in the mind, mostly Edgar’s exquisite if sometimes repetitive interior monologue. The eponymous missing shade of blue refers to Hume’s thought experiment (if all shades of blue were laid out before a man except one, could he imagine it although no empirical evidence existed?) but also becomes a metaphor for Edgar’s grief-struck state of mind, hinted at through fleeting references to his mother and her ‘lovely sea-blue dress’, her ‘blue cotton handkerchief with an edge of lace’. It’s no coincidence that Carrie’s eyes are described as ‘deep pools of blue’. It’s precisely because he’s ‘un étranger’ that he’s so close to Sanderson and Carrie, but can he ever make the imaginative leap required to live fully in the world, in the present?
‘You shadow the novelist, live vicariously,’ Edgar says of his job as translator. ‘First and foremost you are a reader, the closest reader the book will ever have’. Edgar is a reader of people too, but when life threatens to interfere, his natural impulse is to retreat. He’ll ponder the proper translation of “commonwealth” rather than worry that Sanderson has been spying on him and seems to have tried to kill them both on a fishing trip. It’s only when Harry presents him with a maggot jar containing what he believes to be ‘another man’s spunk’ (i.e. Edgar’s) scooped from his wife’s bathwater that Edgar concedes that it’s ‘the kind of event that alters the course of a friendship’. Not least because at that point Carrie is not his paramour.
On the ﬁrst page Edgar tells us that, ‘Fiction feels safe – you know where you are with it.’ Philosophy is different, as both he and Sanderson know. Thinking too much can be dangerous, and we should heed Hume’s prescription against ‘the disease of the learnèd’; a daily walk, backgammon, dining with friends, moderation. (Or, perhaps, another way is to be working class; Harry’s coalminer father and Mrs Bannerman the cleaner are content enough to live the unexamined life.) Too much moderation is not always to be recommended. At times Erdal might have upped the tempo a little; a little less conversation, for example, would have worked.
This is a quibble about a beautifully written novel. Edinburgh is finely drawn as a city once enlightened by Hume. He stalks the pages of the novel too, giving it the flavour of a particularly engaging episode of In Our Time, albeit one sprinkled with sly and sometimes delightfully absurd humour. Erdal excels in her delicate portrayal of Edgar’s extended grieving for his parents, and in her tender and detailed exploration of different kinds of loss and the effects on those – Carrie, Edgar’s mother, Sanderson – who are bereft. Suffice to say, I’m glad Erdal is at last publishing fiction under her own name.