Tag Archives: book review

The Summing Up by W. Somerset Maugham

the summing upWe love to read writers when they write about writing. Whether it is George Orwell’s Why I Write, Stephen King On Writing, or Scarlett Thomas’s Monkeys with Typewriters, there is an enduring need to peep behind the curtain. These blends of memoir and ‘how to’ guide fascinate us either because we want to see how our favourite stories were created, or if we are trying to follow their path we are keen to see if the authors have pointed out any shortcuts. Therefore the thoughts of W. Somerset Maugham – prolific novelist, travel writer and playwright – cannot fail to be instructive.

He writes authoritatively about his own work, covering the process, his aims and its reception by readers and critics. He is also knowledgable about the classics as well as contemporaries such as Colette, but is unafraid to turn his wry glance towards those who favour literary pretensions and his own place in the history of literature. As a dramatist he is master of the concise yet withering put-down (a technique he apparently honed against school bullies):

There is no more merit in having read a thousand books than in having ploughed a thousand fields,

before turning his gaze to the wider world of philosophical and religious theory, so that the book moves from memoir and writing guide to consider the eternal topic of how best to live.

For all his apparent candour, Mr Maugham does gloss over one area: that of his own personal life. Although he talks of love and beauty it is in such general terms that the reader may be forgiven for thinking he died (in his 90s) as a confirmed bachelor. He is at times dismissive of love and his behaviour while under its influence. It is only by checking other sources that his firm adherence to his own words becomes clear:

I demanded freedom for myself and I was prepared to give freedom to others.

Yet the nature of this freedom is only briefly alluded to in a passage concerning his travel writing:

I am shy of making acquaintance with strangers, but I was fortunate enough to have on my journeys a companion who had such an inestimable social gift. He had an amiability of disposition that enabled him in a very short time to make friends with people in ships, clubs, bar-rooms, and hotels, so that through him I was able to get into easy contact with an immense number of persons whom otherwise I should have known only from a distance.

This is a very subtle and low-key tribute to the man who shared his life for 30 years – a relationship which survived and outlasted Maugham’s marriage. Yet, given the legal status of such relationships at the time he was writing, it is undoubtably a sensible one.

No doubt this gift for remaining just outside the spotlights also served Maugham well during his brief intelligence career. Operating in Switzerland and Russia, the man who wrote:

Some of us are so made that there is nothing else we can do… we write because we must

couldn’t resist turning his experiences into stories, crafting a series of adventures for a gentlemanly spy by the name of Ashenden. Ian Fleming, a friend and admirer of Maugham’s, seems to have been inspired by these tales. Enough that in Quantum of Solace – which lent its name if not its plot to the second Daniel Craig Bond film – Fleming has his agent share Ashenden’s disillusionment with the supposedly glamorous life of the fictional spy.

If there is a negative point to this book, it is that so many other interesting works are discussed so engagingly that my ‘to read’ list has seen a large number of new additions. Although he would live a good many years after its publication, there is an air of a man settling his accounts and looking back on a career that has given him much pleasure. The book is enjoyable and illuminating, a fitting testament to a wide-ranging man of letters.

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Hot Reads Part Deux!

I haven’t been away this year, but I have found John Maguire’s mantra of ‘Read, Reflect, Recharge’ to be a sound one, even if applied at home. I have tried to cram in as much quality reading time as possible, made easier as it has almost been too hot to move. Here are a few of the books that found their way into my hands this summer.

kurt vonnegut a man without a country

A Man Without A Country by Kurt Vonnegut

This could be the perfect holiday read as it is a very slender volume. Although that does mean you will read it quickly, there is so much of interest that you will find yourself leafing back through the pages. Part memoir, part ‘state of the world’ treatise, this is Mr Vonnegut at his finest.

I replied that what made being alive almost worthwhile for me, besides music, was all the saints I met, who could be anywhere. By saints I meant people who behaved decently in a strikingly indecent society.

road home

The Road Home by Rose Tremain

There was so much to enjoy in this tale of Lev’s journey from an undefined part of Eastern Europe via homelessness and a celebrity chef’s kitchen in London, to the asparagus fields of Lincolnshire and back again. He is also moving from heartbreak over his wife’s death and the subsequent parting from his small daughter, we hope to something better. The tale was absorbing and the writing beautiful at times.

However, this is let down by the clichés of some of the characters Lev meets – the Irish landlord who’s a drunk with a heart of gold, a terribly represented gay couple – along with the situations that he easily swerves which must surely sink the precarious finances of most economic migrants. I was also stunned by a glossed-over incident between Lev and his estranged girlfriend. It is left ambiguous as to whether it is rape, but it is horribly uncomfortable to read. Despite this, Lev retains his status as a character we are meant to root for. While I wouldn’t regret taking this with me, I would probably leave it behind in the hotel.

our game

Our Game by John le Carré

It is always a dangerous endeavour to begin reading John le Carré before bed as ‘just one more chapter’ soon turns into 1:00 a.m. But it is the holidays, so why not stay up late reading? Twists and turns abound as the Soviet Empire unravels and with it the relationship of two Cold War warriors. There are also some choice views on the futures of ‘The Office’ and the KGB, which le Carré must have been aiming at any critics preparing to cast him as a dinosaur in this new era. Recent events have made this story seem even more prescient, as the author once more leaves the rest of the airport bookshop looking pale by comparison.

under fire

Under Fire by Henri Barbusse

The anniversary of World War I prompted me to pick up this account of a French soldier’s experience of the trenches. Published in 1916, it had the distinction of being one of the first war books and the only one to appear while the conflict remained unresolved. Barbusse was a student of literature before he signed up and it shows in the wildly abstract opening and a scene where his scribbling of notes during a lull attracts the attention of his fellows.

Beset by the constant horrors of attacks, shelling and deaths, the French perspective adds extra weight as many of the men are fighting close to home. A search by the author and a friend of the ruins of the friend’s former village is particularly poignant. There is no better way to mark this dark anniversary than with the words of those who fought and who recognised its futility even as they did.

Don’t forget to tell us about your favourite holiday reads in the comments below!

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Hot Reads!

As the holiday season looms, I find a simple mantra helps me focus on what I am going to do during my two weeks away: Read, Reflect, Recharge. My suitcase is packed for a trip to Rome and now all I need to do is choose the books to read while I am there. Here are four titles that may keep you entertained wherever you are spending your vacation.

& sons

& Sons by David Gilbert

An autopsy of rivalry and emotional pride between a father and son, as well as the son’s relationships with his siblings. You can taste the atmosphere of New York City, the poisons and fluidity of the electric jungle. Gilbert’s tale has been marinated in Philip Roth and Paul Auster, but this is no copycat of the greats. Gilbert’s version of New York City is contemporary and insightful. The American novel continues to evolve!

Dr. Sleep

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Imagine an ice-cube being placed at the top of your back and melting down, a chill right along your spine, that is the overall effect that King has managed to achieve with this crafted tale of horror. This impressive sequel to The Shining ties up lots of loose ends left in the iconic classic.

I fell out of love with Stephen King’s writing at the end of my teenage years. I felt the excellent writing that had petrified me (The Dark Half, Carrie, Salem’s Lot and Misery) had become somewhat diluted, with throwaway novels like The Tommyknockers. Unbeknown to me, King was battling with his own demons, the white worm of cocaine and alcohol addiction.

I was suitably impressed with his pure honesty in the book/biography, On Writing. I was unsure about this sequel, but a testimonial by acclaimed writer Margaret Atwood on the cover prompted me to buy the book. I was not let down. His writing in this story is punchy, superbly edited and so terrifying that the only safe place to read it is on a beach or a sun lounger. Don’t have daymares!

revenge

Revenge by Martina Cole

A symphony of violent gangland shenanigans. I was keen to read this author as her books are bestsellers, but then again McDonald’s is also extremely popular. I did enjoy the book, but I think like McDonald’s, it is best enjoyed every now and then. An ideal easy read with a good pace. There is a lot of repetition of metaphors, but it is a great peep into criminal activity. Although I am so glad I am not a gangster…

Maggie-and-Me-

Maggie and Me by Damian Barr

This is the biography of a gay boy growing up in Scotland in the 1980s. Barr had a tempestuous childhood, which he details in this memoir with a dry sardonic wit.

Anyone in their mid-thirties will instantaneously feel nostalgic throughout, remembering the references to popular culture. (He-man, Dynasty, Artex wall decoration) It also chronicles what life was like in the industrial areas of Britain enduring the changes wrought by Thatcherism. This book was so entertaining and emotionally charged that I read it in one sitting!

Tell us about your favourite beach-side reads in the comments below. And do be careful not to get sunscreen on the pages!

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That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick by Ellin Stein

If they say the best books are like a conversation with the author, then ‘That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick – The National Lampoon and the Comedy Insurgents Who Captured the Mainstream’ by (disclosure: friend of ten minutes hate) Ellin Stein goes one better. A conversation where the author allows you to eavesdrop on some of the funniest men and women America produced in the at times quite dour latter half of the last century.

That's Not Funny That's Sick Ellin Stein

How the Lampooners went from Harvard grads to kings and queens of Hollywood via a steady conquering of print, radio, stand-up comedy, improv theatre, TV and movies, wielding an influence far beyond the things they actually created themselves, is a heck of a tale. Crafted by Ellin Stein and including one-on-one interviews conducted over many years, it is fair to say it crackles off the page, with all the intrigue and derring-do, deal-making and double-crossing you would expect from such a talented gang.

While it seems safe to say that The National Lampoon’s reputation for counter-culture activity was perhaps over-stated – mostly by themselves – the book doesn’t shy away from calling them out on it, quoting one contributing editor’s view that,

It was a commercial venture from the start, and subversion was the product being sold.

The parallels with the music industry are clear and Stein’s narrative is adept at placing the magazine in the context of the politics and culture as the idealistic late ’60s becomes the cynical ’70s and block-busting ’80s. I was reminded of Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, lamenting of the money men:

…they will ruin rock ‘n’ roll and strangle everything we love about it.

It is not always clear if the right subjects were being lampooned, with certain editors claiming that anything and anyone was a legitimate target and still others stating their attempts to work from a ‘base of integrity’. That base was still so firmly rooted in the white, male, college frat-dwelling mindset that the guys had a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact that non-male, non-white, non-Ivy League types could also produce humour. (In case you wondered where present-day Hollywood gets it from…)

In the UK, writers tend to work alone and the teams that are locked in a room until the hilarity is honed are largely unknown to us. Perhaps this adds to the Lampoon mythology and brings it closer to the legendary sporting teams we love to laud. It is clear that what Stein calls the Lampoon’s ‘gym of the intellect’ fostered a competitiveness that spurred some individuals into levels of fame that can be difficult for such sensitive types to contend with. The push and pull between the mercurial types and the ones who have to manage their ‘output’ is painfully and truthfully detailed.

There are some books where the epilogues are to be skipped or glanced at, but not here. As the roll of honour lists, there is not an element of the media that remains untouched by an NL alumni. Not all have remained in comedy, with everything from serious drama to children’s cookery books making use of their talents. Given their starting point in satire it is perhaps strange that so much of mainstream American cultural life wouldn’t exist without them – although perhaps it takes more to erase that Ivy League destiny than growing one’s hair long and lighting a joint…

A fascinating snapshot of the era and a kick up the bum, or ass as our American cousins would say, for creative readers from what must be one of the most prolific groupings of writers and performers ever gathered. They would probably make faces at any use of the word ‘inspirational’, but tough. It is both an inspiration and a real pleasure to listen in on their tales.

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House of Small Shadows by Adam Nevill

I always find reading horror on a sun-soaked beach throws the average tourist. The reality is that I find it is the safest place to indulge in scare tales, as the night terrors can play havoc with my mind. In the small hours a Moroccan lampshade can turn into a dark, cloaked figure ready to drag me off into hell. But at least, I think, I’ve got a lot of friends there.

If looking for a touch of horror on your travels this summer, I would suggest packing a copy of an Adam Nevill or downloading one onto your technological reading device of choice.

House of Small Shadows

Being branded by a credible UK newspaper (that is definitely not The S*n or The Daily Bigotry Mail) as the British Stephen King could intimidate or worry some writers.  Yet Adam Nevill continues to illustrate his literary craftsmanship, particularly with his horror offering. Nevill’s work has everything that makes a story of the supernatural: a dilapidated Victorian house, eccentric inhabitants, noises in the night, a psychologically vulnerable mixed-up protagonist. The Wicker Man meets The League of Gentleman.

Narrator Catherine has left her corporate job in a popular television production company. High-profile bullying saw her fired and forced to leave London to start a new career in a new town. Landing an assignment with huge potential, she is tasked to catalogue the late M H Mason’s eccentric collection of antique dolls and puppets. Mason’s elderly niece invites her to stay at the Red House – both workshop and home of the dead man. It is here that Catherine sees for herself the darkness behind Mason’s unique ‘Art’.

A disturbed imaginative investigation that taps into the innate human fear of puppets. If anyone can say that they can look Mr. Punch up close in the eye and not be freaked out, they are either a liar or a little missing of a few strings themselves.

Mr-Punch

The Red House, like that other infamous horror house Amityville, features as a prominent character in the story. The first description hints at the atmosphere that is flowing through its foundations:

All of the lines of the building pointed to the heavens. Two steep gables and the arch of every window beseeched the sky, as though the great house was a small cathedral indignant at its exile in rural Herefordshire. And despite over a century of rustication among uncultivated fields, the colour of its Accrington brick remained an angry red.

With this tale Neville gives the reader small tasters of the narrative. At the beginning of the book each chapter is miniscule. As the tale unfolds, the chapters become bigger, bursting with syntax and disturbing imagery that totally immerses the reader into the horror on the page.

I suggest reading a tale from this bastion of dark fantasy this summer. Besides you may not be the only person by the pool reading dark materials, I did notice someone dabbling in the Satanic pages of a Katie Price biography and that does indeed fill me with terror, by day or by night.

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From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming

If you have just joined us, the mortal bath and ten minutes hate are respectively re-reading and discovering Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels in chronological order (sort of).

from russia with love coronet book cover

Famous opening lines of novels often get bandied about in lists, but it wasn’t until I read From Russia With Love for the first time that I saw one that seems to have been overlooked among all the truths being universally acknowledged and weighing up of best and worst of times.

The naked man who lay splayed out on his face beside the swimming pool might have been dead.

Having thus garnered your attention, Ian Fleming doesn’t let it wander too far for the next 200 or so pages.  We soon learn that the body might have been, but sadly isn’t, for this formidable not-dead unclothed man is the distinctly non-Russian-sounding Donovan Grant, Chief Executioner of SMERSH, ‘the Soviet organ of vengeance: of interrogation, torture and death’. A few, more detailed, yet taut chapters and we are apprised of the formidable team which that organisation has set against our man Bond. Chess master Kronsteen, the wolf-like cunning of Rosa Klebb and Grant himself, an animalistic turncoat driven to slaughter by the full moon. Not only to kill him, but to tear down his reputation and that of his Service. The trap will be sprung in Istanbul (Fleming having visited the city in 1955 on assignment for The Sunday Times). Bait is in the form of a defecting spy, the young-Greta Garbo-esque Tatiana Romanova and, almost as an afterthought, a Soviet cryptography machine.

The Bond of this book – who doesn’t even appear until Chapter 11 – is a long way from the lithe instrument of Casino Royale. Admitting that he lacks sharpness after a summer cooped up in London, when back in the saddle he misses signs, disregards warnings, misjudges character and places friends, as well as himself, in harm’s way unnecessarily. The intricacy and eccentricity of SMERSH’s plot has been designed by Kronsteen to catch M’s attention, tempt James into danger and leave his body and reputation destroyed, but there is a sense throughout of Fleming poking fun at his creation. He doesn’t hesitate to use Bond’s own proclivities against him, not just the beautiful girl, but the need to ‘be a sport’, ‘see the game through’ and gamble recklessly. Without the protection of Istanbul’s station head and all-round force of nature, Darko Kerim, one suspects that England’s finest wouldn’t have made it out of the airport alive.

Readers drawn towards the softer side of Bond, especially as displayed in previous jaunt Diamonds Are Forever, may feel warmed by the renowned international playboy beginning this follow-up mooning over ex-paramour Tiffany Case:

He missed her badly and his mind still sheered away from the thought of her.

But our protagonist is still operating in less enlightened times. M’s horror at the silliness of women who fall in love with a man’s picture gives way to chuckles over Bond’s Turkish wingman’s chaining of a naked girl to his kitchen table, before Tatiana demands that James beat her if she gets too fat for lovemaking post-defection. What fans of the film may recall as a titillating brawl between two Gypsy women is here much more brutal, although the participants do manage to rip the other’s clothes off at an early stage of the proceedings.

That said, Mr Bond is not quite the unrepentant caveman. There is a definite prominence accorded to the women that hold the fragile Bond together. From housekeeper May as adept with a boiled egg as she is at seeing off Communist agents, to the eternally chaste yet ‘most darling’ Lil Ponsonby, as well as Tatiana herself, who doesn’t let her all-conquering beauty hold her back from offering a warning about the assumed name of the man Bond takes for a fellow agent. The shame is his for how easily it is dismissed. And for all his air of ‘hey, sometimes these decorative non-men can be quite useful’, Fleming can’t take much joy in the slyness of Rosa Klebb. Scheming her way to Head of the Operations Department of the famed, feared, SMERSH and succeeding – where many men have tried and failed – in landing a poisoned blow on Bond, she lets the side down badly in one crucial area:

…the bulge of uniform that rested on the table-top looked like a badly packed sandbag, and in general her figure, with its big pear-shaped hips, could only be likened to a ‘cello.

Growing weary of his secret agent, Fleming had left the ending ambiguous enough for this to be the final Bond if he chose. Perhaps it would have been too much for him to have his man killed off by a hottie.

Despite the certainty of all involved with Her Majesty’s Secret Service that the operation is a trap, its nature and intended denouement remains obscured. Were it not for the executioner’s need, later to become a Bond film cliché, to spill the entire detail of the plot before making use of a weapon, our hero would have died at Grant’s hand none the wiser.

Old man, the story’s got everything. Orient Express. Beautiful Russian spy murdered in Simplon tunnel. Filthy pictures. Secret cipher machine. Handsome British spy with career ruined murders her and commits suicide… what a poke in the eye for the famous Intelligence Service! Their best man, the famous James Bond. What a shambles… What’s the public going to think? And the Government? And the Americans? Talk about security! No more atom secrets from the Yanks.

In the established narrative of post-War spy fiction, Ian Fleming is the hack, writing pulpy genre fiction that doesn’t stint on the girls, guns and gadgets and which pits our brave goodies against clearly distinguishable baddies. Set against him is the literary gent John le Carré, eschewing the clichés of the genre for subtly drawn commentary via characters that dwell in the grey areas. And while Donovan Grant’s crowing at Bond is what the mortal bath calls ‘typically Flemingian showing-off’, with it the author demonstrates that he knows exactly what Bond is and what he and his organisation’s place will be as the cynicism of the Cold War obliterates the idealism of World War II. From Russia With Love is a tight thriller, with no reduction in pace from earlier books. If you were to read just one Bond, I would advise that this be it. John F. Kennedy would no doubt agree. Not least because, for all the perceived glamour of Bond, there is far more overlap with the grey world of the George Smileys than that established narrative would allow for.

*

For a moment he thought nostalgically and unreasonably of the excitement and turmoil of the hot war, compared with his own underground skirmishings since the war had turned cold.

From Russia With Love (1957)

Connie Sachs:     It was a good time back then.
George Smiley:     It was a war, Connie.
Connie Sachs:    A war we could be proud of.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
(from the screenplay filmed in 2012, based on the 1974 book)

It may seem perverse that, when for so many it was impossible to enjoy much of World War II, for a certain type and class of Englishman or woman those six years could be looked back on as a kind of peak.

verywellalone1

The famous David Low cartoon captioned, ‘Very Well, Alone!’, Churchill photographed wielding a Tommy gun, evenings dancing at The Ritz or Savoy as the bombs fell and sirens wailed. When compared to the Weltschmertz of the Cold War and the lost Empire, for some, the War years were an epoch to be quietly mourned.

churchill-met-tommy-gun

Fleming would later say of his wartime intelligence work that:

I could not have had a more interesting time.

Via Bond, he at least notes the unreasonableness of such nostalgia.

At the heart of From Russia With Love is a sleight-of-hand trick, but not the one perpetrated on Bond by SMERSH in revenge for his antics at Royale. It is the one created by Ian Fleming to show an outgunned and under-resourced Mi6 continuing to punch its weight on the world stage. On the page the chaps of the Service will vanquish the foe, when in reality that organisation was chasing its tail as The Cambridge Five affair unfolded. Typical establishment-pillar types, they had sold out their country and its allies to the Soviets, not for money, but due to unseemly ideological convictions. In contrast to the intellectuals and homosexuals (both equally suspicious characteristics to many English people of the time) of the Cambridge Five’s set, fiction gives us the serially heterosexual man-of-action, Bond, and the regularly cuckolded, anonymous Smiley.

Smiley is often called ‘the anti-Bond’, maybe because the coffee in his world is disgusting and the cigarettes are hand-rolled from a tin. Perhaps because le Carré made oft-quoted comments disparaging 007 as an ‘international gangster’ and ‘neo-fascistic’. While this may have been as a result of goading from Malcolm Muggeridge, on closer reading this opposite stance becomes nothing more than lazy sloganeering from reviewers seeking to manufacture a conflict. Neither Bond nor Smiley would be out-of-place in the other’s world, but it is doubtful that Bond would feel entirely at home in the scholarly Circus corridors, where:

…the inspired amateurism of a handful of highly qualified, under-paid men had given way to the efficiency, bureaucracy and intrigue of a large Government department.

Call for the Dead (1961)

Instead Bond would be a ‘headhunter’ in le Carré’s vernacular, kept far away from M or Control and the real policy decisions. A bagman, tasked with the gritty, unacknowledgeable jobs. Ricki Tarr of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, flirting with danger and trying to get away with the girl, is perhaps closer to Bond than the toad-like George. The hand dealt to Alec Leamas of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold provides a portend of Bond’s reduced future options. By his own admission, Bond is out of step with the ‘retired officers of the Indian Army’ that make up his colleagues, unsuited to the deft parry of the Cold War, lamenting the policy shift from stick to

carrots for all… At home and abroad. We don’t show teeth any more – only gums.

Condemnation from literary taste makers began before Fleming’s death and focussed on a perceived sadism, the enjoyment of violence for its own sake. Yet after a fight at close quarters Bond takes time to lament that there has been

too much blood splashing about

and later muses that he

had never killed in cold blood, and he hadn’t liked watching, and helping, someone else do it.

Blunt instrument he may be, but Bond is not without his own moral compass, however far off true north many of us would consider that it points. And though he is supposed to favour gentler methods, Smiley doesn’t prepare for an operation without thinking that he

had a gun somewhere, and for a moment he thought of looking for it. Then, somehow, it seemed pointless. Besides, he reflected grimly, there’d be the most frightful row if he used it.

(Call for the Dead)

Bereft of signature weaponry, Smiley has to utilise the cold currents of the River Thames to off an enemy, who was once a friend. Where the lines were once clearly marked, now no one can be sure where the loyalties of colleagues – or lovers, or spouses – really lie. Darko tells Bond that there is only one way to tell if Tatiana is being duplicitous but even after sleeping with her James remains unsure. Questioning constantly, yet Bond is happy to hand over his loaded gun to someone who talks the talk of the Service, despite his horror at that fellow’s use of ‘old man’ and Windsor knot. In a world of fictional Grants and real-life Philbys and MacLeans, where blending into the background is the key to survival, Bond is perilously visible. The inch-thick file at SMERSH, complete with photographs, would soon see him – like Smiley – pulled out of the field and desk-bound.

And after so many years, in contemplating this latest mission, even loyal servants are not without the occasional wobble:

…what would that youth think of him, the secret agent, the older James Bond? Would he recognise himself beneath the surface of this man who was tarnished with years of treachery and ruthlessness and fear…? What would he think of the dashing secret agent who was off across the world in a new and most romantic role – to pimp for England?

It’s a far cry from the days of The Great Game, as Smiley would probably agree:

Trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves… He saw with painful clarity an ambitious man born to the big canvas, brought up to rule, divide and conquer, whose visions and vanities were all fixed… upon the world’s game; for whom the reality was a poor island with scarcely a voice that would carry across the water.

(Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy)

Perhaps we get the secret agents we deserve. Bond of the books providing a tonic in the post-War bleakness, while by the time of the films London was beginning to swing again, although that was more a case of clever PR than fact of life outside of a select few post codes. It is fun to note that Bond and Smiley are both Chelsea-dwellers, back before SW4 was a fashionable address. Instead it was a sort of proto-Hackney, with reasonable rents and leafy squares amid the half-cleared bomb sites. Home is only somewhere to lay one’s hat, when the pull of foreign shores is a constant itch:

…while he ate, [Bond] gazed down at the cool mirror of the Lake of Geneva. As the pine forests began to climb towards the snow patches between the beautifully scoured teeth of the Alps, he remembered early skiing holidays.

Soon the lights of the French coast came in sight. As he watched, he began to sense vicariously the static life beneath him; the rank smell of Gauloises Bleues, garlic and good food, the raised voices in the bistro.

(Call for the Dead)

For both Fleming and le Carré, life is elsewhere, a decade and change before the Pistols will decry the ‘no future in England’s dreaming’, the narcolepsy is already pulling down the eyelids. The reality of that solo stance against Nazism: only possible due to the financial muscle of the Americans and with total victory unable to hold the Empire together, was a bitter pill forced down by the British Establishment through successive crises of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Facing life as a junior partner of the CIA, in a more subservient position than when they chummily helped him out at Royale, one might surmise that Bond would prefer a quick death at the hands – or foot – of Rosa Klebb while Smiley would choose to end his days in a dusty German library.

Bond’s reading en route to Istanbul is The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler, who himself knew something of the power of the spy novel:

Thrillers are respectable now. Back in the beginning, people weren’t quite that sure about them, but they really say more about the way people think and governments behave than many of the conventional novels. A hundred years from now, if they last, these books may offer some clues to what was going on in our world.

It is interesting to wonder what we would feel about Bond if From Russia With Love had been the last one in the series, as Fleming considered. By the time the Berlin Wall went up Fleming – like M, Control, Smiley and Bond himself – was a relic and from here, Bond’s villains and escapades move further away from the uncomfortable truths of the Cold War. Both writers know that our secret agent fantasies are ludicrous, less casinos and models than drab suburbs and shop girls. So one gives them to us anyway, amplified, while the other downplays them, revealing major themes through everyday banalities. Rather than setting them in opposition, each depiction of the secret warriors should be seen to compliment the other, as essential records of SIS’s journey from Enigma via double agents to NSA intercepts.

James Bond will return… as our review series reaches Dr No… SOON!

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Martin Eden by Jack London

2013 saw STONER by John Williams do something quite impressive.  In a world of tweeting, status updates and Instagrams, consistently steering the modern reader to the Next Big Thing, it proves that there is still room for simple word of mouth, there is still hope for the sleeper hit.

I would like to stand up and shout out, LOVERS OF THE WRITTEN WORD; take a glance at another classic that I feel is still pertinent for today: Jack London’s Martin Eden.

martin eden book

The book was first published in the Pacific Monthly magazine from September 1908 to 1909 and it is essentially a novel about writer’s frustration. The protagonist struggles to rise above his destitute circumstances through self-education, aiming to join the prestigious literary elite. Eden is motivated by his love of Ruth Morse.

An example of a KUNSTLERROMAN, the tale narrates the development of the artist.

Jack london

The author Jack London had a lust for life, his credo was,

I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry rot! I would rather be a superb meteor. Every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy permanent planet. The proper function of man is to live, not to exist, I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them, I shall use my time.

The origins of Martin Eden can perhaps be hinted at in his pamphlet for the Intercollegiate Socialist Society in November 1905,

I had no outlook, but an up look rather.

London cites how he felt he could rise above the colossal edifice of society, through cultivating his mind,

Muscle on the other hand, did not renew. As the shoe merchant sold shoes, he continued to replenish his stock. But there was no way of replenishing the labourers stock of muscle. The more he sold his muscle, the less of it remained to him. It was his one commodity, and each day his stock of it diminished. In the end, if he did not die before, he sold out and put up his shutters. He was a muscle bankrupt, and nothing remained to him but to go into the cellar of society and perish miserably. I learned, further, that brain was likewise a commodity. It too was different from muscle. A brain seller was only at his prime when he was fifty or sixty years old, and his wares were fetching higher prices than ever. But a labourer was worked out or broken down at forty-five or fifty. I had been in the cellar of society and I did not like the place as a habitation. The pipes and drains were unsanitary, and the air was bad to breathe. If I could not live on the parlour floor of society, I could at any rate, have a try at the attic. It was true, the diet there was slim, but the air at least was pure. So I resolved to sell no more muscle, and to become a vendor of brains.

STONER is a fantastic book and I would recommend all to read, but also indulge yourself with MARTIN EDEN. Sandpaper-voiced singer-songwriter, Tom Waits, references the novel on his 1974, Saturday Night album track, SHIVER ME TIMBERS, he drawls,

I know Martin Eden is going to be a-proud of me.

It would be a sin not to enjoy these books in your lifetime, besides who wants to be a passionless person in the pursuit of passionless intelligence? Please don’t take my word for it though, read it yourself.

If it’s good enough for Tom Waits, well then, it’s good enough for me.

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