Mount Helicon Revue

Crude book surgery

Mario and the Magician – Thomas Mann (1929)

An unusual little work of literature; I can say certainly I have never read anything quite like it.

Again: many apologies (if anyone is even following this) for not having written again in months. Since that time, I have come down with a mild obsession with Thomas Mann. Beginning with Buddenbrooks (1901) which I didn’t finish because I was looking for something a little intellectually meatier, I began reading The Magic MountainA magnificent work – art in the truest sense – it manages to reconcile Modernism and Realism with what is clearly the sheer but gentle power of a mind that’s like a blast furnace of intellect and a sweet, flowery meadow at the same time.

Before starting on my next Mann selection (Joseph and his Brothers), I read two works by the great, but not hugely well known author and philosopher (mystic?) Dmitry Merezhkovsky (alt. sp. Merejcovsky) who was quite an influence on Mann, particularly as he was writing Joseph. I recommend him too, and perhaps I’ll write a short review on the two-thirds of his Christ-Anti-Christ trilogy that I managed to find in English.

Mario and the Magician is another book, or rather a long short story that manages to alloy the grotesque with what starts as a simple story of a family holiday: the narrator (presumably Mann, but let’s not make assumptions) is on a holiday in an Italian resort on the Riviera. The holiday is unpleasant, and the locals inhospitable. Towards the end, Narrator and his wife decide to take their young children – after their persistent nagging – to see a magic show by a well-known stage magician, the conjurer Cipolla. The evening is long, uncomfortable, unsettling, and ends in murder.

Well known for being an attack on fascism, Mann again manages to craft something incisive and insightful; a very intelligent if (in the author’s own opinion) unsubtle piece of work. The only thing that I could think to say against this wonderful little piece is the one thing that I can say against all his work: it appeals almost wholly to the mind, the intellect. That’s not to say they are dry and inhuman – far from it – but be prepared to dust off your brain. As a short work, it’s quite long, as much of Mann’s writing is, but an excellent introduction to his style.

If more people read Thomas Mann today, the world would be significantly more understanding and fit for human life.

“Yes we assured them, that was the end. An end of horror, a fatal end. And yet a liberation – for I could not, and I cannot, but find it so.”

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The Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas (1845)

My, my. It’s been a while.

There’s something special about finishing a long novel. Upon the final page, all the time spent culminates in a feeling of a satisfaction that can only really be gleaned from reading books. And Dumas’ epic is certainly long. The unabridged edition I read hit over 850 pages of microscopic type. A few books I pick up of my shelf on an impulse, and read the beginnings, usually whilst I’m devouring some other literature. I don’t finish these books. But I could never bring myself to leave this one unfinished.

This book certainly is a classic of story-telling. I think everyone is at east somewhat familiar with the plot. A young sailor, Edmond Dantes, looking forward to tying the knot with the love of his life and providing for his ailing father, as well as promotion to captain, alights from his cargo ship in Marseilles toward the end of the Napoleonic wars. But it seems some who call themselves his friends are against him, and envy, jealousy and hatred drive them to frame Dantes for treason, and the ambitious young magistrate ignores the evidence against prosecution and makes an example of him. Dantes is locked away in a dungeon for 14 years.

Inside, he learns of the treachery, and of the incalculable fortune hidden away on the island of Monte Cristo. Armed with more money than anybody would know what to do with and his keen wits, he begins to exact his terrible and highly elaborate plot of vengeance, under the guise of the Count of Monte Cristo.

The abridged versions are the ones I presume most people, including children read. A beautiful story it is, though, without spoiling anything, I never expected such a dark ending from such a rich and colourful novel. Another thing: speaking to most people about this book or any long novel, they seem put off by the length, something that’s always frustrated me because it seems like utter laziness. No excuse here: you can’t put it down or stop turning pages.

Put down your new paperback edition to the Great Gatsby with the picture of Leo on the front cover – now – buy/borrow/steal a copy, and learn what beauty and storytelling really is.

“Here is your final lesson – do not commit the crime for which you now serve the sentence. God said, Vengeance is mine.”

Smiley’s People – John Le Carré (1979)

Rarely is a trilogy (albeit in this case a loosely applied term) consistently terrific with each installment. We can find this to be the case with, for example, with Back to the Future and Lord of the Rings. Yet even the greatest minds and figures of art and literature can be accused of making crappy sequels, even those such as Milton or Dante. Le Carré seems to have outdone them in this respect.

The final part of the “Karla” trilogy, smaller in (geographical) scope than it’s predecessor, The Honourable Schoolboy, manages to focus in and nail precisely the overwhelming theme – at least in my opinion – of these novels: that of humanity in an inhuman world, that surreal secret dimension of international espionage.

Beginning with murder – both accomplished and attempted – the story sees, once more, Smiley called up out of retirement to find the killers of a defected Soviet General, also the leader of an Estonian émigré group in Western Europe. Following a trail of clues, he finds the breadcrumbs all lead right back to Karla, an almost mythical Soviet spymaster, with whom Smiley has a personal score to settle.

The “good” guys always win in the end. We know George Smiley, our favourite frumpy spy, must triumph over Karla. But what Le Carré gives us – beyond a fantastic Chandleresque detective story – is wonderment at how this is accomplished, and at what cost, material, emotional, and of course, moral. In the end, we wonder if Smiley has sold his soul for the satisfaction of his obsessive and vengeful search for his Soviet counterpart.

It is a much simpler story than before, less political, much less technical, but much more human. Once again Le Carré transcends the genre to the heights of classic literature. Smiley’s People will entice generations to come.

“‘George. Bless you. You’ve been a brick.'”

The Honourable Schoolboy – John Le Carré (1977)

After reading Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I became totally enamoured with Le Carré’s particular brand of espionage novel. So I set out to try to read the entire ‘Karla’ trilogy. I do not regret a minute’s effort expended doing this. The Honourable Schoolboy is the second in the trilogy, and perhaps the least pertinent to the hunt for Karla: a shady Russian spymaster and antipode to the protagonist, George Smiley (a character who has enjoyed incarnation by Sir Alec Guinness and Gary Oldman).

The novel’s comings and goings revolve around the appointment of Smiley as the new head of ‘The Circus’, aka MI6, and an operative in his employ, Jerry Westerby. Westerby, the Honourable Schoolboy, is sent to the turbulent climes of South East Asia in search of a KGB money laundering operation with supposed links to Karla. Between Tuscany, where Jerry is pulled out of retirement, and the bittersweet climax on an island in the Hong Kong archipelago, we’re treated to a fantastic ride across a region torn apart by war and the puppeteering of powerful men.

A little more complex and wider in scope than Tinker, Tailor, Le Carré attacks with subtlety and poise the manipulations and dirty dealings of not only Western governments in the region, but the native bigwigs themselves. We see Cambodian villagers struggle for survival in a countryside ripped to shreds by the Khmer Rouge, when not hours ago we were at the races, or a fashion show, attended by all the big movers and shakers of Hong Kong.

Beyond thematic content, the story and characters are wonderfully crafted. I have always loved Le Carré’s ability to populate his world with fascinating characters, like Mexican drug runners, profligate hedonistic bankers, and particularly his original take on the femme fatale. But at the very core, lies his propensity for magnificent story telling. I couldn’t stop turning pages.

Stay tuned for the next in the series, Smiley’s People.

“Wives?” she asked, interrupting him. For a moment, he had assumed she was turning to the novel. Then he saw her waiting, suspicious eyes, so he replied cautiously, ‘None active,’ as if wives were volcanoes.”

Ubik – Phillip K. Dick (1969)

My hair is so dry, so unmanageable. What’s a girl to do? Simply rub in creamy Ubik hair conditioner. In just five days you’ll discover new body in your hair, new glossiness. And Ubik hairspray used as directed is absolutely safe.

Phillip K. Dick’s strange, dreamlike vision of an alternate future was my first spelunk into science fiction in a very long time. And what a spelunk it was. Diving right in, my first feelings were simply those of curiosity, and that singular excitement of beginning a new book, of exploring virgin territory. When I came to, several hours later, I found myself halfway through a novel of paranoia, fear, and conspiracy, involved in weird visions of a future not totally devoid of a sense of humour (particularly funny was the casts’ wardrobe. Read the book and you’ll see what I mean.)

Dick explores the line between life and death, using the idea of the cold-pac body preservation system. With this system, a person can be kept in a kind of temporary  ‘half-life’, and with certain devices, it is possible to communicate with a person preserved in such a way. At first, the line between life and death is clear. Glen Runciter, the boss of a prudence organisation – a company that employs people to negate the abilities of telepaths – wishes to speak to his wife Ella, preserved in a Zurich moratorium. Then he is killed by a competitor. Or is he? Dick begins to blur the line; it quickly becomes unclear who is alive, who is being played by telepaths and time-manipulators, and who is dead.

And that is the wonder of this book, the way Phillip K. Dick expertly manages to pull off this blurring, the way he can manage – without any overwrought flourishes or pretension – to utterly draw you into a surreal fantasy world. In the end, our only salvation is Ubik. Entirely harmless if used as directed.

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The Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett (1930)

Hardboiled detective fiction is one of those fantastic fleeting genres that’s had its peak, put still manages to enthrall generations later, much like rockabilly, or swing jazz. Even when I was a child I knew the grit-lined face of the private investigator, as he chased clues across a dark, dirty city, a place where morality doesn’t apply. Hammett, with his Maltese Falcon surely is the godfather of the genre.

With its incredible stylishness, the novel manages yet to retain grit and substance. Sam Spade rolls a smoke, lights it, pulls down his hat, and gets to work. Slapping and smart-mouthing his way through the fog of San Francisco, he finds himself caught up in a vortex of greed and deceit, with the mysterious artifact, the coveted Maltese falcon. It all starts when that Wonderly broad walks into his office. From then on, as they say it’s all history.

The larger-than-life characters and what would seem like clichés to the modern reader (Hammett invented those clichés) don’t take any of the edge off the novel. The greed and murder, the darkest parts of the soul still come through. Spade, the protagonist, is no white night either. It’s only appropriate that whenever we think of the 1930s detective, it’s always in black and grey. The Maltese Falcon is about the hardest you can get without burning your eggs.

“‘Shoo her in, darling,’ Spade said. ‘Shoo her in.'”

The immortal, inexorable Humphrey Bogart as Detective Sam Spade in the Warner Bros.’ The Maltese Falcon (1941).

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight – Vladimir Nabokov (1941)

Lolita seemed like a trite and frequently stomped path into the world of Nabokov’s writing, so I set out with Pnin (1957), which I found lying at home. Pnin’s neighbour was Sebastian Knight, which I decided to read next.

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is, like many of Nabokov’s novels, a Rubik’s cube, or perhaps a much more appropriate metaphor would be a collection of chess problems. By the author’s incredible genius, each character is brought to life. But this creates deliberate problems for us. Each character has their own agenda, each has a fallible memory, their own insecurities, and varying attitudes to V., our narrator, and to his half-brother Sebastian Knight. It is up to us to decide our own attitude toward Knight, with what scraps we are given, some or maybe none of which are true.

Ultimately, we end up learning more about the narrator, V., who is endeavouring to write a biography of his late beloved half-brother. We follow his quest for informants, people who were close to Knight, his loves, his awful previous biographer and secretary. We’re told very little of V.’s actual life, but his interactions, his memories, and the way he twists these about him give us much more than an autobiography could. In the end we can never find the true Sebastian Knight. Perhaps there never was such a one.

“I am Sebastian or Sebastian is I, or perhaps we both are someone whom neither of us knows.”

The Sot-Weed Factor – John Barth (1960)

It can be rather difficult to find novels, particularly ones weighing in at 800 pages of microscopic type, that can be an entertainment as well as food for thought. John Barth’s epic on the colonisation of Maryland and the loss of innocence is just such a work.

We begin with an introduction to our hero, Ebenezer Cooke, a Londoner, a young Cambridge drop-out, and aspiring poet-laureate, whose father sends him to oversee his tobacco plantation in Maryland in an attempt to make a man of him. With great difficulty, he has maintained his innocence and virginity intact, as he believes a great poet ought to.

Among the vivacious, lying, cheating, intensely aroused (and occasionally arousing) cast are Eben’s tutor, whores, pirates, scoundrels, pimps, understandably vexed natives, slaves, and sea captains. Packed with wonderful, colourful digressions and tales (and also philosophical discussion) that, at first, seem simply to be just for fun, eventually fall into a snug place like hogsheads o’ sot-weed in a ship’s hold.

Thematically, the book addresses ideas of savagery vs. civilisation. What do such things mean in a place where the “savages” are just as brutal as the colonisers? One way Barth expounds his ideas is with stories of sex and rape. There is a lot, a lot, of rape, and forceful attempts at virtue. Other ideas masterfully explored are conceptions of innocence and identity.

If I may be self-indulgent, one of my favourite scenes in the book is, when, kept aboard a pirate’s ship, Ebenezer discovers John Smith’s fictional Privie Journall. Upon it is written the tale (among other things) of Pocahontas (which in her own language means “Little Whore”). Barth’s utterly unflattering and wry portrayal of John Smith as a self-serving, arrogant hypersexual, and Pocahontas as a Lolita-esque horny teenage girl, brought an incredibly wry smile to my face. Incidentally, for those reading this who don’t know, I hate Disney films. Also, I very much enjoyed the use of the verb “swive”.

Certainly a Rabelaisian affair, (just how I like ’em) John Barth’s maniacal and exuberant epic, where nothing is ever as it seems, is fun for the whole family, except the children.

“Is man a savage at heart, skinned o’er with fragile Manners? Or is savagery but a faint taint in the natural man’s gentility, which erupts now and again like pimples on an angel’s arse?”

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – John le Carré (1974)

Genre fiction, spy novels, fantasy and the like, perhaps suited to the umbrella term of “escape fiction” have never held a place in my heart. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy isn’t a mere espionage thriller of the standard cut. It uses the genre to go beyond, to transcend, and ask questions with difficult answers.

This is the first le Carré novel I’ve ever read. His novels are often contrasted with the James Bond series by critics, and I will do so here because it demonstrates with ease the flavour of le Carré’s very special brand of espionage thrillers. George Smiley, the protagonist is the polar opposite of James Bond. Pudgy, short, old, with a marriage on the rocks. Instead of leaping from helicopters and away from explosions and spouting one-liners, the characters (the majority of whom are middle-aged men) sit (or stand) and talk. The look at each other, and try to read each other. Tinker, Tailor reads like a commentary of a game of poker.

It’s not just a diverting thriller. It questions the morality of what these spies do and why they do it. Indeed, I often asked myself why. They don’t seem to be spying “for Great Britain”. It feels personal. And it is. This book left me thinking, asking questions, and perhaps it’ll do the same for you. A dark, paranoid, twisted, yet thoughtful tale of espionage, from the Raymond Chandler of the genre.

“The more identities a man has, the more they express the person they conceal.”

Tristram Shandy – Laurence Sterne (1767)

It’s rare to find a book (let alone read one) so full of warmth, friendliness, and gentle humour. Sterne’s Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman confesses to all of these qualities. The tone and style the original anti-novel stands alone in the world of Western literature, which has made the book a classic.

Of course, Tristram Shandy is known for turning convention on its head, then defenestrating it from the 5th floor. There is no plot as such, and it seems as though Shandy (who is the narrator) has set out to write an autobiography, but he barely gets past his own birth by the end of the book. Frequent digressions into almost everything imaginable pervade the book, but mostly lead to fun anecdotes about his father’s strange opinions, and his Uncle Toby’s shenanigans.

Another thing that stands out, and has become a huge influence on literature, particularly amongst the post-modernists, is the self-relfexive and self-aware quality of the novel. The book knows it is a book, and Sterne (via Tristram Shandy’s narration) comments and ponders on the nature of reading, and what a book is exactly, making it a wonderful early example of metafiction. Sometimes chapters will be a sentence long. Sometimes chapters will be blank. Sometimes Tristram will remember that he’s diverted from the main narrative (if there even is one) and will begin talking about why he has done this.

Everything considered, this is certainly one of the masterpieces and cornerstones of the Western canon, a fantastic novel, on the unfortunate life, and friendly opinions of Tristram Shandy, gentleman.

“But of all the names in the universe, he had the most unconquerable aversion for Tristram.”

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