Mount Helicon Revue

Crude book surgery

Month: November, 2012

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).

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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.”

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