Does one thing, and does it extremely well: the secret agent on-the-run, desperately out-thinking his pursuers. (This is the version 1.o agent-- the fDoes one thing, and does it extremely well: the secret agent on-the-run, desperately out-thinking his pursuers. (This is the version 1.o agent-- the film here is in black & white-- whose allegiances are not so much to a secret service or government, but to values and standards, hard lines that cannot be crossed without response).
Breakneck speed, some of the best chase across-open-heath material around, and a master class in outwitting the unseen stalker. Geoffrey Household is of the John Buchan school of clever, two-fisted protagonists and fight/flight suspense outings that are as invigorating and breathless as being chased by a lion. You will never again encounter the expression 'ran them to ground' in quite the same way.
My advice is to load this on an eBook, to accompany your next weekend business conference; pretend to make notes as you read, and watch the braindead motivational talks and datapoint presentations disappear-- with a satisfying "THWACK!" ...more
Once in awhile the planets seem to align around a work of fiction that seems designed for the reader that you are. William Gerhardie's The Polyglots,Once in awhile the planets seem to align around a work of fiction that seems designed for the reader that you are. William Gerhardie's The Polyglots, a 1925 chronicle of the elliptical lives of various western expatriates, living in the far east, seemed ... perfect. If there was doubt, Olivia Manning and Graham Greene are on hand to offer their recommendations. We get the basics in the very first lines of the book :
I stood on board the liner halted in midstream and looked upon Japan, my native land. But let me say at once that I am not a Japanese.
So all signs point toward an exotic stage, set for intrigue and drama but with a dash of humor: expatriates in the far east, intricate adventures in the age of ocean liners. Mostly centered in the internationalized Chinese city of Harbin, the novel attempts to illustrate the wide range of nationalities present via individual characters and their mixed interactions. Harbin had been put on the map as a major terminus on the Siberian Railway, and became a strategic entity in the Russo-Japanese war; later the first World War and the Russian Revolution populated the city with all kinds of exiles from lingering Japanese military to White Russian refugees, and a few dozen varieties of European. The culture clash potential appears to be unlimited.
Our narrator is an English national, born in Japan and raised in Russia; as his tale develops, we find him earnest though muddled, ambitious, rambling, shamelessly narcissistic. A mirror perhaps of the similarly multi-national author, Oxford schooled, son of privilege and circumstance.
And the novel is pretty much of a muddle too. There are good ideas here--Gerhardie wants to map the multiple forces at hand, and sets himself to the task. There are the nationalist/nativist civil ones in the lateral plane, pervasive class struggle in the vertical plane, and all shot through with ethnic misunderstanding and conflict in microcosm-- in the interactions of his characters. The high aspirations here -- Nationality As Delusion, liaisons and ententes magnificent apparitions, dreams in the shadow of the War and Versailles -- fall unfortunately short.
What come across initially as the rambling and disconnected incidents of a credulous young man, occasionally daft, perfect, endearing-- begin to wear on the reader. Even his featherheaded (and more likeable) girlfriend has to continually tell him he's boring her or, often enough, "people are able to hear you". That the book itself is clearly a grouping of cut and paste journal entries matters less to the reader than the inevitable 'philosophic' asides of the narrator. Which are longish, tedious 'why are we here really' detours into the disjointed requirement of youth : the sought-after Certainty that even when sighted, never seems to stay put. (As mentioned, this book was well received by all the right people in its day; my only guess is that the many Holden Caulfield why-must-it-be-so moments were rooted in that day, and seemed necessary then, perhaps less juvenile and more striving for meaning.)
A really strange aspect of the book is Gerhardie's insistence on providing place and atmosphere almost exclusively through character; rather than allowing much if any local color, he's intent on the attitudes it may surround. Just for example, this excerpt is a rare dip into that palette, mainly remarkable for its rarity and the fact that it works so well:
From the many lighted candles the room had become very hot. Beyond the drawn curtains, Harbin was eclipsing into twilight, amid cries of Mongol drivers and the sound of cracking whips, the sense of two rival civilizations bordering on each other, the piercing wind sweeping the barren, naked streets, raising clouds of cold dust, and the town mercilessly cold but snowless, miserable, like a sleepless sufferer or a tearless heart.
Beautiful! But by the end of the paragraph he's back at the whipping post: "Oh, why must we live?" he wonders. "Whom are we pleasing?" ... that sort of thing, yet again. (Not the reader, I'll guess.) The last quarter of the book is a welcome reprieve from the conflict of exotic-locale and no-detail-offered. On the way out of China and then in the long voyage back to England we are given all that was withheld for the majority of the book: dramatic, contrastingly detailed atmosphere, gathered along the old coaling station route from Hong Kong through the Suez to London, in the era between the wars, a picture of another universe.
Could he not see from a Chinese city what could more easily be observed from the promenade deck of a liner, pen to tablet and cocktail at hand..? My only guess is that when you are young, you are drawn by the bright, the sparkling, the dramatic or clashing element, whereas it takes the remove of age, or of an intervening steam liner-- to provide the distance to observe the grander scheme. _______________
Looking back at this I realize I have given little room to what Gerhardie was actually trying for, in his character-based contemplation of the likeness and unlikenesses of his actors, their emotional truths, as compared to their geographic/ historical/ political ones... But it doesn't hold-- it is as much like saying isn't it interesting that some people blink their eyes when they're lying-- when in fact they're standing in a burning building. (That there may be a compelling drama there, liars in burning buildings, is something for a Beckett perhaps, but is not what Gerhardie is able to do.)
"The Gypsy Bar was usually our late night hangout. The patron and the girls knew us well, and knew that we would drink freely and surely stay till f
"The Gypsy Bar was usually our late night hangout. The patron and the girls knew us well, and knew that we would drink freely and surely stay till four or five in the morning. The girls of the place collected at our table, and indulged in their Burgundian and Rabelaisian humors. Jeannette, a big draught-horse of a girl from Dijon, pranced about like a mare in heat and restrained no remark or impulse which came to her. Alys, sweet and pretty blonde, looked fragile and delicate, but led Jeannette to bawdier vulgarities of speech and action. [James] Joyce, watching, would be amused, but surely there came a time when drink so moved his spirit that he began quoting from his own work or reciting long passages of Dante in rolling and sonorous Italian. I believed that Joyce might have been a priest upon hearing him recite Dante as though saying mass..."
As an affluent influence in the penniless bohemian world of Literary Paris in the twenties, Robert McAlmon was in no danger of having to dine alone. Or of being turned down when it was time for someone to buy a round of drinks. He rose to the occasion every time, it seems.
McAlmon was the sponsor and friend of many in the colorful underworld that included Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Djuna Barnes, and Joyce. Having the wherewithal to enable various one-off and start-up publishing schemes, he found himself in constant demand, and morphed into a would-be-author-turned-publisher. Gertrude Stein, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Wyndham Lewis were all apt to be present at any given dinner party. Notably McAlmon would travel and drink with Hemingway, throughout his Spanish bullfight obsession, during some of that crucial decade.
Hard to pin down just what went on during that storied era, but McAlmon seems to have been best friend, womanizer, cocktail aficionado, observer and writer all in one; he ended up typing the last fifty pages of Joyce's Ulysses for the eyesight impaired author-- the Molly Bloom chapter-- when an accident destroyed the original. McAlmon freely admits he may possibly have juggled some of the elements there, but as he was Joyce's drinking pal, it's not an archiving error but a toss of the dice: "Molly might just as well think this or that a page or two later, or, not at all," he ventured.
Even with that level of drama unfolding, Robt E. Knoll's McAlmon And The Lost Generation manages to be a rough and uneven trip through a chronically disorganized life, lurching from literary scandale to McAlmon's irregular prose efforts and back. McAlmon wrote short stories that were at best heartfelt, nostalgic, and here Knoll fumbles in trying to tie them to the frenetic Parisian circumstances that would later claim their author's time, money, and youth. McAlmon died in obscurity and what Knoll has assembled here doesn't really solve the mystery of how it all came to be. ...more
... I woke up next morning in the police station without a centime. I had a splitting headache and I must have been dumped in some gutter, for my clot ... I woke up next morning in the police station without a centime. I had a splitting headache and I must have been dumped in some gutter, for my clothes were filthy. This adventure made me unreasonably indignant. Paris had betrayed me, I felt. It had treated me like a common tourist. The city wasn't friendly, as I'd imagined. It was a nest of cheap, cold-blooded crooks. I suddenly hated it. Two days later, I'd left for Germany. Berlin was a complete contrast. Outwardly, it was graver, stiffer and more formal; inwardly, it was far more lurid and depraved. For a runaway puritan, it was a more congenial refuge than Paris, because it recognized vice, and cultivated it in all its forms with humorless Prussian thoroughness.
But that persona, of course, is the very-young Isherwood, a last sip of vintage youthful decadence, the Isherwood whose exploits in the field of human relations we are familiar with. The change in The World In The Evening is that this is the man who has come on in life since the infamous Berlin stories, not such an avid student anymore. But not very much wiser, either.
It's a stretch to call this a novel, since it seems almost entirely a remixed memoir. By various contrivances and devices, reminiscence, flashback, letters and postcards, this book proceeds thru the travels of the European expat wandering the world after the continent becomes unsafe. We are confronted at all turns with personal drama, love affairs with both sexes, love gone wrong and the larger scheme of the world going wrong, on the eve of the war.
The conflict for this reader is that this is generally not my cup of tea; try as they may, English reserve and tidy prose still don't make up for purple-ish situations; soap opera is soap opera. A novel doesn't have to wrack its brains to present real life, although this one does; a novel can stand alone as its own separate reality. This one chooses not to.
But Isherwood is still able to stand outside the gush, as he has proven in his earlier work. There is something beyond just the standoffish with this author, that takes the reader along any path he chooses, knowing it is only for the moment, and there will be deeper currents as time goes on. This is at its most difficult here, where the protagonist is adrift in the whirl of an age that hasn't made any sense of anything except antagonism.
For the record, this may be the actual origin of the spiritualist in Isherwood, and there are just the beginnings of that in this book. We will see more of it in future books, but he's trying, without being so awfully Somerset-Maughamish, to grapple with it here.
Lovely moments, appalling emotional outbursts, a wandering scheme. Overall a three-star novel, but in the context, and because he convinces rather than caters to the crowd or plays at magic tricks, another free star. ...more
The kind of felicity to which the Blue Train conveyed you, as it let you off at Marseilles or Toulon or Cannes or Nice or Monte Carlo, whence you coulThe kind of felicity to which the Blue Train conveyed you, as it let you off at Marseilles or Toulon or Cannes or Nice or Monte Carlo, whence you could go on to the Italian Riviera, to Rapallo and all the way down to the Amalfi Coast, seemed novel in the 20’s. It seems novel no longer because those places have provided the model for the décor and atmosphere of successful international tourism ever since. Wherever exported and transplanted out of Europe—to Turkey, Mexico, even the USSR—the style is the same, involving beach and sun, bright colored aperitifs at little tables outdoors, copious fish and shellfish to eat, folk or popular music played on string instruments, cheap drinkable local wine, much use of oil (olive for cooking, suntan for browning), all in a setting of colored architecture and “colorful” street markets. A maximum exposure of flesh guarantees a constant erotic undertone, and a certain amount of noise (Vespas, children shouting on the beach) provides a reassurance of life and gaiety. There must be colorful fishermen and boat-people, playing boules or something like it. There must be love on top of the sheets after the large wine lunch, with occasional hints of Roman Catholicism (processions, the locals attending early mass, the public blessing of fishing vessels) just sufficient to lend the whole frivolous operation a slight air of wickedness. - Paul Fussell
At the brighter end of my shabby, dark, westerly block of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, the great ship’s horns of enormous ocean liners could be heard on Sundays, disturbingly deep and resonant, signaling imminent departure in waves of subterranean bass fundamentals. This was in the early 1980’s. Without the slightest indication of direction or itinerary, this sound conveyed untold potential, an uncharted world of possibility, a signal that the high seas awaited and might carry you away if you would only step aboard in time. Where to, exactly? Well, somewhere distant, places perhaps confoundingly hard to understand, perhaps clinging to another era-- somewhere abroad.
I’m not sure it would work that way, or so well, for someone not immersed in the Travel literature with which we’re concerned in this book. Period Travel. Something like distilled spirits that have to remain in the cask until old and nearly forgotten.
”Probably, as Thomas Pynchon never went to Valletta or Kafka to America, it’s best to imagine your own foreign country. I wrote a very good account of Paris before I ever went there. Better than the real thing.” - Anthony Burgess
Abroad was always a little further away yesterday than it is today, and yet we yearn for it to be much further tomorrow. Our relation to somewhere-far-away is always receding, it seems. It’s worth considering that at one time, only about a century or so back, most of the people on the planet had never travelled anywhere at all. Before that, tales of adventure and mishap in distant places were nearly always magical tales of enchanted spells. The Odyssey seems nicely emblematic of that pattern; and a convenient place to begin. Paul Fussell’s book takes the long view into account before delving into the specifics of his topic, namely the genteel, writerly traveler’s books that came out of Britain between the wars in the last century.
“Arrived Venice. Streets full of water. Please advise.” - Robert Benchley
The travel book of the twenties and thirties fairly marked the trail for the genre, and arguably set up templates for the era that really couldn’t be surpassed in the decades to come; a jaunt to far-flung worlds back then was nearly a 5o-5o bet on returning at all, at least in any kind of health or wealth that resembled the traveler’s original condition. Subsequent decades would shrink the world, down to safe or no-go zones, down to spheres of influence, avenues of commerce or security. It would never again be safe for someone like Peter Fleming to set out on a trek to deep Sinkiang in the wastes of Chinese Turkestan-- as if it ever really was. At least in the twenties there was No Man’s Land, rather than everything everywhere being a Disputed Territory.
Fussell argues that intuitive travel writers were so very disenfranchised by the First World War that ‘abroad’ would at very least offer an alternative to the England that wasted a generation of its youth in the trenches. W.H. Auden seems a fair example.
””In your early works, there seems to be a fierceness towards England. There’s a sense of being at war with where you are.” To which Auden answered crisply, “Yes, quite.””
But the anxieties of world conflict were only formalized after the war, as international travel became possible once again; the significance of redrawn borders and uneasy new frontiers was now underlined, everywhere significant of the fracturing of the modern outlook. Fussell finds irony in that the search for certainties outside the boundaries of the home country only exaggerated the disjointed, dissociated world of the dawning Twenties. The Modern era was on, and jarring juxtaposition was no longer the notable exception, but was now nearly the rule.
“The taste for quotations, and for the juxtaposition of incongruous quotations—is a Surrealist taste.” - Susan Sontag
What were charming anomalies—the adults here stay up all night in bistros, then sleep away the afternoon!--the children here dive off the cliffs!-- that could be brought home as travel tales of the ‘foreign scene’--had become collages or quotations that clashed, even reflected inconsistencies in the traveler’s own ethos. Probably what we’d call mash-up, where high meets low and new conceptions undermine accepted ideology. In fiction, think perhaps of A Passage To India, or Brideshead Revisted; not travel tales, but of a similar design to what Forster or Waugh or Maugham were also doing with travel books. Culture clash and oblique or cubist perspective would concern literature more than travel books, but frequently the writers were the same, and the concerns were too. The writers who simultaneously produced both-- Greene, Isherwood, Auden, Maugham, Waugh—were held by the same forces, or force fields, inherent in both. The novels were informed by the travel, and the trips taken under auspices of writing travel books along the way.
Other writers were also combining two professions in one itinerary. The author acknowledges the fact that the splintered world between the wars offered more than a few opportunities for Britain’s Secret Service to send their hunter-gatherers out on the world circuit, both to write witty travelogues on critical locations as well as to bring back maps and actionable intelligence, in case of conflict. Fussell writes, “One assumes [Peter] Fleming was, for he was a loyal, philistine, and uncomplicated young man with an impenetrable façade, perfect material for MI-5, as his subsequent success in intelligence work in China and India during World War Two would suggest...” Maugham had been an intelligence agent too, and of course Fleming’s younger brother Ian also had two careers. But this is another story.
”The reader of traveler’s tales is a curious fellow, not easily fooled. He is never misled by facts which do not assort with his knowledge. But he does love wonders. His faith in dragons, dog-headed men, bearded women, and mermaids is not what it used to be, but he will accept good substitutes.” - H.M. Tomlinson
What characterized the Brit travel narrative of the 2o’s and 3o’s was no mere collection of cultural anomaly, nor was it the paradox of the culture-clash they found, from Rebecca West in Black Lamb Grey Falcon to Patrick Leigh Fermor in his A Time Of Gifts, but the parallel elucidation of what they compared it all to, what kind of understanding or empathetic reaction they could bring. And layered underneath was first and crucially an England on the verge of transformation. Losing its empire through benign neglect or anachronistic colonial mania, looking to understand itself and the new century through which all nations would be changed. For an empire that spanned the globe, on which the sun never set, the intuitive writers that travelled in the early century were writing a “coming of age” account, even though they might not know it. And the coming of age, of course, was turbulent and embittered the participants. The empire would vanish, but the signs and portents are already there years ahead, in the books.
Fussell’s book would seem a light read, comprised as it is of quotes, italics, and an overample supply of erudition. There is nowhere near the amount of behind-the-scenes detail that might have been. (But the reader wonders how there could be, the books are out there, locked in, forever. For this reader, that is their beauty, their period-precise nature.) He concentrates on Robert Byron, D.H. Lawrence and Evelyn Waugh pretty heavily. “Abroad” is more a survey than a study, though; and while the author wants to be as panoramic and breezy as the original writers, a little more depth would have done no harm. For the sweep, the breeze and view of the horizon—we can go to the originals.
By the conclusion, Fussell manages to pull it out of the vague-overview category, though. It’s not really a stretch to say that by opening up the category’s concerns, he gets to the heart of it.
”To emphasize the presence of the essay element in the travel book is to risk not noticing sufficiently this genre’s complex relation to adjacent forms which also require two words to designate them: war memoir, comic novel, quest romance, picaresque romance, pastoral romance... [each having] something of the same “travel” element attached to it, the same obsession with topography and the mystery of place... ...Successful travel books effect a triumphant mediation between two different dimensions: the dimension of individual physical things on the one hand, and the dimension of universal significance on the other... The travel book authenticates itself by the sanction of actualities—ships, trains, hotels, bizarre customs, odd people, crazy weather, startling architecture, curious food. At the same time, it reaches in the opposite direction ...”...more
"Today proved to be one of those weekdays, vacant, utterly without character, when some moral fort of a lifetime is abandoned calmly, almost idly, wi
"Today proved to be one of those weekdays, vacant, utterly without character, when some moral fort of a lifetime is abandoned calmly, almost idly, without the slightest assault from circumstance. So religions are changed, celibacy relinquished, marriages broken up, or there occurs a first large breach with personal honor ..."
Author Elizabeth Bowen is young (though hardly new), insightful, ambitious and completely in love with what words can do, in this dense little volume. The effort is valiant and kind of trainwreck-fascinating, to the lit enthusiast, but it ultimately comes apart at the seams.
The strategy here seems to be to use unusual multi-viewpoint storytelling, fairly experimental prose construction, and what can only be said are modern rhythms and pacing in the telling-- of the internal dynamics of an extended family/ social group in the upper layers of English society.
It's evil Mitfords, who go for the throat. Or cubist Henry James. Cruella De Vil's ladies who lunch ... all of these more or less, and the unfortunate outcome is, well .. too much all at once.
Bowen wants to set up a 3D chess game to delineate the social connections, the emotional strings-- but there is too much tangled architecture to make sense of the game. Or maybe too much game, simply put. Three stars, though, for the overall plan; Bowen is good, and they can't all come together perfectly. ...more
... She is the sort of monster who is often miscalled a good sport. The most monstrous thing about her is her good humor. She never pouts or sulks.
... She is the sort of monster who is often miscalled a good sport. The most monstrous thing about her is her good humor. She never pouts or sulks. She is always cheerful; and as tactless as an elephant.
Seems like whether you like this will depend on what you think it is. It's not a short story collection, or four separate novellas, or a connected four-part concoction that only makes sense when you get to the bottom line.
Even if you're ready for some loose, multi-form story-blending (ala Goodbye To Berlin, etc), or some esoteric period travel writing (ala Journey To A War) -- and I was, for either -- this still doesn't stack up. What I think we have here are some random diary / memoir style entries that got interrupted by the world war. And later got reworked, repackaged, as interconnected autobiography. Isherwood himself says he intended these to take their part in a larger work.
This would all still be fine, if the tone of the work (or any aspect, really) could be seen to be carried through all four segments. Even with some twists, a little necessary morphing, the narrative could still progress. In the early going, we get some large characters, and we hope they'll go the distance :
"And that's how you spend your life?" I asked. Maria smiled teasingly. "That shocks you? You think I should make myself active in some profession? Or become passionate for the politics?" "No, but--does this kind of thing really interest you?" "Unfortunately, no--not often! For the most time, it is quite ennuyant, because, you see, people are doing still what they did before. They do not change." "So then you leave them again?" "Then I leave them. Yes." "I suppose you'll be leaving us soon?" "Oh, here I am not bored! Here there is much to interest me. ...But I think perhaps I must leave soon, all the same. Because I make so much trouble, no?" Maria gave me a glance of truly vintage coquetry--not a day younger than 1914--from under her sky-blue eyelids.
And yes, that whole feeling harks back to the Berlin / Cabaret vibe that this collection seeks to update, perhaps to transcend. But time and events have moved on, and what was then gets left behind pretty quickly. We're off to Central Europe, to Greece, to England and then, somewhat interminably, to California.
In the process we lose the voice we had come to love, the quietly observant fellow-traveler, and we lapse into a grand 'Finding Oneself' sort of epic. Kind of reminiscent of the ponderous Somerset Maugham forays into self exploration. And too bad, the best thing about Isherwood was always his discreet distance, his modesty, his willingness to stay at the party so we all could watch. Never a combatant, often enough an enabler, but always a raised eyebrow, and a trusted narrator. In California, that all goes wobbly.
"That's very heartless, Maria." "But monsters are heartless, mon vieux! You know this--do not be so hypocrite! You cannot hold a monster by his emotion, only by puzzling him. As long as the monster is puzzled, he is yours."...more