Blah blah controversial blah. There are loads of other reviews in which you can read about that aspect of Lost Girls. It’s probably obvious to most pe...moreBlah blah controversial blah. There are loads of other reviews in which you can read about that aspect of Lost Girls. It’s probably obvious to most people on my friends list which side of the debate I’d be on and so here I’d rather just talk about what I thought was good and not. (Very late to the party here – quite a few friends had copies years ago, but as with Alan Moore comics in general, people were reluctant to lend them to anyone. I later became wary of it because technically some of the contents became illegal in the UK in 2010 – but it appears to be a tacit exception because it’s still sold by mainstream booksellers; possibly it’s classified as art although it does identify itself as porn.)
And this graphic novel is silly like porn is silly (it does deliberately identify itself as porn): every occasion is an excuse for sex, the likes of room-service staff are jumped on and welcome it (much of it’s set in a hotel where the three main characters happen to meet as adults in 1914), and generally if anyone’s not sure at first they are very soon afterwards. It’s working to a different set of conventions from literary stories – those of mainstream pre-gonzo porn films, the shagging-the-plumber sort of thing.
It didn’t, as I assumed it would, take the original stories it’s based on (Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz and Peter Pan) and simply put sex in them – it rewrote them in such a way that the original environments and events seemed like symbols for the main characters’ early sexual experiences. This worked best with Peter Pan, because it has a fairly obvious sexual / romantic undertone between the main characters anyway. The idea of Captain Hook as a flasher and sex offender also fitted very well. (Though the story could have done with Tiger Lily as a real character, not just a dress-up costume. And I didn’t like the way grown-up Wendy looked so severe.) Whilst I really liked Moore & Gebbie’s characterisation of Dorothy – she’s so sweet and enthusiastic, regardless of her filthy adventures - her back story, a series of seductions of various farmhands, wasn’t as inventive as the others and more could have been done with the original IMO. Alice’s story jarred slightly in the narrative, because experiences of abuse which were clearly presented as traumatic for the character, complete with dissociation, appear in a narrative which otherwise is a straightforward sort of porn in which characters enjoy themselves without consequences. (Maybe I expect it to be either ‘porn’ or ‘a story of the characters’ sex lives with the bad bits left in’ plus possible commentary on Victorian / Edwardian hidden sleaze, rather than the mixture which it is. Sex is often liberating in Lost Girls, but not always; it's still a somewhat complicated force.) Some of Alice’s young-adult experiences (kept in the household of a dissolute society lesbian, a corollary for the Red Queen) are also rather similar to episodes in Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet.
I thought there was quite a pointless amount of incest in the various stories where it wasn’t relevant. (I know it’s a very common motif in porn because of the taboo, I’m just one of those people it does nothing for and who thereby doesn’t quite get it. In the case of the main characters it creates possible interpretations of all of them as victims, which is unwelcome, and which seems antithetical to the sex-positive ideals of the book.) Several of the storylines would have worked just as well – better to some of us - if characters had been unrelated, or just cousins which would have been quite common at that time (e.g. Annabel/Tinkerbell and Peter). In some instances it was possible to forget about it or just mentally rename/derelate characters, as the writing was otherwise pretty good or even occasionally somehow transcended that aspect.
The authors present some argument in the narrative (quite meta) accompanying the characters’ reading of some late Victorian incest-porn: “It is a crime, but this is the idea of incest, no? …It is quite monstrous, except that they are fictions…Fiction and fact, only madmen and magistrates cannot discriminate between them…if this were real, it would be horrible…but they are fictions. They are uncontaminated by effects and consequences. Why, they are almost innocent.” (With clear and habitual understanding of the consequences from other sources, a very occasional narrative without them is surreal.) Yet one of its most potentially powerful arguments is left less clear by being presented only in pictures: the panels of the dying soldier in the trenches in the last pages. Evidently it asks the question why so many people consider it okay to present war, violence and killing as glorious and/or fun, whilst considering various degrees of sexual activity (legal or otherwise) not okay, or damaging if shown in similar ways.
I wasn’t all that keen on Gebbie’s main art style in the narrative – though it does have a good way of showing the squashiness of the human body – I prefer more clearly delineated pictures and I did like many of the drawings when the outlines were sharper. (Surely it is the case with comics that such a large number of drawings are produced that it would be impossible for all to be perfect, and that there would be no panels in which characters don’t have odd faces, for instance.) There are so many styles in here though and that’s what, cumulatively, is impressive, to produce and pastiche all these. Her Art Nouveau style pictures were particularly lovely and detailed. The messy haziness of the predominant style worked beautifully, however, in the elegiac scene in which characters have an opium-fulelled orgy on an island (complete with colonial imagery) at the same time Duke Franz Ferdinand is shot: also the loveliest writing in the book as a world slips away for ever. And the spell was broken, just like that. As we came to ourselves we noticed how cold it had grown, a winter breath insinuated in the grass that paled the flowers and slowed the hearts of dragonflies. Something had changed. A certain inclination of the light, a shift of pressure in the air. Without the burning armour of our lust, I’m sure we all felt naked then. Three goose-fleshed women in a wood, suddenly awkward, unsure of their grace, abandoned by desire. Something quite glorious was finished with for good. A season turned. We hardly spoke, returning to the boat. The sun had all but gone, leaving a somber, elegiac light towards the West. No birds were flying overhead… There were no birds to fly.
[3.5] Absolutely serviceable, but not one of those great biographies worth reading even if you’re not that interested in the subject. (Would it even b...more[3.5] Absolutely serviceable, but not one of those great biographies worth reading even if you’re not that interested in the subject. (Would it even be of interest to fans of other twentieth-century roguish alcoholic journalists? TBH still better to start with other sources. The play Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell and the man's own writing are both considerably more entertaining.)
Reading this was an odd way to celebrate minor joy at Bernard’s own books just being reprinted and ebooked – to read the cheapish biog that had been there longer, first: but I hadn’t wanted to read it without the possibility of the subject in plenty of his own, far higher calibre, words too. I’d looked for Bernard's books plenty of times this century, and every time they were out of print. Perhaps it’s projecting too much, but the idea of second-hand copies of Jeffrey Bernard books was always unappealing: I imagined them arriving stained and stinking. (Which prissiness I’ve little doubt the author would castigate.) Anyway, because of the play, I couldn’t believe the columns wouldn’t be eventually reprinted or collected. Just surprised it took so long.
It may be strange to have consumed this as comfort reading. But that’s because of connection with a number of Bernard fans I’ve known, all much nicer than the unvarnished version of the author. Because of the similarity of various details of his life and personality with them and others, and with other biographies. Because of nostalgia for the vanished world of the press as it was when I was growing up wanting to be part of it. And, of course, the play – the 1999 TV version with Peter O’Toole. I taped it off the telly and watched it several times over the next couple of years, introducing my ex to it. (He, not being such an avid consumer of newspapers, hadn’t heard of the man before.) As I predicted, he loved it and proclaimed Bernard one of his heroes, in the pantheon with Hunter S. Thompson and the like. He seemed so original in those dial-up days when I’d never heard of any similar characters, didn’t know that the HST-worshipping twentysomething man was a trope. Though most of them probably don’t have the charisma to live up to it as he did. Whilst I knew I’d miss it, I gave him the tape when we, amicably, split.
Significant in Lord's biography is the idea of the monster behind the myth. The awful family history and childhood that explains most of the rest. The violence (commonplace in his circle when he was young, fights at parties etc, and mutual violence in his marriages). Being sick *on people* (which hardly anyone older than second year students thinks cool, no?) More-cry-for-help overdoses than a teenage My Chemical Romance fan, even into middle age. (If I can't use jibes like that, rather in the spirit of Bernard, here, when can I?) And he was one of those people who, Dementor-like, can unconsciously project a terrible atmosphere; dragging down and maddening some of those who lived with him long-term, sometimes silently. (Having had just such a frightening and unintelligible experience once, I almost refused to believe it, boxed it away as weird and inexplicable, before this book made scientific sense of it and the myriad of non-verbals that create it).
It seems that Bernard never really wanted to work, or to try to. I always assumed him to be one of those who kept trying and burning out, but the anti-work ethic went to the core: as the author says, despite his talent as a writer, he never discovered the pleasure of hard creative work. The pilfering and the failure to pay back loans wasn’t surprising, just a less jocular listing of what was already obvious. Also there’s that tone you don’t get in newer biographies quite so much, I think: “we must drag them out of the closet whether they like it or not”, and a long discussion of whether he may have been bi, at least in his youth.
Some of his pranks and practical jokes are of the “you had to be there” variety and don’t seem quite so spectacular to those of us decades younger than the author, by which time every third student flat generated such stories. Legend among your mates, yes fair enough, but this stuff doesn’t quite cut it nationally without the sharp verbal delivery.
Rottenness and misery there may be, but there is still frequently a sense that he was having fun, and that people, especially those who didn’t have to live with him, enjoyed his company. He was a very lucky and often charming misfit who stumbled into a niche - in Soho, racecourses and the London press - that fitted him as perfectly as any could, and who got a level of respect that not many people with quite such serious problems attain. The pictures in the middle of the book were a let-down after the repeated references, from many sources, to his physical beauty as a young man and into middle age - of course I'd imagined him like a young Peter O'Toole. It's presumably a question of type and the times. He resembled one of those late-1950s packaged popstars, with a somewhat chunky build that didn't tally with the "slight", "featherweight" descriptions.
Rather oddly, the author repeatedly castigates Bernard for not being more grateful to his mother and her efforts to pay for his schooling, as if all children need is material provision, and as if it was likely for him to have got insight into one particular aspect of his life when he hadn’t with any of the others - he never made any great effort to address the mess he was in. It’s probably easier to be a mess who has a prestigious education than one who hasn’t, but a mixture of random neglect, screaming and twisted spousification isn’t good for anybody. (The family situation was far worse for his sister, the least-favourite child, who was literally driven mad, and then her brothers ignored her for most of her adult life.)
Otherwise the tone is pretty balanced, and Lord has, wherever possible, tracked down more than one side to every story, talking to dozens of friends and relatives, and recording all the contradictions without a great deal of interpretation. (And there are a fair few contradictions. Reading about the gaps between Bernard’s self-descriptions and self-perceptions stated in honesty about matters which seem quite factual [such as whether one had/has many friends at a certain time], and how things looked to others, was reassuring - I’d encountered something similar, though not on the same scale, in another person and not known what to make of it: quite outside my previous experience with any other people, or all the relevant books I’d read. There isn’t an explanation here – it’s not a psychology textbook - but at least I know it now as something which appears related to certain types of personality, early experience, and possibly damage caused by substances, which I’d suspected but had no context for.)
Graham Lord’s writing is simply the sort that gets the job done, nothing fancy, and the wittiest bits are excerpts from Bernard’s own work. The book is likely intended to be read a bit more slowly than I did - I couldn’t stop once I’d started reading the preview - but it did start to pall in the middle. Conveniently, that was just before Bernard gave up drinking for two and a half years and became a tad dour and puritanical, which varied the narrative and kept the interest. (Incidentally, I’m sure this edition was nearer the 368 page count given for the paperback than 254 for the Kindle.)
Characters like Bernard and HST were fascinating because they were original in their contexts. But now all the kids want to write gonzo / confessional, most of them haven’t got the talent and so few journalists are getting paid for it any more, even the good ones. It’s easy to understand why these characters might seem a bit less exciting or amusing to younger people, especially those who've never had much to rebel against. But a sense of the waning public appeal of their type is difficult to judge because I'm now reading different sources with different attitudes – e.g. the moralisers so prevalent on Goodreads who judge artists primarily by the worst parts of their biographies, and on political correctness over style and wit. The people who do that often feel they are kicking against a dominant force, whereas others of us perceive them as part of one, albeit one which may have resurged after a brief liberal blip.
This article cites Bernard as the pioneer of the confessional column (I’ve heard others mentioned as such, can’t remember who) – a trend that when technology caught up, launched a hundred thousand blogs. A man who hated nothing so much as a bore (but who admitted that he’d become one as his health failed), who arguably helped start a trend which led to the decline of the term as the most absolute and damning English criticism, as per this article by the son of one of his friends.(less)
What a peculiar book. I hadn't read an Evelyn Waugh for the first time since I was at school: was his humour usually quite this dark, sick even? Bits...moreWhat a peculiar book. I hadn't read an Evelyn Waugh for the first time since I was at school: was his humour usually quite this dark, sick even? Bits of Decline and Fall would have been distinctly dubious these days, I remember thinking, (schoolmasters and schoolboys) but it was par for the course of class and time etc, rather than bizarre (morticians in LA isn't usual Waugh-world). Though in my late teens the delicacy of my reading sensibilities was at an all-time low, so perhaps I missed things before.
Anyway, I found a lot of The Loved One very funny, including at least one comment which another GR reviewer objected to. The ridiculousness of the names tops his other work too: Aimee Thanatogenos, Mr Joyboy - and these people are as weird as they sound.
Those who might be upset by the mere idea of callousness or poor practice at pet crematoria probably shouldn't read this. (Really, I do know what it's like to be very upset by the death of a pet, and I wouldn't conscion simply binning a deceased animal, but I've always found the idea of pet undertakers quite absurd. A fine way to satirize the fixed-grin plastic decadence of nearly-1950s America.) Nor should those who might mind characters' blase attitude and one-liners about other characters' deaths, including those self-inflicted. We shouldn't think too ill of them, after all, they have been hardened by recent service in the war: Others in gentler ages had had their lives changed by such a revelation; to Dennis it was the kind of thing he expected in the world he knew.
There's undoubtedly something here about the demise of the Empire, and it's very amusing to see tweedy old colonial gentlemen talking about the U.S. (and the standards expected of Brits out here) much as they would about India in other books. Most characters were sympathetic some of the time, and not at all at others, and needless to say, everyone is skewered at some point. Even the sort of character one absently thinks of as his own kind: Sir Ambrose Abercrombie wore tweeds, cape and deerstalker cap, the costume in which he had portrayed many travesties of English rural life. I particularly liked the way he makes embalmers and corpse-beauticians creepy; that whole related business of ceremonially viewing corpses is so undignified and medieval.
I considered docking half a star for a plot device copied from a very well-known source (there's also a rather less-hackneyed reference to Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts), and the ending was a tad unsatisfying* and may or may not veer off the trajectory of the rest of the book. But I was so pleased with the weirdness of it all - weird in a way I'd never expected from Waugh, and very welcome after becoming exasperated with serious realist fiction in general - that I haven't.
* (view spoiler)[Aimee's death seems rather out of character, even if it does fit her name. She was so calmly calculating and determined to get ahead. She could have, say, climbed out of a ground floor window, to chime with a satirical theme of "these idiots do anything the press tells them to" - and that's literally closer to Slump's advice. But then I'm not sure what I'd have done to end the story. Maybe she could have gone back East after faking her death? (hide spoiler)]["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)