Thursday, March 17, 2016

penguin popular 20th-century modern classics presents

A couple of follow-up thoughts after the last book review, mostly relating to my battered old Penguin paperback copy of Under The Volcano which I more than likely picked up on one of my strictly-rationed trips to Hay-on-Wye a few years back.

Firstly, it's always interesting to have a snoop into the endpapers of second-hand books to see if there are any inadvertent revelations about the previous owner(s). In this case there is an official-looking stamp inside the front cover which looks like this:

It turns out that Barnoldswick is in Lancashire, and that Barnoldswick County Secondary School still sort of exists, although it goes by a different name these days. Just for a second there I read the new name as Wes Craven High School, which would literally have been the best thing ever, but sadly the reality is a little more mundane.

Barnoldswick is apparently pronounced Barlick by locals, in one of those insider/outsider shibboleths that you'll find endearing or infuriating depending on your point of view (personally I tend towards the latter). More endearing, to me at least, are the claims to fame listed on its Wikipedia page, two of which make a strong claim for Lamest Thing Ever, as follows:
  • Barnoldswick, at 12 letters, is one of the longest place names in the UK with no repeated letters. Only Buckfastleigh in Devon and two places called Buslingthorpe (one in Yorkshire, one in Lincolnshire) are longer at 13 letters.
  • It is said, by some, possibly people who ought to get out more, that Barnoldswick is the biggest town in the UK not to be directly served by any A-roads. 
I really want to go and visit now, even if it has to be via an unsatisfyingly slow B-road route. Barnoldswick also sounds a bit like Barnstoneworth, home of the world's worst football team.

My copy of Under The Volcano, which appears to be from around 1963, is from an early series of Penguin Modern Classics. I've got a few books from a few different incarnations of this series over the years, plus a few from other Penguin series whose scope, you'd think, must overlap somewhere. Here's a photo (open it in a new tab for a full-size version):

So The Trial is a Penguin Modern Classic from probably the late 1980s, and The Queen's Gambit is probably no more than a couple of years old. As for the others, A Room With A View is from the old black-spined Penguin Classics series, and Things Fall Apart is from the newer version of the series which have mostly silver covers. Now since A Room With A View was published in 1908 and Things Fall Apart in 1958 (conversely, Under The Volcano was published in 1947), you might reasonably ask: where is the boundary between "classic" and "modern classic"? Things are complicated further by my green-spined copy of A Portrait of The Artist As A Young Man which is from a series called Penguin 20th-Century Classics. Finally, Gulliver's Travels (which I should confess is the only one of the books pictured that I haven't read) is from the Penguin Popular Classics series, which is a sort of budget series generally featuring slightly older books whose publication rights are presumably cheaper.

Lastly, I've linked a couple of times before to this list of great closing lines from novels - Under The Volcano is at number 73.

the last book I read

Under The Volcano by Malcolm Lowry.

Geoffrey Firmin, British ex-consul of a town in Mexico, is in one of its bars at 7am on the Day Of The Dead (our own Hallowe'en, broadly speaking) taking the hangover-avoidance advice variously attributed to WC Fields, Dean Martin and Dorothy Parker: "stay drunk". He's therefore somewhat ill-prepared for the unexpected arrival of his estranged wife, Yvonne, whose sudden reappearance marks the beginning of a day of wild adventures; it will also be the last day of Geoffrey's life.

Yvonne has returned to Quauhnahuac, in the shadow of the twin volcanoes Popocatépetl and Iztaccihuatl, in a last-ditch attempt to save Geoffrey from his rampant alcoholism. Not that Yvonne has been blameless in the disintegration of their relationship, mind you, as in addition to having a fling with French film director and local resident M. Laruelle she's also slept with Geoffrey's half-brother Hugh. Right on cue Hugh, who leads a wandering existence as a musician and journalist, turns up at the house. Geoffrey is having a nap and attempting half-heartedly to sober up, so Yvonne and Hugh go for a horse-ride to pass some time.

Partly to escape the awkwardness of their situation, and partly to keep Geoffrey off the whisky for five minutes, the three decide to take a day trip. Taking a bus to a nearby town, they make an unscheduled stop when they pass a Mexican in the road who has been beaten and robbed and is pretty clearly dying. No-one on the bus wants to get involved, though, for fear of being implicated in his death, so eventually they move on. They mooch around for a bit in town, taking in a bullfight and a visit to a bar, where after a few more drinks Geoffrey and Hugh get into an argument and Geoffrey storms drunkenly out.

Yvonne and Hugh decide that they'd better go after Geoffrey, but it's not clear where he's gone. Concluding that he's probably made his way to the next town, and probably done so via a route that includes a couple of bars, they set off through the jungle in pursuit.

Meanwhile Geoffrey has reached his destination - his final destination - a bar right under the slopes of Popocatépetl. Here he drinks some more mescal, reads some old love-letters from his wife, and is confronted by some representatives of the local police force, who are highly suspicious of westerners and take a dim view of Geoffrey's failure to co-operate. Eventually the situation escalates, a scuffle breaks out, and Geoffrey is shot and his body hurled down a ravine. Meanwhile a horse, spooked by the gunfire, runs off down a jungle path and tramples and kills Yvonne.

Well, so that's just your basic story of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy meets girl again, with added pub crawls, extra-judicial killing and illegal corpse disposal, you might say, but as so often a surface reading of the narrative doesn't quite reveal the full story.

The most obvious thing to say is that this is a book liberally soaked, steeped, soused, marinated in booze. Geoffrey gets through a heroic quantity of whisky, tequila and mescal during the course of the book, leavened only by the occasional beer ("full of vitamins") as a pick-me-up, and since most of the story is seen through Geoffrey's eyes (the other bits are written from either Hugh or Yvonne's viewpoint except for the opening framing chapter - set a year later - which is M. Laruelle's) he's the ultimate unreliable narrator - one who's completely arseholed all the time. We've all probably been in the situation of misjudging one's own level of sobriety during a drinking session and imagining that one is holding forth on a variety of topics with consummate wit and charm, while those around us just see some rambling cretin spouting slurred nonsense.

And it's not just the basic drunkenness - long-term alcohol abuse has all sorts of neurological implications, from the painful extremities that Geoffrey suffers from (and which prevent him putting his socks on) to visual and auditory hallucinations. So it's never entirely clear which stuff is actually happening and which bits are just inside Geoffrey's head.

Lowry didn't have to do much in the way of research for Geoffrey Firmin, as he was himself a roaringly hopeless alcoholic, who died at the age of 47 after an unwise cocktail of drink and barbiturates. Under The Volcano was the second of only two novels he ever published, and you get the feeling he knew he wouldn't write anything else of any significance, so he was going to throw everything he had at this one. So it's dense with allusions, digressions, flashbacks, as well as some prodigiously long sentences and some chapters (the last one in particular) which are mainly intimidating stream-of-consciousness walls of text.

That makes it sound difficult to read, but I didn't find it to be that, or at least not in the same way as The Autumn Of The Patriarch, which did some similar tricks with immensely long sentences. That said, you won't race through it, but it's well worth having a go at, if only for one of the most vividly convincing depictions of alcoholism I've ever read: the raw grinding need for a drink, the furtiveness, the terrible hopeless clammy despair and self-disgust on succumbing to temptation, the maudlin regret and wild promises to reform, give up, spend some quality time with the family, play more tennis, etc. etc. Geoffrey isn't just a drunk, though, he's obviously an intelligent man with a moderately distinguished military past, and you care about him enough to find his long meandering stagger towards his inevitable demise tragic rather than comic (though there are a few blackly comic moments).

Under The Volcano is pretty much guaranteed to be on any "best 20th-century novels" list you can find, including the TIME Magazine list that's featured here many times before, but also lists from the Guardian, the BBC, and the Modern Library. Under The Volcano is number 11 on that list; other novels on that list to appear on this blog are numbers 2, 4, 21, 55, 63, 64, 70, 90 and 99.

Under The Volcano was also made into a film, directed by veteran John Huston, in 1984. I haven't seen it, but it gained Albert Finney an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Geoffrey Firmin - F. Murray Abraham won that year for Amadeus.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

hotel du lack of pulse

Hubble, bubble, toil and trouble, kill off writers at the double. Hot on the heels (and upturned toes) of Umberto Eco, the latest (and, unless I've overlooked anyone, thirteenth) novelist to succumb to the fearsome destructive power of the Curse of Electric Halibut is Anita Brookner, author of 20-odd slim novels including, most famously, Hotel Du Lac, winner of the Booker Prize in 1984. It was that novel's appearance here back in July 2011 (one of four books I read on my honeymoon in Canada) that roused the Grim Reaper from one of his various chess games and set him off on a leisurely pursuit that eventually ended last week after just over four-and-a-half years.

Author Date of first book Date of death Age Curse length
Michael Dibdin 31st January 2007 30th March 2007 60 0y 59d
Beryl Bainbridge 14th May 2008 2nd July 2010 77 2y 50d
Russell Hoban 23rd August 2010 13th December 2011 86 1y 113d
Richard Matheson 7th September 2011 23rd June 2013 87 2y 291d
Elmore Leonard April 16th 2009 20th August 2013 87 4y 128d
Iain Banks 6th November 2006 9th June 2013 59 7y 218d
Doris Lessing 8th May 2007 17th November 2013 94 7y 196d
Gabriel García Márquez 10th July 2007 17th April 2014 87 7y 284d
Ruth Rendell 23rd December 2009 2nd May 2015 85 5y 132d
James Salter 4th February 2014 19th June 2015 90 1y 136d
Henning Mankell 6th May 2013 5th October 2015 67 2y 152d
Umberto Eco 30th June 2012 19th February 2016 84 3y 234d
Anita Brookner 15th July 2011 10th March 2016 87 4y 240d

So, as with Eco, the overall stats aren't going to be affected much here, since the typical cursed novelist dies in their mid-80s after four years or so. There is an interesting statistical oddity whereby 87 is the most popular age for the curse to take effect - no fewer than four novelists on the list (Matheson, Leonard, Márquez, Brookner) succumbed at that age (no other number appears more than once). There's one at 84, one at 85 and one at 86 as well, so mid-eighties is definitely a danger zone. Then again that's true of non-cursed non-novelists as well.

Here's another of those long, meandering Paris Review interviews, this one appears to be from 1987.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

come over here and find me in the Alps

Here's a rather magnificent addition to the dubbed-for-TV swearing files as previously noted here and expertly satirised here - this is the scene from The Big Lebowski where Walter (played by John Goodman) smashes up what he thinks is a car bought by a teenage schoolboy with some stolen ransom money. The plot details aren't important, what's important is the phrase Walter repeatedly uses as he takes a wrecking bar to the car: "this is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass". Marvel, if you will, at what's happened to it here:

Just in case you couldn't make it out, the original line seems to have been mutated (starting at about 0:30) into two different things:
  • this is what happens when you find a stranger in the Alps
  • this is what happens when you feed a stoner scrambled eggs
You do wonder whether film-makers, particularly ones of a quirkily humorous nature like the Coen brothers, might have decided that the rules for sanitising movies for TV consumption, particularly the exceptionally sweary ones like The Big Lebowski (which, I should add, is one of my favourite films), are so restrictive and ridiculous that the only way to go is as ludicrous as possible.