“Nature is commonplace. Imitation is more interesting.” (Gertrude Stein)

Last month Kaggsy wrote about enjoying Pistache by Sebastian Faulks. It sounded good fun, do head over to her Bookish Ramblings & read Kaggsy’s excellent review. In this year of my book buying ban (still in effect & being adhered to, much to my utter amazement) I’ve put my name on the waiting list for Pistache at the library, and managed to hunt down two pastiche novels in my TBR mountain.

When I was doing my English degree, there was much talk of post-structuralism, post-modernism, post-lots of things I didn’t really grasp (which I would mention in essays hoping my tutors didn’t question me too closely on them – a flawed strategy as it turned out). How I wish I had read Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy then, because he takes notions of post-whatever, such as the instability of meaning, the non-specificity of language, the fragmented self, and uses them to weave a fascinating pastiche of the hard-boiled detective novel. I realise I’m not doing him any favours in this summary but trust me, it does work.  It’s done in a humorous way, and there’s enough of a narrative to pull you along, although at times my brain hurt trying to think through all that Auster was discussing.

In the first story, City of Glass, Auster begins by questioning his role as author:

“ ‘Is this Paul Auster?’ asked the voice. ‘I would like to speak to Mr Paul Auster.’

‘There’s no-one here by that name.’

‘Paul Auster. Of the Auster detective agency.’

… ‘There’s nothing I can do for you,’ said Quinn. ‘There’s no Paul Auster here.’”

There is of course a ‘Paul Auster here’ – his name is on the cover – but exactly where is a matter of debate. Quinn, the writer in City of Glass, is mistaken for Paul Auster and finds himself impersonating a private eye:

“Private eye. The term held a triple meaning for Quinn. Not only was it the letter ‘i’, standing for investigator, it was ‘I’ in the upper case, the tiny life-bud buried in the body of the breathing self. At the same time, it was the physical eye of the writer, the eye of the man who looks out from himself into the world and demands that the world reveal itself to him. For five years now, Quinn had been living in the grip of this pun.”

So, multiple identities, multiple meanings, utter confusion. Quinn locates the man he has been asked to find, someone who spends his days wandering the streets, picking up junk and re-naming things:

“I have come to New York because it is the most forlorn of places, the most abject. The brokenness is everywhere, the disarray is universal. You only have to open your eyes to see it. The broken people, the broken things, the broken thoughts….I find the streets an endless source of material, an inexhaustible storehouse of shattered things”

Throughout this and the two stories that follow, Ghosts and The Locked Room, Auster explores how people are ‘shattered things’, how easily identity and the language used to construct it fall apart. For him, unsurprisingly, this is all bound up in the storyteller’s art:

“We all want to be told stories, and we listen to them in the same way we did when we were young. We imagine the real story inside the words, and to do this we substitute ourselves for the person inside the story, pretending that we can understand him because we understand ourselves. This is a deception. We exist for ourselves, perhaps, and at times we even have a glimmer of who we are, but in the end we can never be sure, and as our lives go on, we become more and more opaque to ourselves, more and more aware of our own incoherence. No one can cross the boundary into another – for the simple reason that no one can gain access to himself.”

The trilogy was originally released separately but I think it works best read together. The stories interweave and reflect each other, and so build on the sense of a ‘fractured whole’ being reflected in the structure of the book we hold in our hands. It may be that “these three stories are finally the same story”, but they are different enough to enrich each other and at no time did I feel my attention wavering. It’s a great achievement: stories that deconstruct the very thing they are made out of – language – and yet still hold together.

“Each sentence erased the sentence before it, each paragraph made the next paragraph impossible. It is odd then, that the feeling that survives from this notebook is one of great lucidity.”

Secondly, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon (2007), an alternative history detective novel. Chabon takes the idea that a settlement for Jewish refugees is provided in Alaska during the Second World War (an idea was proposed but rejected in 1940) and this has developed into the metropolis of Sitka. Policing this city is Meyer Landsman:

“According to doctors, therapists, and his ex-wife, Landsman drinks to medicate himself, tuning the tubes and crystals of his moods with a crude hammer of hundred-proof plum brandy. But the truth is that Landsman has only two moods: working and dead.”

The first of those two moods is under threat: Sitka is going to become part of the USA again and no-one is sure what will happen when it does but they’re fairly sure it won’t be good (reading this in post-Brexit Britain, it took on a whole new resonance):

“On the first of January, sovereignty over the whole Federal District of Sitka, a crooked parenthesis of rocky shoreline running along the western edges of Baranof and Chichagof islands, with revert to Alaska. The District Police, to which Landsman has devoted his hide, head, and soul for twenty years, will be dissolved. It is far from clear that Landsman or Berko Shemets or anybody else will be keeping his job. Nothing is clear about the upcoming Reversion and that is why these are strange times to be a Jew.”

“Strange times to be a Jew” is a recurring refrain throughout the novel. Landsman lives in a seedy hotel and is investigating the murder of fellow resident Mendel Shpilman. Spilman was a drug addict and also the son of the most powerful organised crime boss and local rebbe, from whom he was estranged. As he undertakes the investigation Landsman manages to annoy absolutely everyone, from the powerful crimelords to his ex-wife and boss, Bina. Chabon has fun with the form, but doesn’t go overboard on the pastiche of hardboiled crime. He employs colourful turns of phrase:

“The space recently occupied by his mind hisses like the fog in his ears, hums like a bank of fluorescent tubes. He feels he suffers from tinnitus of the soul.”

But The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is always its own story and not a gimmick-laden creative writing exercise. Chabon is exploring ideas of identity, home, belonging and justice alongside an appreciation for Raymond Chandler.

“For the first time the traditional complaint, tantamount to a creed or philosophy, of the Sitka Jew – Nobody gives a damn about us, stuck up here between Hoonah and Hotzeplotz – strikes Landsman as having been a blessing these past sixty years, and not the affliction they had all, in their backwater of geography and history, supposed.”

I don’t rate this quite as highly as other novels by Chabon that I’ve read – it was a bit overlong and I think it could have been 100 pages lighter, but still an ambitious and interesting work and I’m glad to have novelists like Chabon are around, attempting to do something different.

To end, trying to come up with a pastiche song that’s bearable was a tough call. In the end I chose The Divine Comedy, who offer pastiche of several things all at once. I opted for Something for the Weekend as I think it references Cold Comfort Farm with the repeated reference to ‘something in the woodshed’ and so is the obvious choice for a book blog:

“The inspector sat down on a stair, fired up a cigarette, and entered an immobility contest with a lizard.” (The Snack Thief, Andrea Camilleri)

Reader, I’ve been abandoned by a man.  He just left, with no word of when he will return and how I miss him.  He’s gorgeous, he lives in a place of outstanding beauty, he shares my food obsession and always brings the sunshine with him.

Apparently possession of a Y chromosome is necessary to become a police officer in Vigata

Apparently possession of a Y chromosome is prerequisite to becoming a police officer in Vigata

Image from here

Always a sucker for the BBC4 Saturday night foreign detective dramas, I am deeply traumatised by the ending of Young Montalbano, whose Sicilian sunshine was no end of help in getting me through these grey February days.  The deli across the road sells great arancini but carb-loading on the Inspector’s favourite food is not quite compensating for my loss.

The BBC tried to make up for the series ending by screening an interview with the author of the Montalbano books, 88 year -old Andrea Camilleri. The man is charm personified so if you have a chance to watch this interview in the next few weeks I definitely recommend it.  In the opening scene Camilleri pays tribute to Spanish crime writer Manuel Vazquez Montalban, after whom he named his creation.  So off I trot to Barcelona in the company of Pepe Carvalho, Montalban’s private detective, in the hope that Spanish sunshine will help keep my vicarious vitamin D levels up. For this post I’ve paired it with another Spanish crime novel, The Invisible Guardian by Dolores Redondo (tr. Isabelle Kaufeler), which I was delighted to win in a giveaway on Elena’s lovely blog, Books and Reviews.  Do head over to B&R for Elena’s insightful review of The Invisible Guardian and interview with the author. These two books are also one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

In Tattoo (tr. Nick Caistor), Pepe Carvalho “an ex-cop, an ex-Marxist and a gourmet” is hired by a local hairdresser to identify a body that has been pulled out of the sea, badly disfigured but with the legend “Born to Raise Hell in Hell” tattooed on his back.  It’s a shame Montalban has died, because a cross-over novel penned by him and Camilleri would have been something to behold; their two protagonists are so similar that they’d either become bosom buddies or detest each other on sight:

“Strolling aimlessly around the market was one of the few ways that this tall, dark-haired man in his thirties, who somehow contrived to look slightly dishevelled despite wearing expensive suits from tailors in the smartest part of town, allowed himself some spiritual relaxation whenever he left Charo’s neighbourhood and headed back to his lair on the slopes of the mountain overlooking Barcelona.”

Carvalho’s investigation takes him from Barcelona to Amsterdam where he becomes embroiled in the drugs trade, gets badly beaten, and engages sex workers as informers. He is tough and cynical and in that sense very much in the line of familiar hard-boiled detectives, but Montalban has self-referential fun with this:

 “Carvalho did not want to seem too smart, or behave like a Chandler character facing a stupid, brutal LAPD cop.” 

This is Tattoo’s main appeal for me – a European sensibility brought to a Chandler-esque tale. I wasn’t keen on the violence towards women, particularly when one of them sleeps with Carvalho straight afterwards, but Montalban redeems himself slightly by having sex worker who is strong, independent, and not punished by rape and/or being killed off, which I didn’t entirely expect for a novel written in the 1970s. The tale is told with dry humour through some remarkable images: “the man had the mental recall of a great masturbator”. Quite.

This is the second Carvalho mystery and I didn’t feel I had to have read the first. Apparently the series becomes more politically engaged as it goes along, the ‘ex-Marxist’ element of the detective satirising Spanish politics, which is an interesting turn to take – for this reason I definitely plan on spending more time in Pepe’s company.

I do love me some Gaudi

Barcelona – I do love me some Gaudi

Image from here

From Barcelona to Basque country, and The Invisible Guardian by Dolores Redondo. I am not a big reader of contemporary crime fiction, but I was intrigued by Elena’s review, which described how the Basque setting of Elizondo brought its own unique atmosphere to the novel:

“The Baztan forest is enchanting, with a serene, ancient beauty that effortlessly brings out people’s most human side; a childlike part of them that believes in fairies with webbed ducks’ feet that used to live in the forest… Amaia felt the presence of such beings in that forest so tangibly that it seemed easy to believe in a druid culture, the power of trees over men, and to imagine a time when communion between magical beings and humans was a religion throughout the valley”

basque-spain

Image from here

Amaia is Inspector Salazar, deployed from Pamplona back to her home town to investigate a series of murders: young girls, strangled and laid out ritualistically. While the details of the dead are disturbing, I didn’t feel it was overly gory, and certainly not voyeuristically gruesome. We are never allowed to forget that these are young people, on the cusp of womanhood, robbed of their lives:

 “the girl’s small, pale face with tiny drops of water still trapped in her eyelashes acted like clamorous cries to which she could not help but respond”

As Amaia investigates the murders she also has to face the ghosts of her past, and although she is deeply troubled, she’s not the stereotype of a tortured, isolated, renegade detective. She is happily married (although the relationship is under strain), she has family around her including a loving, strong aunt,  and she follows procedure.

“This was her hometown, a place in which she had lived for most of her life. It was part of her, like a genetic trace, it was where she returned to in her dreams when she wasn’t dreaming about the dead bodies, assailants, killers and suicides which mingled obscenely in her nightmares”

What I thought Redondo did exceptionally well was mixing a recogniseable contemporary reality with the old religion, mysticism and mythology of the past; the investigation progresses through a combination of procedural police work with intuition and precognition. This never jars and adds to the eerie, unnerving quality evoked by the Baztan forest without losing the tension of the investigation. It’s an extraordinary achievement. My one reservation is that the dialogue occasionally felt a bit clunky, but I suspect this may be a translation issue as I imagine trying to capture natural speech is extremely difficult. The Invisible Guardian is the first in a trilogy and I’m really looking forward to the next two installments.

To end, a glimpse of where BBC4 is taking me after Sicily. I haven’t watched last week’s episodes yet, and although it looks great, I think I’ll need to get my vicarious sunshine elsewhere:

The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #96)

This is part of a series of occasional posts where I look at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century. Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books and an explanation of why I would do such a thing.

Now that I have some of my life back after a period where I was deranged enough to both work and study full-time (what was I thinking???? etc etc ad infinitum) I’ve decided I need to get back on track with my reading challenge, and I’m easing myself in with the slim novel The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler.

The Big Sleep is the first of Chandler’s novels, and the first I’ve read. It’s a mark of how far his style and the hardboiled detectives he created have become assimilated into modern culture that I could hear Humphrey Bogart’s voice in my head reading every word:

Having finished the novel it’s a source of constant disappointment to me that I don’t have Bogie’s voice in my head narrating my daily life, although admittedly if he did turn up he’d probably leave out of utter boredom:

“I walked to the kitchen. A cat appeared from nowhere, making his disgust at the lack of crunchies in his bowl known.  I poured a cup of tea. The kettle needed descaling but I couldn’t be bothered. I was out of milk. I debated whether to drink it black or go to the shop. The tea in the cup was as dark as the night outside. As dark as my soul. I put on my coat, knowing the wind outside would be colder than the welcome awaiting my return if the cat bowl remained empty.”

Hmm, it’s not really working, is it? Let’s see it done properly, with tales of blackmail, murder, riches and glamour in Los Angeles, rather than domestic banalities in south London. Private eye Philip Marlowe is summoned by the affluent and moribund General Sternwood:

“His long narrow body was wrapped – in that heat – in a travelling rug and a faded red bathrobe. His thin clawlike hands were folded loosely on the rug, purple-nailed. A few locks of dry white hair clung to his scalp like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock […] The General spoke again, slowly, using his strength as carefully as an out-of-work showgirl uses her last pair of good stockings.”

This is the real joy of Chandler, his much-parodied use of simile, inventive and atmospheric. The images he uses accentuate the world-weary knowingness of Marlowe: “Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.” but I must confess that my sheltered existence meant I didn’t always understand all of them: “Her face fell apart like a bride’s pie crust”. Whaaat? Anyone?

As Marlowe investigates the blackmail case the General has employed him to uncover, he is drawn into the seedy underbelly (I think the phrase ‘seedy underbelly’ was probably coined to describe Chandler’s oeuvre) of Los Angeles – “It seemed like a nice neighbourhood to have bad habits in”– pornography, drugs, murder, and of course, sexy ladies at every turn:

“She got up slowly and swayed towards me in a tight black dress that didn’t reflect any light. She had long thighs and she walked with a certain something I hadn’t often seen in bookstores.”

The plot is convoluted, with everyone double-crossing everyone else and Marlowe at the centre of it all, trying to hang on to some sort moral compass:

 “I got up feeling sluggish and tired and stood looking out of the windows, with a dark harsh taste of Sternwoods still in my mouth. I was as empty of life as a scarecrow’s pockets.”

He is compelling narrator, wise, brave and so much cooler than probably any of his readers (definitely me, as much as I wish I looked like this):

lauren-bacall-396150_960_720

This is a novel to accept on its own terms – one where atmosphere and style top anything else.  Famously, director Howard Hawks queried a plot-hole with Chandler when he was filming The Big Sleep. Chandler confirmed he had no idea as to the answer.  But for escapist entertainment, a quick read with a confident narrative voice (Humphrey Bogart’s to be precise), The Big Sleep is a great example of the hard-boiled genre.

“The coffee shop smell from next door came in at the windows with the soot but failed to make me hungry. So I got out my office bottle and took the drink and let my self-respect ride its own race.”

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