Sunday 20 January 2013

Put out More Flags - Waugh's killer combination

The title page of my lovely old edition
Put out More Flags by Evelyn Waugh (Chapman & Hall : 1942) Between war being declared and things really hotting up, Britain went through a period of "phony war" where things didn't seem all that bad. Waugh takes his set of high society hang overs, led by the irrepressible Basil Seal, and shows their approach to this grand new folly. Driven by a sense of "what's-in-it-for-me", the jape of war has both comic and tragic effect.

At the risk of sounding like a 12-year old school girl, ohmygodohmygodohmygod! DBC Pierre emailed me yesterday. Subject line: Cowabunga. Apprently, "at the sweet end of a piss-up a friend brought your review of my book up on his phone." That's me he's talking about! He liked it. He said he'd raise a drink to me.

That's it. I'm done. I can stop this whole shebang now and die smiling.

What? You don't care who emailed me? It's Sunday morning and you want your weekly GBR review? Oh, OK then you demanding lot, here it is.

I went to the British Museum a couple of weeks ago. The first thing I saw when I walked through the door was an exhibition with a 5,000 year-old pot in it.
Five-freaking-thousand years old. Damn if that's not impressive. And this thing was elaborate. It blew my mind a little. All that time ago, someone made this, spent time on it, drank out of it, and there it was in front of me in a glass case.

A pot that had survived everything.
Whoever JAC Rupert was, he
bought this in '42
That’s how I feel about old books. Anything written in an entirely different circumstance to the one I’m reading it in. Words that someone wrote down a while ago, and there they are in front of me, surviving.
I say all this as it’s pertinent to Put out More Flags (I promise). You guys know I love a bit of Waugh. And so I was always going to love this too. The guy flaunted every aspect of his writing that I enjoy. It was satirical, slap-stick, absurd, flat-out funny, but with a heavy dose of poignancy as well. It was Wodehouse with purpose. And it was typically easy to tread. Waugh writes like he invented language, and knows exactly how it should be used.
So there was all that. Obviously. But there was something else as well. Put out More Flags was published in 1942. I know this because I was very kindly bought this old edition of it for my birthday, and it says 1942 right at the front. 1942 is a time that just plain fascinates me. In the grip of a war that has turned terrible. No idea if we’re going to win or not. Everything up for grabs.
And amongst it all, here’s Waugh with his cartoonish social set. A largely fictional upper class who are tripping from one aspect of the war to another. There’s truth in some of their reactions, albeit highly caricatured. And between the lines (which is where Waugh shines), there’s all this heavy heavy context of a war.
I know we won. And you know we won. But the words on these 70-odd year old pages had no idea. These words and the imagination that delivered them were entirely ignorant of how it would all play out.
The beautiful spine of my edition. Aren't
books great!
That was enough for me. I was sold. The painful contrast of Waugh’s humour with a deep pathos that’s just beneath the surface never stops fascinating me. I saw it first in A Handful of Dust (which was the 2011 GBRBOY by the way…). And here, it blew me away again.
In short, this guy has a killer combination. Funny as heck. A magical and distinct way with words. And the ability to sneak up on you and make you cry with a single phrase.
Now, I just need to figure out how he does it.
Why not 10 after a write up like that, I hear you cry? Honestly, because A Handful of Dust was my first Waugh blow out, and I guess it can never be quite as good as the first time.

Next week, I'm not quite sure as I'm currently trudging through a biggie.

Sunday 13 January 2013

NW - Zadie Smith is probably a witch

Yeah, I have a Kindle now. What of it?
NW by Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton: 2012). Zadie Smith tours North West London, introducing a series of characters whose identities are tied up in their surroundings. Hopping forward and back in time, Smith explains their lives as they try to grow out of the boundaries they were born into.
WITCH! Zadie Smith must be a witch, for there is magic here. Just a few drops, but enough to take something which, on the surface, shouldn’t be all that compelling, and make it a little bit brilliant.

Low grade witchery, maybe, but impressive.
First things first - forget the plot. There’s not much of it. There’s more  in a paragraph of Grisham than in the whole of NW. Sure, there’s the odd spike of drama, and it speeds up towards the end. But it never feels dramatic. No screaming, no explosions, no cliff hanger moments. It all just melds into the pages like so many other words before it. And in between the spikes, we have long passages of such exciting adventures as "some guy buying a car" and "a suburban dinner party".
But Smith isn’t relying on plot. It’s not that kind of book. It’s the kind that successfully recreates a world which you become trapped in.
Trapped? OK, maybe not the best word. I don’t mean like Fritzl trapped. Trapped in a good way. 

NW is, in large sections, inescapable. And it’s not because you’re desperate to find out what happens next. Not much ever happens next. It’s because the feel of the book is so complete and so authentic that you find yourself switching off from everything else and simply living there. Living with the North Londoners as they go about their daily business and reveal their dreams and fears to you drip by drip.
And make no mistake, it’s the place and not the people that is the star (calling the book NW was probably the giveaway there, genius). The people are interesting enough. They have dilemmas. They have under-the-surface emotional tension. But Smith doesn’t go to town in explaining every nook and cranny of their lives. This isn't a Kilburn version of EastEnders. In fact, she leaves a few blanks. 

But the place, North West London and its social fabric – that is pretty complete. Not because of reams and reams of overt description, but because of the magic I mentioned. The witchery Smith uses to make you feel the place. Not just know it or understand it, but feel it.
It’s tough to explain, which is why Zadie Smith is Zadie Smith and I am not. I know when I talk about the power of atmosphere in a book, it can be interpreted as shorthand for boooorriiiinnng. Another way of saying not much happens. And to an extent, that could be true. I didn’t dive at this book in every spare five seconds I had. It didn’t scream “read me” with excitement. But whenever I did pick it up, I got trapped again in a place that felt worth spending more time in.
It’s not boring. It’s powerful without being explosive. It’s meaningful without being bombastic. It’s forceful without being shocking.
Which is tough to do. Magical even.
A pretty high score, stopping short of anything higher because the 9s and 10s are reserved for those books that leave you breathless and hungry. NW is special. But breathless and hungry? Not quite.
Next week, a bit of old school Waugh, because it’s been a while and I miss him.

Sunday 6 January 2013

Back to Blood - thawing a cool kid

Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe (Jonathan Cape: 2012) Tom Wolfe continues to try and live up to The Bonfire of the Vanities. The 81 year-old turns his journalistic spotlight on a flawed Miami, a city transformed by recent immigrants and struggling to cope with the problems the demographic shift has brought. It’s a world he explores through (amongst others) an ostracized Cuban cop, a Russian billionaire oligarch, a preppy Yale educated journalist, a professor trying to gentrify his Haitian background, and a larger than life black police chief.

Welcome back! It's 2013! And as we all trudge through January, the most depressing of all the months, let's try to get back to some sense of normality.

Sunday morning.

A new GBR post.

I approached this one a little nervously. It had that cool-kid aura. The kind that of kid who just has it. Doesn’t need to shout about it. This is a 700 page epic. Written by Tom Wolfe. It promised to lift the grimy lid on Miami, and explore racial tensions through an assortment of characters and plot lines.

It just felt way cooler than me. On a different strata.

So I tip-toed up to it. Worried it’d all fly over my head. That it’d be too complex, the writing too poetic, the social themes too distant.

I needn’t have worried. The cool kid soon melted, let me into his world, and swiftly got me thinking like him. No doubt there’s a lot going on in this book, but it’s kept in pretty good order by Wolfe, nothing getting too messy, too confusing. The social themes are attacked head on, with little sub-text (that I could spot, anyway). There’s not much interpretation needed by the reader; Wolfe lays it all out there on the page.

And his writing style? That’s what provided the handful of stand-out moments of the book for me. Wolfe has a sense for the senses. By which I mean he uses everything he can to put across sounds, smells, physical feelings - human experience. He creates rhythms. He gets creative with punctuation. He shifts font. Uses subscript. All the tricks in the book and one or two new ones to create passages that get as close to the real thing as he can. He drops it in bursts, flashes of poetry which remind you he’s speaking about real stinky people and real hot places.

And then, as with any aloof cool kid, the more I got to know this book, the more mystery it lost. Which was a shame. As the book wore on (and, at 700+ pages, it had a lot of wearing to do), it felt as if the plot simplified too much. The characters, so lively and real at the outset, slowly became simply devices to move the story on. Actors on a stage.

I guess I was expecting something bigger. I was expecting something flawless. And it wasn’t. There was too little majesty. Too little awe. There were flabby bits, sections which became over explained, and even a couple of unbelievable character developments towards the end.

Which is pretty harsh, I know. After all, there’s no denying the quality of this book. The story is genuinely gripping. Wolfe’s Miami is a compelling world. His small behavioural observations and grand social arguments make it all relevant (albeit ultimately too close to ordinary). And his language, his poetry, his journalism - it all makes it incredibly readable.

So what am I saying? I guess it’s that old problem of expectation again. If this book was written by an unknown, if it looked a little less ambitious, if it flew under the radar a little more, I’m sure it would have packed a bigger punch. I’m sure I’d have found it easier to focus on its good points than feel essentially disappointed at the end.


We kick of 2013 with a victim of expectation. Totally worth reading though, and you’ll probably enjoy it more than I did now I’ve lowered your expectations.

Next week, I’m not sure. I started Zadie Smith’s new one, but it’ll be a race to finish it by next Sunday. On the other hand, I do have a Kindle Paperwhite now, so I can read ANYWHERE!

Look out, world.