Thursday, April 08, 2010

Welcome March with wint'ry wind

The Code of the Woosters, PG Wodehouse
Picked up cheap second-hand, as was The Inimitable Jeeves (further down). Having gone through the PG Wodehouse phase along with the Agatha Christie phase at school and then sold all the books on, I've since decided that I'd quite like to own some Wodehouse again, but only a choice few titles. It is (gasp, whisper it) possible to have too much PGW – he did tend to recycle plots with minimal re-dressing and (mostly) new gags, and if you're not careful fatigue can set in. The themed short story collections are buggers for this. Better to pick out representative examples, I think.
The Code of the Woosters is surely the finest, tippingest-toppingest specimen of the Jeeves novel. It's worth noting that the characters and setting introduced here made several repeat appearances. Roderick Spode and Sir Watkyn Bassett are a terrific pair of villains – the would-be Fascist dictator with an unusual secret and the devious, underhand retired magistrate – and by the end of the story one can well believe, as Bertie seems to, that Totleigh Towers is a farcical latter-day House of Usher. Great stuff.

The Club of Queer Trades, GK Chesterton
Six short stories featuring a detective but perhaps better described simply as “mysteries”, all revolving around the titular Club. Rupert Grant, an enthusiastic would-be detective, attempts to fathom such conundrums as why Major Brown's life has descended into melodrama, or why Professor Chadd dances all the time and refuses to talk to anyone; the answers are revealed to him by his intuitive brother Basil, an eccentric ex-judge. Chesterton's rich humour is much in evidence – definitely planning to read more of his work – and like the Club itself, this book “makes a man feel what he should feel, that he was still in the childhood of the world”.
However, two words against the Wordsworth Classics edition: the introduction manages in a single page to give away all the endings, and the word “matter” is misprinted throughout as “maker”. Worth finding a better edition.

Zazie in the Metro, Raymond Queneau (trans. Barbara Wright)
Queneau's most famous work, the story of a foul-mouthed country teenager's visit to Paris and her drag actor uncle's efforts to keep her in line. It's probably more famous as a film than as a book, but the book's most notable feature is its original rendering of contemporary slang and tourist talk (“Paris baille naïte”). It's everything most calculated to annoy the Académie Française, which is just one of the book's good points. This is the first time I've read the English translation.
Not all of the slangy phrases of the original have translated well. I think this is the fault of the English language itself rather than the translator – at least, the words that can most dramatically be slurred and blurred together in French aren't the same as in (saymzin) English. There's no easy equivalent for the original's showy opener, “Doukipudonktan” (literally, “Why do they stink so much though?”). The overall entertaining tone of the book is there, though. Snot bad.

The Inimitable Jeeves, PG Wodehouse
My chosen representative collection of Jeeves short stories. Includes such all-time greats as “Pearls Mean Tears” (in which Bertie actually gets the upper hand over his Aunt Agatha), “The Purity of the Turf” (Bertie and several racecourse-starved chums bet on the results of a school sports day) and the ongoing saga of romantic fiction writer Rosie M Banks (no relation to Iain?).

Ex Machina, vol. 8, Brian K Vaughan
I'm starting to worry a little over where this series is going. Six solid volumes (barring the occasional lull) of meaty political action, then the pulled punch of vol 7, and now this. An odd story left hanging in which Mayor Mitchell Hundred starts to see a pantomime witch-doctor superimposed over his black deputy; a very pat piece about free speech involving a Ku Klux Klan rally; and between them, the main story in this volume, the saga of Mayor Hundred's stalker. She starts out as a costumed daredevil apparently bent on disrupting a Republican GOP conference in New York – an honest-to-goodness nemesis for the Mayor – but it turns out that she saw him in action in his amateur superhero days, developed a crush on him, and actually has no mission except to get him alone. And, as it happens, keep him away from the complex and potentially interesting storyline involving the Republican GOP (cf the Pope in vol 7). Mayor Hundred resolves the situation by chinning her. Really starting to worry.

Shades of Grey, Jasper Fforde
New and non-metafictional novel from His Jasperity. It's more SF-biased than his previous works, and what's more I can't recall the central conceit having been done before. It's set some time in the future, after an unspecified calamity (Nebulous fans may like to think of it as “the Withering”) has caused the UK (and possibly the world?) to regress to a state of civilisation something akin to public school. Now people can only see certain colours, and the social hierarchy is arranged accordingly – those who can see Blue or Violet are the upper crust, while at the other end of the spectrum are the hard-working salt-of-the-earth Reds. There's a huge national industry based around creating and distributing synthetically coloured paints and dyes so that everyone can see “green” grass, for example. Real colours, on the other hand, can affect people in particular ways – certain shades of dark green, for those who can't see them naturally, are shown to have strong narcotic effects, while several other shades are used by Swatchmen such as the hero's father to treat medical complaints.
I'm not sure that Fforde has worked through the intricacies and implications of this idea with absolute scientific rigour, but he presents it convincingly enough, and naturally where there are jokes to be had he finds them. The story itself is the usual mix of adventure and romance, as young Eddie Russett journeys to the old abandoned town of High Saffron in search of scrap colour, the truth about the society he lives in and the heart of the surprisingly violent Jane Grey. There are some good twists and enough questions left unanswered for the promised second and third volumes to wrap up. So far it's this and The Rise of the Iron Moon in the running for best read of 2010.

The Drowned Life, Jeffrey Ford
More short stories from Jeffrey Ford, the usual assortment of quasi-autobiographical musings and quirky fantasy tales. Top tale and new addition to my list of favourite short stories is “The Night Whiskey”, which starts with a young man being trained in the art of harvesting drunks from the low branches of trees, and develops into the story of the strange black berry that, when fermented, allows the denizens of the young man's town to speak to the dead.

City of the Iron Fish, Simon Ings
Borrowed from a friend. At last, the extremely rare Ings novel! This book starts to develop exciting fantasy tendencies towards the end, but you have to read through some doughy material and some pretty horrible material to get to it. Essentially it's the narrator's descent into nihilism and self-destruction as he tries to come to terms with the limitations of his world. And it is very limited – existence simply ceases just a few days' travel beyond the boundaries of the eponymous city. There's a nice section as the narrator and his friend journey through an outlying quasi-Mediterranean village on their way towards the edge. There aren't many nice sections.
Interestingly, there was a spate of fantasy novels of this type – the “mysterious city” novel – in the '90s, all given print runs of about two thousand and allowed to slip quietly into the remainder shops. This novel seems to be the earliest of them. I'd say they were all ahead of their time, except that it obviously was their time and the memo just hadn't reached the marketing departments of the big SF publishing houses. To think, just a decade or so later China Miéville would make this sub-genre hot and saleable.

The Divine Comedy, Cantica 1: Hell, Dante (trans Dorothy L Sayers)
Library book. I've been meaning to read this for a while, and as luck would have it the library has all three volumes of Dorothy L Sayers' translation. Joy, she's kept the verse structure of the original! Of course, I only have her word for it that she's retained the sense of the original, but she goes into enough detail in the introduction and endnotes that I'm prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt – and as she says, if I wanted to really read the original, I'd have to learn slightly archaic Italian. Ultimately I just have to trust that this is the nearest available equivalent experience.
It's very readable, thanks to Sayers' deft choice of words as well as the driving rhythm of the terza rima. The chatty (and presumably Italian-like) interjections of “Then I to him”, “Then he to me” are just begging for a contemporary reworking: “Then this is me”, “Then he's all like”... Nice how the punishments in the different regions of Hell are fitted to the relevant sins – as Sayers points out, they're the same sins exposed for what they really are – and how the character of Dante changes in response to the sinners he talks to. Next month, Purgatory.
A sidenote: it's amusing to see how whoever wrote the biographical notes for the inside front of the book has bent over backwards to avoid mentioning what Sayers is actually world famous for. They big up her poetry, they mention her religious plays, but they only name one of her fourteen Lord Peter Wimsey volumes – The Nine Tailors – which they hilariously describe as “a fascinating novel about campanology”. Because we wouldn't want the whiff of nasty, vulgar detective fiction to sully this epic fantasy trilogy classic work of literature. Chiz, and again I say chiz.

Nowhere Near Milkwood, Rhys Hughes
An assortment of short pieces of surreal fantasy from one of the contributing authors of the Thackery T Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases. It's split into three sections – stories based around Disability Bill, a freakish and failed musician; stories set and/or told in the Tall Story bar (by far the largest section); and stories set in a future in which Titian Grundy, Prefect of Police, goes to extreme lengths to enforce the President's legislative whims.
There are good gags to be found throughout, although the quality of the story-telling is highly variable – I found it got better as the book went on. This isn't Hughes' first book and there's no suggestion that these stories have been previously published, so I have no idea whether this is a case of an author improving with age or just trying on different narrative voices. I just know that I didn't go for the Disability Bill stories – a tendency to overexplain the jokes – but that I rate the Titian Grundy stories alongside the likes of RA Lafferty. Readers of this blog may not have heard the last of Rhys Hughes.


Christopher Pittard said...

"Dorothy L Sayers" and "readable" in the same sentence? I kid, I kid; *Gaudy Night* isn't that bad. *Five Red Herrings,* inexplicably often touted as her best, is the Monty Python train timetable sketch made papery flesh, though.

Toon, one *never* reads the critical introduction to a Chesterton novel. In some cases, you don't even read the back cover blurb (this particular nugget came from our mutual friend Mr. Iain Potter; resultantly, *The Man who was Thursday* was the delightful surprise it was meant to be). You'll already be familiar with the Father Brown stories, no doubt; for more queer trade, I'd go for *Manalive* next.

John Toon said...

I know I've said before (and in connection with TMWWT, funnily enough) that one shouldn't *have* to be ignorant of how a story ends in order to appreciate it, but I found my limit in this particular case. I really wrestled with the urge to tear the page out of the book. It's a crap edition anyway. But I did still enjoy the stories.

Cheers for the tip, but I've already got my hands on a US omnibus edition of 'The Man Who Knew Too Much', 'The Trees of Pride' and 'Tales of the Long Bow'. And no f***ing introduction! There's an omnibus of TMWWT and TCOQT in the same series - subject to editorial quality, I'm tempted and likely to upgrade in the not-too-distant.