Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Beautiful Darkness and Beauty: Graphic Novels by Kerascoët, Vehlmann and Hubert (Drawn & Quarterly / NBM, 2014)

Continuing the intermittent posts on graphic novels – both old and new(ish) – that I've read recently(ish), here's a pair of remarkable books from last year, both of which boast extraordinary artwork by cartooning duo Kerascoët, alias Marie Pommepuy and Sébastien Cosset:

Beautiful Darkness, written by Fabien Vehlmann and published in hardback by Drawn & Quarterly in February 2014 (the copy seen here is a first impression; the book has since reprinted), and Beauty, written – and coloured – by Hubert and published by NBM in October 2014 (both books translated from French editions).

Of the two, Beautiful Darkness is probably the more celebrated. J. Caleb Mozzocco, in his roundup of the best comics and graphic novels of 2014 (a post which proved extremely useful in my hunt for graphic novels I'd overlooked last year), noted, "I don't think I know anyone that read this that didn't feel powerfully affected by it, whether they liked it or not", while more recently, in the letters pages of Saga #27, Brian K. Vaughan had this to say:

Wait, is Beautiful Darkness my new favorite graphic novel of all time?... I finished reading Drawn & Quarterly's edition of this glorious French comic from watercolor painter Kerascoët and writer Fabien Vehlmann a few weeks back, but not a day has gone by since then that I haven't thought about the book. I guess you could call the story a kind of fairy tale about human nature, but it's WAY more harrowing than that, as evidenced by an early image that's probably the most powerful and affecting splash page in the history of the medium. Truly, I dare you to pick it up and disagree with me.

There's not much I can add to that, except to suggest that good as Beautiful Darkness is, I actually think Beauty is the richer, more rewarding read. Beauty also features in Mozzocco's 'best of', but at number 12 (of 13) in the list, as opposed to Beautiful Darkness, which nabbed the number 2 spot; whereas for me it's right up there with the graphic novel which topped Mozzocco's chart, Michael DeForge's Ant Colony. I found Beauty just as arresting as Beautiful Darkness, but in a less showy way – perhaps a consequence of the simpler lines, flatter colours and densely panelled pages. But there's also, I think, more depth to the thing, and not merely because of the greater extent (150 pages as opposed to Beautiful Darkness's 100). The story of a peasant girl who gets more than she bargained for when she's granted exceptional beauty, and set against a backdrop of grandeur, squalor and the changing seasons, the narrative shows how man's basest desires cause wars to be fought and kingdoms to fall. So it goes.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

The Conduct of Major Maxim by Gavin Lyall (Hodder & Stoughton, 1982): Book Review

NB: Included in this Friday's Forgotten Books roundup.

From 1961–1975, British writer Gavin Lyall published seven first-person thrillers. Those that I've read – The Wrong Side of the Sky (1961), The Most Dangerous Game (1963), Blame the Dead (1972) – are stylishly written, gripping affairs, and I like them a lot. Even better though, for my money, are the four third-person spy thrillers Lyall published in the 1980s: the Harry Maxim series. I took a look at the first of those, The Secret Servant (Hodder, 1980), all the way back in 2010; five years on, I think it's long past time I turned to the second one.

Published in hardback by Hodder & Stoughton in 1982 – under a dust jacket designed by Melvyn Gill, based on an original concept by Gavin Lyall himself (who had form with the design of the wrappers of his novels: he painted the jacket artwork for his debut, the aforementioned The Wrong Side of the Sky) – The Conduct of Major Maxim was originally titled A Slightly Private War, something I revealed last week in this post on my collection of uncorrected proofs of the Harry Maxim novels. It's an apt alternative title, as the plot sees Maxim, 10 Downing Street's ex-SAS troubleshooter, going ever-so-slightly rogue in order to help out a younger SAS man, one Corporal Blagg, who's on the run following a fatal balls-up during a mission in Germany.

As in The Secret Servant, Maxim is once again alternately aided and frustrated by the Prime Minister's private secretary, George Harbinger, and by Agnes Algar of MI5; and also as in The Secret Servant, Lyall laces the narrative of The Conduct of Major Maxim with plausible-seeming snippets of 'info' about the workings of British state security – for instance that military personnel do SAS tours rather than being on permanent secondment to the service; that the nickname for the SAS is "Sass"; and that MI5 and MI6 derive their names from their original location: "Long ago, the legend said, the security (or spy-catching) service and the espionage (or spy-hiring) service had been born next door to each other in rooms 5 and 6 of the corridor where Military Intelligence first nested in Whitehall."

All this is delivered in Lyall's elegantly unfussy and quietly ironic prose – which isn't to say the narrative lacks thrills, either of the violent kind – notably a climactic gun battle in the port of Goole – or of the internecine political variety, as the long-suffering Harbinger, hobbled by an ailing PM, tries to keep the peace between his errant troubleshooter and the warring factions of MI5 and 6.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Gavin Lyall's Harry Maxim / Secret Servant Spy Series: Uncorrected Proof Editions

A big part of the appeal of book collecting for me is the pursuit and acquisition of that which is rare. Sometimes that can mean first editions; sometimes it can mean little-seen later editions or scarce paperback editions; sometimes it can mean signed or, better yet, inscribed editions; and sometimes, on occasion, it can mean uncorrected proofs.

Uncorrected proofs, for the uninitiated, are advanced copies of books, printed and bound with paper or card covers bearing bibliographic details and/or blurbs, which are sent out to proofreaders, authors, reviewers and, increasingly, bloggers, for a variety of purposes. That purpose initially, as the name suggests, was for authors and proofreaders to spot and mark up any typos that had slipped through the net, but in more recent years uncorrected proofs, or advance review copies (ARCs) as they're also referred to, have been used primarily to drum up publicity.

You could argue that uncorrected proofs are the true first state of any printed book, preceding, as they do, the first edition. But even if you accept that, I think it's fair to say that most book collectors, myself included, would still prefer the first edition; apart from anything else, uncorrected proofs are frequently unlovely and, by nature, unfinished things, whereas firsts benefit from designed dust jackets and hardback binding. Still, uncorrected proofs can be scarce things, and as such can sometimes be of interest to me – say, for example, if a novel has a certain significance, and a first edition isn't quite enough, and a signed edition isn't available, as with Patricia Highsmith's Ripley Under Ground; or to give another, more recent, example, if an entire series, one which I enjoy and admire, suddenly becomes available in its entirety in uncorrected proof – well, that would be very hard to pass up indeed.

So it proved when the latter three of Gavin Lyall's four Harry Maxim spy novels popped up on eBay a few months back – The Conduct of Major Maxim, The Crocus List and Uncle Target. Despite owning entirely serviceable first editions of all three, I was sorely tempted even so; and when I then noticed an inexpensive uncorrected proof of the first Harry Maxim novel, The Secret Servant (which I also own in first), elsewhere online, the notion of nabbing the whole series in uncorrected proof proved irresistible. Individually they're quite uncommon things – at present I can see online one other uncorrected proof of The Secret Servant, one of The Crocus List, two of Uncle Target, and none of The Conduct of Major Maxim – but taken together they are, I'd venture, quite a unique and potentially intriguing collection. Well, I reckon so anyway; whether anyone else will think so too is debatable, but here they are anyway.

The Secret Servant (Hodder & Stoughton, 1980)
The first Harry Maxim novel – which I reviewed here – this proof of The Secret Servant comes with a dust jacket (designed by none other than Raymond Hawkey, utilising a photograph by Peter Williams), something which in my experience is atypical for an uncorrected proof, although not unheard of. (At least in the 1980s and earlier; nowadays uncorrected proofs frequently have full colour covers.) The inner card cover, meanwhile – which the jacket has been trimmed to fit – bears no text at all – again, atypical for a proof, but not unheard of. What is really unusual is the width of the thing: the pages are a lot wider than those of the finished book, and on some of the later pages in the proof– which looks to me to have been photocopied rather than printed – the edges of the original pages can be seen.

. . . . . . . . . .

The Conduct of Major Maxim (Hodder & Stoughton, 1982)
No dust jacket here, and a printed card cover, bearing publication info, which is more typical of an uncorrected proof. The interesting thing with this proof is the copyright page, which bears one notable difference from that in the finished, printed book, which can be seen below:

Evidently The Conduct of Major Maxim was titled A Slightly Private War until shortly before publication.

. . . . . . . . . .

The Crocus List (Hodder & Stoughton, 1985)
It's possible sometimes to spot typos and errors in uncorrected proofs – they are, after all, uncorrected – especially if one compares them to the finished first editions. And then there are those errors that can be spotted without comparison, like the one on page 6 of The Crocus List proof:

I can confirm that that was caught and fixed for the finished book.

. . . . . . . . . .

Uncle Target (Hodder & Stoughton, 1988)
As with the first Harry Maxim spy thriller, the uncorrected proof of the final one also comes with a dust jacket, although the inner card cover is printed too, more in line with the proofs of The Conduct of Major Maxim and The Crocus List – more so, in fact: the front of the inner cover replicates the jacket front in black and white, while the back cover copy features details of the promotional plans for the book, including a "Powerful Saatchi and Saatchi national advertising campaign", no less. Unlike The Secret Servant, however, the jacket on the proof of Uncle Target isn't final. Colour scheme apart – presumably that's a proof placeholder – though the various elements of the design remained the same for the final (uncredited) version, they were rearranged thusly:

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

The Secondhand Bookshops of Tunbridge Wells, or, Wot I Did on My Birthday This Year

I tend not to accord my birthdays more than a passing mention on Existential Ennui – I can't imagine they're of even passing interest to the (meagre) readership of this blog – usually post-event and in connection with whichever book I might have acquired as a result of managing to stay alive for another year. But my most recent birthday, which was last week, merits a lengthier report, I feel, as it entailed a trip to Tunbridge Wells for a mooch around the secondhand bookshops in that Royal Kentish town – a mooch which netted me one book in particular which I was absolutely cock-a-hoop to have come across.

The day got off to a pretty decent start even before we got to Tunbridge Wells, when I received this from the lovely Rachel:

A first edition of Desmond Cory's Intrigue, published by Shakespeare Head – the Australian sister publisher to British outfit Frederick Muller (although still printed in the UK, so in fact it's an export edition) – in 1954 (dust jacket designer unknown). The fourth in Cory's Johnny Fedora spy novel series, in common with other entries in that series this is quite a rare book; I can see just four other copies in any edition online at present: a Muller second impression, another Muller edition with no details as to impression or presence of dust jacket (or anything really), and two paperback editions, one under the alternate American title of Trieste. A nice addition, then, to my Fedora-in-first collection, which now numbers twelve volumes out of a possible sixteen.

And so to Tunbridge Wells, and its handful of secondhand bookshops. First port of call was here:

Ah, actually, let's skip the first port of call and go straight to the second port of call, which was here:

The Aviation Bookshop, tucked away on Vale Road. I've visited this place before, and in truth their stock doesn't really fall within my fields of interest – plus I've yet to work out how to navigate my way around that stock (books are shelved under broad subject areas, but not, as far as I can work out, in any sort of order thereafter) – but I applaud the idea of there being a bookshop devoted to aviation, and anyone with an interest in that sort of thing will doubtless find much to divert them. I, however, moved swiftly on, to here:

The Oxfam Bookshop, on Chapel Place. Unfortunately, despite the manager kindly checking the stock for obscure postwar crime and spy fiction after I'd mentioned on Twitter the previous day that I'd be popping by, there was nothing for me. And neither was there here:

The Pantiles Bookshop, on the Pantiles, oddly enough. I did spy a signed first of P. D. James's The Children of Men, but I was in two minds as to whether to buy it – I already own an unsigned first edition and I haven't even read that yet – so while I deliberated we went across the way and had tea and cake in a cafe, in which, sitting at a window table, slightly incongruously given the sedate surroundings, was Rick Parfitt of Status Quo fame and his missus. Anyway, by the time I got back to the shop, the book had gone. Parfitt left the cafe before me; perhaps it was him wot bought it, the git.

Fortunately, by that point, as you might be able to tell from the bag in my hand, I'd already had some success elsewhere, namely here:

Hall's Bookshop, which was my real reason for visiting Tunbridge Wells. Hall's has been situated on Chapel Place for decades, but last year it was taken over by London expat bookseller Adrian Harrington, who completely refurbished the joint and installed his own wares upstairs. The net result is that Hall's is now, I'd wager, one of the finest secondhand bookshops in the country: pleasant to browse in, with an excellent stock, and not bad prices. I managed to find something on the cheapo paperback racks outside even before I'd set foot in the place:

And after a thorough survey of the shelves inside – and a look at Adrian Harrington's stock upstairs, which, while fascinating, was mostly priced well beyond my means – emerged about an hour later with another two books. (Rachel found something for herself as well, plus a couple of books for Edie). To wit:

From the left, a 1963 Corgi paperback of Brian Cleeve's Assignment to Vengeance; a 1982 Granada hardback first edition of Arthur C. Clarke's sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, 2010: Odyssey Two, jacket illustration by Michel Whelan; and a 1965 Michael Joseph hardback first edition of P. M. Hubbard's The Holm Oaks, dust jacket design by the wonderfully named H. Bridgeman Grimley. Finding the Hubbard in particular was one of those secondhand bookshop moments of which one dreams but seldom gets to experience: I've been on the lookout for a first edition of The Holm Oaks, the author's fourth novel for adults (sixth overall, counting his two children's novels) and the only one of his books I didn't own in any edition, for nearly four years, so to chance upon a highly scarce first, in lovely condition, in a bookshop which was my main purpose for visiting Tunbridge Wells, was serendipitous in the extreme. Rest assured I'll be blogging about it in full before too long.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Lauren R. Weinstein's Girl Stories (Henry Holt, 2006) and Lynda Barry's One Hundred Demons (Sasquatch Books, 2002)

NB: linked in this Friday's Forgotten Books roundup.

Over the past few months I've been unearthing graphic novels – more accurately unboxing, I suppose; for the most part they've been sitting in cardboard boxes in the loft – that I've owned for years but for whatever reason haven't got round to reading until now(ish). I have a vague plan, hatched in this post last month on three graphic novels from 2014 and destined, no doubt, like other vague plans before it, to be abandoned before it amounts to much of anything, to group some of them together in configurations which strike me as likely to prompt a few thoughts, arbitrary and asinine though those configurations – and thoughts – may be. This configuration being a case in point:

Girl Stories by Lauren R. Weinstein, published in paperback by Henry Holt in 2006, and One Hundred Demons by Lynda Barry, published in hardback by Sasquatch Books in 2002. Aha! I hear you cry. He's grouped these two graphic novels together because they're both by women. Oho! I rejoin. That is only part of the reason. In fact my major rationale for grouping the two books together is even more prosaic than that: when I retrieved them from the loft it struck me that they're both in a landscape format, and almost exactly the same TPS – about 150mm by 240mm.

Slightly more interestingly, both books are episodically autobiographical in nature and deal with similarly formative periods in their authors' lives, so despite my facile comparisons they do share more in common than just gender and size.

Of the two, I liked Girl Stories the best. Why it took me nearly ten years to finally read the damn thing I've no idea; I've long loved Weinstein's idiosyncratic, unpredictable Inside Vineyland (Alternative Comics, 2003), and though Girl Stories isn't quite as demented as that debut, it has the same zip and energy, just directed to keenly felt, scratchily rendered vignettes of school life and suburban home life (instead of stories about lovelorn robots and depressed dogs), with meditations on the perils of social climbing, the trouble with boyfriends and the problem of body fascism.

It's taken me even longer to get round to One Hundred Demons – over a dozen years, which is ridiculous really. I mean, what's the point in even owning a book if it's just going sit there unread for a dozen years? He types, looking round guiltily at the hundreds of books sitting on his shelves unread for half a dozen years. But anyway: Barry's comics are as honest and raw as Weinstein's – rawer even: there are allusions in One Hundred Demons to a very dark and painful episode in Barry's childhood. As a cartoonist, though, Barry prefers to tell rather than show, to the extent that the words in her panels frequently overwhelm and crowd out the pictures. That said, she may lack Weinstein's light touch, but there's a reflective strength, and consequently an affecting depth, to a story like "Cicadas".

Friday, 13 March 2015

War Game by Anthony Price (Gollancz, 1976; David Audley Series #7): Book Review

NB: One of this Friday's Forgotten Books.

'Formulaic' is a word oft applied to genre fiction, and in many cases rightly so: think of contemporary crime fiction, with its interminable parade of interchangeable detective-inspectors and mutilated female corpses. But though formulaic may be a derogatory term, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with developing or adhering to a formula. Some of the best and most influential crime and spy series ever published – Richard Stark's Parker novels and Ian Fleming's Bond ones spring to (my) mind – were written to formulas, and yet individual books within those series still stand as distinctive works of fiction in their own right. The key is to mix things up a bit – to, as Mike Love of the Beach Boys memorably put it, "fuck with the formula" (Love was actually advising Brian Wilson against doing that, but Wilson ignored him, with spectacular results) – and this is what Anthony Price does with his David Audley series of spy novels.

Since I first encountered the series in 2011 I've read seven of Price's nineteen Audley thrillers – most recently War Game, published by Victor Gollancz in 1976 – and though the elements – the formula – that comprise the novels have become familiar – a preoccupation with the past and, often, archaeology, one which feeds into a (then) present day mystery concerning state security; a reliance on dialogue rather than description as a means of unravelling that mystery – Price always finds a way to fuck with that formula.

His chief method of doing so is by changing the principal viewpoint character, beginning with the clever and prickly Audley himself in The Labyrinth Makers (1970), then moving through a variety of other operatives of the Research and Development Section of British Intelligence – plus the odd stray Italian and American – as the novels progress, and arriving, Magic Faraway Tree-style, back at Audley as of War Game. This is an older and more seasoned Audley, however – in Price's stories time marches on at roughly the same pace as the books were originally published, so a good six or seven years have elapsed since the events of The Labyrinth Makers – one who gazes upon subordinates Paul Mitchell and Frances Fitzgibbon and, despite being respectively irritated and beguiled by them, sees a pair of stars destined to rise further in the Intelligence firmament than he ever has or will.

But it's still Audley who for the most part makes the intellectual running here, doing his damndest to work out how leftie firebrand Charlie Ratcliffe has managed to unearth £2 million in 17th century gold – with which he intends to fund his radical workers' newspaper – and have his brother bumped off during a Civil War reenactment into the bargain, thus securing the fortune for himself. As before in the series, there's more – or perhaps less – going on than meets the eye, and so even though Price's own politics show through on occasion – the moral matter of whether a government minister should really be turning an apparatus of state to the undoing of a left-wing irritant is never fully addressed – there is a genuine threat to national security at play, one which must be countered. The identity of that threat may not come as a huge surprise, but the rug-pulling reveal of its method demonstrates there's plenty of fun to be had with Price's formula yet.