Saturday 18 June 2011

Housekeeping, and Coming Soon on Existential Ennui...

So then, as I mentioned in my final Patricia Highsmith post yesterday, I'll be on my summer holidays over the next week or so, which means there'll be no new posts for a while (all together now: "HUZZA--", I mean, "Awww"). But before I depart for more exotic climes (er, Devon; potentially a very sodden Devon, judging by the weather forecast), I just wanted to draw your attention to a couple of new innovations on Existential Ennui – which you might not have noticed – as well as preview some of the things you can expect to see here in the coming months in the form of teaser images scattered about this post and a great big long list.

One thing I've been doing over the past month or so is adding what Blogger calls "labels" – "tags" in the common parlance – to a great many of the posts on this blog. You can see some at the end of this post – words or names which, if you click on them, will magically transport you to every other post with that particular label affixed to it. Them. Whichever. Doubtless my explaining all this is akin to teaching fish to swim or grandmothers to suck eggs, but you never know: some people reading this might be as blogging-illiterate as me, considering I've been blogging for more than five years (although closer to two in a more focused manner here on Existential Ennui) and have only just now got round to adding tags/labels.

The other innovation is the addition of a search function, which resides just to the right under my masthead (my recently refreshed, immeasurably more impressive masthead, I'll have you know, which now depicts me dining with Molière). In a tediously predictable turn of events, straight after I installed it it stopped working, but at the moment it seems to be fully functional, and you can use it to search not only within Existential Ennui, but also anything I've linked to, the blogs in my "Other Fine Blogs" sidebar, and indeed the internet at large. Give it a go, why doncha?

All of that should go some way towards making Existential Ennui more of a useful resource, which, let's face it, it's barely been up to this point (although the British Library must have found some worth in it, I suppose... What? I haven't mentioned that for over a month!). Previously I've been resorting to googling my own bloody blog whenever I wanted to link to older posts, which was frankly ridiculous. Now, though, I can simply pop a search term in my own search engine and find what I need. A much more agreeable state of affairs, I'm sure you'll, er, agree.

Anyway, enough of the housekeeping nonsense. Let's move on to more important matters, namely wot I 'ave got coming up on this 'ere blog over the next few months. And there are all manner of exciting plans afoot, including the aforementioned series of posts on Patricia Highsmith's Ripley novels; a return to my Grofield Files and Parker Progress Reports, with reviews of Richard Stark's Lemons Never Lie and Butcher's Moon, plus Joe Gores's Parker-related Dead Skip; some more Donald E. Westlake science fiction, and a piece of Westlake non-fiction; further minicomix missives Notes from the Small Press; more on Existential Ennui favourites Ross Thomas, P. M. Hubbard and Anthony Price; and most exciting of all – if it all works out – an exclusive interview with an author who shall for the moment remain nameless. Fingers crossed for that one.

And on top of that there'll be a cornucopia of other names, both familiar and unfamiliar, including (in no particular order other than that which presents itself as I cast an eye across my bookcases and the volumes thereon awaiting my attention): John le Carré, Sarah Gainham, Evelyn Waugh, Kingsley Amis, Martin Amis, Berkely Mather, Donald Hamilton, Adam Hall, Kate Atkinson, Cormac McCarthy, William Haggard, George MacDonald Fraser, Dennis Wheatley, William Goldman, Ted Allbeury, Jeremy Duns, S. J. Watson, Eoin Colfer, Elmore Leonard, Frederick Forsyth, Frances Fyfield, Ira Levin, Lee Child, Ian Rankin and Eric Ambler. Lots to look forward to, then. See you soon.

Friday 17 June 2011

The Tom Ripley Novels: The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ripley Under Ground, Ripley's Game, The Boy Who Followed Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith (Chancellor Press Hardback, 1994)

This, it turns out, will be the final post in Patricia Highsmith Week; I do have one other fairly recent Highsmith acquisition, a short story collection, but I haven't read it yet, and I think I'd struggle to say anything about its background or cover design, chiefly because there's no design credit on the dustjacket and, well – I haven't read it yet. So instead let's round things off with this:

This is a UK hardback omnibus of four of the five Tom Ripley novels, published by Chancellor Press in 1994. The only one excluded is the final book, Ripley Under Water, although I'm not sure why that is; that novel, the last of Highsmith's works to be published in her lifetime (she had one final book, Small g: A Summer Idyll, published posthumously in 1995), debuted in 1991 (at least in Britain; in the States it didn't appear until the following year), so it could've easily made it in. In any case, there have been a handful of omnibus editions of the Ripley stories over the years, but most of them only contain three of the novels; the only one that doesn't is the 1992 Penguin edition, which contains the same stories as the Chancellor Press hardback. That Penguin collection, however, is a paperback, so for my money, the Chancellor Press omnibus is the best bet if you fancy a great big wedge of Ripley.

The cover design is by Button Design Co, but the illustration is by Mark Taylor, who I've blogged about before: he created the cover illos for the UK first editions of Elmore Leonard's two (so far; Leonard's working on another) Raylan Givens novels, Pronto and Riding the Rap. As to why I acquired this omnibus when I already own copies of all of the Tom Ripley novels... y'know, I'm not entirely sure. I think I was just intrigued by it when I saw it online and fancied having a look at it (and blogging about it, obviously). I suspect I'll release it into the wilds of Lewes's charity shops once I'm done with this post (so keep 'em peeled, fellow Lewesians), but it does at least give me the opportunity to write about Ripley again, something I never tire of doing.

See, I love Tom Ripley. I love Ripley as a character, and I love the books in which he appears. The best of the five novels, at least in my opinion, is 1974's Ripley's Game, but they all have their merits, and anyone thinking of reading them should put no stock in the received wisdom that the first one, 1955's The Talented Mr. Ripley, is the best one and that it's a law of diminishing returns thereafter. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, if I were to rate each of the novels out of 10, and then chart them on a graph, that graph would look something like this:
You'll see there that we start fairly high with The Talented Mr. Ripley – it is, after all, a fine novel – then move up a notch for 1970's Ripley Under Ground; hit the high water mark with 1974's Ripley's Game; and then there's a fairly steep decline towards 1980's The Boy Who Followed Ripley and 1991's Ripley Under Water, although those last two still sit at 7/10 and 6/10 respectively. I realise this won't tally with everyone's assessment of the Ripley novels, but if you approach them with an open mind, I think you'll find that Tom is at his very best – most fascinating, most bizarre, most compelling – in Ripley Under Ground and Ripley's Game, and that, structurally, and in terms of story and the moral quandaries at its heart, Ripley's Game is the Ripley novel supreme.

There's so much to explore and discuss with the Ripley novels. For me, Tom becomes more interesting once he's ensconced in rural France as of Ripley Under Ground, having achieved his goal of a comfortable, cultured existence, and yet still drawn to the dark. Looked at as a part of Highsmith's wider body of work, it's notable that her familiar device of having two male protagonists becoming unhealthily fascinated by and intertwined with one another is also present in the Ripley novels, with the possible exception of Ripley Under Ground; indeed Ripley's Game could be said to be the ultimate expression of this, dividing its time between Tom and the hapless Jonathan Trevanny. And then there's Tom himself, about whom one could sermonise – or possibly evangelise, or perhaps even rhapsodise – endlessly, from the dichotomy of his manipulative nature versus his unexpected loyalty and bravery, to his eventual body count throughout the books (not as great, nor always as indefensible, as you might think).

In fact, there's so much to examine, scrutinise and mull over with the Ripley novels that one could write a whole series of posts on each of the books. So that's precisely what I will be doing before too long, taking each book in turn and really digging into them to identify themes and try and work out exactly who Tom Ripley is. That's for the future, however; for now I'm afraid that's all from Patricia Highsmith... and indeed that's nearly all from me, because Existential Ennui will be going on its summer holidays for a week or so. But I do have one last post for you before I depart, a little tease of things to come on this blog, plus a bit of housekeeping. Look out for that over the weekend... 

UPDATE, 22/4/13: Unusually for me, I actually made good on my promise and reread each of the five Ripley novels, after which I revisited the Tom Ripley Graph; the results can be found here.

Thursday 16 June 2011

The Tremor of Forgery by Patricia Highsmith (Heinemann, 1969); First Edition, Review

Thus far in this week's worth of posts on Patricia Highsmith we've had a 1963 British first edition of her eighth novel, The Cry of the Owl, a 1964 British first edition of her ninth novel, The Two Faces of January, and an intriguing 1973 British hardback of her fifth novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley – the stories of all three of which are set largely overseas. And such is the case with this next book, too:

The Tremor of Forgery was first published in hardback in the UK by Heinemann in 1969 – the same year as the American Doubleday first, which you can see on the right there – under a wonderfully minimalistic dustjacket by Michael Dempsey (who also designed the jacket for the 1968 UK Hodder edition of Donald "Richard Stark" Westlake's debut Alan Grofield novel, The Damsel). Highsmith's thirteenth novel, it marks something of a departure in that it's a much more internal kind of story than its predecessors. Like all of Highsmith's work it's written in the third person, but the story is told from the perspective of a single character – as opposed to the often-adversarial viewpoints of two (usually male) protagonists – that of Howard Ingham, an American writer staying in Tunisia.

Ingham is in North Africa to work on a screenplay, but his plan is derailed when the film's backer, John Castlewood, commits suicide. Shaken by the news, Ingham nevertheless elects to stay in Tunisia and work instead on his next novel, and from here the story details his experiences in and around Tunis, as he meets and befriends another American, Francis J. Adams, and a Dane, Anders Jensen, all the while waiting to hear from his girlfriend back home, Ina.

Those bare bones belie the true complexity and depth of The Tremor of Forgery. Among Highsmith's abiding concerns in all her novels are the psychology of crime and how morality can become relative in a given situation, and those themes are certainly explored at length here. But in concentrating on a lead character who is in many senses alone, Highsmith allows herself the space to really analyze Ingham – or rather, have Ingham analyze himself. He observes the Tunisian society around him, reflecting on its attitudes and how he feels about those cultural differences. He ponders his own sexuality, deliberating on his latent homosexual tendencies whilst also embarking on a brief fling with a young woman, Kathryn. He even questions the very nature of his – and the wider world's – existence.

The novel might on first inspection seem uneventful, but the way it portrays Ingham alone with his thoughts, or in conversation on a variety of topics with Adams and Jensen, makes for a rich and rewarding reading experience. And there are mysteries at the heart of the story. Cut off from America, with only letters to rely on for information, Ingham frets over the lack of communication from Ina. There's a hint of espionage, as Adams is revealed as an agent provocateur and propagandist (possibly delusional), broadcasting pro-American messages on a transistor radio. And there is the question of an attempted break-in at Ingham's hotel bungalow, during which Ingham uses his typewriter as a weapon against the intruder; thereafter Howard is unsure of the invader's fate, and is haunted by the notion that he might have killed the man.

It's an extraordinary novel, unjustly overlooked these days in favour of Highsmith's better-known works, although that wasn't always the case: Graham Greene identified it as her "finest novel". I can safely say that, of all the Highsmith books I've read, The Tremor of Forgery is very nearly my favourite, beaten only by 1974's magisterial Ripley's Game. It really is that good.

And speaking of Tom Ripley, it's to him that we turn next, with a bulging omnibus edition of four of the Ripley novels...

Wednesday 15 June 2011

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (Heinemann Hardback, 1973)

Next up in this week of posts on Patricia Highsmith, this:

And what, pray tell, is it? Well, it's the 1973 hardback of The Talented Mr. Ripley, published by Heinemann in Britain as part of their Highsmith "uniform edition" series, and it's a very curious thing indeed. See, here in the UK, The Talented Mr. Ripley – Highsmith's third novel under her own name – was first published in hardback in 1957 by the Cresset Press, following the American Coward-McCann first edition in 1955. Numerous British paperback editions then followed, kicked off by what I believe was the first UK paperback edition, the 1960 Pan softcover, a copy of which I just happen to own:

Gorgeous David Tayler cover art there. But as well as the various paperbacks, there was also the odd additional hardback, too. Because although Cresset published Highsmith's initial few novels in hardback, Heinemann took over the first publishing rights with her fourth (fifth if you count the pseudonymous The Price of Salt), 1957/58's Deep Water. And once the UK hardback rights had reverted on The Talented Mr. Ripley – publishing rights periods tending to last between seven and nine years – Heinemann issued their own hardback edition of the novel, in 1966. This isn't that edition, however; I've never even seen a cover of the '66 Heinemann hardback, and the only copy listed on AbeBooks is an ex-library copy priced at the ridiculous sum of £2,000 – more than twice the price of the Cresset first! No, this is the 1973 reprint of that '66 edition:

And according to the back cover of this edition of Talented, a good number of Highsmith's other novels from the 1950s and '60s were also issued in Heinemann's uniform edition in the 1970s:

Presumably they were published in similar dustjackets – certainly 1967's Those Who Walk Away was reissued around the same time, with a jacket that closely resembles the one for Talented (which I suspect has never been seen online before now). Anyway, while the 1966 reissue of Talented is beyond my reach, I did strike it lucky on Amazon Marketplace and snaffle the '73 reprint – the only one I know of for sale online. (I do know of one other copy, which isn't currently listed anywhere, but I also know that copy is rather tatty, having ordered it myself believing it to be the 1966 edition, only to discover it was mistakenly listed as such and that it was in fact the 1973 edition again, at which point I promptly returned it.) And since I have all the other Tom Ripley novels in Heinemann hardbacks (first editions, naturally), it's entirely agreeable to have the first Ripley outing in hardback as well.

I'll have more on Mr. Ripley later in the week, and I'm planning on properly revisiting each of the five Ripley novels in another series of posts in the future. But next up this week, a lovely British first edition of one of my favourite non-Ripley Highsmith novels, one which is unusual in that it features three men who become strangely fascinated by one another instead of the usual two, and while there is a death – possibly two – there's no murder to speak of...

Tuesday 14 June 2011

The Two Faces of January by Patricia Highsmith (Heinemann, 1964); First Edition, John Bance Cover, Review

Following on from yesterday's post on the British first edition of Patricia Highsmith's eighth novel, The Cry of the Owl, today I have for you the British first edition of her ninth novel, which I also bought at the Lewes Book Fair a couple of years ago, and which again sports a splendid John Bance-designed dustjacket:

The Two Faces of January was first published in hardback in the UK in 1964 by Heinemann – originally published that same year in the US by Doubleday. This time the story revolves around Chester MacFarland and his wife Colette, ostensibly holidaying in Athens, although in reality Chester has found it necessary to get out of America for a while due to his dodgy business dealings. Also in Athens is Rydal Keener, a chancer looking for adventure. The MacFarlands' and Rydal's paths cross when a Greek policeman, acting on information from the States, confronts Chester in his hotel room. The two fight, and Chester accidentally kills the policeman. Rydal, who already has Chester and Colette marked as interesting prospects for excitement, happens to be in the corridor, and helps Chester stow the body in a store-room.

From there the action ranges across Greece and Crete, as Rydal, Chester and Colette try and stay one step ahead of the law and jealousy and animosity develops between the two men – that familiar Highsmith theme of a weird fascination between two male characters again – with Colette caught in the middle. As is often the case in Highsmith's novels, there are no heroes here; Chester is (rightly) suspicious of Rydal's motives, especially in relation to Colette, while Rydal is sly and manipulative. I think that's possibly why The Two Faces of January didn't quite make the impact on me that The Cry of the Owl did; one should always be wary of seeking likable characters in a novel, but it helps to be able to relate to or at least have some small sympathy with one protagonist, and that's tricky in The Two Faces of January.

Of the triumvirate, Rydal is the easiest to empathize with, but whereas, say, Tom Ripley displays the qualities of loyalty to his friends and a singular (if admittedly self-centred and occasionally criminal) pursuit of more cultured climes, which helps to offset his lack of conscience and murderous tendencies (a bit), Rydal seemingly has no goal except to fuck up Chester's life and steal his wife. Mind you, he does share Tom's bravery and resourcefulness in the face of adversity, and as the novel develops, his ultimate aim becomes a quest for vengeance and justice, which is perhaps more understandable given the circumstances.

I mentioned in yesterday's post that The Two Faces of January features an aspect of Highsmith's work that offers an insight into her personal life, which is her interest in foreign climes, particularly Europe. Roughly half of Highsmith's twenty-two novels are set outside the United States – all five of the Tom Ripley books are largely set in Europe, for example – while from 1963 – just before The Two Faces of January was published, in fact – Highsmith herself lived overseas, in France, Italy, Switzerland and the UK. This might go some way to explaining why her work was – still is – more popular in Europe than in America, although the reverse could also be true: she may well have based many of her stories in Europe precisely because she lived there and found greater acclaim there. Certainly she took a dim view of America, although it could be argued that she eventually came to take a dim view of pretty much everything. Whatever the case, it's notable that in the latter stages of her career her novels were invariably published in the UK before they debuted in the States.

And we'll be staying overseas for the next post in this series, as I take a look at Highsmith's most famous novel – which boasts the debut of the aforementioned Mr. Ripley – in an intriguing and incredibly scarce British hardback edition...

Monday 13 June 2011

The Cry of the Owl by Patricia Highsmith (Heinemann, 1963); First Edition, John Bance Cover, Review

This week, as promised, I'll be blogging exclusively about mistress of suspense Patricia Highsmith. Highsmith isn't a new discovery for me; I've been reading her novels for years and many of them remain among my favourite books, in particular the five starring the man with no conscience, Tom Ripley (especially 1974's Ripley's Game). Graham Greene called Highsmith "the poet of apprehension", but that pithy epithet only goes so far towards explaining the appeal of her stories. In a way, it's easiest to define them by what they aren't. They're not whodunnits or murder mysteries, although they frequently feature murders; they're not police procedurals, although policemen do appear, and have crimes to solve; they're not courtroom dramas or hard-boiled thrillers, although the law, at least in a moral sense, is an abiding concern, and there is violence in the books, sometimes explicit and shocking.

What they are, are psychological explorations of the darker side of the human condition. Often Highsmith's novels will focus on two protagonists – usually male – who become inexplicably fascinated by one another. This fascination frequently has homosexual undercurrents (Highsmith herself was gay) and invariably leads to a death, or multiple deaths. It's a structure established right from the very beginning of her novel-writing career, with Strangers on a Train (1950), and one she would return to again and again for the rest of her life, although usually with a fresh twist each time.

This week I'll be blogging about some of my recent(ish) Highsmith acquisitions, identifying and exploring the themes that weave through her stories and delving into the publishing history behind the books. But I'll also be looking back at some first editions I bought a while ago but never got round to writing about – which is the case with the first two books I have to show, both of which hail from the early 1960s, both of which boast distinctive John Bance dustjackets, and both of which I bought on my very first visit to the Lewes Book Fair, getting on for three years ago. And the first of those is this:

The UK hardback first edition of The Cry of the Owl, published by Heinemann in 1963 – originally published in the US by Harper in 1962 (the cover to which on the novel's Wikipedia page is actually taken from one of my own blog posts – and it's not the only one, either). Highsmith's eighth novel, it features Robert Forester, a recently divorced man working for an aeronautics company in Pennsylvania who has a parallel life as a Peeping Tom. Forester becomes fixated on a secluded house in a wood, finding a kind of peace by spying on the calming domesticity of its occupant, Jenny Thierolf. But matters become complicated when Jenny spots Robert one night, and unexpectedly invites him into her home. And when Jenny's boyfriend, Greg, gets wind of this blossoming relationship and makes contact with Robert's embittered ex-wife, Nickie, the stage is set for a tale of escalating obsession and violence.

In some ways, The Cry of the Owl marks a slight shift in Highsmith's approach, in that the infatuation at the heart of the novel is between a man and a woman (although Greg's fixation on Robert is as tangible as in any other of Highsmith's works). Certainly the fact that the relationship between Robert and Jenny is unambiguously romantic – although cool and reserved on Robert's side and highly strung on Jenny's – and that the theme of voyeurism, another constant in Highsmith's books, is front and centre, for me lent the story an added poignancy. Obviously I can't speak for anyone else, but the urge to spy and stalk is something I can relate to, having gone through a regrettable phase of that myself in the aftermath of a relationship when I was a lot younger. I think that's partly why the novel made such an impact on me, but even without that added resonance, The Cry of the Owl is a powerful piece of fiction, by turns queasy, gripping and ultimately crushing.

Indeed, I'd go so far as to say The Cry of the Owl is one of Highsmith's best novels. But while the next book I'll be looking at – and the next novel Highsmith had published – 1964's The Two Faces of January, doesn't quite reach those heights, it does still have it merits, and in its choice of location – i.e. Europe – offers an insight into another of Highsmith's preoccupations, both in her fiction and in her own life.

Sunday 12 June 2011

The Labyrinth Makers and The Alamut Ambush: First Editions (Victor Gollancz, 1970 / 1971)

So then, I mentioned at the end of my final review of Anthony Price's terrific espionage novels (which was on 1972's Colonel Butler's Wolf, if you're either a latecomer or have a dreadful memory) that I might be able to squeeze in one more Price post over the weekend, depending on the efficiency of postal deliveries. But as it turned out, I wasn't at the mercy of the vagaries of the British postal system, because the books I was waiting for were sent Recorded Delivery (thank you, Amazon Marketplace seller Sam McCarthy, alias "mccbooks57") and arrived the next day. As to why I was so keen to get my hands on these books... well, take a look:

Those are the UK hardbacks of Anthony Price's The Labyrinth Makers and The Alamut Ambush, published by Victor Gollancz in 1970 and 1971 respectively. Now, if you've been following my Anthony Price posts all week, you'll know that these are Price's first and second novels. You'll also perhaps be wondering, if you read this post on collecting Price, if those yellow jackets denote that these are the first editions/first printings of the novels, and if so, if they're ex-library copies. The answers to which lie inside the books, on their respective title and copyright pages:

i.e., yes, they are first editions/first printings, and no, they're not ex-library. Furthermore, you might recall my mentioning how expensive first editions of Price's early books are, certainly beyond my (slender) means: AbeBooks currently has only four copies of the Gollancz first of The Labyrinth Makers listed worldwide, ranging from £150 to £350, while there are only a few non-ex-library copies of The Alamut Ambush listed on either AbeBooks or Amazon Marketplace at £75-£200. All of which is true. However, I paid only a fraction of that for these two copies – a fraction of a fraction, in fact. But how, I hear you cry?

Well, I was snooping on Amazon UK Marketplace (having noticed another copy of the 1983 Gollancz edition of The Alamut Ambush pop up for sale and the other one come right down in price after I blogged about it... coincidence...?) when I spotted a new seller – the aforementioned Mr. McCarthy – had listed what he'd identified as firsts of The Labyrinth Makers and The Alamut Ambush for absolute bargain prices. Amazon Marketplace listings can be notoriously untrustworthy, so I sent him quick email question and he confirmed that they were indeed the first editions. So I nabbed 'em both, for the grand total of thirty quid. Bargain. I mean, how could I pass up the opportunity to own firsts of two of the best books I've read in yonks – particularly when The Alamut Ambush is set in large part in my local area?

Curiously, I also noticed another very cheap copy of The Labyrinth Makers for sale on Amazon Marketplace, which again the – American in this instance, so there'd be added postage for any interested Brits – seller has identified as the 1970 first edition. I'm not sure if it is or not – it might be a mislisted reprint – but it'd be worth asking the question. It's still there as I type. (Update: but now it's not. Sorry.)

One last note about my first of The Labyrinth Makers; there's a little sticker on the front paste-down endpaper, under the dustjacket flap:

A pleasingly old-fashioned sticker for famed independent bookshop Foyles, which is still there at the top of London's Charing Cross Road to this day. So I know exactly where this copy of The Labyrinth Makers was bought, although probably not on publication; I seem to recall Foyle's also sold secondhand books years ago (they only really sell new books now). Even so, a nice provenance.

Anyway, that really is all from Anthony Price for the moment, although there will be much more on him on Existential Ennui in the future. And I still have that Price news I teased, too. Next though: Patricia Highsmith.

(NB: a two-part interview I later conducted with Anthony Price can be found here and here, along with this postscript, which reveals what became of these copies of The Labyrinth Makers and The Alamut Ambush...)