Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Patricia Highsmith, Graham Greene and Eleven (Heinemann, 1970), alias The Snail-Watcher and Other Stories

NB: Linked in Friday's Forgotten Books, 26/6/15.

"I have said little about other people's suspense books," wrote Patricia Highsmith towards the end of her inspirational book for budding writers, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966, revised 1981), "mainly because I seldom read them, and so I am unqualified to say that certain suspense books are good, very good, or why. I like best Graham Greene's entertainments, mainly because they are intelligent, and their prose is very skillful. He is also a moralist, even in his entertainments, and I am interested in morality, providing it isn't preached." (The only other suspense author to get much of a look-in in Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction is Julian Symons, who warrants one page to Graham Greene's three, although non-suspense writers like Dostoevsky, Flaubert and Henry James are referenced.)

Highsmith and Greene never met in person, but they were admirers of each other's work and corresponded for years. Highsmith told film critic Gerald Peary in 1988, "I have [Greene's] telephone number but I wouldn't dream of using it" (she added: "I don't seek out writers because we all want to be alone"), while Andrew Wilson, in his 2003 biography of Highsmith, Beautiful Shadow, recounts one occasion where Greene wrote to Highsmith expressing his disgust at some of the negative reviews of Highsmith's 1972 novel A Dog's Ransom. But the best example, and certainly the most frequently quoted, of Greene's enthusiasm for Highsmith's writing comes in his foreword to Highsmith's first collection of short stories:

Eleven, published in 1970 by Heinemann in the UK and the same year, under the title The Snail-Watcher and Other Stories, by Doubleday in the US. Highsmith was so keen to have Greene write the foreword to the book that when Doubleday would only pay $100 of the $500 fee that Greene's agent had demanded, Highsmith made up the difference. Considering how widely quoted the foreword has turned out to be – excerpts appeared on the covers of a good many of her subsequent books and in numerous other places besides – it was money well spent, but one snippet has circulated especially widely, and particularly online: "Miss Highsmith is the poet of apprehension". It's an intriguing line – or rather segment of a line – but the ensuing half-paragraph is more illuminating:

Miss Highsmith is the poet of apprehension rather than fear. Fear after a time, as we all learned in the blitz, is narcotic, it can lull one by fatigue into sleep, but apprehension nags at the nerves gently and inescapably. We have to learn to live with it. Miss Highsmith's finest novel to my mind is The Tremor of Forgery, and if I were to be asked what it is about I would reply, "Apprehension."

Greene goes on to make the point: "In her short stories Miss Highsmith has naturally to adopt a different method. She is after the quick kill rather than the slow encirclement of the reader, and how admirably and with what field-craft she hunts us down." From the stories in Eleven he chooses "When the Fleet was in at Mobile" as his favourite, which with its devastating ending he commends as "Highsmith at her claustrophobic best", and further picks out "The Heroine" for being "as much a study of apprehension as [The Tremor of Forgery]... 'The Terrapin', a late Highsmith... a cruel story of childhood which can bear comparison with Saki's masterpiece, 'Sredni Vaster', and for pure physical horror, which is an emotion rarely evoked by Miss Highsmith, 'The Snail-Watcher'".

Rarely evoked perhaps, but to my mind the "pure physical horror" of "The Snail-Watcher" is matched in Eleven by "The Quest for Blank Claveringi", another tale of snails (Highsmith herself kept snails as pets) in which Professor Avery Clavering comes a cropper on the fictional Mastusas Islands at the hands – or rather teeth – of a monstrous mollusc. My own favourites in the collection are the very short, very sour "The Cries of Love", a sharp sketch of low-level internecine warfare between two auld biddies sharing a room in a retirement hotel, like a pithy precursor to Kingsley Amis's Ending Up (1974), and the powerful "Another Bridge to Cross", which in its portryal of an American man adrift in a foreign land following a bereavement and undergoing a crisis of identity explores similar territory to the aforementioned The Tremor of Forgery (1969). (In Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction Highsmith herself singled out "Another Bridge to Cross", calling it "a tragic story", one "written from my own emotions, because I wanted to write it".)

"[Highsmith's] characters are irrational," wrote Graham Greene, "and they leap to life in their very lack of reason; suddenly we realize how unbelievably rational most fictional characters are as they lead their lives from A to Z, like commuters always taking the same train." That for me serves as more of an insight into the appeal of the best of Highsmith as that "poet of apprehension" line, and though the bulk of the stories in Eleven, splendid though they are, are designed more for "the quick kill", "Another Bridge to Cross" is as fine, albeit fleeting, an "encirclement of the reader" as can be found in her oeuvre.

I'll be returning to Graham Greene soon, with a gallery of beautiful editions of his books from the 1950s and 1960s and a review of an excellent "entertainment". But before that, another Highsmith first edition, one which will shortly be joining Eleven in the Existential Ennui Patricia Highsmith First Edition Book Cover Gallery: The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Singular Points of View: Patricia Highsmith and A Dog's Ransom (Heinemann, 1972)

NB: Linked in this Friday's Forgotten Books, 19/6/15.

Patricia Highsmith wrote all of her novels and short stories in the third-person singular (past tense), arguing – in Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966, revised 1981) – that "first-person singular is the most difficult form in which to write a novel". She added:

I have bogged down twice in first-person-singular books, so emphatically that I abandoned any idea of writing the books. I don't know what was the matter, except that I got sick and tired of writing the pronoun "I", and I was plagued with an idiotic feeling that the person telling the story was sitting at a desk writing it. Fatal! Also, I have quite a bit of introspection in my heroes, and to write all this in the first person makes them sound like nasty schemers, which of course they are, but they seem less so if some all-knowing author is telling what is going on in their heads.

Highsmith also preferred "two points of view in a novel, but I don't always have them". In most cases where she elected not to write from two (usually male) viewpoints, she chose a single (also usually male) viewpoint – for example Deep Water (1957), This Sweet Sickness (1960), The Tremor of Forgery (1969) and all bar one (Ripley's Game, 1974) of the five Tom Ripley novels, reasoning that "keeping a single point of view throughout a book... increases the intensity of the story – and intensity can and should offset a possible monotony of a one-person viewpoint". But very occasionally she wrote a book from more than two points of view. A Suspension of Mercy (alias The Story-Teller, 1965) would be an example of this, as would this book:

A Dog's Ransom, published in hardback in the UK by Heinemann in 1972. In the opening chapters the story unfolds from the viewpoint of Ed Reynolds, a well-to-do New Yorker on the receiving end of anonymous poison pen letters; but once Ed and his wife Greta's French poodle, Lisa, is dognapped,  Highsmith introduces Patrolman Clarence Duhamell, a well-meaning but naive and, so it proves, inept cop who makes it his personal mission to retrieve Lisa. And then, just as it looks as though Highsmith will be uncharacteristically withholding the identity of the dognapper and crafting a whodunnit – as she did in probably her weakest novel, A Game for the Living (1958) – she introduces her third POV character, one of her classic creeps, the objectionable Kenneth Rowajinski.

I suppose the prior Highsmith creep Rowajinski most reminded me of was Melchior Kimmel from The Blunderer (1954), but in his nasty hobby of poison penning, Rowajinski also brought to my mind Tom in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955)who in the opening stages of that book is engaged in a spot of mail fraud – "no more than a practical joke, really," as Highsmith/Tom puts it, "Good clean sport" – and considering giving one of his victims "a good scare by telephone to put the fear of god into him". But anyway: the multiple vantage points of A Dog's Ransom and its vision of a New York crippled by crime and corruption afford the novel a kind of state-of-the-nation feel – which, according to Highsmith's biographer, Andrew Wilson (in Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith, 2003), was precisely Highsmith's intention.

This and other aspects of the novel are explored by John Norris in his thoughtful review of A Dog's Ransom from last week (coincidentally both John and I happened to have read the same book at around the same time). I'm not sure if John actually liked the book – I'm not sure I did either – but he like me was certainly fascinated by it. Reviews at the time of publication were mixed, however; though Brigid Brophy in The Listener thought the novel "a virtuoso piece" and praised it for "taking the reader deep into the ironies of his own ambivalence", Mary Borg in the New Statesman highlighted the "glaring unlikeliness" of the plot, while the Times Literary Supplement called the book "a mechanical exercise in self-pastiche, employing all [Highsmith's] familiar devices and rehearsing most of her familiar obsessions, but with none of the vigour, inventiveness or intensity which in her best work makes those devices and obsessions seem so rivetting".

"Such reviews," wrote Andrew Wilson in Beautiful Shadow, "compelled Graham Greene to write to Highsmith expressing his disgust at the stupidity of the critics and admiration for the book itself, noting that it was 'one of the best and most complex of your novels'." Greene was a fan of Highsmith's work – as was she of his; he's one of the very few authors she namechecks in Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction – and the two corresponded for years. Greene also provided the foreword to Highsmith's first collection of short stories, Eleven (alias The Snail-Watcher and Other Stories, 1970) – as quoted on the back of the Heinemann edition of A Dog's Ransom – and I'll be taking a look at that book in my next post.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

The Bookshelves of the Two-Year-Old Daughter of a Chronic Book Collector

Speaking of Edie, as I was last week, I thought it might be instructive to see what the bookshelves of the two-year-old daughter of an inveterate book collector look like. A bit like this, in fact:

Those are the shelves in the alcove in Edie's bedroom. Quite a lot of books crammed in there; mostly picture books; mostly, but not exclusively, foraged from the charity shops of Lewes and, occasionally, Brighton. Favourites – both Edie's and mine and Rachel's – among that little lot include Jennifer Uman and Valerio Vidali's Jemmy Button (subtitle The Boy That Darwin Returned Home, Templar, 2013); Heapy & Heap's Very Little Red Riding Hood (David Fickling, 2013); Helen Ward's Wonderful Life (Templar, 2007); and Jason Hook and Ilaria Demonti's Wendy and the Wallpaper Cat (V&A, 2015; more on that one soon). Also firm favourites with Edie are Tony Millionaire's Little and Large (2005) and That Darn Yarn (both Dark Horse, 2005), which are on the top shelf; those actually come from my collection of Millionaire's various Sock Money works, but after reading them to Edie it became evident they really belonged on her shelves, and now she asks for "Sock Monkey" on a regular basis.

At the bottom of the alcove are more books, and yet more in a little bookcase next to it. Favourites among that lot include the Little Miss and Mr. Men box sets (the latter with Anna out of Frozen sitting atop it) and Judith Kerr's Bedtime Tales set, especially The Tiger Who Came to Tea and Mog the Forgetful Cat. And there are other entries in the Mog series scattered throughout Edie's book collection, including here:

A shelving unit downstairs in the lounge which originally housed some of my records but now houses rather fewer of my records and rather more of Edie's books and toys. Still, I only have myself to blame there...

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Eastbourne Book Buys: Victor Canning's Birds of a Feather (Heinemann, 1985) and the Last of Tome

NB: Linked in Friday's Forgotten Books, 12 June 2015.

We had a family outing to Eastbourne a couple of weeks ago, the highlight of which was undoubtedly Edie's first proper experience of paddling in the sea:

Which, after a cautious start – she was initially reluctant to put her feet down on the wet squelchy sand at the water's edge – entailed much squealing and dashing back and forth into the lapping waves. But as much fun as that was, almost as thrilling in its own way, at least for me (although rather less so, I imagine, for Edie and Rachel), was the acquisition of this:

A 1985 Heinemann first edition of Victor Canning's Birds a Feather, which I bought in Eastbourne secondhand bookshop institution Camilla's, priced £4.50. The final novel in Canning's Birdcage espionage series, it was the only one I was missing in first (non-ex-library copies are quite hard to come by), so when I spied it on the shelves in the basement of Camilla's – luckily it was on one of the higher shelves, otherwise it would've been obscured by the piles of books that sit on the floor in front of the lower third of the bookcases in the basement – I was delighted. Naturally I've added it to the Existential Ennui Victor Canning Birdcage First Edition Book Cover Gallery and to British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s.

But while Camilla's marches on in much the same fashion as it ever has – well, in my experience, in the half-dozen years I've been going there – another, more recent Eastbourne secondhand bookshop is breathing its last. Tome, which opened its doors on Terminus Road (an apt location in retrospect) near the seafront a few years ago, is closing – indeed may already have closed by the time I publish this post. I was alerted to this sorry state of affairs by Existential Ennui reader Gerald, so the trip to Eastbourne was motivated at least in part by a desire to have a last look at Tome's wares. Books were being packed in boxes on the day we were there, but there were still lots on display, all priced at 50p rather than the usual £2 (I do wonder whether that pricing policy was a factor in the closure), and though there wasn't anything I desperately wanted – I've raided Tome's shelves too thoroughly on a number of prior occasions – I still managed to find a few things of interest:

On the bottom row, a 1965 Hodder & Stoughon first edition of The Third Side of the Coin, Francis Clifford's tenth novel – quite uncommon in first that one – and a 1968 Jonathan Cape first edition of The Killing Season, the debut novel by John Redgate, alias actor Adam Kennedy; and on the top row, a 1981 Cape first edition of Once a Spy, Rennie Airth's second novel – also uncommon, not to mention pricey, in first (at least sixty quid on AbeBooks) – and a 1991 Picador first edition of The Mexican Tree Duck, James Crumley's fifth novel. A good illustration of the kinds of unexpected delights Tome invariably offered up, and why the place will be sorely missed. And as further illustration, here's a pile of books I bought in Tome last year – including a signed 2006 No Exit Press first of James Sallis's Drive – as photographed on Eastbourne beach shortly after (and posted on Twitter, but not, heretofore, on Existential Ennui):

And here's Edie – who at two years old has lived her entire life with Tome in it, to the extent that on one occasion she even ate her lunch in the place (and on another occasion, did a poo there) – photobombing:

Cheerio then, Tome. And thanks for all the books.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Action: The Story of a Violent Comic by Martin Barker (Titan Books, 1990) Feat. Kids Rule OK

There was quite a bit of excitement in British comics circles – and beyond – last week when an eBay auction got underway for a copy of the 23 October 1976 issue of short-lived ultra-violent 1970s weekly British kids' anthology comic Action; within days it had sailed past the thousand pound mark and eventually sold for just north of £2,500 – a remarkable sum considering the issue before it, dated 16 October 1976, offered by the same seller, went for just under sixty quid. But this wasn't just any issue of Action: the 23 October issue was the last one before Action went on hiatus – the comic resumed publication over a month later but in a watered-down form – and the vast majority of copies were pulped, with only a few dozen known to have survived.

A censored version of that 23 October issue formed the basis of the post-hiatus 4 December issue, but at least some of the comic strips appeared as originally intended fourteen years later in this book:

Action: The Story of a Violent Comic, published in hardback by Titan Books in 1990. Compiled and written by Professor Martin Barker, the 288-page book details the history of the comic The Sun newspaper dubbed "The Sevenpenny Nightmare" and presents large chunks of key stories Hookjaw – a blood-soaked blatant Jaws rip-off – Death Game 1999 – a blood-soaked blatant Rollerball rip-off – and Look Out for Lefty – an underclass take on Roy of the Rovers – as well as a small selection of strips from spy thriller Dredger.

Best of all it reprints in its all-too-brief entirety the brutal Kids Rule OK, a bovver-booted dystopia which envisions a world where the adults have all largely carked it and gangs of feral youth reign supreme. Written by Jack Adrian – an alias of Chris Lowder – and drawn by Mike White, the story owes an obvious debt to William Golding's Lord of the Flies, something Adrian acknowledged in his initial notes for the series, as quoted by Martin Barker. But an even more apposite antecedent is Dave Wallis's 1964 novel Only Lovers Left Alive, in which the adults also cark it – at their own hands in this instance – and the unruly teens take over.

Unfortunately, in the years since its publication Action: The Story of a Violent Comic has become almost as elusive as that 23 October issue of Action: there are only around a dozen copies available online at present, and the cheapest of those is nearly sixty quid (most are more like £90 to £100). When I was in charge of the graphic novels department at Titan in the mid-2000s I remember there being a single copy of the book tucked away on the shelves in the library room behind where I sat, and I must admit I did occasionally entertain the notion of 'borrowing' it. In the end, though, I left it where it was (it may even still be there).

Happily, earlier this year I chanced upon a pristine copy in Dave's Books, the next-door-but-one back issue department of Dave's Comics in Brighton, priced at just nine pounds. Which just goes to show that good things eventually come to those who, er, elect not to thieve.