Friday, December 12, 2008

In Spite of Myself by Christopher Plummer

In Spite of Myself: a Memoir by Christopher Plummer (Knopf Canada)

Christopher Plummer's recently published memoir, In Spite of Myself, clocks in at 648 pages. I can't think of how he could have found the time to take notes having lived such a full life, so he must, then, have a prodigious memory. A prodigious memory for a prodigious life. If he wrote about every detail of his life it could easily have been a three volume affair, but as it is, this hefty volume, written with idiosyncratic flair and panache is a substantial tell-all of one of the very greatest actors of our time.

He has worked with so many people in his long career, and experienced so much, and has so many stories to tell, that as a quiet introverted reader, I had to put the book down from time to time to gather strength. His style is flamboyant and richly textured which captures the energy and passion of his life, and he has framed the memoir with a novel's structure, and neatly brings us full-circle in the final pages.

This will be a must-read for any theatre and movie fan for it is also a compendium of theatrical and movie lore. One of those substantial books ideal as Christmas gifts.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

Paul Theroux - Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar (2008) (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) (McClelland and Stewart).

Beyond the Oxus
In the autumn of 1934, the 27 year old Peter Fleming, adventurer, journalist, travel writer--and elder brother of the yet to be famous Ian--embarked on a trip from Krasnovodsk on the Caspian Sea coast, to Samarkand: a three or four day journey through the deserts of Central Asia aboard the Trans-Caspian Railway--the "express" train. His brief account of this rough trip through parts of the Soviet world--old Transoxiana--was later given as a BBC radio piece and collected in his With the Guards to Mexico! (1957). His descriptions of the conditions of this train and his co-travellers is strangely parallel to the experiences of Paul Theroux as he travelled the Bukhara Express to Samarkand in the year 2006, recounted in his latest travel book, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: on the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar. Certainly there have been many historical changes over the 70 years, but it seems the conditions of the trains--possibly the same rolling stock--and the conditions of the co-passengers have changed very little. Considering that Paul Theroux ended up having nine people crammed into a four-person compartment for the over-nighter is perhaps a sign that conditions have actually deteriorated. But, as he has said, "luxury is the enemy of observation." I have to tip my imaginary Tilly to Paul. He was 65 years old, and this section of his trip was but a fraction of the journey which had him retracing the steps of his 1973 adventure by train through Asia and back, The Great Railway Bazaar (1975), in an effort to revisit the ghost of his younger self, and to see what has changed, and what has remained the same.

Beyond South London
Paul Theroux was born in 1941 and grew up with his large family in Medford, Massachussetts. By the 1960s, a well-informed, intelligent young man, he had joined the Peace Corps and was off to teach in Africa and later in South East Asia, taking opportunities to travel when he could. By 1973, in his early thirties, he was living the exile's life in London with his wife, a BBC producer, and their two young children. He was a seasoned professional writer by this time, with six published novels under his belt, one more set for the printers, and one in the making, plus a book of criticism, many "pieces" of journalism, and many, many book reviews. What possessed him to leave this professional existence behind for a four months journey of adventure and discomfort? (Sitting in a room for most of the day writing sentences may have had something to do with it.) Perhaps he had reached a point in his life, an arrival if you will, which rubbed up against a need for a grand departure: a need to abandon the static position in favour of one of locomotion; a need for reality in lieu of imagination; a need for conversation rather than soliloquy; a need to throw himself into the world and let the depths of possibility help keep him afloat. A romantic suggestion. Akin, perhaps, to Stein's dictum in Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim. However, he has written that he wanted to make more money--a refrain amongst writers--and he received his first advance for what would become The Great Railway Bazaar, a book that became a best seller. It was a pivotal time in his life. He succeeded in forging an innovative template for travel writing--which others were to follow--and he used this template creatively to write further books based on further travels such as The Old Patagonian Express, The Kingdom by the Sea, Sailing Through China, Riding the Iron Rooster, The Happy Isles of Oceania, The Pillars of Hercules and Dark Star Safari, experiences that also helped fuel his prolific output of novels, novellas and short stories.

With Theroux's revisitation in 2006, his retracing the route of his youthful journey, he offers revelations of his personal life concerning not only the present, but of the past as well. Seeing memory itself as a ghost train, he fills in the backcloth to the first journey with the personal context he did not reveal the first time round. The ghost theme plays throughout the book, rather like a musical leitmotif. Many of the train trips are night trains to dream-like destinations: Night Train to Baku: the Trans-Caucasian, Ghost Train to Mandalay, or Night Train to Kyoto: the Twilight Express, and Theroux often muses philosophical about travel itself, what he refers to as his Tao of Travel. The archetypal structure to his trip, the hero's circular journey, is lightly played upon in his present book, his wife playing the part of Penelope, knitting while she worries over her husband's return, while he, an older Odysseus, always travelling alone, benefits from the openess of strangers. As a reader, I felt like a ghost hovering over his shoulder, listening in on conversations with multi-charactered humanity, and attentively following his observations and gleanings on the overland route.

With this contrast between youth and age, between the first and second journey, we have the comparitive contrasts of countries and cultures--the historical context. In the first railway trip, he travelled through Iran and Afghanistan, but for this trip he had to follow a northern route through Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan and we see such a striking contrast of these countries and their oppressive governments, with India where every rickshaw driver has a cell-phone and there is a positive and polite work ethic, though one challenged by over-population and poverty. Theroux provides us with glimpses of the "dystopia of Turkmenistan, melancholy rural India, the open prison of Burma, the social laboratory of Singapore", and a great deal more. And he has his requisite meetings with fellow authors, this time Orhan Pamuk in Turkey, Arthur C. Clarke in Sri Lanka--an aged oddity--Haruki Murakami in Japan--a fascinating outsider and observer of his own society--and his good friend Pico Iyer in Japan as well. And there are the many characters he encounters such as Mr. Karpoorchand on the train to Jaipur with his unusual retirement plan, Mr. Kumara on the train to Kandy who reads Theroux's palm, Oo-Nawng, the rickshaw driver in Mandalay who Theroux befriends and reaches out to, and the Bernard family at Candacraig, a small hotel in Maymyo, Burma, the relatives of the Mr. Bernard he had written about in the first book and many, many more. Theroux has a keen eye for interesting characters, and this is one of the great strengths of his travel narratives, the interesting characters he discovers and brings to the page. His well-burnished ability for "casting strangers for roles in my narrative" as he puts it in his most recent book, seems almost an innate talent for observing human nature.

The opening of his first travel narrative The Great Railway Bazaar, reads very much like a novel due to his observations of character. Leaving London in 1973, he finds himself bunked together on the delapidated Orient Express with a Mr. R. Duffill, a rather odd man who reminded me immediately of Anthony Burgess's creation, Enderby, the oh so idiosyncratic poet. Poor old Duffill, with his essence of Enderby, his name becoming a verb, duffilled in Domodossola, watching in stilted horror as the train left the station without him. And of course there was Molesworth and his mineral water. Theroux reveals the true name of the man who was Molesworth in his latest book. One could do worse than be cast by Theroux. If one made it to the page, one could dine out on it for quite some time.

Though he mentions it is common to hear of young upstarts trying to make a name for themselves by retracing the footsteps of famous journeys made in the past, it is not common for writers to retrace their own footsteps. It seems Paul Theroux has managed, once again, to find his way home in an original way.

New Note: from Bill Thompson's Eye On Books: an audio interview with Paul Theroux:

Further audio interviews can be found here.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Sail on the Horizon: Reading Virgil Burnett's Scarbo Edge: a Romaunt

Scarbo Edge: a Romaunt by Virgil Burnett / with illustrations by the author (Blaurock Press, 2008).

About six pages into Scarbo Edge: a romaunt, an intuitive presumption of familiarity stilled my reading eyes. . . first chapter called 'The Golden Ampersand' . . . night train from Paris to Venice . . . a passionate tryst . . . . . . Venice . . . an erotic assignation. In a visual sense, these would be the first shadowy crosshatchings of my interaction with the text--one reading over another, a memory rising up from the shadows--from the past.

This evocative novel's first chapter appeared--I finally remembered--in a literary journal, an issue devoted to Venice. Not able to remember the specific journal, I did remember the cover image, a rather distinctive animal-faced Venetian door-knocker, and it was by this remembered image that I was able to trace the journal among my wife's collection: Descant, 128, Spring 2005. Looking at it now, I am fascinated by the eyes of this creature which seem almost alive with a sad resignation, as if weary of but another visitor wishing to gain entry, but another soul announcing their arrival. Within this same issue, there is a portfolio of photographs taken by the author when he was in Venice in the late 1950s--France and Italy being an annual pilgrimage for this artist/author. These photographs reveal a city of locals going about their business, a city that had yet to see the inundation of 'tourists' much bemoaned by present day writers such as Javier Marias in a fairly recent article. Perhaps the eyes of this creature reflect the present rise of landfalls and departures--the weight of the worlds' footsteps vibrating through the lagoons.

It is a city in which we find our idealistic hero Eber and his singular love, Isa, secretly celebrating their relationship. Eber, many years ago, met Isa when they were in architecture school, he three years her senior. They began an affair which was casual, non-possessive, modern. When Eber took a position with Marcus Associates he travelled widely and yet he always returned to renew his love with Isa. Disillusioned with Marcus' emphasis on making money and developing properties rather than creating innovative architecture, Eber resigned and travelled the world in an attempt to realign his life. Being an excellent draughtsman, he found work with archaeologists on Iron-age Celtic sites from Malta to Brittany to Cornwall. Years pass. He discovers that Isa has married Marcus, a loveless marriage of convenience. After their tryst in Venice and some attempts to cure his singular obsession, Eber returns to Canada, renting a somewhat run-down Victorian pile called Scarbo Edge on the rough coast of Lake Huron not far from Falaise, Marcus' mansion where Eber has discovered Isa resides. And so their relationship is renewed, fraught with dangers from the present, and possibly mirrored in the past.

Scarbo Edge is not only a variation on the Tristan and Isolde legend--the eternal love triangle, that triadic template for much of the Western narrative tradition from the Iliad on--but it incorporates a variation of the suspense genre as well. It is both an old story and a new one. It is a story of passionate physical love, of eroticism, of singular desire. A narrative richly veined with allusions and ambiguities, dualities and duplicities, ghostly parallels, existential wanderings, and mythic ordeals.

Virgil Burnett, artist and author, is a master of the line--'proportion, anatomy, and composition'-- and this mastery, informed by a wealth of experience and knowledge, finds its equivalence in his written word . His style is one of a born story-teller, both simply told and beautifully written. His descriptions of the physical relationship of a man and a woman is both exquisitely poetic, and vigorously real. A rich addition to Virgil Burnett's diverse oeuvre.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Two from the Porcupine's Quill

A Wood Engraver's Alphabet by G. Brender à Brandis (Porcupine's Quill, 2008).

Prompted by Tim Inkster of Porcupine's Quill Press, Gerard Brender à Brandis, master engraver and print maker, has produced another wondrous book of wood-cut engravings, a flower for each letter of the alphabet.

The engravings are so rich, so densely cut, that looking closely at the engravings one feels drawn into the pictures as if entering a forest, a forest of detail. Coming to the Foxglove, I felt as if I had entered a clearing and there stood the flower, totemic in its beauty.

In his introduction, the artist reveals something of the process of engraving--conceptions and methods--much like he so affably does when one visits his "Artist At Work" open gallery and workshop in Stratford, Ontario, during the Shakespeare Theatre season.
Although a book of silent images, he reminds us of how flowers were used as messengers of unspoken meanings, and so the alphabet, the text--sub rosa-- can be woven within these images for each of us, with our own associations.

A volume to sit alongside the other finely produced books of this artist issued by the Porcupine's Quill, and a book, by all means, for the gardener's or horticulturist's collection. An ideal gift in fact.

Off the Wall drawings by Tony Urquhart with Captions Courageous by Michael B. Phillips (Porcupine's Quill Press, 2008).

Though admittedly not thoroughly familiar with the work of this artist--only vaguely so in the shadows of my knowledge--I found this most unusual book to be most entertainingly amusing. I was surprised in a most pleasant way for I had approached this volume in all seriousness, thinking I should first look closely at all of Urquhart's images before embarking upon the textual commentary by Michael B. Phillips, realising that I may be entering the rather dubious territory of tertiary discourse: the artist's work, the associate's commentary on that work, and then my observations of the work and reactions to the commentaries, a rather dour academic endeavour fit for the post-graduate in art history. . . .

I guess I should have clued in to the title: "Off the Wall" and "Captions Courageous."

The commentaries, or rightly so, 'captions', are as imaginative, absurd, humourous and surreal as some of the drawings, prints and sculptures that grace the pages of this finely produced volume.

My initial observations evoked images of pedestalled personal altars, cosmological or climatological devices, strange reliquaries, bizarre, surreal--à la Remedios Varo--objects with organic links between the terrestrial and the cosmological space-time continuum. . . So how refreshing to come across Phillips's courageous captions such as this one on page 52:

A box inspired by the Spanish puppeteer Senor Sergiao Wenches, a frequent guest on the Ed Sullivan Show. Any resemblance of the head-like object within the box to a former Prime Minister of Canada, or to Ed Sullivan himself, is probably a coincidence.

The image itself is listed in the index as: A forgotten trip. Pen & ink, white gouache, 1977-1983. 14.8cm x 11.4 cm.

I am in awe of their dual imaginations seemingly open to all wave lengths. A very interesting book.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

reading in the shade

To roar through a few good books in one day is not my forte, but I did manage a fairly quick pace with two books recently--unusual of me, I know--both good summer reads, each in their own way.

Odd Hours by Dean Koontz (Bantam Random House Canada)
I have certainly handled books by Dean Koontz while working in the library world; I have certainly gazed upon his books in the shops; certainly read the blurbs; and certainly contemplated the dustjacket photos of the author, who, over the years, has experienced a type of reverse tonsorial evolution--initially sporting a vigorous mustache and a shining prominent forehead with short hair in receding fashion, to the now clean-shaven look with a youthful head of hair--a rather impressive transformation, but perhaps fitting for an author who has also written under many other names.

Not being a thriller, suspense or horror aficionado--at least, that's my excuse--he is an author I never got around to reading. Until now that is. As is usual with me--generally the last to know of anything--I find myself starting in medias res so to speak. Odd Hours is the fourth and latest book in the series featuring the character Odd Thomas, a character who I sense has a loyal following. I can see why. He is a sympathetic, quirky, smart twenty year old short order cook looking for a simple life--simple due to the fact that he can see the lingering spirits of the dead which tends to complicate his life just a tad. Odd has been drawn to the small California coastal town of Magic Beach, and has found work as a live-in personal chef and assistant to an 88 year old former Hollywood actor with enough anxieties, fears and phobias that could very well require an index. There is an entertaining banter between Odd Thomas and Lawrence 'Hutch' Hutchison which I found I wanted more of, but Odd is having peculiar dreams involving a red tide, and one visit to the boardwalk leads to a multiple encounter that initiates the adrenalin rush of the plot propulsion and I quickly found myself pulled by the narrative undertow, my hands turning pages, my feet squirming with unease, my heart rate up. I have to admit I once again felt like a youngster reading The Most Dangerous Game.

Dean Koontz is an old pro and knows how to throw a sharp fresh sentence on the page. I very much enjoyed Odd Hours. I have the nervous pleasure now, of exploring the backcloth of Odd's life in the first three books in the series: Odd Thomas, Forever Odd, and Brother Odd, where I should discover his unusual life and good friends in Pico Mundo. Perhaps I shall pace myself. Reading his books before bed tends to shade into one's dreams. . . .

The Roar of the Butterflies by Reginald Hill (Doubleday Canada)

Here again I found myself reading an author whose work I have handled but never read, another old prolific pro who has also used the odd pen name or two. And once again, I find myself reading into a series from the most recent end, the fifth in the series featuring Joe Sixsmith, a sympathetically drawn, funny and lovable, former lathe operator now working as a private detective in the fictional town of Luton. Joe is surrounded by interesting characters in his life including his Aunt Mirabelle and of course his own cat. In this outing, it is one hot summer, perhaps the hottest yet in Luton, and Joe, in his shorts with the colourful parrots, has been requested to look into a possible irregularity which took place at the private posh Royal Hoo Golf Course. Anyone who is a golfer will enjoy this one. And anyone who is a duffer on the links like me and Joe, will enjoy it as well. Lots of humour and detection, and narry a drop of blood. My kind of summer reading.

The Roar of the Butterflies is a well written and perfectly paced work of humourous detective fiction. What I found fascinating is how, though it is set in England, the narrative voices of the characters have none of the "englishness" one might have expected, in fact the voices and the use of language reminded me of North American hard boiled, but in a light-hearted fashion--refreshing. I now find myself trying to schedule the earlier books into my reading list: Blood Sympathy (1993), Born Guilty (1995), Killing the Lawyers (1997), and Singing the Sadness (1999). I think a marathon weekend of Joe Sixsmith would do the trick.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

K is for Kafka--who else could it be?

If asked by a professional in the area of psychology what would first come to mind when shown the letter "K" on a flash card, mine would be an immediate response--and a telling one: Kafka.

Who else could it be?

If asked for other choices, there would be contenders. Kierkegaard is in the shadows, neither in, nor out. Kleist with a ghost-like whisper, is a possibility if pressed. Keats even. But all are in the shadows, so to speak, of Franz Kafka and his Josef K., whose very existence and literary work inhabit the letter, indelibly--at least for me.

I realise it reflects my culture, my judeo-christian background, my literary interests, my education--my alphabet. For others, the letter, or its equivalent, would have a kaleidoscopic variety of responses, from Kiev to K-Mart, from Kilt to Kangaroo, from Kalamazoo to Kathmandu, from Kandahar to Kuala lumpur, from Kawabata to Kurosawa, from Kinshasa to Kansas, from Koontz to King. . . . Other perceptions, other preoccupations, other permutations, other possibilities of this world's rich variety.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

J is for Jules and Julian (and cause for delay).

Nothing To Be Frightened Of
by Julian Barnes
(Random House Canada, 2008)

There is a design feature of Julian Barnes' latest offering--or is it a lack of one--which is at once appealing and challenging: it is a book without formal chapters. Appealing, for I found myself immediately involved in the non-fiction narrative as if I was sitting in a cafe listening to an erudite, sharp, funny, insightful and philosophical friend recount his views on death as seen through the prism of his family, friends and his non-blood relatives, the great writers, musicians and thinkers of the ages from Montaigne to Maugham, from Daudet to Devo (ok, maybe not Devo) in a style both eloquent and vigorous. An extremely well-written piece of work--but I gather one doesn't want to disappoint death.

And challenging due to this very openess. Though furnished with 67 decorative printer's devices to designate informal rests along the way--most sections but a few pages long--it moves back and forth between revelations of friends and family history to references to famous writers, musicians, philosophers and other creative types and their beliefs or views on death, making it a book with a labyrinthine, discursive quality. A book so replete with interesting stories that one wishes there was an index! This long philosophical essay with its light-hearted tones of a cafe-au-lait to the darker tones of an absinthe (we are sitting in a cafe after all, and it's Julian Barnes, so a French cafe) could be subtitled, "or, variations upon a theme of death, and what you may want to know when you get to the end--perhaps."

Quite simply, it is a wonderful read. A book to own and return to--there is a lot of meat on the bones so to speak.

And talking of bones, the book design for the Random House Canada edition--pictured above--was by the hand of C. S. Richardson, and it sports a skeletal hand and forearm reaching down from the head of the spine of the book jacket, pointing towards the author's name, which to me, echoes the hand of Adam in Michelangelo's famous Sistine Chapel painting--seen in a boney light. Another design feature is Richardson's choice of lower case letters for the title which underscores the meaning very nicely too.

There is a richness to this book that a few quotations or comparisons in this brief musing can do no justice. I leave it to readers to discover the pleasures themselves.

As for Jules, it refers to one of Julian Barnes' interests, Jules Renard who said: "It is when faced with death that we turn most bookish."

-Mais evidement, c'est ca mon ami, a cause for delay.
-Sans farce?
-Sans farce.
-Ah, bon.
-Le Fin.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Silver Swan by Benjamin Black

The Silver Swan by Benjamin Black (Henry Holt, 2008)

Out of my blind spot, it was as if Quirke himself had emerged from the shadows and tapped me on the shoulder. The latest Benjamin Black novel, his second, was out. His first book, Christine Falls (my brief review here) had rendered me off-kilter as I absorbed the fact that John Banville, a novelist whose work I consistently followed and enjoyed, had assumed another name and produced a crime novel. A very good crime novel. A novel which had, unbeknownst to me, slipped into circulation and produced more than a ripple. A pleasant surprise.

In The Silver Swan, we are once again in 1950s Dublin; two years have passed since the Christine Falls affair, and Quirke, the somewhat melancholy consultant pathologist, is surrounded by the fallen, the wounded, and the ghosts of his past. There are hints that Quirke is coming to suspect that his actions have deeper roots than the desire for the truth, or justice; that there are unconscious motivations reaching back into his orphaned childhood. Quirke is a divided, conflicted individual who is possessed with a continuing unease with figures of institutional authority, religious or otherwise. His determined efforts in the Christine Falls case had dire effects upon those close to him and he is now doing a personal form of penance. Twice a week he visits his adoptive father, Judge Griffin, now paralysed upon a hospital bed and non-conversant. And once a week he dines with his daughter Phoebe in the attempt to start afresh and bring her back to him. His relationship with the Judge's son Dr. Malachy Griffin is governed more by a casual truce.

In this penance he is distanced further from the shared life of his fellow Dubliners by his half-year of teetotaling temperance. This abstinence of alcohol--although he does imbibe one glass of wine when dining with his daughter, which has a religious overtone in a way--has sharpened his olfactory glands; smells, odors and fragrances create a rich texture in his awareness which includes the "smell of the recently bereaved," a smell he detects in Billy Hunt, a long-forgotten college friend who has approached him to ask a favour. Billy Hunt's wife, Dierdre, was found washed ashore on Dalkey Island, a possible suicide, her clothes neatly folded on the seat of her car. Billy, possibly for religious reasons, doesn't want his wife's body to have a postmortem. The thought of it disturbs him greatly.

It is from this unusual request, and the discovery of a small puncture mark on Dierdre's arm, that Quirke, gradually, ineluctably, finds himself drawn into the search for answers. At first he begins to heed his better judgement warning him to avoid by all means looking into the drowning, but when he discovers his daughter Phoebe's slight connection with Dierdre Hunt and her dubious business partner, that "hollow man" Leslie White, Quirke inevitably follows it up. And so it is, during the sunny warm weather of the "dead center" of a Dublin summer, that Quirke finds himself tossing a pebble into the calm waters of his penance, and we, as readers, are well and truly off.

The author skillfully weaves the life story of Dierdre Hunt, from her impoverished childhood growing up in the Flats, to her interactions with the Anglo-Irish in the fashionable quarter. The backgrounds of other characters are also fleshed out with painterly effect, enough to make us feel they have a pulse. Even with nameless characters the author can create a picture: here, through Quirke's eyes we see a barman:

He was young, with a short-back-and-sides haircut and a pustular neck. He wore a white shirt and a black waistcoat. Quirke noted a frayed cuff, a greasy shine at the pockets of the trousers. This country. Someone had recently offered Quirke a job in Los Angeles. Los Angeles! But would he go? A man could lose himself in Los Angeles as easily as a cuff link. (228)

I read the novel fairly quickly the first time, carried along by the story and the desire to discover the answers, answers that kept me guessing till the very last pages by the clever use of indirection and misdirection. It is a better crime novel than Christine Falls and very well made. With the second reading I enjoyed finding all the clues and foreshadows, and the wonderful weaving of the backcloth which I gleaned too quickly the first time round. We are far from the foggy cold wintry wet Dublin, but still the author creates masterful touches which make even the longest days of the summer fraught with atmosphere. There are many examples that deal with the sun such as:

The day was hot already, with shafts of sunlight reflecting like brandished swords off the roofs of motorcars passing by outside in the smoky, petrol-blue air. (37)


By four o'clock the daylight was already curling insidious fingers round the edges of the curtains in his bedroom. (35)

These descriptions tend to follow Quirke about--like death-- as they are his perceptions, his conceits:

The bricks of the houses he passed by seemed today a deeper shade of oxblood, and in the gardens lush, damp dahlias hung their scarlet heads as if exhausted after the effort of coming into such prodigious bloom. He turned in at the gate and rang the doorbell and waited, eyeing the violent flowers. He took off his hat and held it in his hands; the dark felt was finely jeweled with mist. (266)

There seems to be a suggestive parallel between Quirke's trajectory with that of his daughter's: Quirke involves himself with Kathryn White, while his daughter Phoebe becomes involved with Leslie White and we come to see how these damaged souls, damaged each in their own way, share troubled motivations. Quirke distrusts the "tentacles" of coincidence which have brought them into the same vortex,but the action takes place in the south east quarter of Dublin, and as one writer wrote, "coincidence traced back far enough, leads to inevitability." Phoebe lives on Harcourt Street, and works in the Maison des Chapeaux on Grafton Street; Dierdre Hunt's business the Silver Swan hair salon was just around the corner on Anne Street. Quirke lives on Upper Mount Street, and the mysterious Dr. Kreutz lives in a basement flat on Adelaide. Although other characters live in the suburbs, they spiral round each other, sometimes passing each other unbeknownst until the resolutions at the very end of this novel--one example reminded me of a scene from one of my favourite recent films, L'Homme du train.

I thoroughly enjoyed the novel, and now anticipate the next. Could it involve Dublin's Phoenix Park whose gates Quirke and Inspector Hackett--with his hat--had approached but never entered? Or could we see Quirke doing some consulting in Los Angeles? That might be interesting. However, Dublin is such a wonderful character in itself, it would be a shame to leave it. I have yet to visit Dublin. Yet to follow in my father's footsteps searching his Dundalk roots. One day perhaps. Until then, I shall have to wait for the next installment to enjoy the vicarious pleasure of walking the streets of another era.

To keep up to date with everything Black, there is an excellent website for Benjamin Black, which includes a short video of John Banville/Benjamin Black discussing his work and Dublin itself.

-map from the front free endpaper of Dublin: A Study in Environment by John Harvey(London: B. T. Batsford, 1949).

Saturday, January 26, 2008

I is for Inevitable (give or take a day)

C. S. Richardson The End of the Alphabet

Perhaps "I" should be for "Impossible." The impossibility of escape (ultimately at least). A Simenon-like conceit. The protagonist finds that he has a month to live, give or take a day. A contrived, clichéd conceit? Perhaps.

The author is a highly accomplished book designer. The publisher, the Random House group, is the company he works for. One of his book design team designed the little volume. Cozy. A small press feel. The copyright is held not in the name of the author but by the Kiplingesque Dravot & Carnehan Inc, which happens to be the name of the advertising firm that the protagonist, the ever-dying Ambrose Zephyr, a creative type with a fascination with typefaces and travel brochures, has found employment with for many years.

{ Ironic that. Ambrose: Ambrosia, elixir of life. And Zephyr, the good old west wind, Shelley's vehicle for a spiritual rebirth. }

It's first incarnation in print for me was as an excerpt. It was published, if memory serves me, in the spring of 2006 with the then title The Grand Tour of Ambrose Zephyr. A small, slim paper covered edition of 35 pages (give or take a page), the alphabet running down the narrow spine in tiny typeface, the upper cover sporting an image of a vintage suitcase. Very much a promotional teaser. I read it and was hooked. Wanted to read more. Felt right. Sounded good. (Probably worth something if signed.) And then, eventually, I forgot about it. That is, until the day my wife the librarian who gave me the said teaser dropped the first trade edition in my lap, retitled and ready to go. A bit of a memory jog, but it started to come back to me.

The finished product is designed to resemble a leather journal, much like the Chatwinian Moleskin journals that have become fashionable. It sports two camels on the dustwrapper, a one-humped Arabian Dromedary facing the upper cover (west?), and a shorter legged two-humped Asiatic, or Bactrian camel facing the rear cover (east?). ('Bactrian' conjures up images of Alexander the Great . . . .) Chocolate-brown cloth-covered boards with a small, neat typeface in gilt upon the spine. For a dustwrapper designer it must have been a difficult decision to choose from so many images offered up by the text: a statue of Peter Pan (apt that) in Kensington Gardens, a painting by Rembrandt, the labyrinth of Chartres, antiquarian books, the pyramids of Giza, the Rokeby Venus, travel brochures, type blocks, the Hagia Sofia, Venice. . . perhaps tempting for a collage, or shadow-box a là Nick Bantock, but I guess that's been done. So, it is the moleskin journal and camels. The journal is important for it is the framing device of the very novel itself, and the camels are symbolic of Ambrose's imagination. As a youth with a fascination with typefaces, he would copy the lettering on cigarette packages, packages sporting images of camels, a source of imaginative escape and dreams. {Faint trade winds, the Peter Pan image hovers. . .} Ambrose Zephyr retains his youthful imagination, retains his ability to see the past, retains the ability to see far distant shores, conjuring history before his eyes while looking into the past. Ambrose, as adult, is perhaps a representative modern type, reflecting western traits of modernity: a professional nearing 50 years of age, married to a professional, childless, holding onto youthful imagination.

A. Z. over Z. A. These initials appear upon the spine of the dustwrapper. Ambrose Zephyr, and Zappora "Zipper" Ashkenazi, his wife. They reflect high-end fashion and design lifestyles. A childless professional couple living in fashionable London. Their emotions seem refracted, or cooly faceted, condensed within this grand melodrama. Two introverts who, though different (Wuthering Heights is the dullest of books to Ambrose, yet Zipper has lost count how many times she has read the novel), seem to fit like two letters in a devoted space. There is a yin and yang quality to them; a love story, muted in the silences of each other's quiet imaginations. Ambrose has thirty days to live and Zipper has thirty days to die, symbolically that is. Ambrose desires the movement of the old fashioned Grand Tour guided by the 26 letters of the western alphabet, a last chance to visit and revisit the locales of his imagination and his past, A is for Amsterdam, B is for Berlin, C is for Chartres. . . .
Minor characters are gently drawn, like Mr. Umtata, Ambrose's tailor, and an aged Florentine man with failing sight, perhaps the ghost of Ambrose's unattainable senescence.
It is a clever, well-constructed, laconically written novel, and upon finishing, one naturally returns to the beginning for in the end is the beginning.
The typeface chosen for the book is Filosofia, a typeface designed in 1996 by Zuzana Licko (yes, two z's and two a's). A typeface described as being able to provide "good readability in smaller text sizes." Seems apt for the novel itself.