Thursday, March 31, 2011

582. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John Le Carre

Genre: Espionage, Spy
Rating: 4. Worth a read
Read before: New read
Written: 1900s
Edition: Sceptre 1999

Alec Leamas, a British secret agent, goes on one last assignment before coming in from the cold; he becomes a double agent dedicated to bringing down the head of the Communist intelligence agency in East Germany. All goes according to plan until Leamas finds himself before a secret tribunal and he realises things are not as they seem.

First chapter:
Using the approach of extracting questions from this book is too formulaic and predictable ... there's so much more to this book than what's being set up in the first chapter. What really impressed me instead was the initial warning about cheating and trust:
• Leamas said: "You teach them [agents] to cheat, to cover their tracks, and they cheat you as well." (p16)
"... and Leamas swore, not for the first time, never to trust an agent again." (p16)

Espionage thrillers aren’t really my genre (just think back to my review of The Thirty-Nine Steps), and it’s unfortunate on page 24 I found the 'n' word in the sentence "... ten little n*****s" because otherwise The Spy (short for The Spy Who Came in From the Cold) is in my top ten for 2011. I love the gripping story, the terrific characters, and I never felt at any stage I was being manipulated towards a particular outcome.

The book speaks tellingly of the struggle between democracy and communism, not in an elegant James Bond we're the best and winning side, but in a way that makes it clear that both sides are indistinguishable in methods. I’m no expert about this time period although the world I came of age in was a scant ten years later (the 1970s). I vividly remember the fear of communism (in the media and in the minds of my own parents) and the ‘them’ (the bad guys) and ‘us’ (the good guys). As a naïve teenager I refused to believe the simplicity of an argument that wrote off a portion of the world as monsters (‘them’). For me, the “enemy” breathed, loved, raised families, worked—exactly as we did—and a different economic system wasn’t enough to demonise people. Us and them clearly made 'we' in my world.

What I like about The Spy is how well it creates a ‘we’ that is the human race: good people and bad, working to achieve respective goals and, unfortunately when it comes to the the secret service, using identically unprincipled and nasty methods. It’s by no means an admirable world, but it's a world I've come to recognise as the 'real' world.

From the beginning the moral highground of the West is exposed to Leamas as political rhetoric only ("I mean, you've got to compare method with method, and ideal with ideal. I would say that since the war, our methods - ours and those of the opposition - have become much the same. I mean, you can't be less ruthless than the opposition simply because your government's policy is benevolent ..." (p25) and it's clear the end justifies the means for the West. Neatly, by the end, the empty rhetoric and lies of the Communist regime are exposed and a cringingly stupid view of the West is espoused: "The English! The rich have eaten your future and your poor have given them the food." (p210) And sandwiched between these opposing views is an absorbing story: the tired ageing spy sent on one last mission before he comes in from the cold; an elaborate ploy to trap one of the opposition and get his own people to kill him. With great care Leamas dangles himself as bait, and the plan appears to be working. But there are two problems: Leamas falls in love with a Communist Liz, who starts off as part of his cover and unwittingly betrays him, and Control has embedded plots within plots that Leamas isn't aware of and may not be able to extricate himself from.

And it’s here I come full circle to my earlier thoughts about trust and cheating and one of the messages I think Le Carre is proposing:
• a population should be able to trust its government’s statement of ideals and not wonder whether behind the scenes it's pursuing any means to achieve its aims;
• the secret service should be trusted to conform to its government’s stated aims and not cheat not only the population but its own agents; and
• agents should be able to trust the service it works for.

I guess we're still a work in progress.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

905. Quartet by Jean Rhys

Genre: Unknown
Rating: 3. Not bad
Read before: New read
Written: 1900s
Edition: Penguin 20th Century Classics 1973

When Marya Zelli's husband, Stephan, a Polish art smuggler, is arrested, Marya is invited to move in with Heidler, a middle-aged and seemingly respectable art dealer, and his wife Lois. But life with the Heidler's is not to be refuge she expects; Heidler makes Marya his mistress with the connivance of his wife, and the three of them live, unhappily, together. On his release from prison, Stephan finds out about the affair and rejects Marya, as does Heidler who will not share Marya with another.

First chapter:
Quartet had a really strong first chapter that set the scene for the story really well:
• What does Miss de Solla start to say about the Heidler s and doesn't finish? (p10)
• What sort of person is a man who lays his hand on the knee of a woman he barely knows? (p13)
• What sort of relationship do the Heidlers have? (p13)

One good thing about reading is how it holds up a mirror to your preconceived ideas and prejudices. One very definite prejudice I had reflected back to me is the contrast between my dislike of formulaic, happily ever after Hollywood movies and my laziness when it comes to understanding books. But I had to work with Quartet: I read the novel twice and floundered; I researched the plot so I could follow the sequence of events and that helped; and then I read a couple of reviews ... and only after reading and rereading the reviews could I get closer to understanding the constant thread of women’s submission to, and dependence on, men that runs throughout the story. And it's the level of dependence by women (both Marya and Iris), the damage it creates and their unwillingness or inability to take responsibility for themselves that really perplexes me.

When I first read the novel I thought Marya’s life with Stephan was a comfortable one. Stephan petted and loved her, and offered her what she wanted: "He told her that her arms were too thin, that she had a Slav type and a pretty silhouette, that if she were happy and petted she would become charming. Happy, petted, charming - these are magical words. And the man knew what he was talking aobut, Marya could see that." (p16) But I only understood later how the life she enjoyed through her passivity, recklessness and laziness were dangerous; she surrendered her right to understand her partner and play a role in her destiny with terrible results; being left destitute and without support when Stephan is imprisoned. Her gilded cage is, in reality, a mirage.

True to form, however, Marya turns to another man, Heidler, despite not loving or even liking him. And he's not the “prince” Stephan was: "[Stephan was]... a very gentle and expert lover. She was the petted, cherished child, the desired mistress, the worshipped, perfumed goddess. She was all these things toStephan - or so he made her believe. Marya hadn't known that a man could be as nice as all that to a woman - so gentle in little ways." (p20)

But put quite simply ... Heidler was a pig! They'd barely met when she found his "... huge hand lay possessively, heavy as lead, on her knee." (p13) And his seduction of Marya, if you could call it a seduction, is brutal; only a man sure of himself could tell the woman he wants to sleep with that his wife has "... gone away to leave us together ...", and that his wife knows (p56), and that he's making his move on her before someone else gets in first: "I've been watching you; I watched you tonight and now I know that somebody else will get you if I don't. You're that sort." (p57)

And it's not that Marya loves him or can't see what he's like. On more than one occasion Marya says Heidler is not handsome, a good lover or nice. She says to him: “You’re abominably rude and unkind and unfair. And you’re stupid in a lot of ways. Too stupid to realize how unfair you are.” (p72) She also knows that she should leave him but it’s clear as you read that that won’t happen: “I ought to clear out.’ But when she thought of an existence without Heidler her heart turned over in her side and she felt sick.” (p89). Sick because she fears losing him or sick because a life without the safety net of a man seems unthinkable? The answer seems obvious.

Marya’s acceptance of the Heidler’s offer to live with them makes her dependent on the husband and wife in a way she never was with Stephan; not only is she dependent on them for financial support but she becomes part of the struggle between them as Lois submits to Heidler ( Lois says: "I give him what he wants until his mood changes. I found out long ago that that was the only way to manage him." (p52)), but in return she seeks power over her husband in response to his humiliation of her with other women. I think it’s pretty clear that Lois reluctantly assists Heidler with his philandering and this eats at her: (she hids behind "... a drooping felt hat which entirely hid the upper part of her face" (p12), she looks out on the workd through suspicious almost deadened eyes (p12), and the repeated references to Marya that she must keep their living arrangements a secret (Heidler tells Marya that: "Of course, she'll [Lois] be furious if anybody knows." (p70)). But most damaging of all is her anger directed at Marya: she speaks badly of Marya when Heidler is absent but when he is present she is amiable towards her.

While women's inability to live their life without a man is understandable in a Psychology 101 sort of way (and I don't mean in a denigrating way because it happens all the time), what feels worse in the entire book is Marya’s inability to find a safe place away from the Heidlers. When the Heidler’s take Marya into their home she's imprisoned from the beinning: she's given: “a little room which smelt clean and cold. Striped gray and green curtains hung straightly over the long windows” (p44). But a bedroom should be a refuge, and it's clear that this will never be the case for Marya who cannot escape Heidler: “Your door is open because I come up every night and open it. Then I look at you and go away again”. (p57)

Bleak huh? I'm just glad it’s not my world.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

1252. Fanny Hill by John Clelland

Genre: Erotica
Rating: 3. Not bad
Read before: New read
Written: 1700s

The book tells the story of an orphan who, without any other prospects, travels to London. She’s taken in by a brothel keeper who plans to sell her virginity, but she escapes and instead falls in love and becomes the mistresses of a young Lord. Now Fanny must make her way in life doing the only thing she knows how … prostitution.

First chapter:
I added questions for the first chapter (or letter) but I removed it because Fanny Hill is a memoir, not a "normal" novel in the sense that the first chapter represents a hook. Using that approach all the questions revolve around how Fanny being so naive ... when by the end of the first chapter Fanny's been seduced, kept as a mistress, abandoned, a mistress again and more. There just doesn't seem to be any point asking any questions.

It’s interesting to ask who is the intended audience of Fanny Hill. I don't think it's the practised seducer or debaucher, who'd most likely find the repetitive nature of missionary sex tedious. It feels more like the novel’s intended for the “everyday” man and woman looking to spice up their lives … and most probably women. The prose is delicate; if I think about it it's actually poetic, graceful and respectful. And the plot is a Cinderella plot: boy meets girl and seduces girl, father separates boy and girl, girl must support herself (by prostitution but manages to enjoy herself while staying true to the boy in her heart), and finally boy returns to find girl, they marry and live happily ever after.

But it’s the parts of the story that fall outside the Cinderella plot that are most interesting to me (ie the idea of Fanny enjoying sex while staying true to her lover Charles) because they’re at odds with society’s views that sex without love is ‘tainted’, and to enjoy sex with many while loving another is to taint and debase that love. This doesn’t happen in Fanny Hill. John Clelland turns this idea upside down (which incidentally cling to life some 300 years later) and strikes an early blow for women’s rights. Go John!

Fanny, as a woman, owns her body and her heart and can do with either as she wishes. She has to support herself and I can’t blame a girl removed from scrubbing stairs and emptying chamber pots not wanting to return. So Fanny’s entrée into whoredom isn't a surprise—but her evident enjoyment of it is. Of course without this enjoyment the novel would have taken a much different, and darker, turn.

I also thought about whether Fanny Hill is pornography:
• a creative activity of no literary or artistic value other than to stimulate sexual desire; or
• any material that is sexually explicit; or even
• the depiction of erotic behaviour intended to cause sexual excitement (Merriam-Webster).

According to some Fanny Hill is pornographic, with its erotic behaviour intended to cause sexual excitement. But Fanny Hill is more: the full descriptions of sex in great detail are neither crude or offensive, the book offers an interesting insight into a part of life that's generally veiled from the everyday, and in providing Fanny with a voice, independence and the right to live her life, without condemnation, and to enjoy it.

I understand why the book was banned because of the copious and detailed descriptions of sexual encounters. But I also love the delicacy and sensitivity of the descriptions of these encounters where anatomy and sexual acts are never referred to clinically. That’s a definite talent and it’s added some beautiful purple prose to the English language. It’s this talent that leads me to add John Clelland to my list of the ten ten people I’d like to ask to a dinner party. I dare say he’d be able to tell an interesting and unconventional tale or two to liven up the conversation!

And this unconventional story (being Fanny Hill) led Clelland into trouble with the law. Fanny Hill was written during a stint in debtor’s prison and given the likely audience the novel must have easily made enough money to clear Clelland’s debts. But the novel took him out of the frying pan and into the fire as he was arrested and at the time said that he wished, “from my Soul”, that the book be “buried and forgot” (Sabor).

I’m glad it hasn’t been buried and forgotten, and I’m glad Fanny got her boy. We all deserve to be happy, no matter the path we travel to get there.

PS Another epistolary novel I like. This is starting to become a habit!

Monday, March 7, 2011

327. A Maggot by John Fowles

Genre: Mystery, Science Fiction, Historical, Postmodern
Rating: 4. Worth a read
Read before: New read
Decade: 1900s
Edition: Vintage 1986

A group of five (Bartholomew, Dick Thurlow, Fanny (Rebecca/Louise), Brown (Lacy) and Farthing (Jones)) travelling through rural England arrive at an inn in a small village. As the story progresses, it becomes apparent the travellers are playing roles in a drama, designed by Bartholomew, that they do not understand. The confusion increases as the reader learns that the point of the journey is not the real reason for the trek. Who are the players, and what is the real reason for the journey?

First chapter:
The first "chapter" is full of fantastic hooks, probably the best book I've read for this:
• What is Bartholomew's secret study? (p24)
• What is the reason behind the strange charade of Fanny making herself up and Dick unbuttoned and exposed? (p32)
• What is the "fixed destiny" Bartholomew thinks he must play? (p43)
• Why do Bartholomew and Dick burn Bartholomew's papers (p47)

At the start of the year I was sure I didn’t like the epistolary form of writing (novels primarily written as a series of letter but which can also include newspaper articles, diary entries, etc). I can’t say that anymore, because since reading Dracula (Bram Stoker) and now A Maggot by John Fowles I now understand the format of a novel (including one written in the form of Q&As by a lawyer taking depositions) is nothing in the hands of a skilful story teller.

The pace of this novel is slow, but never boringly so … which fits well with its mysterious nature. The title is the first mystery. Fowles explains in the prologue that the title is taken from the archaic sense of the word that means "whim", "quirk", "obsession", or even a snatch of music. Another meaning of the word "maggot", which becomes apparent later in the novel, is used by Fanny to describe a white, oblong machine that appears to be a spaceship. (A spaceship in an 18th century historical novel--are you intrigued?)

The mystery is heightened by the third person narrator, who is not omniscient and clearly no wiser than we are: "One might have supposed the two leading riders and the humble apparent journeyman and wife chance-met, merely keeping together for safety . . ." (p2). But he soon notes: "Yet if they had been chance-met, the two gentlemen would surely have been exchanging some sort of conversation and riding abreast. . ." (pp2-3). And of the woman in the group, the narrator concludes that "She is evidently a servant, a maid" (p5)

Then there's the mystery (even cluelessness) of Henry Ayscough, the lawyer charged by Bartholomew’s father with discovering the details of his son’s disappearance. Part of Ayscough’s role is clearly to protect the status of the family, including its respect and good name. But Ayscough is also more:
• he acts as a pseudo reader and starts from scratch to uncover what's happened to Bartholomew;
• he identifies which information is relevant and acts as the point at which elements are confirmed; and
• he shows that, for the outsider, there is more to the mystery than meets the eye.

The character who intrigued me the most was Fanny. Who is she; the prostitute suggested by the men or is she the lady of Ayscough, Dorcas and the hotel keeper? For the men travelling together (Bartholomew, Lacy and Farthing) it seems clear they knew she was a prostitute, but if she's a prostitute why does no-one appear to be having a sexual relationship with her? The following gives an insight into the early mystery of Fanny:
• Fanny washes herself while Dick sits at her feet with an erection but they don't have sex. (pp29-34)
• Lacy tells Bartholomew that Jones saw Fanny going into a brothel. Lacy believes Jones is mistaken and Bartholomew assures him he is mistaken. Bartholomew infers Dick and Fanny are husband and wife. (p44)
• shortly afterwards Bartholomew chides Fanny about her wantoness, orders her to strip and then sends her away while he prays. (pp47-58)

So is Fanny actually a prostitute? If Dick and Fanny are married, why do they not have sex and why, soon after, is Fanny with Bartholomew, who asks her to strip, chides her and sends her away? If you think this is confusing to the reader, the people observing the group are unaware and further add more to the confusion:
• the innkeeper tells Ayscough that Fanny spoke kindly to Dorcas (p70), and that she might have been a lady in disguise. (p71)
• Dorcas confirms that Fanny is pleasant spoken, while the lawyer Ayscough tries to discover whether she was a lady masquerading as a maid. Dorcas believes she’s not a lady (pp85-86), and relates how Fanny was in Bartholomew’s room but did not stay the night. (pp86-87)

This mystery is resolved when Ayscough learns from a brothel keeper that Fanny's a notorious prostitute known as the Quaker Maid, who's able to pretend to be a virgin. (p140) but all this is smoke and mirrors because after 140 pages we understand the who of Fanny but no nearer to understanding the why?

And the entire book is like this ... I felt I understood the who of the journey, including the roles people played. I'm even happy with the various theories that were debunked, such as: the journey wasn't to allow Bartholomew to elope against the wishes of his family (as there was no woman waiting for him), he wasn't visiting a wealthy aged aunt to secure an inheritance (since she didn't exist), and Fanny's later claims re her impregnation make it unlikely Bartholomew was seeking a cure for impotence. (PS Why did Bartholonew feel the need to create such an elaborate ruse for the trip?)

What I'm left with, and it's much more fantastic than the debunked theories, are two theories: Fanny was destined for impregnation by an alien in order to start a new religious sect, and Bartholomew's interest in the occult took him to a certain location (reason unknown) and Fanny had a religious conversion.

The former theory is at odds with me given the historical nature of the book and my inability to meld science fiction with history, and the latter feels more comfortable to me. The idea that the why is associated with Bartholomew's interest in science or the occult doesn't seem too far fetched. He certainly had ideas about a fixed destiny (p5), he was secretive about his writings (p24) and the burning of the papers by Bartholomew and Dick, his mysterious relationship with Dick, his chastising of Fanny and directions to her that she should behave appropriately (pp52-57) seem to point towards something unusual at the very least.

If you think the answer is more than this or I'm totally on the wrong track ... I’d love to hear. I've never read a story that left me with so many questions.