Some thoughts on Patrick Leigh Fermor and The Broken Road.

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“Get on with it man!” (Believe it or not Patrick Leigh Fermor also enjoyed writing breaks in between smoking cigarettes and admiring the view from the terrace of his Greek home). 

 

I actually read The Broken Road a long while ago, and in best Leigh Fermor tradition I first sat on, then forgot, this draft of a review, which then turned into a mini essay.

Published (dare I say ‘in tearing haste’ to paraphrase the title of a book co-authored by Leigh Fermor) soon after his 2011 death, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s [PLF] The Broken Road rounds off a trilogy of books that form his account of a walk across the Continent, from Rotterdam to Istanbul (which he refers to as Constantinople throughout), undertaken as a young man in the 1930’s.

On reflection, it seems that the walk was the easy bit. It was writing it up years later that proved to be the almost insurmountable physical and mental effort.

The trilogy devoted to the walk is comprised of A Time of Gifts (1977), Between the Woods and Water (1986), and the final (and in a sense ad hoc volume) The Broken Road (2013). I say ad hoc because ‘Volume Three’ as it was known during his lifetime was one of the most famous literary works in progress in the world. What you can now freely obtain from any bookshop or library was not what PLF intended should be published at all. Instead it is a draft written in the early sixties, partially corrected at great effort very late in his life, and cross referenced with one of his surviving notebooks from the 1930s.  He was never able to finish it to his satisfaction in his lifetime, despite the wishes of his many readers and, no doubt, to the equal  sadness and perhaps annoyance of his publishers. It seems its troubled gestation was a source of frustration and regret for the author too. However, while his failure to complete it was no doubt a source of anguish to him and his nearest and dearest, it seems that missed deadlines and indecision were something of a recurring theme in his writing life.

One of the most telling (and unintentionally amusing) things I found in Artemis Cooper’s biography of PLF (which also appeared swiftly after his death) was the tale of how in the 1960’s he was approached by the editor of a book on World War II for an article about the war in Crete (this could have been the account of how he kidnapped the German General in command of the island, I can’t recall now). Either way, the editor of said book initially asked for an account of a few thousand words and had a set deadline. PLF agreed, but the account apparently sprawled and sprawled. The deadline loomed. The take (literally) grew in the telling.Reminders were sent. The deadline loomed and more reminders were sent.  The editor (probably literally)  tore his hair out and finally the deadline passed. The piece was never published, the editor sent one last chastening letter and PLF, I assume, never received his cheque.

Speaking frankly, one thing I think that Cooper’s biography fails to do is to give much of an isight into Leigh Fermor the writer, or to explain much about his books and how they tick.  To be fair, the evidence suggests this wasn’t her brief anyway. The biography sketches the main events of his life (except for a detailed two-chapter look at the derring-do of kidnapping the German General who was acting as governor of Crete), and the result is an easy reading but ‘lop-sided’ biography of the kind normally associated with pop stars and footballers, where the focus is firmly on events that took place earlier on in life because that’s where the ‘action’ is.  So the biography rattles along in large part because PLF lived in large part a rattlingly good life. It would have taken a writer of unique incompetence to turn what was, in several though not all respects, a ‘silk purse’ of a life into a ‘sow’s ear’ of a book.

I stress this point about the books, however, because PLF was a short time a solider but a long time a writer. If he is to survive for posterity, I’d stick my neck out and say that it’ll be because of his written work rather than for the fact that he had a ‘good war’ as the old cliche goes. So while Cooper is equal to the task of outlining his life story, she doesn’t go into too much detail about PLF the writer, how his books developed, how they work or what made the books so worthy of the following they got during his life. Crucially, I don’t think she ever really gets close to committing herself to an answer as to why this very talented and intelligent man simply could not finish the book which he called “Volume Three” (i.e. what has been published as The Broken Road), a book which I think must have been something of an Albatross around his neck.  I’m sure there is an answer to this last question, but perhaps decorum or a sense of loyalty to a man who was, after all, a close family friend, made her keep her own silence on the true nature of this. Of course there’s always the distinct possibility that she didn’t feel it right to ask, or that she tried but PLF wasn’t telling.

Anyway, at least the foreword to The Broken Road makes one thing clear, which is that he did make one last heroic effort to rework the manuscript late on in life even though the odds were well against him. The sad thing is that in my opinion he was sitting on a perfectly good book all along, and The Broken Road more than stands up to scrutiny against volume one and two. PLF undoubtedly set out to write prose that caught the eye, fired the imagination and (when read aloud or read carefully so that you could ‘hear’ it in your mind) would impress the reader both with its own brilliance but also the vividness of its imagery. When he’s in this mode he can be very effective. At other times the prose is off-puttingly purple. It’s interesting to note that in his earlier books (such as The Traveller’s Tree and A Time to Keep Silence from the 50’s) this flashy tendency is kept in check, the verbal fireworks sparking at regular intervals but normally limited to an arresting phrase here or there, or carefully kept in reserve for  set-piece descriptions of things that were especially worthy of note. Later on, his tendency to make sure almost every sentence was a finely wrought as possible would take over. A lot of the time it is to the benefit of his books, but at others I think there’s a tendency to get things out of proportion and let the prose get too elaborate to retain much control. For instance, there’s a passage in A Time of Gifts describing the Abbey of Melk which I personally find all but unreadable, and believe me I have tried several times.

All writers go about their job in slightly different ways, particularly when it comes to revising and reworking.  If I can generalise for a moment, there are some who see the process of revision as absolutely crucial, as if paring things down and choosing the right words was what enabled them to say what they really meant all along. I get the impression with PLF that things went the other way. For him, it was a process of accumulating words on the page that would allow him to get to the truth. Like Henry James, it seems that he wanted to say everything he possibly could about something as his means of  revealing the truth. This need to explore every angle, together with much agonising over finding the right word every time, must have placed a hell of a burden on him. Again, something from Cooper’s book which is very telling comes in the endpapers of the hardback edition, where she reproduces examples of some of the proofs from PLF’s work. She explains how his publisher, John Murray, would say that these proofs, with the countless revisions and additions made by PLF, explained the long gaps between his published books. If we’re looking for another simile to describe his method of composition, he seems to have been the literary equivalent of the men who used to ceaselessly paint the Forth Bridge. No sooner had one draft finished then he’d go back and have to start all over again.

In contrast to these works from the 70s and 80s, The Broken Road is effectively mid-period Leigh Fermor. As stated, the majority of the book consists of a typescript produced in the early 1960’s, so it stands somewhere between the simpler prose of his earlier post-war books and the later elaborate creation of the 70’s and 80s. What unites the two kinds of writer he was is his fundamental approach: at the core of his books are narratives of journeys undertaken, places visited and people met.  But over this he overlays numerous passages that amplify and elucidate the history and culture of the lands that he travelled through. As has been mentioned many times before, PLF was a polymath, and one of the many ‘well fancy that’ gems of knowledge to be found in The Broken Road is a convincing etymology and cultural history of the english word ‘buger’.

The book doesn’t lose anything at all in my opinion for not having been finely wrought to the nth degree. There are still some interesting verbal fireworks (many readers point to the description of migrating birds in The Broken Road as a highlight). True to form there’s also a passage that I found almost unbearably overwritten and annoying (a supposed encounter in a shoreline cave with some people, which turned into a most acrobatic sounding kind of knees-up). In the main, however, the descriptions are precise, the characterisation is believable, the eye for detail is telling,  and the gift for anecdote is very entertaining.

Perhaps the real highlight for me was the diary from Leigh Fermor’s time spent on Mount Athos, where he travelled after spending a little time in his original intended journey’s end of Istanbul. The prose in the diary entries is a lot plainer, but no less vivid. I believe that this section was reworked by the older man, but he had the judgment not to drown out the written voice of his younger self. The result is a direct and vivid piece of writing which paints a clear picture of a unique place.

Finally a note on the title. Far be it for me to tell the editors they’re wrong, but I’ve never thought that The Broken Road was that fitting. The only things ‘broken’ about this book is the narrative, which through circumstance cuts off abruptly. Saving that, it’s a remarkably cohesive, charming and straightforward account of how a plucky young individual, after an uncertain school career back in England, decided to do something completely different and reinvented himself. Dare I say it but something a little less symbolic and more descriptive (a la “Between the Woods and Water”) or even a quote from a favourite poems of PLF’s might have served better (“A Time of Gifts” is taken from Louis MacNeice. Was there nothing from Byron, who PLF was reading on this final leg of his journey, that would have worked?).

At any rate, ultimately the road is not ‘broken’ but ‘vanished’. As many others have pointed out before, aside from their strength as descriptive travel books and autobiography, PLF’s trilogy is right up there along with books like Stefan Zweig’s autobiography The World of Yesterday, as wonderfully evocative books about a Europe and a rich collective culture and varied social fabric that remains in the memory but which has gone forever.

 

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“Burn for You”: A review of “Story to Story: The Official Autobiography of INXS”

This isn’t a new book by any means, having first appeared in 2005. Music i listened to when I was younger wasn’t really a priority back then, but I must be mellowing, so when I saw this in a charity shop I thought I’d give it a read. It’s a good (auto)biography, long on stories, with quite a lot of laughs to bookend with the tears that come at the end, and fortunately it pulls no punches in order to show how the INXS juggernaut came to a terrible halt in November 1997.

INXS was the first band I was massively into, and also happened to be my first ever gig. In fact, one person who really, really should have known better once decided to play a round of ‘what was your first ever gig?’ in the pub once. When I mentioned that mine was INXS on the X tour in 1990 (or was it 91?) he rounded on me, generally putting me down for the fact that INXS did not make for a respectable first gig.

Cue a foul mouthed tirade from me telling him exactly why he was wrong, taking in such important points as INXS being one of the few rock bands who could actually swing, the superlative live show, and the fact that (before all of the post-1995 Paula Yates tabloid free-for-all that culminated in his untimely death) Michael Hutchence WAS cool, was THE man and had all the grace, intelligence and style to be classed as one of the greatest rock frontmen.

This book revels in stories of Hutchence’s showmanship and decadence, but it’s obvious that this was a man who a torn individual. On the one hand he was the rock god personified. On the other he was a caring person, a deep thinker, a worrier, and an all-round sensitive soul.

Particularly towards the end of his life, Hutchence found himself pigeon holed as a louche rock lothario, which for a time- wrongly but almost inevitably- saw him tabloid press target number one in Britain, especially once his ill-fated affair with Paula Yates began. With hindsight he should have moved back to Hong Kong, or to LA, or back to Australia, or just laid low in his South of France villa. But instead he stayed in London, got embroiled, bogged down and generally stuck in every kind of rut imaginable.

I’ve always thought that Hutchence’s own sad personal decline mirrored that of the band. This relatively short book is very good at tracing their career trajectory, and is revelatory in its descriptions of its beginnings as (almost literally and certainly to all intents and purposes) a band of brothers in late 70’s Sydney. After a brief hiatus in Perth while their underage drummer Jon Farriss tried (and failed) to finish High School, the band went back to Sydney. There’s a lot in this book made about the Australian live music scene that was centred on the pubs in those days (nothing like your typical english pub as it happens, but coming over rather as a cross between a german bier keller and a large live music venue).

Then enter manager Chris Murphy, a manager who clearly thought that his new charges could go all the way. He took them out of the pubs and went global, through a series of cut throat record deals and a touring schedule that would make many a lesser band split.

It is to the band’s immense credit that instead of being burned out by such a heavy workload in the 80’s, they actually thrived on it, so much so that they became one of the great live rock acts to date. It helped that their recorded output steadily grew in quality, and by the time they began working with producer Chris Thomas on 1985’s Listen Like Thieves they were poised for greatness. As the book makes clear, this was a band who were left of the mainstream so as to be considered cool, yet mainstream enough so as to have potential mass appeal.

That potential was fulfilled and greatness came, of course, with the mighty Kick from 1987.  For a while they wore the mantle of “The Biggest Band in the World”. After touring their backsides off for a couple of years and being all over MTV, INXS took a well-earned break.

Again, with benefit of hindsight, it’s possible to see to that Kick and the subsequent status it brought them was the pinnacle of their career. It rounded off an incredible decade of great music and sheer hard work.  It was the end of the beginning, but instead of (ahem) kicking on from that, it was also the beginning of the end.

I remember as a fan liking bits of the follow up disc X, but never loving it like I loved (and still love) Kick. As Murphy is quoted as saying in the book, X was not enough of a departure from Kick. He suspected the band had grown somewhat safe and complacent and the alarm bells were ringing in his head for the first time. Hutchence, it was clear even at the time, had taken his eye somewhat off the ball. Still a compelling performer, he was by the early 90’s a tabloid staple, having first rather surprisingly taken up with Kylie Minougue, and then completely understandably having ditched her for Helena Christensen. This was a bloke who had earned his slice of the high life but was perhaps letting that take the place of the music that had got him there in the first place.

Of course grunge in the US and a general return to a more earthy and traditional rock approach in the UK put paid to a lot of the bands who’d made it in the 80’s. INXS could have adapted but a couple of odd career choices followed. Firstly they didn’t tour the album Welcome to Wherever You Are. This isn’t a bad record at all but by this stage I was losing interest. So did a lot of fans in the US according to the book, since the record company wouldn’t promote it like they had previous releases, and the band weren’t going to tour, so that put paid to its chances over there. I remember hearing the lead single Heaven Sent and thinking it was a good rocker, but stuff like Baby Don’t Cry (although I don’t mind it now) struck my teenaged self as being simplistic and overblown. Had they come up with something that wasn’t merely ‘Need You Tonight Part II’, but harnessed the originality and arresting qualities of their best music I’d have stayed loyal. But they didn’t, and so I didn’t.

Things then got odd given all that had gone before and it seems like the band entered a period of uncertainty that they couldn’t quite get out of, and which in the end amounted to a slow decline. For a band who had sold out Wembley stadium barely two years earlier, 1993’s “Get Out of the House” tour, a ‘back to the clubs’  jaunt around smaller venues, sent out odd signals. The band said they wanted to reconnect with their fans in the kind of venues they’d started out in. But of course by deliberately avoiding the kind of arenas they had grown into (and to be fair could make feel like a small, intimate club through sheer force of performance and personality) it partially sent out the signal that the band wasn’t as big as it once was. And they admit as much in the book, Andrew Farriss seeming to imply that it was something of a mistake.

The album Full Moon, Dirty Hearts followed soon after to mixed reviews that erred on the negative. The book is very revealing about the recording of this disc on the island of Capri. While it sounds idyllic in theory, the band were there out of season and the journey to the island recording studio was anything but easy. To make matters worse, the stormy weather outside was mirrored inside the studio by the erratic and often violent behaviour of the band’s erstwhile easy-going and charming front man.

Beginning with the serious head injury suffered in Copenhagen after he was assaulted by a taxi driver (leading among other things to a bruised brain and an almost total loss of the sense of taste and smell) the book goes into the necessary but not voyeuristic detail about the changes in Michael Hutchence in the years leading up to his death. To add to his serious head injury, there was to come the Geldof-Yates-Hutchence love triangle, complicated by a well-publicised custody battle over the Geldof-Yates children.

As the book also makes clear, it wasn’t just Hutchence who was having personal problems by the mid-nineties, and it seems that a combination of personal problems, managerial difficulties and so-so but not stellar musical product were dogging them up to and including November 1997.

Interestingly, the book goes into great detail about the critical backlash against the band in their native Australia. That fateful month saw them back in Sydney rehearsing for a tour of smaller venues in Oz. It was a sort of ‘back to basics’ (i.e. not the biggest venues) tour all over again. This time however, they hadn’t chosen to play those venues: they were more in keeping with the band’s profile. Chris Murphy is clear in the book that the burden of having to play smaller venues (some of which hadn’t sold out) could have exacerbated whatever demons were plaguing Hutchence at the time. Certainly it’s clear that whatever factors drove him to take his own life, an enforced absence from Yates and his daughter Tiger was probably one of them.

Murphy remains adamant that INXS shouldn’t have touched the Australian circuit with a bargepole, not until the year 2000 at least, by which time al animosity would have subsided and they could have come back with a bang. It makes great sense as a strategy, but of course we’ll never know.

By 1997 I no longer listened to INXS’s music. But the news of Hutchence’s sudden death in November of that year still came as a shock to me as it did to so many. Without wishing to overdramatise how I felt at the time, it was like hearing of the death of a friend I hadn’t seen for some years.

A few years ago I saw INXS playing at a smallish venue near me on the tour they did with Canadian JD Fortune, one of the numerous replacements for Hutchence they’ve used over the years. They were great. They still rocked. They swung like the old days. Jon Farris and Gary Garry Beers proved that they are one of the greatest rhythm sections in rock n’roll. Tim Farriss kept it funky. Kirk Pengilly added musical flourishes on lead guitar and sax. And good old Andrew Farriss kept it tight at the back. I sang along to every bloody word that night, words I hadn’t thought of or brought to mind since I was a kid, and I lost my voice from screaming just as I did that first time I saw them. It was a great gig, and Fortune did his very, very best which by most standards was very good indeed. But then again the standard he was up against was the one set by Michael Hutchence. My God, it would have been greater if only Michael were there.

It’s only recently that I’ve taken an interest in their music again.  The other day I even got round to listening to his posthumously released solo album for the first time. I found most of it very difficult to listen to. Not because of the music, which I like, but because of the lyrics.  For all his faults, he was a great performer and on balance the book makes a convincing case for saying that he was a decent man who got terribly, terribly trapped. What I think he needed was a damned good rest. The great sadness is that that rest took the wrong form.

It seems to be the accepted trajectory for rock bands these days, but for all the pretence about making new albums and trying to remain a developing creative force, there comes a point where the general public lose interest and only want to hear the Greatest Hits. It happened with the Stones years ago. It’s already happened with U2. Oasis have a lucrative career as their own tribute act waiting for them, if only they can bury the hatchet and get it together.

INXS could have had this kind of career. It’s moot whether they could have really reinvented themselves after the Elgantly Wasted album, but even if they hadn’t, if they’d have followed Murphy’s advice and laid low for a few more years, they could have been conquering heroes once their style had come back into vogue (their recent chart successes in Australia that coincided with a major TV mini drama show there’s some merit in this argument).  The irony is that Michael showed plenty of signs that he could have had an interesting career and developed in his own right, however.

So in a parallel universe somewhere, Michael Hutchence has just completed his twelfth feature film and his band INXS are gearing up for one of their periodic reunion tours. Rumour has it that he is penning songs for a third solo album, and there is even talk of the band filling the ‘legends’ slot on the Sunday afternoon at Glastonbury, a performance which will rekindle the INXS spark in the UK once again just like it did in Oz last year.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, things are as they are. But at least we’ve got some great music. And there are also many of us with such great memories of the band and our friend Michael.

It’s most fitting at this point to quote Kirk Pengilly, who provides the final words in the book: “All that he [Michael] really wanted in the end was to know that we mattered. He wanted to know that we’d served a purpose. He wanted to know that we’d given people memories.”

In this, they succeeded wonderfully.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quick Review: Renegade, The Autobiography of Mark E Smith

Renegade, published several years ago now, is the autobiography of Mark E Smith, lead singer and leader of The Fall. It is a very funny book.

Imagine you are in a pub and listen in on an amusing and quirky bloke who essentially rants about various things while letting you know bits of his life story into the bargain.

Such people are legion, but not all are as perceptive as Smith and barely any of them are fine musicians and writers like him.

Others may think the book amounts to little more than the insufferable and inconsequential dronings of a ranting Manc, but when all’s said and done it’s harmless fun (unless you happen to be one of the legion of jettisoned Fall members to have received a P45 over the years).

Cheaper than a round of drinks and a lot more satisfying.

And here for good measure is the man in action and giving a quick toot on the kazoo and spinning a yarn.

 

A Very Wise Guy: A review of “A Man Without a Country” by Kurt Vonnegut.

I recently re-read this book by Kurt Vonnegut. In fact it was the first book of his that I ever read, and though I’ve naturally gone on to read most of the others, this is a book I keep coming back to because it is a bitter-sweet delight.   It only takes you a couple of hours to read, but I think Vonnegut’s thoughts and ideas stay long in the mind afterwards.

Subtitled “A memoir of life in George Bush’s America” this book will delight those who still revile that odd character who did impressions of the President of the USA.

There’s much more to this book, however, including as it does Vonnegut’s wry, cynical, exasperated and very funny observations on everything else worthy of ridicule, from the more vapid aspects of culture (in both his native US and elsewhere), semi-colons, Western man’s love affair with fossil fuels and even the pros and (mostly) cons of early Saab cars. In fact the passage on Saabs had me coughing and spluttering with laughter as much as the engines in these cars. There is a man near me who drives an old green Saab of a certain vintage, and every time I see it I can’t help laughing. People passing me at the time must think I’m odd, but I don’t care. You see, at those moments I’m with Kurt, and he makes you laugh at the absurd in life, and that’s a very good thing.

Written in a delightfully laconic and earthy style, this is the equivalent of passing a lovely afternoon with someone older, wiser and far funnier than yourself. It reminded me of Spike Milligan at his best. Like Spike, Vonnegut is a master of adopting an unexpected perspective on things, in order to expose some of the absurdities of life and thereby prove that, in Milligan’s phrase,  “nothing could be as mad as what passes for ordinary living”.

Book review: Communion by Whitley Strieber.

Communionalien

A typical ‘grey’ as depicted on the cover of Striber’s Communion: Fact, fiction or figment of the imagination?

 

First an admission: I don’t really have an interest in the whole alien question much beyond what most people (I’m supposing) would think, which are thoughts along the lines of ‘are we alone in the universe?’. And for what it’s worth, my own views on the matter are that a) I don’t know and b) if there were aliens it wouldn’t surprise me if they gave Earth a wide berth given the odd behaviour of so many of us earthlings.

Far more interesting to me is the (perhaps) associated phenomenon of UFOs, the emphasis being firmly on the ‘U’ in UFO. I once heard the Chief of Air Traffic Control in the UK interviewed on the radio about incursions of Russian military air traffic into UK air space.  At the end of his interview the presenter half jokingly turned to the topic of what proportion of craft in UK air space in any given month could not properly be identified. The Chief’s answer was, I think I recall rightly, some 5% of it.

Cue surprise from a presenter who had, it seemed, struck gold but who had run out of time to pursue this fascinating avenue.

Of course the Chief’s answer did not imply that we were being visited by inhabitants of another planet/ dimension/ whatever in their craft. But it did lift the lid on what might be flying around up there, whether it be military or secret service craft, unidentifiable civilian craft, spy drones, space debris, little green men and the like.

So anyway I have a vague interest in this stuff because I try to keep an open mind on all things, but wouldn’t say it’s a topic that engages my full attention.

However, having heard Whitley Strieber on a podcast interview some while ago, I finally decided to read on of his books. Communion dates from 1986 and remains something of a cause celebre for the author. Up until that point, Striber was mainly known for his thriller and horror novels.  However, Communion is a memoir of a set of his experiences which began in late 1986 when he was abducted by ‘visitors’. By visitors he means ‘Greys’.

At this point it gets tricky. Greys, of course, are by now firmly part of the modern culture, and they’re widely assumed to be those responsible for the majority of cases of alien abduction. Are the Greys real? Does abduction really occur?  Strieber says they are real, and the book is his account of being abducted. However, he is at pains in the book to point out that he doesn’t know really who they are or where they’re from, hence his use of the term ‘visitors’ rather than ‘aliens’, with its extra-terrestrial connotations.

The book gets off to a blistering start by telling you exactly what happened from his own perspective. Whether you end up believing him or not, this account of his being taken and what happened when he was in the visitor’s craft is really well done. Strieber the novelist is in control at this point in the book, and it shows in the level of detail and pacing. This is not the kind of thing you want to read by yourself late at night and the already dark nature of the material is given a stronger flavour by the fact that this is published as a memoir and not as fiction.

That said, while it reads extremely well, you still either believe him or you don’t. To stress the point that it was real to him, he includes as an appendix the findings of a lie detector test that he took. Even with this as evidence, if you are a sceptic about the UFO and abduction phenomenon, you may not come away from this book having changed your mind. In fact, Strieber’s experiences as described are so extreme that you may find it just too outlandish.

Clearly at the time of writing he was in torment and definitely confused about the real explanation for what happened, and so large chunks of this book are given over to attempts to explain who the visitors may be and what they may want. However, because Strieber won’t commit himself to one explanation this leads him into several layers of explanation. For example, he could have committed himself and said that he thought these were aliens from another galaxy, but he didn’t. I understand why he did this, but ultimately it makes for some rather wooly theoretical passages where he explores all the various possible origins and explanations.

All in all this is a very worthwhile book, but don’t come to it looking for any concrete answers. There’s plenty of insight, but then again you have to take a leap of faith and believe him in what he says for this to be of much value to you.

As for me, I rate it pretty high as a tale, less so as a work of science/ psychology, but it’s still worth dipping into nonetheless if you get the chance. I suppose what prevents me from dismissing it as all a figment of a troubled imagination is the fact that he published the story at all. He’s said on many occasions since that going public with his abduction story caused him a lot of aggravation. If the book is fiction masquerading as fact, then why publish and bring a lot of notoriety and ridicule down on himself?

Like the strange 5% of unidentified things floating round in UK air space, the answer perhaps is up in the air.

Book Review: Primo Levi “If This is a Man” and “The Truce”.

If This is a Man was first published in the 1950s and accounts for Levi’s capture and subsequent internment in a labour camp that was part of the wider Auschwitz complex. The Truce deals with the camp’s liberation and his subsequent protracted journey back home to Turin, and was published in the early 60s.

Although technically they are two different books, they’re more often than not published together since they deal with two halves of the same story. I would not recommend that you did what I did with the book, which was read If This is a Man, and then blithely think ‘I’ll get round to reading part two in a little while’. In my case a little while was nineteen years.

There is very little I wish to say about the book’s (and I’m referring to them as a single work now) qualities. It is a work about a very serious topic by a serious (and seriously good) writer. In the insightful appendix published at the end of the book, in which Levi gives lengthy responses to typical readers’ questions, he famously states that he sought to write a book from the point of view of a single witness. Therefore he does not give  detailed background about the whys and wherefores of the Nazis’ death and labour camps. He sticks to what he himself saw, experienced, felt and thought. The result is a work which is short of generalities and moralising. It does carry great moral weight, however, and in my opinion this comes from Levi’s eye for detail and his aim to stand as a witness to what he saw.

It goes without saying that If This is a Man goes a long way to helping the reader understand how hard it was to exist and survive in the Nazi labour camps (could it even be called ‘living’?). It is a remorseless book in the sense that in chapter after chapter it outlines the pitilessly harsh time the rank and file prisoners had of it, being forced to cary out forced labour for a Government that considered them to be less than human.

Yet this does not make for a book that is difficult to read. Emotionally I admit that I found it difficult to take. But as for the actual reading of it, Levi’s skill lies in not browbeating the reader, or in laying out horrific scenes in emotive terms, but in calmly reporting what he saw. In this sense it is an examination of what his time in the camp was like, and I read his words as I read or listen to anyone who takes the time to carefully explain the story or knowledge that they have to impart. It is this calm tone that make those moments when he does express anguish, disbelief and anger all the more affecting.

If This is a Man ends with a twist of fate that in the end saved Levi’s life.

The Truce deals with the liberation of Levi’s camp and his slow route back to Italy. In a way it is a counterpoint to If This is a Man. If the latter dealt with a kind of living hell, then the former accounts for his time spent in a form of Soviet bureaucratic limbo between Spring 1945 and 1946 when he eventually got home to Turin. His travails and travels during this time were many and various, and he has some colourful tales to tell of the many people he met along the way. One important thing this book conveys is the sense of chaos, liberation, frenzy and free-for-all that existed in Europe during that immediate post-war period, which sat alongside the utter destitution and broken war-weariness that 6 years of hatred and destruction had wrought.  As a consequence some of the people and things he writes about are genuinely bizarre, and I found myself laughing out loud at several points.

As briefly mentioned, the appendix to the book, in which Levi explains at length his motivation for writing the memoir, and his own self-defined role as a survivor, is also well worth reading.

So in summary, while the subject matter of this book is harrowing, Levi’s skill as a writer is to clarify things and to present the facts as he saw them. The result is a book that enables the reader to reflect more rationally on the barbarity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Primo Levi- A Brief Introduction.

I’m currently reading Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table which has in turn made me want to find out more about his life and also chemistry. Here’s a lovely video I wanted to share which deals with both topics.  Being filmed in Levi’s alma mater in Turin adds to the atmosphere.

Last words from ‘The Leopard’.

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Lampedusa, London, 1930’s: Publication and fame were still a long way off, but he demonstrated his ‘monster’ talent even then.

As I wrote the other day here the fact that Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa published only one full length novel is not grounds for too much sadness, since he did leave other literary remains behind.

The real Lampedusa fanatic will want to hunt down his various notes on literature. In the early 50’s he agreed to give informal lectures on writing and writers to a few select young acquaintances. Lampedusa was formidably well read and loved English literature most of all, and his lecture notes are the fruits of much of this reading. I don’t go out of my way to read literary criticism, but I enjoyed reading this and find it refreshing to get a non-english perspective on writers and writing we think we know so well based on our own received opinions and assumptions. If you can track them down it’s also worth reading Lampedusa’s perceptive notes on Stendhal, which I guarantee will make you want to look (or look again) into the Frenchman’s work.

If you want something a little less specialised, in recent years his Letters from London and Europe have been published. Between 1925 and 1930, long before The Leopard was even conceived of, Lampedusa travelled a little and wrote letters to his cousins back home in Sicily. Their nickname for him was the ‘monster’, and this is the term he uses to refer to himself throughout these letters. Most of them detail his travels around London and the rest of the UK.  Despite being a Southern European by birth, Lampedusa was an ardent anglophile. He loved our literature and our language, and these letters demonstrate how much he was fascinated by our country. Despite his status of published author lying a long way off in the future, even around the time he was writing the letters Lampedusa shows he was a born writer, with the power to engage his readers and bring what he describes alive. Just as well, then, because the Britain of the 20’s and 30’s was a radically different place. So not only do these letters reveal more about their author, but they also give glimpses of how life was in a very different time.

Anyone who loves Lampedusa’s work has to have a look at Ian Gilmour’s The Last Leopard, which is a fabulous book and first-rate biography. It combines a narrative of Lampedusa’s life with pithy commentary on his literary works, and relevant comments on the social and historical context. What I think truly makes Gilmour’s book a cut above is his seemingly total understanding of Italy, Sicily and Lampedusa’s works. Written with full access to Lampedusa’s archive (including items retrieved by the author himself from the bombed out shell of Lampedusa’s former Palermo home, some forty years after the US air raid that put paid to things) Gilmour gets right under the skin of this incredible writer. Coming in at just over 200 pages, this book has the additional virtue of being short (itself perhaps a reflection of the fact that Lampedusa’s day to day life was rather monotonous and his literary output pretty small). However, what Gilmour has to say he says with insight and authority and does full justice the man and his masterpiece. This being a shorter biography it gives you plenty of energy left to go straight back into The Leopard and other works. Lampedusa could have written more, but into his one novel he poured the experience and insight of a lifetime. His other works may be the literary equivalent of left-overs, but take everything together and you’ve got a whole banquet of words.

And  that’s that, surely?

Well thankfully. It seems the cupboard is note entirely bare just yet and I understand that Lampedusa’s letters to his wife are soon to be (perhaps even have been) published in his native Italy. Let’s  hope an english translation quickly follows.

Papa Hemingway- A review of the 1966 memoir by A.E. Hotchner

Based on the author’s friendship with the literary legend in the last 13 years of his life, is this a serious portrait or a just another exercise in analysing the tortured Hemingway psyche? 

I could have gone down the cliched route by giving this review a title like ‘the lion in winter’. There is a melancholy and defeated air hanging over the final chapters of this book, mainly because they consist of Hotchner’s version of seeing his friend’s personality disintegrate and his life-force drain away.

Yet the resounding minor note on which Hemingway’s life and therefore this book end doesn’t completely drown out the happier tone struck elsewhere. In fact Hotchner’s portrait does a good job in adding extra levels to our understanding of Hemingway. He remained dedicated to his craft, for instance, and personally it seems that although his final decade and half of life had a lot of deep lows, he also enjoyed great highs. For all the physical and mental struggle, it’s reassuring to know that he remained productive until the final year or so.

Hotchner was a friend of Hemingway’s in the final 13 years of the author’s life, beginning in 1948 when as a  young journalist Hotchner was sent to Cuba to doorstep the man who was his idol. From there a friendshi devloped, and the book’s remaining chapters are accounts of the times when the two got together in various parts of Europe and the US.

Hotchner portrays himself as a close and admiring friend, and it’s a self portrait that rings true. To that extent this book succeeds in putting Hemingway centre stage because Hotchner was obviously in a position to observe him closely and record all he said of note. Although the tone is perhaps overly respectful at times, Hotchner’s intentions seem to be honest and true, resulting in a book that is more a tactful ‘the author as I knew him’ type of work, rather than a trivial and exploitative ‘reveals all’ hack job.

At the very core of the book are conversations with Hemingway. There’s plenty of incidental colour and detail, such as what they did in Venice together, or who they summered with in Spain. Ultimately, however, this book reminded me of a traditional book in the ‘table talk’ genre. It’s essentially Hemingway talking: reminiscing on his life, revealing things about himself, analysing the world around him, opining on things and most interestingly musing on the writer’s life and giving words of writerly advice.

Perhaps some might feel uneasy at the thought of Hotchner exhausting the detail of a personal friendship to turn them into a book. Make no mistake though: this book is a tribute rather than a simplistic cash in. And anyway, 47 years after the book’s first publication, and 52 years after Hemingway’s suicide, Hotchner’s homage  seems a paragon of restraint in our modern era, when the Hemingway name sells everything from furniture to rum.

 

 

What have en english war hero, a Romantic wanderer and a heavy metal pioneer got in common?

Nothing much, except for they’ve all had books written about them and I’ve read them all. This post throws together three different books: two on Byronic literary adventurers, and one on that fierce heavy metal innovator Tony Iommi.

Patrick Leigh Fermor.

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Put your fag out and get on with it man! PLF at home in Greece, taking a break from writing.

There’s been a resurgence of interest in the english travel writer since his death in 2011. Last year his biography was published to virtually universal acclaim, and now it’s out in paperback. To cap it all, the third and final instalment of Leigh Fermor’s travel memoir recalling his epic walk across Europe in the 1930’s, The Broken Road, is to appear in the UK in September of this year.

Like probably everyone else who has read it, I enjoyed Artemis Cooper’s biography, Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure. As his literary executor she is obviously a safe pair of hands to give us an overview of  his life. It helps if you have five star material to work with in the first place. To her credit Cooper takes no chances and produces a workmanlike narrative,  and in so doing avoids making a sow’s ear out of a silk purse.

I would recommend this book to anyone. However, I had reservations about it when I read it the first time around, and I still have them now. By the way, just to emphasise that I’m not having a dig at Cooper, these are similar to reservations I’ve had about other biographies in the past.

1) How do you avoid producing a lopsided biography, when your subject’s early life was so full of incident and the remainder was comparitively more sedate? By lopsided I mean devoting so much focus and so many pages to the incident filled first part, that the remainder of the book reads like a rushed afterthought the writer has been obliged to include. When I read the Leigh Fermor bio I was reminded of books I’d read about footballers and rock stars, where the life lived in their 20s and 30s was of such overwhelming interest, that the rest was quite obviously of less commercial value and was therefore whittled down to the bare minimum. The final few decades of Leigh Fermor’s life often felt like they were covered, to borrow a phrase of his, “in tearing haste”.

Perhaps the ending of a biography is best thought of like a plane journey: you want an orderly, well-paced descent to the end, not a crash landing.

2) Why rely mainly on printed sources if you can use other ones too? I was struck by one thing in this book: there was a relative lack of interview material. There’re probably acceptable reasons for this, such as most of the people who knew him being dead, but there are people who knew him who are still alive (a few of whom were spoken to), and I wonder why Leigh Fermor himself wasn’t interviewed at length for this book. Perhaps it wasn’t practical to do so, but either way it’s a shame. Samuel Beckett’s official biographer James Knowlson was unable to complete his interviews with the Irishman before he died, but what material Knowlson had he put in his book to great effect.

I have to be honest here and say that before I read the biography I’d read In Tearing Haste, the collection of letters between PLF and Deborah Devonshire. That these sketch the broad outline of of PLF’s post-war life, and that Cooper quotes liberally from them, suggests this was one of her main sources of material. Cooper of all people was best placed to have gone further than this.

3) Unanswered questions. The book kept me interested because PLF’s life itself was a gripping affair and made for a good story, but what it seemed light on was much sustained attempt to interpret his behaviour.  Biographers don’t have to be  psychologists, but personally I think it makes for a better book if there’s some attempt to explore motives and motivations, to identify patterns of behaviour across the course of a life.  It’s something that a biographer is sometimes better placed to do than someone writing their own story (see Tony Iommi below). For me, the great unanswered question in this biography is why wasn’t PLF the writer more prolific? Why couldn’t he get volume three of his travel memoir finished? One of the parts I found funniest relates to the 1960s, where PLF was commissioned to write 2,000 words on the war in Crete for a compendium volume about battles of the Second World War. Deadlines came and went, attempts were made to write the piece. It then spiralled out of control into far more than 2,000 words. He tried to cut it. He failed. The piece eventually went unpublished and the publisher who made the original commission ended up bitterly regretting it.  I suspect similar games ensued when he tried to get Volume Three of the travel memoir down on paper.

Although Cooper makes some attempt to explain this, I never felt like I got a clear answer. I can infer all sorts of things for myself, but what if there’s a key to it all that we aren’t being told? I spy the opportunity for another biography a few years down the line here!

Edward John Trelawney

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The cover of David Crane’s biography, showing a portrait of Trelawney as he wished to be seen, the rakish Romantic hero.

After I’d finished Cooper’s book, it occurred to me it was like another biography I’d read years ago, Lord Byron’s Jackal by David Crane. Its subject is Edward john Trelawney, a complicated figure who became part of the Byron- Shelley circle in 1820’s Italy. After Shelley’s death Trelawney went to Greece with Byron to fight in the war of independence there. Trelawney proceeded to take an active part in the war and was almost killed. These were the crucial events of the first third of his life, but as is the way with biographies they take up a good three quarters of the the book.

What Crane does, however, is use all of the available sources to make sure that he gives fitting coverage to the second half of Trelawney’s life. You can forgive Crane for not dwelling too much on the time he spent as a farmer in rural Wales. But he is excellent in describing Trelawney’s move back to London as an older man, where he found fame among a new generation of writers and artists, milking his status as a friend of Byron and Shelley’s for all it was worth.

The constant thread of argument running through this book is also very interesting and convincing. Trelawney was essentially a nobody who desperately wanted to be a somebody. By the time he arrived in Italy and joined the poets’ circle he had invented an entire life story for himself, involving high adventure that he had never truly known. Irony of ironies, though, once in the orbit of true greats he found himself living a genuinely dramatic existence, and was able to match up to it. The result was his being forever woven into Romantic legend, and his becoming something of a legend in his own lifetime.

Tony Iommi

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After starting the first draft of his autobiography himself, Tony realised that he’d need a lot of speaker cones to cover his whole life story, so decided to hire a ghostwriter with a dictaphone.

Iommi’s book Iron Man: My Journey through Heaven and Hell with Black Sabbath is one of those show business books where the subject basically sits down and speaks into the ghost writer’s dictaphone. The saving grace here, though, is that the scribe has barely done anything to the prose, save for taking out the umms and ers. If you’ve ever heard Iommi interviewed you’ll know that not only is he the man of a thousand riffs, but he’s also got just as many good stories to tell, the fruits of a rock and roll life.  Told in a down-to-earth, deadpan style in best West Midlands tradition, this is one of the best rock books I have ever read. It literally is just one bloke telling his own story with no attempts at lengthy self analysis or justification. I mean how can you really explain setting fire to the drummer or even painting the poor bloke gold? These are just the stories, take them or leave them, make of them what you will.  Similarly his attempt to explain taking vast amounts of cocaine doesn’t get much past “it was there, we were bored between gigs, I liked it at first but then it took hold”. Is there much else to say? Unlike the big question mark over PLF’s writing  methods (see above) Iommi justifies the matter of fact approach.  

It’s to Iommi’s credit that he avoids the psychobabble that too many rock books get mired in.  He also pulls no punches about the darker years. It would have been easy to produce a ‘lopsided’ life, focussed mainly on the 70’s glory days and fast forwarding to the late 90’s revival and eventual elevation to rock legend status,  but instead the book is made stronger by giving equal coverage to all parts of his career.