The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman

April 23, 2018 Leave a comment

For the last few years I’ve been reading twentieth century Russian authors, my favourite being Mikhail Bulgakov, so it was only natural that I’d make it to Vasily Grossman and his epic Life and Fate eventually. Grossman published stories and a few novels under the Soviet regime, but became increasingly upset by the atrocities he saw during WWII. Present at the Battle of Stalingrad, Grossman was one of the first outsiders to see the hell the Nazis had created in their extermination camps, doubly or triply confronting for him as he was Jewish himself and his mother had been murdered by the Nazis. He wrote about this in “The Hell of Treblinka”, which was used in the Nuremberg Trials to prosecute the perpetrators of those foul acts.

The first of Grossman’s books I read also happened to be his last, written shortly before he died of cancer in 1964. This is a wry, meditative piece suffused with acute observations of ordinary people and ruminations on life and death. It’s a great introduction to Grossman, a taster before you tackle the main courses in the same way that A Country Doctor’s Notebook is an excellent place to start with Bulgakov before you attempt The Master and Margarita. One chapter is an amazing piece on Grossman’s sense that he was about to die that night – he was only out by a few months.

The Road is a collection of short stories and essays, including “The Hell of Treblinka”. Perhaps not as endearing as An Armenian Sketchbook, it’s nevertheless a good introduction to Grossman and his thoughts.

Life and Fate is Grossman’s opus, supposedly the Soviet War and Peace. At 850+ pages, it’s a daunting but rewarding read. Disjointed and unruly in places owing to the fact that Grossman was never permitted to publish it during his lifetime (his book having been “arrested”), Life and Fate follows a large cast of characters, many of whom are related to each other by birth or marriage, in and around Stalingrad at the time of the German invasion and subsequent eviction. What stands out here is Grossman’s simple, decent humanism, profoundly in opposition to the heartless barbarities of the Soviet state. It’s a document on the history of a time and place, and also a reluctant critique and denunciation of Socialism. Grossman was a Soviet man in a way that Bulgakov never was, but his faith in the regime couldn’t survive the many atrocities he witnessed. The purges of 1937, the callous disregard for human life in defence of the homeland and the increasing Antisemitism of the Soviet state put paid to that. The chapters on the Nazi extermination camps are the best I’ve read aside from Elie Wiesel’s Night.

A book I haven’t got to yet is Everything Flows, written after Life and Fate but also denied publication. Other than An Armenian Sketchbook, it’s Grossman’s last book.

Another book I’m yet to read but eager to get my teeth into is A Writer at War, a collection of Grossman’s writings during the war. I’m curious as to what degree of overlap there is between this and The Road. I’ve also heard that a number of the events in Life and Fate are based on real events described here.

And finally there’s The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman, a biography by John and Carol Garrand. Ordinarily, when approaching a writer of this stature, I like to read a biography early on, but it looks like in Grossman’s case I may come to the biography last.

So, in summary, Vasily Grossman is simply one of the most important writers of the twentieth century and crucial to any understanding of the Soviet State. Go read him.

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A Decade of Reading: 2008-2017

December 15, 2017 Leave a comment

‘To-Read’ shelf late 2016

I’ve been a voracious reader my whole life, but it wasn’t until 2008 that I started cataloging my reading journey. Ten years later and I’ve just ticked over 800 books read in that time, a whopping 137 of those this year. At the start of 2008 I was twenty-six years old, two years into my teaching career, with a wife and two infant children. Although I had won writing awards as a teenager, I didn’t have a single publishing credit to my name as an adult. I read 59 books that year, including a dozen or so titles by Philip K. Dick, which I was reading and reviewing at the time. To this day, my ‘Philip K. Dick – The Top Ten SF Novels’ blog post draws the most traffic hereabouts, and by a wide margin. These reviews were later collected in Bruce Gillespie’s SF Commentary 83. Another book that heavily influenced me in 2008 was Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl, which inspired me to write my dystopian novels Yellowcake Springs and Yellowcake Summer.

Cruising for Crews

In those days I was still reading a fair bit of science fiction, as I had done as a youth, but the genre’s influence on me was already waning. In 2009 I discovered two authors who would have a profound influence on my reading and writing, Raymond Chandler and Harry Crews. Not only did I read everything I could lay my hands on by those two, but I began to love crime fiction and Southern Gothic more broadly. I only read 47 books in 2009 but in doing so I discovered a number of authors I’d grow to love, not only Chandler and Crews but also Alan Warner, Ken Kalfus and Pat Barker. I continued ploughing through these authors long into 2010 and 2011, adding Irvine Welsh and J. M. Coetzee into the mix.

My daughter Ella at one of my book launches in 2011

In 2012 I suddenly had a use for audiobooks as I was commuting 90 minutes each way into Perth every day. I heard Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, a book that would become very dear to me, that way, alongside titles by the likes of Kazuo Ishiguro, China Mieville and Boris Pasternak. In 2012 I discovered a number of new authors I adore to this day, namely Megan Abbott, William Gay and Daniel Woodrell. I gobbled them, one and all.

Not ’till the red fog rises

In 2013 I discovered yet more crime authors I’d come to appreciate in Peter Temple, David Whish-Wilson and Derek Raymond. I also read the criminally-underappreciated Zoe Heller’s three novels and the stories of Raymond Carver. 2014 was the first year I cracked the ton and this included a bevy of authors new to me in Mikhail Bulgakov, Haruki Murakami and Larry Brown. I also re-read most of M. John Harrison and an awful lot more besides.

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2015 was the year of Jim Thompson, an author I was wildly enthusiastic about. I also discovered Christopher Isherwood, James Sallis and I read a lot of Cormac McCarthy. In 2016 I dipped below 100 again, 77 to be precise, and this included a lot more James Sallis and Richard Flanagan. On my honeymoon in Tasmania late in the year I was determined to read titles by local authors, which I ended up very much enjoying.

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Which brings us to 2017: the year my reading went into overdrive. I only know of a couple of people who are likely to read more than 137 books in a calendar year (actually, at the time of this writing, it’s only 11.5 months) and this is by far the most I’ve ever read: 33,000+ pages according to Goodreads, or nearly 100 pages per day. This colossal figure has been swelled by my reading virtually the entirety of authors such as David Goodis, James M. Cain, John Fante, his son Dan Fante and Patricia Highsmith. Add to that a truckload of other books by the likes of Charles Bukowski, Vasily Grossman, Dorothy Hughes, Gerald Kersh, Horace McCoy, Hubert Selby and Charles Willeford and you begin to get the idea. There’s a lot of Americans on this list, most of them crime authors, but I love the Russians too (not only Grossman and Bulgakov, but also Andrei Platonov).

At Dome in Hobart, not far from the outstanding Cracked and Spineless.

Looking back over these 800 titles over 10 years, my only regret is that only 21.4% (171) were by women. Partly this is because of the genres I tend to find myself in, partly it’s because female authors rarely seem to produce the sheer volume of titles their male counterparts churn out, and partly it’s simply my failure to find female authors I love in sufficient quantity. There are plenty of women writers I enjoy, especially Megan Abbott, Patricia Highsmith, Pat Barker and more recently Dorothy Hughes, but doesn’t add up to anything like 50% of my reading. Thus my pledge for the next ten years is to significantly raise this percentage, at the very least to more than 30%

In terms of what else I’ll be reading next, I’m looking forward to getting into the works of Don Carpenter and continuing my reading of Charles Willeford. I’m also looking forward to reading Jeff Vandermeer’s Borne and Jane Harper’s The Dry. Right now I have about 25 books on the To-Read shelf. As per usual, most of it is American, most of it crime fiction, and most of it by men. But I am and remain open to suggestions.

Here’s to another 800 or more books on the menu over the next decade!

“The Centre Cannot Hold” wins Joe O’Sullivan Writers’ Prize

December 6, 2017 4 comments

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On Sunday 3rd December I was honoured to receive the 2017 Joe O’Sullivan Writers’ Prize from the Australian Irish Heritage Association for my story ‘The Centre Cannot Hold’. The award was presented by Denis Bratton of the AIHA at the Irish Club in Subiaco in conjunction with the annual Brendan Awards. I was made to feel very welcome indeed and was treated to an afternoon of singing, laughing and of course a couple of pints of Guinness! ‘The Centre Cannot Hold’ appears in the AIHA’s quarterly publication, The Journal, as well as on their website.  Thanks very much to Denis and the rest of the Perth Irish community for making my day/month/year.

You Should Come With Me Now by M. John Harrison

November 19, 2017 Leave a comment

You Should Come With Me Now is M. John Harrison’s latest collection of weird tales from Comma Press, who kindly provided me with a copy for review.  Harrison stands alone, in my mind at least, as the only author I can think of who started in science fiction, transformed into a literary author, and then transformed back. More importantly, he’s one of the greatest British authors of the post-war period. I’ve been reading him for close to twenty years now, since I discovered his Viriconium series in the Millennium Fantasy Masterworks series circa 2000. Even then he was straddling genres, as he also had The Centauri Device in the Science Fiction Masterworks. I liked those, but I loved his literary novels and especially Climbers best of all. Harrison returned to SF with Light and its sequels Nova Swing and Empty Space (this last volume is one of the more baroque and difficult texts I’ve encountered in any genre). There were short fiction collections along the way in The Ice Monkey and Travel Arrangements. Harrison has been at it for all of fifty years, and on the basis of the current volume he hasn’t lost the knack for creating unsettling tales that are at once exotic and homely.

These stories are uncompromising, however. Many are filled with strange architecture, strange oddments and stranger motivations. No one is ever particularly happy in an M. John Harrison story and there’s rarely anything like a happy ending on offer. This isn’t a criticism, more a warning: don’t expect any answers. Some of these stories are set in the land of Autotelia, which seems to exist partly in our world (you can fly there from London). Others remind me of the earlier Viriconium stories. There are a number of flash fiction stories on offer, none of which I bonded with particularly, as well as pieces that remind me of J. G. Ballard’s ‘condensed novels’ in The Atrocity Exhibition (the final imaginary review in ‘Imaginary Reviews’ is of ‘The Last Fish’, which is more than a little Ballardian). My favourite pieces tended to be those that were longer and more human, some of which are set in entirely in our world. This is my way of saying that I still prefer the M. John Harrison of Climbers to that of Empty Space.

‘Cicisbeo’ is an engaging domestic story of a kind that Harrison has been writing for decades, a sort of low-key love triangle that reminds me of Graham Greene’s ‘The Destructors’. In ‘Yummie’, a man wakes from heart surgery to find that he’s being shadowed by a creature that offers obscure advice and no one else can see. ‘Dog People’ is an off-beat romance of the strangest variety, featuring the aggressive Myra, the ugliest woman our protagonist has ever seen (it doesn’t take long for them to start fucking, however). My favourite story was ‘Entertaining Angels Unawares’, written in the mode of M. John Harrison’s I like best, in a similar vein to The Course of the Heart and Signs of Life. Here you’ll find a dilapidated church undergoing renovation, a persistent dream of chopping people’s heads off with an enormous sword (‘biggest fucker you’ve ever seen’) and gobbo (‘a kind of grout made from mud and goat-hair’). Many of the varied offerings in You Should Come With Me Now are too elliptical for dullards like myself to fully comprehend, but it’s a book of magic and perverse humour nonetheless.

Nightmare Alley vs Nightmare Alley

October 2, 2017 Leave a comment

I’ve been reading a lot of classic noir fiction in recent times, as well as watching a host of noir films of the 1940s and 50s. I hadn’t heard of William Lindsay Gresham or his 1946 novel Nightmare Alley until I picked up a copy of the Pocket Essentials guide to Noir Fiction, which has put me onto a number of obscure but worthy authors. The novel was an instant success at the time of publication and was turned into a 1947 film of the same name, starring Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell. Instead of reading the book first and then watching the film, I had a notion to sample them side by side, watching ten minutes or so of the film and then reading a chapter or two. This worked fine for a while, except that the film ran out long before the novel. I enjoyed both, but neither are without flaws.

Tyrone Power stars as Stan “The Great Stanton” Carlilse, who starts in a local carny before deciding to try for the big-time spook racket. Power puts in a wonderful performance as the amoral confidence trickster, and he’s ably supported by Joan Blondell as the aging Zeena, also pictured here. The film also features Colleen Gray as the young starlet Molly and, my favourite, Mike Makurzi as strongman Bruno. I thought Makurzi seemed familiar – turns out he’s another strongman character in Night and the City, which is possibly my absolute favourite of the forty or so noir fictions I’ve seen. The film fascinates early on but to my mind bogs down a little in the second half as Stan perpetrates his various cons. Presumably to keep the censors happy, the film stresses the NON-religious nature of Stan’s schemes, a point of clear divergence from the novel, and there’s even a sloppy happy ending. Good, but not ideal.

The novel is a different beast altogether, far coarser and for the time far more shocking. None of the characters have much in the way of redeeming characteristics, certainly not Stan, and there’s no hint of a happy ending. Again I found certain chapters overly long or tangential, but certain passages and chapters were among the best I’ve ever read. Some are desperately bleak:

“How helpless they all looked in the ugliness of sleep. A third of life spent unconscious and corpselike. And some, the great majority, stumbled through their waking hours scarcely more awake, helpless in the face of destiny. They stumbled down a dark alley toward their deaths. They sent exploring feelers into the light and met fire and walked back into the darkness of their blind groping.”

There’s a chapter about midway through the book where Stan goes back home to visit his dying father, whom he hasn’t seen in decades, that is to my mind one of the most perfect pieces of work imaginable. The rest is a bit up and down, and it does help to have seen the film (which definitely smooths out the complexity), but it’s a worthwhile read overall. Gresham only wrote one other novel, Limbo Tower, which is apparently bleaker still. Penniless, he killed himself in 1962.

Down There with David Goodis

January 26, 2017 Leave a comment

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About once a year I discover a writer whose work intrigues me sufficiently that I allow myself to become obsessed with their lives and work. Most of these have tended to be American crime or country noir authors. In 2009-10 that writer was Harry Crews. In 2012 it was two authors, Megan Abbott and William Gay. Two again in 2013 with Derek Raymond and Daniel Woodrell. In 2014 it was a Russian, Mikhail Bulgakov. In 2015 I discovered Jim Thompson and in 2016 I read almost everything by James Sallis. Though the year is young, 2017 is shaping up as the year of David Goodis.

In the case of many of these writers, such as Thompson, Raymond and Goodis, their status nowadays is that of ‘long forgotten, recently rediscovered cult crime author’. All three were relatively successful in their time, all three had plenty of movies adapted from their novels, all fell from favour after their deaths only for their work to be resurrected decades later. Goodis’ personal life story seems especially poignant and I won’t try to summarise it here, but suffice to say that his fall from grace during his lifetime was the steepest of the three. A successful author and Hollywood screenwriter by the age of 30 (pictured below with Bogart and Bacall, stars of the 1947 noir film Dark Passage, adapted from Goodis’ novel of the same name), a decade later he was churning out cheap paperback originals for the same pulp houses as Jim Thompson. A decade after that, at 49, Goodis was dead. page0_2-2

Goodis is by no means the perfect writer. Having read four of his novels now, I feel safe in saying that. His plots creak and often threaten to bust at the seams. He is overly reliant on coincidence and often having a character overhear long sections of dialogue. His protagonists are almost always the exact same kind of morose down-and-out. Goodis often uses lengthy expository passages and pages and pages of interior monologue (this last point is both strength and weakness).

And yet Goodis has heart. This, above anything else, is his greatest strength as a writer. He demonstrates care not only for his suicidal protagonists, but for those practically all of those downtrodden souls who inhabit his books. Goodis uses flashback sections effectively to explain the plights of his protagonists and also to link prior action to that happening now. He writes action scenes and especially punch-ups particularly effectively. He demonstrates an admirable attitude toward women and ethnic minorities, and writes largely without racial prejudice. Goodis describes settings in atmospheric fashion, often using the weather itself as a character in his work. In short, he’s a diamond in the rough.

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To the novels themselves, I began with Shoot the Piano Player, renamed thus from Down There after the French film upon which it is based. I liked this plenty, especially the frozen setting of deep winter in Philadelphia. Goodis’ most obvious attribute as a writer is that he genuinely writes about the down-and-outs of society, and these pages are filled with them. I also really dig the early 90s Vintage Crime/Black Lizard edition pictured here (I have several Jim Thompson novels in these editions). Under its original title, the novel is also available in a Library of America edition of 50s noir.

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Far less successful in my view is The Wounded and the Slain, available from Hard Case Crime. This one is probably unique in Goodis’ ouevre in that it’s set outside the U.S., in Jamaica (which Goodis apparently visited). I didn’t much care for the sunny setting but what especially galled me here was the extremely poor plotting. I thought the writing and characters reasonable enough, but the plotting to be on the level one might expect from a small child. Others apparently disagree.

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2012 must have been a watershed year for Goodis’ fans, as this signalled the release of Five Noir Novels of the 1940s and 50s from the Library of America, an edition I’ve recently obtained. In fact, many of the novels herein are only in print in this edition. So far I’ve only read The Burglar and Street of No Return, meaning I still have Dark Passage, Nightfall and The Moon in the Gutter to come. Quite brief at 52,000 words, The Burglar is a sharp noir tale set in Philly and Atlantic City in the 50s. All the main characters are well drawn, the protagonist’s manias are convincing and there aren’t too many dumb things in the plot. I enjoyed the hell out of this, basically.

Street of No Return reads like an inferior Shoot the Piano Player, however. There our protagonist previously had a glittering career playing the piano, whereas here he was a singer, but otherwise the setup is much the same. One of the problems with this is clunky plotting. Here there are three separate groups: cops, white crims and Puerto Rican crims, all vying for control of the Hellhole in central Philly, but Goodis doesn’t seem to have the necessary skill to pit them against each other convincingly. Another problem is that here the femme fatale barely appears on the page at all, other than in a flashback chapter (Chapter 6 – by my reckoning the best in the book).

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I’m waiting for the arrival of Black Friday and Selected Stories not only for the title novella but also for the stories, many of which were written in the 30s and 40s. There’s also an essay by Adrian Wootton on Goodis that I’m keen to read. I’ve also managed to find an old paperback of Cassidy’s Girl on Ebay for a reasonable price, which brings me up to nine novels of the eighteen Goodis published owned. The others are all available secondhand, but are usually very expensive. I have my eye on copies of In Tender SinThe Blonde on the Street Corner and Night Squad as all three were at least reprinted at some point in the nineties. The other six appear not to have been reprinted for many years. All are available, but none cheaply.

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Those like me attempting to absorb anything Goodis related as quickly and as cheaply as possible have their work cut out for them, unfortunately. There’s a 2010 documentary that I’ve just ordered on Ebay (the DVD seems to have recently gone out of print on Amazon). There’s even a biography written in French in the eighties that was only published in English in recent years (Goodis: A Life in Black and White), but this can only be obtained direct from the publisher at a hefty cost of $65 including shipping for us poor Aussies. There’s even a short book by James Sallis (Difficult Lives: Jim Thompson – David Goodis – Chester Himes) but it’s out of print and prohibitively expensive secondhand. Online, there’s a wealth of (not very clearly organised) material on davidgoodis.com, and there’s the occasional excellent review by the likes of Australian author Andrew Nette.

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As for finding copies of Goodis’ novels cheaply secondhand, it seems that the French have been the real curators of his legacy over the years. The downside to this is that most of the cheap editions of Goodis’ novels on Ebay are in French translation and thus of little use to me.  I’ve just ordered a DVD of the 1947 film version of Dark Passage and no doubt the other adaptions are available in some way and for some price, but that will have to do me for now.

Off I go, back down there into The Moon in the Gutter.

City of Rubber Stamps – Draft complete

January 18, 2017 Leave a comment

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Today, the 18th January, I completed the draft of my new crime novel City of Rubber Stamps, which was written in its entirety over the past four months while I’ve been on Long Service Leave from teaching. I’m having a beer to celebrate, but here are some stats (I love stats):

 

Word count – 85, 306

Approximate hours of actual composition, excluding planning, re-reading and revision – 220

Actual writing days – 81

Words written per hour on average – 387

Non-writing days – 36 (this includes my wedding day and two week honeymoon in Tasmania).

Cups of coffees drunk – at least 250 and probably well over 300

Days until I’m due back at work – 11

Time for that beer 🙂