Friday, 31 December 2010
Sunday, 26 December 2010
Saturday, 18 December 2010
Sunday, 12 December 2010
I have returned to Anthony Burgess, with his novel Any Old Iron, which follows the remarkable Jones family throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The old iron of the title is Excalibur, a.k.a. the Sword of Mars, once wielded by Attila the Hun before ending up in the hands of King Arthur, according to popular legend.
For a story ostensibly about Excalibur, the first major surprise is how little the sword itself features. It does, however, hang over the fates of the various members of the Jones family, and by charting their fortunes Burgess is able to cover an extraordinary variety of subject matter. The sinking of the Titanic, the Russian revolution, two World Wars, the struggle for Welsh independence, and the founding of the nascent State of Israel are all effortlessly and mercilessly scrutinised.
When Burgess writes about the Second World War, his acerbic wit is reminiscent of Joseph Heller. One Private Jones suffers so many bouts of bronchitis, pneumonia, and minor war-related injuries that, despite serving his country for several years, he never actually sees any fighting. There is a powerful sense of the absurdity of war. Another Jones, defending his classical education as a means to interpret the mad situation around him, reduces war and Homeric verse to the level of crapulent nightmares, concluding that “We’re all living in the aftermath of a cheese supper.”
Burgess’ view of Welsh independence and Zionism are just as jaundiced. The two struggling states are set up as parallels, with the bumbling Welsh independence movement robbing post offices and giving old ladies heart attacks. Perhaps because it is still a delicate political issue, perhaps because Wales is more integral to the plot, Israel is seen as a distant absurdity, used by the Welsh freedom fighters as an example of what could be achieved. This absurdity is brought out by discussions of the ethnic similarities between the two groups, and the suggestion that the Welsh are a fragment of the Jewish diaspora.
So, where does Excalibur fit in? Having been looted by the Nazis and captured by the Soviets it resides in a Russian museum. There Reg Jones, half mad with his love for a Russian woman and his fear that she will be sent to the Siberian work camps, liberates it from the icy grasp of the Soviets. He does so with no nationalistic intent, his wartime experiences having destroyed any such naive ideals. But when he returns it to Wales, and when the Luftwaffe unintentionally expose some apparently Arthurian ruins, the nationalistic fervour of others is whipped up. For Reg, the end of the war is sadly not the end of pointless quarrelling.
Clearly, for Burgess, the absurdity of war is inseparable from the absurdity of nation-building. Thousands of Russians were worked to death in Stalin’s USSR because they had been exposed to the decadence of Western society, and could have spread word of its success. Welsh nationalism seems the nostalgic province of petty thugs. Wars, and the thought of dying for one’s country, are absurd.
Any Old Iron tumbles majestically and mockingly through the terrible events of the twentieth century. The Sword of Arthur almost seems like an afterthought, until you look closely and realise that it symbolises all the nostalgia for conquests and golden ages that motivated so much of the bloodshed in our recent history. It is a rusty relic, quite out of place in the modern world.
Sunday, 5 December 2010
The front cover of Sol Yurick’s The Warriors bombastically proclaims that it is the most dangerous book since A Clockwork Orange. It is not. Yes, there are ritualised stabbings, gang-rapings and casual violence aplenty, but the comparison was clearly made by the sales team rather than the critics.
I read The Warriors because of the movie of the same name, which is something of an 80s cult classic, all urban decay and hipster slang. The same two features dominate the book, but whereas in Paramount’s version the hero and the tart-with-a-heart get together, in Yurick’s original she is raped and left in an alleyway beside a bleeding corpse. Predictably, the Warriors have been neutered for Hollywood.
The bombast of the front cover sets the tone for the whole novel. It follows a gang, the Coney Island Dominators, in a not-too-distant New York future, as they make their way home through fifteen miles of hostile territory after a huge peace talk between all the NY gangs ended in anarchy. The young men of the gangs are obsessed with their machismo, their appearance, their ‘rep’. If you look at them the wrong way, they’ll bop you. Or jap you. Or waste you.
While one or two scenes make for slightly uncomfortable reading, there is certainly nothing as distressing as Anthony Burgess’ wilder moments. The most uncomfortable aspect for me was the narrator’s – perhaps the author’s – tacit assumption that the female victims of the Dominators nocturnal activities were a) asking for it, and b) enjoyed it. The book was written in the eighties. Whether it was behind the times then and seems even more so now, or whether the author is attempting to be provocative, is difficult to tell.
What the novel does do well is evoke the sweat and seediness of a hot New York night. I’ve never been, but I have experienced enough American culture and been through the arse-ends of enough big cities to find it convincing. All the talk of fairies, fags and whores is reminiscent of Travis’ skewed view of the nightlife in Taxi Driver, while the sweaty, paranoid road trip aspect reminded me of Kerouac’s On the Road.
The Warriors is not a sophisticated work of literature. I read it in about three hours flat. But given how much I enjoy the film, and how many times I’ve seen it, I was impressed that the book wasn’t a disappointing experience. Yurick’s prose is nothing special, but it isn’t actively bad, which is what I’d been bracing myself for following some friendly warnings. And for a novel unashamedly based on gang violence, it does at least voice some intelligent thoughts. One character’s aspiration is to earn a fearsome ‘rep’ and make others follow his orders by sitting behind a desk and working hard, by having a big house, a nice car, a pretty wife. There’s that latent misogyny again, but at least these are reasonably honest aspirations.
The real tragedy is that by the end of the book, the one character that has developed the most, who conquered his inadequacies in a ten-cent arcade shoot-out game against a shinily handsome plastic sheriff, is back where he started. His home is his prison, and his potential as a leader of men and as an honest person seems likely to remain unfulfilled.