Monday, July 28, 2014

'[Q]uietly, as the hour of prayer'

It’s not often that I take someone’s book recommendation so seriously as to immediately try to lay my hands on a copy. One always has a personal list, a long never-ending catalogue of the books one should read and the order they should be read. Usually this list is not followed; it’s an aspiration. But Jon Michaud’s essay on the collected stories of the hilariously named Breece D’J Pancake sent me scurrying to make sure I found it. I didn’t think it very likely that I’d come across a used copy of a little-known American writer whose single collection of twelve stories was published three years after his death in 1979. Although, last week I noticed that W.H. Smith has been carrying the Vintage (Random House) edition of Pancake's collection.Grab a copy.



I read the collection over Easter, in small chunks, when I was A.’s house in Reading. The quietness of this year’s Easter in the suburbs of a mid-size southern English town, the sporadic showers, and the wavering light, was the perfect setting.

The title of this post comes from the last story in the collection, 'First Day of Winter'. Pancake’s language is direct; comparisons with Hemingway are just, but he is more open to exploring feeling in language, as opposed to leaving it between the silences. His characters are isolated, failures, workers, dreamers, desperate, violent, eerie, living in the beautiful but impoverished South (West Virginia, Ohio): people one might call white trash, with rich lives, or at least, lives indistinguishable from his rich language.

From ‘Trilobites’: ‘Far off, somebody chops wood, and the ax-bites echo back to me. The hillsides are baked here and have heat ghosts.’

I thoroughly recommend Pancake to anyone interested in localised fiction. It’s a tragedy that Pancake’s suicide robbed American letters of hearing his voice mature, of having more than a single collection, as substantial as it is.

Here’s the essay that got me started.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Framed

It’s post-graduation again, and my last week in Cambridge. After spending several weeks at an internship in London, I’ve been able to start reading again. For fun and in earnest. It’s time to return to our irregularly scheduled broadcast.

I’d never heard of Kyril Bonfiglioli until coming across his Mortdecai series recently quite by accident. In good time too, before the film comes out in Depp/Paltrow/McGregor film comes out in 2015. The New Yorker describes the Mortdecai books as ‘The result of an unholy collaboration between P.G. Wodehouse and Ian Fleming’. One would be hard-pressed to find a better description, aside from adding Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male as a third collaborator.

The Hon. Charlie Mortdecai is a dashingly verbose crooked art dealer with a thuggish manservant, Jock (Mortdecai’s ‘anti-Jeeves’). In the first novel, Don’t Point That Thing at Me, the plot – a stolen Goya, a governmental cover-up, a naughty photograph, a flight to the wide routes of America – is incidental. Tone is all. Bonfiglioni’s isn’t perfect but it comes pretty close, dirtying up Wodehousian charm. There are buckets of camp, a desperately un-politically correct attitude to buxom women and immigrants, and gobbets of poetry waving the flag of an Oxford undergraduate’s utilitarian (that is to say, publically demonstrative) approach to reading.

‘This is not an autobiographical novel,’ writes Bonfiglioli in the prefacing note, ‘it is about some other portly, dissolute, immoral and middle-aged dealer.’ It is this sort of charming, slack knowingness – delivered, one imagines, through curtains of cigarette smoke – that will win you over to Mortdecai’s decadent, shambolic den.