Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream

 

Hem 1This Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up is about Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream. He is a giant of American literature, and of masculine writing. He wrote men’s books about manly subjects: war, bullfighting, deep sea fishing. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. Islands in the Stream was published after his death, in 1970. It was put together from three fragments of novels found in his bank vault in Havana after his death. They were intended by Hemingway to form a larger work, but his widow and literary executor put the pieces together. You’d never think it was cobbled together at all. It’s a stupendous novel, and I loved it.

Hem 2It’s also chillingly tense. Hemingway’s narrative style is famous: he called it the iceberg technique, or something like that, because all the work was done below the surface of the words. So we have plain, pared-down prose, no words wasted, nothing exuberant or decorative, which gives the rare instances of enthusiasm, passion, pleasure, etc, real power, because they stand alone without fuss. The effect is similar to encountering a large rock in the middle of a desert plain. It gives the impression of being bigger than anything else around, because it’s the only one of its kind, but if it were surrounded by equally large-sized rocks, we wouldn’t pay it any particular attention. The effect of such restraint in the writing is that we really feel the undercurrents of emotion. More importantly, we can feel the stuff that’s not being said, and the approach of terrible things a long way off. The tension mounts, and it just keeps on mounting. But because Hemingway’s writing is so controlled, you can feel sure that the catastrophe won’t be sprung on you out of the blue. There will be warnings, and you will have to wait for the warning to happen for the awful, or dangerous, or risky thing to happen. When it does happen, it’s a relief, because now we can get on with it, and not sit there imagining ‘he’s going to kill them’, or ‘they’re going to be washed overboard’, and so on.

Hem 3Tension is a peculiar thing in a novel. If you think about it rationally, the reader can put a book down at any time during a tense-making episode, and it will wait for you. Nothing will change the outcome on the page. You can change how you respond to the outcome by being in a different frame of mind, or wait to have the right kind of time to devote to reading it. You can go to sleep and read the resolution of the tension with a clear mind and full attention on a different day. So what is it that makes us succumb to the tyranny of the plot and keep reading past midnight, or miss a bus stop, in thrall to the story? In Hemingway, I think it’s the hypnosis of the small plain words and the steady encroachment of story and character in tiny, incremental steps. He likes the character, and we like the character, so we don’t want anything bad to happen to that person. Emotional investment in a character binds us to their fate. The more an author encourages us to feel good about a person, the less we are likely to not be too bothered if that person does something horrible, or has something horrible happen to them. So it’s in an author’s interests to make the readers feel invested in some way – good or bad – in the characters so the book will be read. This will work for the situation too, if the situation is bigger or more interesting that the people.

Hem 4So, back to the novel. Only one of the characters in Islands in the Stream populates all three of its parts: Thomas Hudson, a famous artist, a former habitué of 1920s Paris, where he lived with his first wife and son Tom. Now he lives on Bimini, an island of the Bahamas, 50 miles off Florida. He paints, and he drinks. This is apparently not too much, but the amount he and some of the other men sink daily, often starting at breakfast, made me blench. I’m not a spirits drinker, but they certainly were. Hemingway wrote this novel in 1950-51, and it certainly has a feel of Ian Fleming about it, with the details of men’s lives, and how they saw women. Hemingway and Fleming wrote with detailed precision about what their characters ate and wore, and the drinks descriptions are basically recipes without quantities. Thomas Hudson – and here’s an interesting thing, which I’m sure Hemingway critics have explained to their own satisfaction, but it was new to me – Thomas Hudson, when referred to by the narrative voice, is always called ‘Thomas Hudson’. Not Thomas, not Hudson, always the two names together. When he’s referred to by characters, its Hudson or Tom or Tommy, but the narrative voice sets itself apart with the formality of the full name. There is another Tom, his son, called Young Tom or Tommy at different times, but often just Tom. But the painter is given his full name, as if he were a brand of rum.

Hem 5Thomas Hudson lives on Bimini in his house. He has a cook / major-domo / housekeeper and trusted friend and native Biminian called Eddy, and a houseboy called Joseph. The novel opens when Thomas Hudson has finished work for the day, and spends the evening drinking with friends on the quay, where things get a little out of hand, and there’s a fight. His friend Roger Davis, a novelist and screenwriter, comes back to Hudson’s house to gets his wounds doctored and to sleep, and to stay, since he needs to find quiet to start writing again. And, of course, the boys are coming: Hudson’s three sons, Tom, and David and Andrew, by his second wife. The five of them have a wonderful summer on the beach and in and out of the water. This novel is apparently praised for its nature descriptions: it certainly has tremendous descriptions of fishing, sharks, and eating. Some visitors to the island arrive, one of them being a girl who’s come to find Roger, which he is very glad about. That’s the last we see of him, because he takes her off to Hudson’s ranch in Idaho, to start writing again.

Hem 6This is set a few years later in wartime, in Cuba, which isn’t very far south of the Bahamas, in Hudson’s house in the countryside outside Havana. There he has a vast number of cats and dogs, and three or four staff to keep the place running in his absence. He is absent a fair bit, because he’s converted his boat into a survey vessel for the US Navy, and he’s scouring the Caribbean coastline looking for U-boats. When this episode opens he’s just come back from an exhausting trip, and his favourite cat, Boise, is ecstatic at Hudson being home again. Hudson spends most of this section of the novel drinking, or fretting about whether the cats are eating enough. Boise eats fried eggs, and accepts a little champagne. Hudson tells stories in a bar to Honest Lil, an old prostitute friend, and allows himself to recall some very exciting episodes from his past with a princess on a boat going through the Corinth Canal. This is Lil’s ploy to make him forget a recent sadness, and to get him warmed up by recalling the princess’s sexual appetites. But out of the blue, a woman no-one expected to see walks into the bar, and Hudson and she have an ecstatic reunion, which fills Hudson’s slightly fuzzy mind with unfettered joy. It probably isn’t joyful for Honest Lil, because we don’t see her again. The drinking in Havana is prodigious, I lost count of the frozen double daiquiris that Hudson consumed. But just as we’re thinking, at last, he can be happy again, just for a bit, Hudson gets an emergency summons from the Navy and he has to go back to sea.

Hem 7The third part of the novel is spent largely at sea, hunting for some German seamen who escaped their wrecked U-boat, and made the mistake of massacring some islanders when they stole their turtle boat. Hudson’s ship has a crew of irregular sailors, mainly smugglers and fishermen and a discharged Marine, as well as a Navy man who has been given to Hudson to make sure his ship stays in radio contact with naval authorities on Havana. This is one of the thin threads attaching the third part of the novel to the war: another thread concerns Tommy the younger, and other people in Hudson’s life who are also serving in the war. I did wonder when reading this section, why did Thomas Hudson not go straight into the army or navy? Why did he become an irregular pirate for hire? Could any of this stuff have really happened? It’s plausible enough as a novel for me to not want to bother checking out the history: the romance of the plot is quite satisfying enough.

I can’t see this free-living and hard-drinking artist and big-game fisherman submitting to uniform and military rules, and possibly he was too old as well. Instead, we get a truly exotic idea of Cuba and the Floridian islands, the Bahamas, all of the Caribbean, as a modern refuge for terrible pirates who prey on the locals and kill ruthlessly. Islands in the Stream is very Dr No, very sun-kissed and hard-drinking, and very, very hard-man American hero. It reminded me strongly of the Commando comic books I read as a child, where the war was simply a setting for personal heroics and dramatic tension involving guns and the occasional guttural swear word. As a story of eight men cooped up in a boat together in the heat, getting frustrated by not being able to catch their prey, and feeling just a little bit edgy about one or two of the others, this last part of the novel  should glue you to the very last page, no matter what else you should be attending to.

 

 

 

Sax Rohmer’s The Mystery of Fu-Manchu

 

Rohmer 1Sax Rohmer (listen to the podcast of the earlier version of this review here) was obsessed with what he and the lower reaches of the pre-First World War popular British press used to call ‘the Yellow Peril’ (I hope you notice the inverted commas around that phrase).  After the war, things began to get less twitchy and close-minded in fiction about the Other – people with different religions and skin colour and who didn’t live in the British Empire. Anti-Semitism and general racism became less overt, and even less necessary to the plots, even in the most formulaic fiction. But the fiction continued, peddling residual values and opinions that formed a layer of familiar views, even if they were not the current views of later readers.

Sax Rohmer was a prolific author in the first half of the 20th century, but is now only remembered for his extraordinary creation of Dr Fu-Manchu, the tall, terrifying and sinister Chinese doctor and chemist who devoted his life to the triumph of the Chinese race and the defeat, in any way possible, of the white race. These phrases are straight from the novel: don’t shoot the messenger. It’s going to be difficult to talk about this book without using racist quotes, so please do be reassured that I’m enthusiastic about this novel because of its social history value, and its existence as a piece of cultural flotsam, not because I approve of its racial politics.

Rohmer 2Rohmer was a British writer who began his career writing for the music hall before writing novels. He seems to have fostered a reputation for being active in the occult, and certainly wrote a great many novels in the 1920s and onwards that dabbled in mysterious religions. The Fu-Manchu books did not have so much to do with the supernatural or the weird as with basic Imperialism, with a dash of drama based on science. They were serialised in weekly fiction magazines, and were wildly popular, with Rohmer being persuaded after a ten-year break to write more Fu-Manchu novels from the 1930s, until his death in 1959. I’ve only read two or three, but because they were very formulaic, and had a simple structure, I’m going to assume that they shared the same form and delivered the same messages to the readers, who wouldn’t have bought them in such large numbers otherwise.

Rohmer 3The narrator of The Mystery of Fu-Manchu (the American title of the novel was The Insidious Fu-Manchu, by the way, if you’re looking for the free download from Project Gutenberg) is Dr Petrie, and he is a medical man, as he often tell us. He is settling down to do some writing one evening, when his old friend Nayland Smith walks in, and the drama begins. Dr Petrie and Nayland Smith are a very obvious Watson and Holmes re-run, right down to the eccentric investigator’s smoking habits, and his ability to make deductions out of nothing. But unlike Sherlock Holmes stories, the pace of the action in this first Fu-Manchu novel is, initially, a headlong torrent. There is no let-up for the reader. It seems as if Rohmer wanted to write an action-packed thriller with a dollop of detection, where the speed of events and the drama were to be the attraction for the reader. There is no time for narrative reflection, but, interestingly, there is a lot of time in Petrie’s narration for repetition, and repeated tirades against the ‘Yellow Peril’ which threatens the entire white race. Reading this fiction now, it seems extraordinary that anyone could have thought in such a way, or even enjoyed the sweeping generalisation, because it is so blatantly all for effect, not for sense, rationality, or even plausibility. And that’s where the interest in novels like this lie: people liked this kind of writing, and bought it to read for pleasure. What does that tell us about what their enjoyment was based on? And should we read this stuff today?

Rohmer 5Let’s go back to the plot. Nayland Smith is a civil servant, an old Burma hand, back in England on leave because he knows that Dr Fu Manchu has reached these shores, and is going to do evil and terrible things. The plot progresses as Petrie follows Nayland Smith from one locked room mystery to another, in which Eastern experts die in horrible and inventively implausible ways. It’s interesting that the power and secret knowledge that the East wants is located in the West. There is no shortage of knowledge in the East, as well as secrecy, glamour, villainy and multitudinous deadly methods: it’s astonishing how much nonsense was laid at the East’s door that the readers of the West were willing to believe. Again, that’s something worth thinking about: why did readers fall for such claptrap, even if only at the level of reading cheap and entertaining fiction?

Dr Fu-Manchu is always at the back of the devilish crimes in this novel, which are usually based on abstruse chemistry, poison left waiting, or inhaled, or delivered by an insect. The point of all the deaths is that Fu-Manchu is trying to destroy the West’s ascendancy. Because America was an important market for British fiction, the idea that Fu-Manchu was taking on the British Empire didn’t last long in the narrative, and ‘the West’ and ‘the white race’ were trumpeted as his bitter enemies, thus involving the American reader in the attempt to whip up hate and demonise Asian characters.

By killing off Eastern experts Fu-Manchu denies their services to ‘the white West’, but sometimes he wants their services himself. So he invents a drug that will produce the appearance of death, but when an antidote is injected, the victim recovers. This happens in the nick of time in the case of engineering genius Lord Southery, shortly after he has been put in his coffin and parked in the mausoleum, but not before his burial. Good thing Nayland Smith and Petrie got there in time to open the vault at midnight, in the moonlight, and administer the antidote. This episode is a blatant steal from Dracula, from only twenty years earlier. I expect the readers loved it for that reason.

Rohmer 6In another case, Petrie is taken to see the recovery of an Egyptian boy, Aziz, because the boy’s sister, the lovely Karamaneh, has been vamping Petrie from the moment she appears in the book. She wants Petrie to help her escape from Fu-Manchu’s clutches, and so she keeps appearing in exotic outfits wearing a highly traceable scent, to tell Petrie to come with her secretly and not tell Nayland Smith, and the poor fool does it every time. He is really a very unprofessional sidekick, constantly getting himself into danger, and never learning from his mistakes. Karamaneh starts off as just a glamorous villain, but Rohmer seems to have changed his mind about her quite quickly, possibly because he had such a good time writing about Petrie’s susceptibility. Petrie even thinks about marrying her, but in the end, she and her brother sail back to Egypt, and Nayland Smith gives Petrie an ambiguous mission to Egypt as well, to encourage the readers to buy the next instalment.

Nayland Smith himself is a peculiar creation: very given to histrionics, to striding up and down ceaselessly, to spilling his tobacco all over the carpet, to gripping his knuckles until they are white, and so on. Demonstrative sort of cove, as a P G Wodehouse character might have said. He is the high-handed lone detective working independently from the police, with such fine-tuned investigative instincts that he develops a supernatural awareness of the presence of Fu-Manchu. He is an Empire sniffer dog with a specialism in the mysterious East. But Nayland Smith is also closely associated with the East himself, because he is an old Burmese hand, and one of his most frequently-used descriptive characteristics is his Burmese sunburn. The idea of a ‘good’ East and a ‘bad’ East is something that Rohmer doesn’t do anything to develop – it’s not that kind of novel – but it’s certainly there, waiting for attention. There is also a morally-weighted doubling of doctors. Petrie keeps telling us that he is a ‘medical man’, that he risks losing his licence from the BMA if he resuscitates Aziz. He keeps taking personal charge of all the rescued victims of Fu-Manchu who still need care, so he is the good doctor, a ‘physician of the white races’. Fu-Manchu is the evil doctor, also a non-white doctor, and thus pagan and unprincipled.

The ordeals that Fu-Manchu puts Petrie and Nayland Smith through are wildly imaginative, probably the main attraction of the Fu-Manchu novels. The first part of the novel has them tackling the aftermath of locked room mysteries, and wrestling with monkeys, Indian bandits and giant centipedes. We’ve come across these before, in James Bond and Indiana Jones films, so I expect that Sax Rohmer was their original inspiration. But in the second part of the novel, when Fu-Manchu turns his attention to Nayland Smith and Petrie directly, they are imprisoned in an underground dungeon, and then trapped in a cave full of giant psychotropic fungi and phosphorescent mushroom growths that eat people. You really can’t get better than that for thrilling, extraordinary, ludicrous entertainment, even if the quality of the prose is a bit pedestrian, and the politics entirely beyond the pale. So although I’m not recommending Sax Rohmer as a top novelist, and I’m certainly not recommending the Fu-Manchu novels as a sophisticated literary experience, these novels have energetic and wildly inventive methods for dealing death to our unstoppable detective heroes. Just leave your political correctness at the door.

 

Three disappointments for the dud pile

I’ve had a bad run of books I didn’t like and books read for work rather than pleasure recently, so all I can offer this week are these three pallid specimens. I’ll try to crank up my enthusiasm next week. It’s the end of term, holiday reading is beckoning, I have hopes of something marvellous waiting for me when I pick up the very next book from the pile.

RussellKaren Russell, Swamplandia!

I love Karen Russell’s short stories, in St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves, and Vampires in the Lemon Grove, which I reviewed here, so I bought Swamplandia!, her novel, and have been putting off reading it for over a year. I took it all the way to Hawaii and brought it back unread. Not a good sign. So I went and put myself on a train with nothing but this to read and made myself get through it. It’s not great. Her imagination is stupendous, and her eye for compelling detail creates marvels, but this novel is a short story that has grown beyond its natural capacity for wonder. And I was not entranced: I was bored by halfway through. The central premise of an alligator park in a Florida swamp is solid; Ossie’s romance with a ghost is extremely odd; the story of Louis’ swamp-sailing life in the 1920s is a beautiful short short that might have been published somewhere else first, it is so polished and self-contained. I was completely unconvinced by the Chief’s obsession with keeping the park on, and by Kiwi’s passive endurance. Ava the narrator is of course a star, but the red Seth is unused and wasted, like a glowing ember snuffed out by Gothic monstrosity. Too many details, not enough story.

WelshIrvine Welsh, Trainspotting

Another novel I put off reading until I absolutely had no choice. I inherited a Modern Scottish Fiction course from a departing colleague, and so I inherited all the novels he had carefully chosen and a course outline he had refined over the years.  Miss Jean Brodie, A Disaffection, Morvern Callar, Lanark, Keep Breathing, they’re all there. And lurking like a malignant toad at the back, was Trainspotting. I read the first half in a gobble of desperation, like a really bad medicine, and felt ill. It vastly enlarged my vocabulary for drug addiction and a truly astonishing collection of words pertaining to the body and its functions, humours, liquids and solids, but did I enjoy it? No. I hated it. I admire its technique and innovation, but I was counting the hours until I could put it back on the high shelf. I wrote my class notes. Reread bits. Cautiously took a peek here and there through the remainder of the novel and read some of the shorter chapters. Revised my class notes. Took the class through the first seminar of the week, and felt some hope. They liked the novel, some of them really liked it, so they did more of the talking than usual. Emboldened, I finished the chapters I’d not read, and we tore through the second session. I had had the brainwave of getting the class to put the book on trial, and my obliging lawyer sister found me Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. That went down well, with some strong defences of its scatology, misogyny and the glamorisation of violence. Now I never need read the bloody thing again.

NivenLarry Niven, Ringworld

I’ve been meaning to read Larry Niven for years, so I scooped up a copy of Ringworld, hoping for technological wonders. Foolish me. I’d forgotten that the only Niven story I’ve read was ‘Cloak of Anarchy’, which had the futuristic technology I craved, and the slightly dystopic enclosed society, and also the naked girl walking through a park with her cloak hovering behind her, unafraid of sexual assault because of the police surveillance. And then the surveillance stopped, and oh look, assault begins. Ringworld (as far as I read) doesn’t have the assault, but it does seem to revolve around an old man’s seedy, leering gaze on a very young woman’s body in and out of various anonymous and uninteresting parties, and frankly I could not be bothered. Several alien characters, who seemed like tedious blokes in alien suits for all the difference they exhibited in their behaviour or perceptions, exasperated my tolerance for tired 1970s fantasies until I just had to fling Ringworld on the floor. It went to Age Concern last week, and they’re welcome to it.