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.

 

 

 

Science fiction and speculative fiction from Iraq

iraq100I really like the concept of Iraq + 100. Stories from a Century After the Invasion. In 2013 Hassan Blasim and his collaborator Ra Page, the founder of Comma Press, asked well-known Iraqi writers to write speculative short stories envisioning Iraq in 2113 or thereabouts. The Introduction and Afterword are persuasive about the artistic ambitions of this project, and give a proper sense of political and humanitarian rage at the destruction of Iraq by the British and US-led coalition, in 2003. As time has moved on, new predators have emerged in Iraq, so several of the stories feature deeply-felt responses to the atrocities of ISIS/ISIL/Daesh. This is an anthology about what it’s like to write fiction about the future in a present that no-one wants.

Hassan Blasim by Ahmed Al-Nawas
Hassan Blasim by Ahmed Al-Nawas

There is nothing hopeful about these visions of a future Iraq. It’s impossible to quantify how science-fictiony these stories are, but their defining characteristic is anger at the present, and a recurring sense that little is going to change in 100 years except the need to look back at this time. In that context, these are not particularly good science fiction stories, but I don’t think that’s important. In how they tackle problems of an unknown future that will somehow relieve the discomfort, injustice or the tyranny of the present, they are very like early Anglophone science fiction of the late Victorian and Edwardian period, especially that written by women. They show strong signs of an emerging artistic tradition.

Zhraa Alhaboby
Zhraa Alhaboby

Early western male sf writers focused on technological advances and ignored everything else about society, or they railed against feminists and the horrors of sexual equality. Early female sf writers from the west also focused on technology, and how it would alter their lives for the better (rather than for war, which was often the male response), but they also wrote about changing society for the better, creating social equality, and doing away with injustice. That is the common factor with these Iraqi stories, by men and women both. Hassan Blasim remarks in the Introduction that ‘Iraqi literature suffers from a dire shortage of science fiction writing’. In both content and impetus, Iraqi writers have used sf in this collection to express their fears and anxieties about the present, by changing them for the better through speculative fiction, or by digging into their nature to find out what needs to be fixed.

Hassan Abdulrazzak
Hassan Abdulrazzak

The stories most aligned to modern sf are ‘Kuszib’ by playwright Hassan Abdulrazzak, with its really remarkable combination of alien eroticism and humans treated as meat; and ‘Najufa’ by Ibrahim al-Marashi, which envisions a modern and roboticised Islamic society, in and out of the mosque, in a totally climate-altered world. Other stories use a futurised society to retell the story of Scheherazade (‘Baghdad Syndrome’ by Zhraa Alhaboby), and the story of the 2013 invasion through time travel (‘The Corporal’ by Ali Bader’). There is an unsettling recurrent image of eating human bodies, in ‘Kuszib’, in ‘The Worker’ by Diaa Jubaili, also a story of a giant automaton, and in ‘Kahmarama’ by Anoud, which rages against the commodification of women by charlatan imams. For the strongest story of speculative invention glazed with horror I’d give the prize to ‘Operation Daniel’ by Khalid Kaki, in which transgressors are incinerated and archived into a glittering chip, to be attached to the robes of the Venerable Benefactor and tyrant, Gao Dong. This is the only story that reaches beyond the familiar Iraqi-US binary, and envisions a different cultural player in the future.

All these stories are about punishment and transgression. This is not a collection for comfort reading, and the stories are certainly not contemplative visions of a calm and perfect future as seen from a suburban armchair. But they’re vigorous, and exploratory, and represent a new way of writing about present-day problems by authors who really know what suffering and destruction mean. For that reason alone, this impetus should be nurtured.

Iraq + 100. Stories from a Century After the Invasion, edited by Hassan Blasim (Comma Press 2016), ISBN 9 781905 583669, £9.99

 

Rachel Ferguson’s A Footman for the Peacock: a hatchet job

ferguson-1There is a good novel buried in this sprawling, self-indulgent fantasy of irony and class consciousness. Rachel Ferguson wrote A Footman for the Peacock (1940) right at the beginning of the Second World War: it was her eighth novel and fourteenth book. Comparing it to its immediate predecessor, Alas Poor Lady (1937), one can only assume that the frustration and gloom of impending war had addled her sense of proportion. Her earlier novel, the triumphant, magnificent The Brontes Went to Woolworths (1931) is now her most well-known novel due to the Virago reprint of 1988, and rightly so: it is a work of pure fantastical genius. Alas Poor Lady, also snapped up by the unerring eye of a successful reprint publisher, is one of the novels that epitomises Persephone Books’ project of rescuing unjustly neglected novels for their literary quality and the gifts of their social commentary. Both novels are written with control and sensitivity, matching Ferguson’s precise observations to her magical ability to conjure pathos out of the ludicrous by showing the power of human feelings over all social considerations.

Compared to these novels, A Footman for the Peacock fails embarrassingly. I haven’t always been too enthusiastic with what the Dean Street Press have kindly sent me to review (A Chelsea Concerto was the dazzling exception). My impression has been that either my taste in books is very different to their collective taste, or they are reprinting novels that other reprint houses are not bothering with for good reason. Of course, it could just be me. Earlier reviews of A Footman for the Peacock had me wondering if I had read the same book. But its publicity is also bizarrely at odds with what I actually read, so much so that I seriously considered whether their back cover blurb had been written by a marketing person who had been told about the book, but hadn’t read it for themselves. This is the first offender:

‘The peacock … Waiting? Listening? Guiding. No. Signalling.’

What utter, utter tosh. There is a peacock. It prowls the lawns of the English country mansion, Delaye, and keeps an eye on the Roundelay family and its servants. It attacks Angela, the younger Roundelay daughter, when she offers it half a hard-boiled egg, but the alert reader will already have spotted the reason for that when it occurs. The peacock has a close connection to the eighteenth-century family’s running footman Thomas Picocke, who died bloodily in the top attic bedroom, due to his murderously exhausting job. It waits, presumably; listens, possibly; but it does not guide, and it certainly does not signal. As for the succeeding line, ‘may be aiding the Nazi cause’, this interpretation comes from the original Furrowed Middlebrow review of this novel, which is a straightforward misreading. It’s undoubtedly useful in the blurb, to pull in readers attracted to a plot about Nazi avian espionage. The niche readership will be disappointed, but they’ll already have bought the book.

Other assertions in the blurb may be due to the Furrowed Middlebrow’s knowledge of British social and literary history. It says that the novel was ‘controversial when first published’: well, no, it wasn’t. It was peculiar, Margery Allingham gave it a ‘guarded’ review (not unusual for her), and Punch loved it. If there is any evidence to prove the ‘controversial’ tag (so useful for whipping up sales), Dean Street Press don’t prove it.

The next phrase mentions ‘a loathsome upper-crust family dodging wartime responsibility’. Yes, they’re upper-class; yes, they’re dodging war-time responsibility by resisting billeting of evacuees, but most novels of the war written before the Blitz will depict this. So are the Roundelays ‘loathsome?’ No, I don’t think they are. Ferguson spends the entire novel making us feel how dear and charming and nice these people are, as well as vague, eccentric and exceedingly old-fashioned. She creates people, and shows us their lives, makes them live with human preoccupations, tirednesses, aggravations and struggles, and then presents them in wartime, struggling to cope as everybody had to cope, in peculiarly individual ways. Not loathsome, no: just human. The blurb and I will have to disagree on this one.

Rachel Ferguson in the 1930s
Rachel Ferguson in the 1930s

Getting into Ferguson’s plot, the novel’s fantasy elements of the strange other-worldly village of Rohan, Angela’s shuddering sensitivity to the haunted room with the glass inscription, the mystery of Sue Privett’s relationship with the peacock, and the eighteenth-century mysteries of the running footman’s death, the sacking of Polly Privett and Marguerite Roundelay’s fatal self-exile to Revolutionary France: all these belong in a potentially excellent mystery novel that Ferguson never allowed herself to write. Instead, she clarted her plot with a slapped-on morass of witticisms, as if she were clearing out a hoard of old jokes, clever take-offs and satirical interjections (some are very good). She romps for pages and pages, sending-up high society and its ways, forgetting that she’s supposed to be writing a novel with a plot. Characters appear and then wither away, forgotten. Tag-ends of plot lines multiply as if seeded by an anxious editor, hoping to pull some of this farrago together. The chaos is frustrating, because there is so much here that could have been so good. But Ferguson decided (or perhaps just needed to get something published) to throw everything she had into the pot. It’s a mess.

The novel is ill-served by its Introduction, which is expected to cover all three Ferguson novels reprinted in the Furrowed Middlebrow series, and is presumably reprinted in all three. This approach is needlessly cheapskate, and fails the novels by only giving them half a page each. Why wasn’t Elizabeth Crawford given the space to do the job properly?

You’ll detect that my exasperation with a good novel wasted is exacerbated by the publishing decisions for this edition, and that this is not a happy review. Many of you will think this beside the point, or needlessly pernickety. But these things matter: if you’re going to do reprints, you should take them seriously as novels, not just sales opportunities, consider their merits objectively, and not fob readers off with material that is so much less than it could have been. I don’t say that A Footman for the Peacock should not have been reprinted, but I would only recommend it for Ferguson completists.