Archive for Graham Greene

Berlin [and Vienna] noir [book review]

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 17, 2017 by xi'an

While in Cambridge last month, I picked a few books from a local bookstore as fodder for my incoming vacations. Including this omnibus volume made of the first three books by Philip Kerr featuring Bernie Gunther, a private and Reich detective in Nazi Germany, namely, March Violets (1989), The Pale Criminal (1990), and A German Requiem (1991). (Book that I actually read before the vacations!) The stories take place before the war, in 1938, and right after, in 1946, in Berlin and Vienna. The books centre on a German version of Philip Marlowe, wise cracks included, with various degrees of success. (There actually is a silly comparison with Chandler on the back of the book! And I found somewhere else a similarly inappropriate comparison with Graham Greene‘s The Third Man…) Although I read the whole three books in a single week, which clearly shows some undeniable addictive quality in the plots, I find those plots somewhat shallow and contrived, especially the second one revolving around a serial killer of young girls that aims at blaming Jews for those crimes and at justifying further Nazi persecutions. Or the time spent in Dachau by Bernie Gunther as undercover agent for Heydrich. If anything, the third volume taking place in post-war Berlin and Wien is much better at recreating the murky atmosphere of those cities under Allied occupations. But overall there is much too much info-dump passages in those novels to make them a good read. The author has clearly done his documentation job correctly, from the early homosexual persecutions to Kristallnacht, to the fights for control between the occupying forces, but the information about the historical context is not always delivered in the most fluent way. And having the main character working under Heydrich, then joining the SS, does make relating to him rather unlikely, to say the least. It is hence unclear to me why those books are so popular, apart from the easy marketing line that stories involving Nazis are more likely to sell… Nothing to be compared with the fantastic Alone in Berlin, depicting the somewhat senseless resistance of a Berliner during the Nazi years, dropping hand-written messages against the regime under strangers’ doors.

Rogue Male [book review]

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , on October 4, 2014 by xi'an

When I was about to leave a library in Birmingham, I spotted a “buy one get one half-price” book on a pile next to the cashier. Despite a rather weird title, Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male looked classic enough to rank with Graham Green’s Confidential Agent or Erskine Childers’ Riddle of the Sands or yet John Buchan’s 39 Steps… Not mentioning the early Eric Ambler novels. I mean, a classic British thriller with political ramifications and a central character exposed with shortcomings and doubts.  After reading the book last week, I am glad I impulsively bought it. Rogue Male is not a Greene’s novel and this for several reason: (a) it is much more nationalistic, to the point of refusing to contact English authorities for fear of exposing some official backup of the attempted assassination, while Greene seemed to lean more to the Left, (b) it is both less and more psychological, in that it (i) superbly describes the process of getting rogue, i.e. of being hunted and of cutting or trying to cut [some] human feelings to rely on animal instincts for survival but (ii) leaves the overall motivation for Hitler’s attempted assassination and for the hunt by Nazi secret agents mostly unspecified  (c) it involves a very limited number of characters, all of them men, (d) it leaves so much of the action at the periphery that this appears as a weakness of the book… Still, there are some features also found in Greene’s Confidential Agent like the character failing in his attempt and being nearly captured or killed in the ensuing hunt, or the inner doubts about the (un)ethical nature of the fight… (Actually, both Greene and Household worked for the British secret services.) The overall story behind Rogue Male is a wee bit shallow and often too allusive to make sense but the underground part with the final psychological battle is superb. Truly a classic!

Saigon snapshots

Posted in Books, pictures, Running, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , on June 8, 2013 by xi'an

DSC_4994I did not have too much time to explore Saigon and even less Vietnam in the 62 hours I spent there, especially with the course and the conference, but I very much enjoyed the feeling. From riding on the back of  a motorbike in the traffic (thanks to a guest student!) to having pho in a simple restaurant by the side of the street, from watching improbable loads going by on the same motorbikes to wandering in the shops around, to talking with students around the course, my snapshots all came back in the best possible light and I found my stress about food safety, street security, pollution, &tc., very quickly fading away and I wish my suitcase would have arrived in time so that I could have gone jogging in the vicinity of my hotel (rather than using the treadmill in the hotel). DSC_4968I have obviously seen nothing of the countryside and wish I can go back there in the future.

This most kind student also took me to the War Remnants Museum, which is a highly sobering place about the destruction and long-term health consequences of the Vietnam War, in particular the generations of victims of the Agent Orange sprays… Even when accounting for the (mild) propaganda bias. Actually, a few days prior to flying to Vietnam, I had read Bao Ninh’ Sorrow of War, a moving and very grim account of the war and of the after-war from a disillusioned soldier.  (The book was banned in Vietnam for a while. And thus I was unsure I could travel with it…) Continue reading

summer reads (#1)

Posted in Books, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 18, 2012 by xi'an

I only packed four books in my suitcase when I left Paris in early July, for lack of space for more. They were Gene Wolfe’s An Evil Guest, Camilla Lackberg’s Hidden Child, Richard Ford’s A Piece of my Heart, and Niccolò Ammaniti’s La fête du siècle. I then bought Graham Greene’s A Gun for Sale in a nice bookshop near Bondi Junction in Sydney.

An Evil Guest is the second recent book by Gene Wolf I read in the past months, following Home Fires that I did not finish… They are both of a similar style, relying on 50’s witty hard-boiled dialogues à la Hammett and set in a vaguely futuristic setting. Just completely orthogonal to the involved and almost oniric former books by Gene Wolfe that I discovered a few years ago thanks to a colleague in Paris-Dauphine. Although I finished An Evil Guest, I see little appeal in it, except for the publisher’s bank account. As mentioned above, the style is rather poor, consisting almost uniquely in dialogues, and the plot is minimalist: a second-rate actress becomes suddenly irresistible and falls in love with an initialy-suspicious-but-eventually-redeemed rich guy, then looses it all at the end (this is not a spoiler, is it?!). Characters are shallow and either antipathic or idiotic. Not even a pleasant vacation read, end of the story. If I did not have to return it to my colleague, I would certainly have left An Evil Guest in the first book collection I met during my trip! (Home Fires was exactly of the same type and I am amazed at the highly positive reviews for those books…)

I bought The Hidden Child in Oxford, mostly because it was on sale and also because I was curious to see if this highly publicised Swedish author was worth the read. (A bit for the same reason I started reading Steig Larsson’s trilogy!) The Hidden Child is certainly a nice summer book and a wee more. Lackberg exploits the ambivalent history of Sweden during the Second World War: while some persons took part in a resistance movement, other engaged into an active collaboration with the Nazis. (Offering similarities with to what happened in France in this respect.) Although the protagonists of the novel were teenagers at the time, their whole life (and their children’s) was impacted by their attitude during the war. This is certainly the most appealing aspect of the book! In addition to this historical layer, the detective part unravels in a rather classical way: the resolution of the crime is very predictable and there are highly unrealistic aspects, from the way almost all characters are interconnected in one way or another, to the attitude of the young policeman’s family all over the book (him taking his baby daughter to a crime scene and her conducting her own enquiry on the side). A good book for a long plane ride but not much more, not really explaining its apparent popularity then… (I did purposely leave The Hidden Child in one of the places I rented during my Australian Tour!)

Among all Greene’s novels, I had managed to miss A Gun for Sale, which is one of his classic pre-war detective stories!!! The plot is both simple and complex, with a perfect depth in the psychological motivations of the characters that only Greene can attain. The central role in the novel is held by the young woman, who helps the criminal pursued by her fiancé out of pity, quite in line with Greene’s catholicism. While it is difficult to grasp the motivation for her acting so out-of-line, so despicable is the murderer and so witty a free spirit she is, the story unravelling around this apparent treason makes complete sense and raises the book to the level of a classical tragedy. The shortcomings of all the characters come out in a very bright light, none remains unscathed. There is for instance a bully student in the medical school that runs a gas mask exercise with desperate ruthlessness, until a mere look from the murderer reduces him to nothing for the rest of his life. The ordinators of the murder, pursued by the murderer for framing him with stolen money, are as weak and prone to fail as the other characters and end up pitifully. The only part that does not convince me is the “happy ending” of A Gun for Sale, which is not that common with Greene’s novels: take for instance the superbly cruel last page of Brighton Rock. Here, the return to “normality” and wedding prospects has a bitter-sweet quality that may be (maybe!) interpreted as a warning that nothing will be “normal” in the impending war…. (Or I am reading too much in the ending, given this reflection by the author on his work.)

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

Posted in Books with tags , , , , on March 4, 2012 by xi'an

Surprisingly enough, I had never read a Le Carré novel until now! I recently borrowed The spy who came from the cold from my son´ bookshelf and read it within a few hours. Although Graham Greene does better in my opinion in exploring those darkest corners of despair and treason, infusing every feeling with a dose of catholic guilt, The spy who came from the cold is a deep and powerful novel (“a novel of the first order” as reported on an early edition cover of the book!). First, the plot is convoluted, while giving a fake impression of being in the know to the reader. The moments where a new truth strikes are like blasts of Arctic air. The story has a glacial and inhuman way of unraveling… Second, the style is superb: the description of the characters is minimalist to a perfect standard. The spies are both cynical and immensely human, the other characters are either more terrifying or doomed from the start. Last, I think the fundamental strength of The spy who came from the cold is that the reflection is about the alienating nature of modern societies, from either side of the Iron Curtain, and of its indifference to individual destinies. Despite facing a whole school (or swamp) of spy novels for at least half a century, and although it relates at many levels with Greene’s (who considered The spy who came from the cold  “The best spy story I have ever read”) and Orwell’s books, this masterpiece stands alone.