Monday, August 11, 2008

CULT BOOKS: Robin Jenkins, David Wheldon, Andrew Martin, Chandler Brossard and Gerald Kersh

'The Cone-Gatherers' by Robin Jenkins (1912-2005) is a strange, atmospheric Scottish novel, first published in 1955. Set on a private Scottish estate during the Second World War, most of the action takes place in the forest of pines which are due to be cut down for the war effort.

According to his biography on a BBC Writing Scotland website, Jenkins was a committed pacifist, who registered as a conscientious objector, and for his war service ,was directed to work for the Forestry Commission in Argyll from 1940 to 1946. This experience is reflected both in his first novel So Gaily Sings the Lark and in
The Cone-Gatherers - the best-known of the thirty or so novels he wrote in his lifetime.

Two brothers, Neil and Callum have been hired to collect the pine cones in order that the forest can be regrown for the future. Callum is a hunchback with the face of an angel and a childlike mind, with a natural skill for tree climbing; Neil is his protector. The gamekeeper on the estate named Duror, a dark and twisted character, takes against them and from the first chapter onwards you know things are going to end badly. The atmosphere of the forest, beautifully evoked, creates an other-worldly backdrop to a dark and emotional tale, freighted with symbolism. One feels for Callum and his sensitivities and the book evokes a world lost in time, threatend by the shadow of war. It would have made a great Michael Powell movie and reminds one of the style of John Cowper Powys.

The novel is included in the list of 100 Best Scottish Books on The List : 'It would not be too demonstrative to claim that The Cone-Gatherers is Scotland’s Cherry Orchard, a great Chekhovian masterpiece that uses forests and the natural landscape to capture a moment of profound social change. It feels as eerily prescient today as it did when it was first published in the 1950s and is the kind of book that offers up new, modern meanings with every reading.'
Because the book was on the Scottish scholl syllabus for many years, there is a detailed site on the novel for students, with analysis and notes.

'The Viaduct' By David Wheldon is another strange British novel that haunts the imagination, first published in 1983 after it won the Triple First Award, established to encourage young writers.
It was selected from 641 tyepscripts and was the final choice of the two consultant judges, Graham Greene and William Trevor.

High amongst the clouds, standing on the abandoned viaduct which dominates the city far below, is a man known only as A, who we learn has recently been released from prison for writing a subversive manuscript. Chased by unidentified pursuers, he escapes along the tracks where he meeets other Travellers and
discovers a world of refugees and misfits who have their own private language and folklore and whose life and raison d'etre are tied to the abandoned tracks which stretch ever onwards across the hills. Food, tobacco and shelter are scarce and there is a sense of perpetual unease. Down below the elevated railway are small towns where travellers are sometimes helped, sometimes imprisoned. Gripped by the book's atmosphere, we follow A's strange journey unquestioningly until he reaches the metaphoric end of the line, where we are left unsure about what it all means but feeling one has been in the grip of a powerful literary imagination. The work it most closely reminds me of is that great film Stalker' by Andrei Tarkovsky.

Wheldon (b.1950), it turns out, is a novelist, poet and doctor - who believes multiple sclerosis is caused by a bacterium. His paper on the subject can be found here. An interesting short essay and on his life and work can be found here.

There is a lengthy review of this book, comparing it with the work of Kafka,
by Sam Penwill in 2007 on the website Fringe Report. A list of Wheldon's other novels can be found at Fantastic Fiction. There is not even a stub on Wikipedia.

'The Necropolis Railway' by Andrew Martin provides a subtle connection with the title above but is very different in its style, form and intention.

Set in Edwardian London, it introduces the character of Jim Stringer, a young railwayman who finds himself assigned to a mysterious line that only goes to a massive cemetry. Strange things begin to happen to Jim from the moment he arrives and the story expertly builds to a strange and satisfying climax. (The author points out in an introductory note, there still is a real-life London Necropolis Company, which ran trains from Waterloo to Brookwood Cemetry from 1850-1941. Full details of the company and the line can be found on this Cemetry Railway page. There is also a lengthy piece in Fortean Times.)

Martin has subsequently led Jim Stringer through a series of popular adventures but these completely lack the atmosphere of this first book which is a horse of a different colour. 'The Necropolis Railway' is, to my mind, top literature to be compared with the likes of Peter Ackroyd's 'Hawksmoor', whereas the sequels are much simpler detective-style novels, bathed in the world of steam. They are skilfully constructed and readable but lack the sense of real mystery, terror and dread that pervades the original; more 'Murder on the Orient Express' than David Lynch.

'Who Walk In Darkness' by Chandler Brossard (1922-1993) is a real find, a novel and writer completely unknown to me, of some significance. This novel, written in 1952, depicts the hip crowd in Greenwich Village in the 1940s

They hang out in bars, black clubs, go to a boxing match, go to parties. On the outer fringes of the parties they attend, hepcats are smoking tea, jazz is playing, a fight breaks out. Their conversations are tight and smart. They say of one of the characters that he's really underground. Everyone's still wearing ties at this time. A girl gets pregnant and has to get an abortion.

According to a biographical history, attached to an inventory of his papers held at Syracuse University: '[Brossard] worked as a journalist for the Washington Post before attaining a writing position with The New Yorker at age nineteen, where editor William Shawn encouraged him to write fiction. His first published novel, Who Walk in Darkness (1952), focused on the bohemian life of 1940s Greenwich Village and is sometimes considered the first beat novel, thus earning Brossard an association with early Beat Generation writers such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg - an association Brossard neither sought nor desired. Reviewers who characterized Who Walk in Darkness as a beat novel, Brossard said, "totally missed getting the book. They thought it was a realistic novel, which of course it wasn't. The French critics knew better. They perceived it as the first 'new wave' novel, a nightmare presented as flat documentary."

It is generally considered that the first "Beat" novel was 'Go' by John Clellon Holmes (1926 -1988), which was also published in 1952. The book depicts events in his life with friends Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and Allen Ginsberg. He was often referred to as the "quiet Beat," and was one of Kerouac's closest friends. He also wrote what is considered the definitive jazz novel of the Beat Generation, 'The Horn'. [Source: Wikipedia]

According to 'Proto Beat' by Blake Bailey: 'Brossard channeled the cool monotone of Camus's existentialist classic "L'Etranger," for his first novel, "Who Walk in Darkness" (1952), regarded by some as a pioneering work of Beat fiction. With its cast of artists and intellectuals manqués, its alienated narrator struggling for "authenticity" and of course its beatnik parties - "Another hipster came up to him and I saw him hand the tall one the already lit stick of tea" - the novel is a time capsule of postwar Greenwich Village. The French love hipsters and people who write like Camus, so it's not surprising that the book's first publisher was Gallimard in France. '

For the dispute over the book between himself and Anatole Broyard, who was portrayed in the book as the hustler and opportunist Henry Porter, see this extract from "The Passing of Anatole Broyard." by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Personally I would consider it the first 'hip' novel, which seems to fit in a continuum somewhere between F. Scott Fitgerald and Tom Wolfe and Jay McInnerney - the smart set with underground commections, having brittle conversations about smart things.

According to 'Hip: The History' by John Leland, several scenes in the book are set in a fictionalised version of the long-time boho hangout, the San Remo in Greenwich Village, which also appears in Kerouac's 'The Subterraneans.' Leland describes the movel as a 'semi-Beat, pretty hip, roman à clef...'

The book is a good read, made more interesting by the fact of the novel's relative obscurity. Almost despite myself I became intrigued by the situations. The narrative voice is strong and the prose style interesting. The novel is written almost entirely in short sentences. Its like a window on the period, eavesdropping through time,

This original paperback edition, with pages stained purple at the edges, has a great blurb which reads: 'TEA, POT, MARYJANE - or a benzedrine inhaler if things were tight. Promiscuous, joyless sex. Cool. Detached. Uninvolved, Quiet desperation. Alienation with a No Exit Sign. These are the words of the American existential generation. In this brilliant novel, Chandler Brossard arranges the words into a dictionary of desolation.'

First published in 1938, this paperback edition of 'Night and the City' by Gerald Kersh (1911-1968) was produced by Braniac Books in 1993.

It features on the cover a still from a movie version of the book, starring Robert de Niro and Jessica Lange, directed by Irwin Winkler.

It had previously been filmed in 1950 by Jules Dassin with Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney and Herbert Lom, which is considered a film noir classic. Kersh got paid for the film rights but then discovered when he read the script that they had thrown away the whole story, retaining only the title.

According to Fantastic Fiction: 'Gerald Kersh was born in Teddington-on-Thames, London and died penniless as an American citizen in Kingston, New York. He wrote over 1,000 articles, 400 short stories, and 19 novels. His account of infantry training They Die With Their Boots Clean (1941), became an instant best-seller during World War Two, and launched Kersh on a glittering career. '

According the biographical note in the above paperback, 'Kersh's life was as strange and varied as his writing. His many occupations included stints as a nightcoub bouncer, a short-order cook, a wrestler, a soldier.'

The entry in 'The Rough Guide to Cult Fiction' calls him 'a 20th century Edgar Allen Poe', a comparison and connection which I think would be hard to justify. It says he began writing novels on toilet paper in Soho bars and that Anthony Burgess considered his best-known work 'Fowler's End' to be 'one of the best comic novels of the century', yet his versatility and wierdness counted against him. 'His fiction included disguised army reminiscences, noirush underworld tales and short stories in which midgets fight for the love of a beautiful multiple amputee and a ventriloquist's relationship with his dummy takes a strange turn.'

The best source of information on the web about Gerald Kersh is 'The Nights and Cities of Gerald Kersh', which is hosted by a site devoted to the SF writer and anthologist Harlan Ellison. Kersh was Ellison's favourite writer. The Kersh material, assembled by Paul Duncan, has not been updated since 1999. It says that he is writing a biography of Kersh based on research assembled over the 'last six years.' I have sent him an e-mail to see what has happened.
[The Wikipedia entry on Kersh is drawn from the above.]

See what Kersh titles are available on Amazon.

1 comment:

Manek Dubash said...

yes John - I remember reading The Necropolis Railway - it made me shiver with delight and not a little wierdness...