Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Goodbye to Berlin [1939]

The British writer Christopher Isherwood, like so many others, had made the intoxicating Weimar-era Berlin his home till Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933. His experiences of staying in this massive, complex and fast-changing metropolis led to his episodic, dizzyingly beautiful, enthralling in its blend of wry humour and understated melancholia, deeply personal yet undeniably political, freewheeling, elegiac, and thoroughly mesmerizing semi-autobiographical novel Goodbye to Berlin (this, along with the picaresque Mr.Norris Changes Trains, is together referred to as The Berlin Stories). The novel comprises of a series of interconnected and spellbindingly narrated vignettes, and populated by a host of memorable fictionalized representations of the people he met and knew in Berlin – in the first chapter, A Berlin Diary (Autumn 1930), the kind, middle-aged landlady Frl. Schroeder, who addresses the author a “Herr Issyvoo” and has the subconscious ability to change with the times, formed the key character, along with an eclectic mix of tenants who deftly alluded to the city’s many facets, including early signs of anti-Semitism; in the standout next chapter we’re introduced to the book’s most iconic creation, Sally Bowles, a ravishing, self-centered, ambitious lady of vague past and slippery morals, who provides a marvelous representation to the era’s sizzling demimonde and decadence; On Ruegen Island (Summer 1931) chronicled the complicated, destructive relationship between a neurotic English man and Otto Novak, a young, unpredictable German boy; the author’s madcap experience of residing in the attic of the rambunctious, impoverished, working-class Novak family’s dilapidated flat formed the brilliant next chapter; the narrative shifted dramatically in his depiction of Natalia Landauer, the teenaged daughter of a wealthy but doomed Jewish family, who he tutors for a while, and his strange friendship with her puzzling cousin Bernhard; and finally, in A Berlin Diary (Winter 1932-33), the breezy and incredibly evocative final chapter, written in the form of unedited diary entries, comprised of short, mordant, bleakly funny and compelling sketches of a city slowly but surely sliding into a long, cold and gloomy night.

Note: This is a revisit. To read my earlier review, click here.

Author: Christopher Isherwood
Genre: Drama/Black Comedy/Semi-Autobiographical Novel/Political Drama
Language: English
Country: UK

Friday, July 27, 2018

No Orchids for Miss Blandish [1939]

There was a time when I loved devouring the books of René Lodge Brabazon Raymond, better known by his moniker James Hadley Chase. If there was one writer who put pulp into pulp literature, and made roman de gare his personal fiefdom, it was this British novelist – widely read over half a century now, but largely scoffed at by puritans for his lowbrow novels. It’s been over a decade since I’d last read his racy, lurid, violent, edgy, downbeat crime fictions populated with mobsters, hoodlums, gunslingers, sleazeballs, gumshoes, cops, duplicitous females, sultry molls and damsels in distress; yet, ironically, I hadn’t read, until now, what possibly remains his single most well-known work. No Orchids for Miss Blandish was, from what I gather, his first novel – he’d taken extensive help of maps and a slang dictionary while writing this, as he hadn’t visited the US nor did he have any first-hand exposure to the American underworld. When a tough guy working for a mobster chances upon the information that Miss Blandish, the strikingly beautiful daughter of a wealthy tycoon, would be coming to a nightclub wearing priceless pearls, it kick-starts a brutal chain of events filled with murder, kidnapping, blackmail, double-crosses, torture and even sexual obsession. While the POV continually shifted between its ensemble cast – the vicious matriarch of a gang, her psychopathic son, a comparatively sane-headed henchman, a relentless PI and so forth – Chase innovatively structured the tale such that there’s a significant change in its direction and focus in each of its four chapters, including a juicy MacGuffin at the end of the 1st. Though the book faced considerable notoriety upon its publication, and even faced rebuttal from George Orwell from an ideological standpoint, this unapologetically nasty and admittedly imperfect work, nevertheless, remains a crackling read and a grand introduction to Chase’s addictive bibliography. One should, however, be careful and choose the original 1939 version, as 23 years later he revisited it to tone down its risqué, controversial sections and themes.

Author: James Hadley Chase
Genre: Crime/Crime Thriller/Gangster Novel/Hardboiled Literature/Roman Noir
Language: English
Country: UK

Friday, July 20, 2018

What I Saw: Reports from Berlin [1920-1933]

The brief period between the end of WW1 and Hitler’s seizure of power – what is popularly referred to as the Weimar Era – was a complex and fascinating time in Berlin, filled with beguiling contradictions and eerie premonitions of things to come. The celebrated Austrian-Jewish writer Joseph Roth, best known for his towering masterpiece The Radetzky March, was also a journalist of considerable repute, and from 1920, when he shifted base from Vienna to Berlin, until 1933, when he was compelled to say a final and absolute goodbye to Berlin on account of the formalization of Nazism in Germany, he was intricately associated with such renowned left-liberal newspapers of that age as Frankfurter Zeitung and Berliner Börsen-Courier. What I Saw is an enchanting and oftentimes dazzling collection of political essays, socio-cultural sketches, wry observations and meandering reflections – or “feuilletons” as they’re referred to as – on the urbanscape, the people and the zeitgeist of Berlin that he turned out for newspapers and dailies. The sheer breadth of the pieces – cafes, bars, bathhouses, ghettoes, brothels, police headquarters, traffic signals, shopping arcades, theatres, streets, gardens, buildings, races, government buildings, private spaces, barbershops, railway stations, and whatnot – made this, in equal measures, an enthralling, acerbic, satirical, whimsical, somber and ultimately irresistible evocation of the metropolis that Roth both loved and hated. He wrote these freewheeling, impressionistic and deeply personalized eyewitness accounts and musings through a mix of dry wit and mock-seriousness, and yet his leftist convictions, his unflappable humanism and his unnerving sense of déjà vu were evident throughout, as he saw, in parallel, frantic developments and destitution, the mammoth and the mediocre, the spectacular and the seedy, the intelligent and the inane, sagacity and stupidity. Christopher Isherwood, who was presumably influenced by Roth’s narrative reports, would also go on to memorably capture this strange and fleeting era, albeit in semi-fictionalized form, in his masterful Berlin Stories, viz. Mr Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin.

Author: Joseph Roth
Genre: Non-Fiction/Journalism/Essays/Social Satire
Language: German
Country: Germany

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Funeral in Berlin [1964]

It’s really interesting to note that the three most popular writers of espionage novels during the Cold War era had all happened to be Britishers; while John le Carré and Ian Fleming represented the two opposite ends in terms of their plot choices, narrative styles and world views, Len Deighton was sandwiched somewhere in between (though, admittedly, he aligned more with the le Carré school), and hence isn’t as widely read today as he was then. Deighton is best known for his smashing Bernard Samson series, but it was with an anonymous British secret service agent (christened Harry Palmer in the film adaptations, leading to even the books being often referred to as the ‘Harry Palmer Series’) that he’d began his journey as a novelist with. Funeral in Berlin, the 3rd book in the afore-mentioned series, is a tale of shadowy wrangling and clandestine one-upmanship, where the Berlin Wall, the line that divided the East from the West and was the most potent symbol of that era, acts as the focal point for the story, but with Germany’s Nazi past serving as a vital propellant for the proceedings. The unnamed protagonist is asked by his department to facilitate the defection of a Soviet scientist who might be holding the key to the formula for nerve gas, and, as can be guessed from the title, a coffin in a hearse would serve as the modality for crossing the impregnable Wall. With each chapter starting with pithy comments about the rules and strategies deployed in chess, the novel gradually unraveled like the game itself, and comprised of a number of intriguing characters in keeping with the tale’s mood and context – the cynical, seemingly unassuming and deliberately ironic protagonist; a flamboyant black marketer on the payroll of London and his go-to guy in Berlin, Johnny Vulcan; and the utterly memorable Colonel Stok, the head of Soviet security in East Berlin, who’s at par with our narrator in his brilliance, resourcefulness and ambiguity.

Author: Len Deighton
Genre: Spy Thriller/Mystery
Language: English
Country: UK

Saturday, June 30, 2018

The Emperor's Tomb [1938]

The great Austrian émigré Joseph Roth, who had become alcoholic and impecunious during his final years as an exile in Paris, had promised 350-pages to his publisher for what would turn out to be his last novel prior to his untimely death at a Parisian café. The Emperor’s Tomb, the sequel / companion piece to his magnum opus The Radetzky March, turned out to be half that length, and, ironically, with its last chapter in its initial draft word-for-word same as an earlier work (Flight without End). Unlike the stupendous scope and staggering beauty of his monumental masterpiece, this was comparatively more compact and modest, though not bereft of idiosyncratic characters, dry humour and underlying melancholia. Covering the devastating period from just prior to WWI to the imminent arrival of WWII, the story’s narrator Franz Ferdinand Trotta, whose grandfather was the younger brother of the “Hero of Solferino”, sees his life of aristocracy, gentility and inaction getting irrevocably changed with the advent of the Great War – a war that, among its various repercussions, led to the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire, a complete re-drawing of most national borders across Europe, rise of fascism, and eventually paved the way for WWII. Upon returning from his war duties, during which he’d become a POW in Siberia, he finds himself an increasingly lost alien in Vienna. Though he initially strives for normalcy – getting back to his mother who’s held a strong influence on his life, rekindling of his unconsummated marriage with the daughter of a wealthy businessman, and reconnecting with the surviving members of his old café acquaintances and friends – his personal life eventually starts going awry. The economic meltdown changes his fine mansion into a much-mortgaged boarding house, his fragile marriage starts to break down, his mother succumbs to old age, and, to cap the death-knell in the novel’s sardonic, dismal and deeply haunting finale, Austria’s annexation by Nazi Germany, which spells doom not just for Trotta but for Roth as well.

Author: Joseph Roth
Genre: Drama/Historical Novel/Political Novel/Family Drama/Black Comedy
Language: German
Country: Austria

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Bordersnakes [1996]

James Crumley’s fascinating post-Vietnam hardboiled oeuvre is centered around his two anarchic, violent, war-scarred, unpredictable, self-destructive, glibly amoral, alienated, borderline alcoholic and closet romantic PI’s Milo Milodragovitch and C.W. Sughrue; if that makes his bibliography rare, what makes it rarer still is that he even wrote a book with both in it. I was absolutely blown away by the respective debut novels for the 2 Montana gumshoes, viz. The Wrong Case and The Last Good Kiss, respectively, and hence, unable to control my urge, I conveniently, if tad unwisely, skipped (albeit temporarily, though), the next couple of novels (1 of each) as I drove straight for Bordersnakes. The Korean war vet Milo, who finally inherited his long-dead parents’ wealth after turning 50, has been robbed off his millions through fraudulent banking transactions – he’s so bloody pissed that he’s ready to do whatever it takes to get his money back. In order to pull that off, he travels to the Mexican border, in his cherry-red Cadillac, to join forces with his on-off comrade, the Nam vet Sughrue, who, in the meantime, was gut-shot at a tavern by unknown assailants; he’s now recuperating at a non-descript trailer in the company of his newly wed wife and adopted son, scared and humbled, and yet also hankering for revenge. What ensues is a booze-guzzling, coke-snorting, all-guns-blazing ride through hell involving some of the nastiest people imaginable either side of the border. The brutal episodes and serpentine plot were complemented with a lovely road trip (a demented version of Kerouac perhaps), crackling dialogues by the two tough guys (Sughrue was often the more pragmatic of the two, while Milo, the principal lead here, was unabashedly badass), loads of unbridled machismo, and a surprisingly affecting, if disturbing, vision of a greed-addled, hyper-violent America irretrievably bursting through its seams. Crumley, the prose stylist that he is, turned what could have become a low farce, into a darkly funny, boldly subversive, harshly lyrical, and gloriously overblown work.

Author: James Crumley
Genre: Crime Thriller/Hardboiled Literature/Western/Action
Language: English
Country: US