I haven’t slept properly for weeks. I lay on damp sheets, my hair on end. I peel myself, and check my phone. I dive into it, as though it were a dream. 4am. 5am. 4am. Circling time, I perceive the screen like a wildcat does a fire bristling in the distance. I lay back, conscious of my dreaming. Always dreaming; always awake. This is not insomnia, which sits on your chest and reads to you, politely pausing on occasions to allow you to interject and ask questions. This is life now. Always dreaming; always awake[…]Sometimes I see tiny, naked figures running along the carpet of my room, and hiding in the corners and behind the chest of drawers. I beckon them toward me, so that I can eat them, and re-emerge, and breach the surface of my unhappiness, for they were part of me once; but they are wise to me; they like me this way[…]For the first time I feel incapable of reading in a way that would allow me to write coherently about what I read. Every book that I pick up becomes part of the landscape of my dreams, of my dream-life, rather than another world into which I consciously escape. The Lime Twig is one. I had tried a number of times before to finish it, losing patience somewhere around halfway. This time, I didn’t finish it either, for you can’t finish something that is part of the fabric of your existence, or at least not until you too are finished[…]It was written by John Hawkes, a man about whom I know very little, and I like it that way. What I do know is that he is an American, and yet The Lime Twig is set in England, and feels English in the same way that Patrick Hamilton’s novels do[…]There is a dreary, grimy atmosphere throughout the book that is familiar to me, from my childhood especially, before the bleak northern city in which I was raised was redeveloped to resemble some fictional European tourist spot, some quaint idea in the mind of an outsider[…]There are references to ‘oily paper,’ to a mother’s ‘greasy bodice,’ to ‘premises still rank with the smells of dead dog or cat.’ There are smells everywhere, such that you experience The Lime Twig with your nose as much as with your eyes. With all your senses, in fact. Holding it, it feels sticky to the touch, dirty, oppressive, like blindly immersing your hand in a sink full of unwashed dishes[…]Oppression is the point, I think. The dreariness is simply one aspect of an overriding atmosphere of unease and uncertainty[…]From the opening paragraph, Hawkes begins to build the tension. When discussing Hencher’s pursuit of lodgings, Hawkes wonders: ‘what was it you saw from the window that made you let the bell continue ringing and the bed go empty another night.’ Suggesting that it was something unnerving, something intangible perhaps, a gut-feeling, an inexplicable foreboding[…]The nature of lodging is, when you think about it, mysterious and disquieting. A lodger is a stranger, someone without a home of their own and, it seems, neither family nor friends upon whom they can depend. Yet they too are potentially vulnerable, entering the home of another, or other strange persons[…]The word ‘nightmarish’, or some variation, is invariably used to describe the book, and for once that feels valid[…]While there is violence, including death, there is nothing about The Lime Twig that is genuinely frightening; plot-wise, in terms of action[…]Although it isn’t always clear what is happening[…]There is a sense of suspended time, or of ‘time slipped off its cycle'[…] The characterisation is thin, with the only one of note – Hencher – early killed off. Hencher, the only one with a story to tell, of life with mother and the war; and it is told wonderfully in the opening section, which Hawkes presents in the first person[…]The nightmare is in the uncertainty, in the murkiness out of which a plane can fall and land at your feet. But most of all it is Hawkes’ imagery that provides the cold water shock[…]The horse is not only a prop the author uses to make of his novel a kind of crime caper, it is ‘the flesh of all violent dreams’, it is an ‘animal whose two ears were delicate and unfeeling, as unlikely to twitch as two pointed fern leaves etched on glass, and whose silver coat gleamed with the colourless fluid of some ghostly libation and whose decorous drained head smelled of a violence that was his own.'[…]One way of looking at the novel would be as a cautionary tale, or as a comment on the humdrum, involving a couple – the Banks – who become embroiled in something dangerous, beyond their abilities and limited emotional scope, a modest wife who waits up for her husband, whose worst nightmare is that he not come home; but for that to work one would have to believe in the couple, and I didn’t. I did, however, believe in the horse, in its potency and magic, and, consequently, ultimately, in Hawkes himself, his imagination and ability to manipulate the English language into sinister and beautiful shapes[…]
You and me, she said, could take on the world. And it was easy to believe her, although I knew that she didn’t need any help with that. If she had wanted the world, she could have taken it all by herself. She was high at the time, of course. It was midnight when she called, and I had to be up for work in six hours. She wanted me to watch her sing at a gay bar in town. I couldn’t say no, partly out of a desire to see her and partly out of fear of what she would do if she was disobeyed. She was a deadly kind of beautiful, the kind that if you felt breathless in her presence you couldn’t say with any confidence whether it was love or cyanide poisoning. I was familiar with femmes fatales from films and books, with cold-hearted, dangerous dames with sultry looks, but in real life it wasn’t so glamorous or sexy or exciting. I felt like an amateur snake charmer who is happy just to get through each day without fatal injury. This girl will be the death of me, I once told a friend, and for the first time in my life I meant it.
“Thinking back, I remember the stupidest things; the way there was a taut crease just above her hips, in the small of her back. The way she smelled like a baby’s breath, a sweet barely there smell that retreated and retreated, so that no matter how close you got to it you weren’t sure it was there. The brown speckles in the lavender-gray eyes, floating very close to the surface when I kissed her, the eyes wide open and aware. But not caring. The eyes of a gourmet offered a stale chunk of bread, using it of necessity but not tasting it any more than necessary.”
Black Wings Has My Angel was published in 1953, a little after the greats of hard-boiled crime fiction – Chandler, Hammett, Cain et al – had produced the majority of their best and most cherished work. In fact, one could argue that this goes some way to explaining not only why it was largely forgotten for a number of years but also many of its merits. Those writers were trailblazers, of course, but to be at the vanguard of something means you have no real reference points, no conventions to work within, and no one to learn from; you have to find your own way and make your own mistakes. The novels written during that golden period of the 30’s and 40’s are undeniably appealing, but often the characters lack depth and the plots are convoluted or under-developed. Elliott Chaze, however, was a refiner, in that he took what was already established and gave it finesse. The end result is noir with a kind of Stendhalian sweep, a genuine sense of tragedy, and characters you care about.
One of these characters is Kenneth McLure, aka Tim Sunblade, who narrates the action. My initial impression of Kenneth was that he was the archetypal hard-boiled tough guy. He’s an ex-con, who, he tells us, tried to get himself beaten during his time in prison in order to break the monotony of solitary confinement; he also contemplates murdering anyone who might stand in his way. His narrative style is, as one would expect, punchy and broad-shouldered, featuring lines like: ‘[I let] my mind coast. It needed a lot of coasting.’ Yet, as the story unfolds, Chaze does something unexpected: he allows you to see different sides to Kenneth, his sensitive and vulnerable sides. He is, for example, haunted by the death of his friend, and particularly the image of his bloody, mangled face. He does bad things in the novel, certainly, but he exhibits a conscience at times; in fact, the climax of the story, and his desire to look deep into the abyss of the abandoned shaft, is all about his guilt. Kenneth isn’t a sociopath, like the continental op, he is capable of feeling fear, shame, sorrow and love. He even waxes sentimental about his home town and his childhood sweetheart.
Consequently, one feels as though one gets to know McLure, including both his qualities and his faults, his strengths and his weaknesses. Chaze endeavoured to make him believable, to make him psychologically sound, if not entirely sane. We are told that he was in solitary confinement, as noted previously, and this allows one to make sense of the regular, romanticised, descriptions of scenery and wide open spaces in his narration. Moreover, his conflicted attitude towards death, and his desire to make the most of his time on earth – as though he has been told that he has only twelve months to live – could be put down to his experiences in the war, where he was injured in action. If you have stared death in the face, it is easy to see how it could become more monstrous and yet easier to confront in future. Having said all that, one does wonder whether the author was actually suggesting that Kenneth’s behaviour is a direct result of his head-wound, such that his ‘bad side’ is physical not psychological. This is not a ludicrous idea, although it is less interesting for me personally.
I mentioned love in the previous paragraph, and that may have raised a few eyebrows. Relations between men and women in noir tends towards the wildcat sort. Lust, sure, obsession, maybe, but love seems like a stretch. However, there are moments between Kenneth and Virginia that are genuinely touching. Once again, I believed in them, I, specifically, believed in them as a couple. She is a looker, of course, with legs like a champion racehorse, and he is rough and manly, and there is plenty of good fucking throughout the novel; but there is also tenderness, intimacy; there are, for example, the numerous references to her smell; and there is a scene in which they swap ice back and forth between their mouths, and another in which Kenneth tells Virginia things he never thought he’d tell anybody. In these ways, Black Wings Has My Angel is not a novel about meeting the wrong person at the wrong time, but maybe the right person in the wrong circumstances.
It is also, however, a novel about money and class. I have not written in detail about Virginia so far, partly because she adheres a little too closely to the noir femme fatale stereotype. She is a wise-cracking whore, who doesn’t sleep for thrills anymore. Yet Chaze gives her a backstory too, in which it is revealed that she was once well-to-do. This is important, not because it justifies her expensive tastes, but because it creates tension between the couple, which, in turn, allows Chaze, via Kenneth, to lambast high society. Almost everyone in Black Wings Has My Angel is afforded some level of sympathy, with the exceptions being the police – predictably enough – and the rich, who are thieves of a more socially acceptable sort or idiots. What’s more, towards the end, after he has become moneyed himself, Kenneth states that while he had always wanted to live ‘lazily and glossily’, he has come to realise that it weakens and demotivates you, that it makes you flabby and frivolous. And isn’t that the worst kind of living of all?
For years I approached people as though I was a detective trying to solve a case. I thought logic could be applied to them; I thought that no matter how confusing, how irrational and out of character, any of their behaviour seemed, explanations and answers would be forthcoming if you kept a professional distance and were intelligent and perceptive enough; and that, furthermore, you could, in fact, accurately predict behaviour with a small amount of information. I saw the chaos around me, which so troubled my peers, as being simply a ball of string to untangle. I prided myself on understanding people, even if I only rarely liked them. Then, eighteen months ago I made the decision to climb down from my comfortable vantage point, to engage fully with the world, and found, at closer quarters, that it is surreal and nightmarish, and that any attempt to make sense of it, to impose order upon it, is futile and likely to lead to madness.
I had read Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Pledge once before, around five years ago. At that time, I found it, like many other police procedural novels, fun, easy-going, immediately satisfying, yet ultimately inconsequential. Perhaps I read it too quickly, but more likely my judgement was a result of an overriding complacency. I was happy then. It was not until I picked it up again this week, as a different man, as someone who is not at ease with the world or himself, that I came to appreciate how complex and moving it is. It begins with a chance meeting between a writer of detective novels – who is narrating the action – and a police chief. Not long after they are introduced, the author is offered a ride, during which the chief criticises the detective genre. These novels are, he says, a ‘waste of time,’ not because the culprit is always brought to justice – this he considers to be ‘morally necessary’ – but because they proceed logically. You can’t, he advises the narrator, and me too, albeit too late in my case, ‘come to grips with reality by logic alone.’
As a way of illustrating his point he starts to tell a story about one of his officers, Matthäi, which then dominates the rest of the book. These postmodern, meta-fictional aspects of The Pledge are often praised, yet are, for me, one of its few, but not fatal, flaws. The framing narrative, the meeting between the author and the chief, including his criticisms, are too contrived, are gracelessly executed, and, worse still, unnecessary. It is clear that Dürrenmatt himself is speaking through the policeman when he objects to convenient, predictable plotting, and how at odds it is with reality, but these points could, and are, made far more powerfully in the rest of the novel. The reader does not need them to be spelt out quite so clinically. In fact, these elements have the potential to compromise the intensity of what follows, because one always has in mind that one is listening to a story being recounted; it comes close to taking one out of the action, it weakens, if not breaks, the spell.
The reason that these things do not too negatively impact one’s experience of the book is due, in large part, to the author’s ability to create and maintain a foreboding atmosphere. Even before the main storyline is introduced Dürrenmatt writes about the ‘inhuman silence’ of the Swiss canton, of unnaturally dark days, and of mountains that resemble an ‘immense grave.’ One is given the impression that this is a menacing, strange place. The houses are wretched; the sun, when it actually comes out, is malevolent. The writer of detective novels is spooked. He mentions his fear of ‘not waking again’, of feeling as though he is trapped inside an ‘endless, meaningless dream.’ Later, there is the repeated red symbolism, which of course reminds one of blood, but most eerie and unsettling is the role of the hedgehog giant, whose significance will become clear upon reading the book.
“You’re choosing madness as a method, and it takes courage to do that, no question; extreme positions impress people generally these days; but if this method does not lead to its goal, I’m afraid that in the end, all you’ll be left with is the madness.”
The first glimpse one has of Matthäi is as an ‘old man on a stone bench.’ He is ‘unshaven, unwashed’; his clothes are ‘smeared and stained; his eyes are ‘staring, stupefied’; and there is a strong smell of absinthe. His current unfortunate state means that one is eager to find out how a former police officer came to be this way, especially when it is told that he was once a ‘most capable man’, even a ‘genius.’ The crime at the centre of the book is the murder of a child, a girl, perhaps the most emotive kind of crime, and, in the early stages of the investigation, the impression that one gets of Matthäi is of someone who is strong and dispassionate. For example, he is the only one present when the body is found who is able to look directly at the corpse; and the only one willing to shoulder the burden of informing the parents [during which he makes the pledge of the title]. Indeed, in one of my favourite lines, he says to a doctor that he didn’t want to suffer with the world, he wanted to be superior to it.
However, none of this lends any weight to the chief’s description of Matthäi as a genius. The earliest indication of his special ability is when he offers to release the primary suspect to a crowd who have gathered in order to seek vengeance. He says he will turn the man over to them if they can guarantee justice, then proceeds to convince them that this would be impossible, because they cannot prove his guilt. It is a daring move, and evidence not only of his talent, but his arrogance too. Matthäi believes that he can read people, and that reason, his reason, will triumph over disorder. One sees further evidence of this in his unwillingness to accept that the primary suspect is actually guilty, despite him having motive, opportunity, a previous conviction, and the girl’s blood on his clothing. On one level it seems like a kind of a superiority complex, such as when I was at University and would argue the most extreme positions, because I felt as though I could do so better, more logically and consistently, than anyone else could argue their more mainstream opinions.
As a study of arrogance, The Pledge would be fine, but not quite the masterpiece that it is. What elevates it even further is that one can also interpret Matthäi’s stance as a great, obsessive, and ultimately insane, dedication to his work and, more importantly, to the truth [as he sees it]. The easiest thing would be, of course, to be satisfied with the most probable culprit and close the case. Certainly, the chief, the townsfolk, and his colleagues, are happy to do so. For Matthäi personally, who has landed a excellent job opportunity in Jordan, and is due to leave the country imminently, it is the best, the most sensible thing to do. However, he refuses to, or he can’t, and his behaviour becomes increasingly irrational, his methods and theories more monstrous, as he vows to catch the real perpetrator of the crime. As he pieces together his case, everything that he argues is plausible, but the point made by Dürrenmatt is that logic is so powerful that one can create, and justify, appalling narratives, that in a world of chaos one can find links between an infinite number of unrelated, insignificant things, and thereby imbue them with false significance. It is to his immense credit as an author that he has one rooting for his madman, has one believing in him, even when he ruthlessly uses a small child as bait in order to catch a killer who may not even exist.
Over the last twelve months I have become familiar with the night. I have been turned out, with increasing regularity, to flit between darkness and artificial light with erratic, moth-like movements. I have become part of the once-mysterious nocturnal world that previously I only dimly perceived through my bedroom window or through the filter of sleep. Shouts and chants. Screams and laughter. Now it is all at my shoulder, as I stop to lift heavy kisses to my lips on street corners or outside bars. At close quarters, the shadows, like a ripe chrysalis, split, to reveal the true forms inside. The spiders and rats. The murderers and whores. The drunks and drug dealers. This is my audience.
“The night clung to the trees, then, lying in wait in the shadowy spaces or crouching in the long, narrow and somber streets, it seemed to be spy upon us as if we were emerging from some dive. The least noise was a catastrophe, the least breath a great terror. We walked in the eternal mud.”
Philippe Soupault, one of the founders of surrealism, was, it is said, thrown out of the movement for the ‘isolated pursuit of the stupid literary adventure.’ One of these adventures is Les Derniers Nuits de Paris, or Last Nights of Paris in William Carlos Williams’ translation, which was published in 1928. It begins, after dark of course, with a chance meeting between the narrator and pale-faced Georgette, a local prostitute. As they walk around Paris they come to witness a peculiar, unsettling scene. A shriek is heard. A couple are said to ‘take to their heels.’ Someone commands: ‘Put out the lights.’ A procession. A woman, wearing a ‘smile of suffering’, is manhandled and ends up lying motionless, ‘almost in the gutter.’
If this sounds more like what you would expect from a noirish thriller, than a work of surrealism, what follows strengthens this impression. Consistent with the crime/detective genre, one of the novel’s principle concerns is unravelling the truth of what happened that night, with the narrator acting as chief investigator as he trails, makes contact with, and interviews the main players. Moreover, the pervading atmosphere is appropriately, one might say predictably, gloomy and threatening. The aforementioned scene, for example, takes place at midnight, which is, Soupault writes, ‘the hour of crimes.’ There is also a fair amount of rain, and abundant references to things like the ‘morose facades of nameless shops’ and streets that are ‘dark and full of bad smells’, and so on.
Yet for me Last Nights of Paris is a counterfeit thriller, in that the resemblance to that genre is superficial only. There is a a mystery, as noted, but for Soupault it is an excuse to explore, or rather it is used as a basis to explore the ideas that form the philosophical and emotional core of the novel. One of these ideas or themes is the nature of chance. Throughout, the narrator bumps into various shady characters, all of whom turn out to be connected to each other and connected to the ‘strange drama’ he is, in a fashion, investigating. These coincidences give ‘the glamour of miracles’ to his existence. Chance can make one feel as though one is at the centre of something extraordinary, rather than something mundane, and yet requires nothing extraordinary from you in return.
Therefore, the reality of, the explanation behind, the events that he has witnessed, or been party to, is really not that important, or is certainly less important than his perception of these events. What I mean by this is that the focus, the goal, of crime fiction is usually to uncover the truth, but here it is to understand how things can become imbued with mystery or significance. Indeed, there is a sense that the narrator has created the mystery himself, that he allows his imagination to conjure, or to wander, as he himself wanders the Paris streets at night. As with the two leads in Witold Gombrowicz’s Cosmos, he sees meaning, imposes meaning, on things, that isn’t necessarily there independent of him, such as the taxi driver who ‘pushed his motor to the limit and seemed to comprehend the importance of his mission.’ Indeed, he admits of himself that the ‘cold, dull realm of actualities, arid and uncultivated as it is, has never tempted me.’
His greatest accomplice in this endeavour to create mystery, and consequently excitement and romance, is the night. Take Georgette as an example. When he sees her in the daytime she is ‘no longer the same.’ She is revealed to be an ‘uninspired woman, commonplace and hardy.’ Only at night is she the ‘queen of mystery’; her charm ‘did not become real until she withdrew from the light and entered obscurity.’ The night, like chance or coincidence, and like Paris too, has the power to transfigure. Night, the ‘eternal mud.’ Night, my quixotic friend, my guardian, my benefactor. Perhaps all that I have seen and heard, and all that we have done together, these last twelve months has been an illusion, but, if so, I am thankful for that, for the days have been so cruel and unwelcoming.
I was, I must confess, disgracefully hungover and sleep deprived; and I had, yes, already had something of a meltdown in the Kafka museum; but these things can, I feel, only provide a partial explanation for what happened on the Karluv Most bridge. It was early in the afternoon, around 12:30, as we left the museum and started the crossing. Straightaway, I noted a woman having her portrait drawn, a smile stretched grotesquely across her face as though it was intent on swallowing it. Further on, a spidery old man was playing an over-large accordion, and what appeared to be circus performers were blithely strolling in the midday sun. Yet, while these things all contributed to the surreal atmosphere, it was the dogs, the dogs wearing scarves, that truly did for me.
The walk along the bridge seemed to be unending. My feet moved, but I appeared to make no progress. The dogs, so many dogs, all the same breed, and all wearing scarves, passed by me at regular intervals. It was as though I was standing still, and they – the dogs – were going round in circles, were circling me, coming back around, time and time again. Where were they coming from? How could it be that ten or fifteen of the same breed had found themselves on the bridge that day? And why were they dressed so suavely? I have lost my mind, I suddenly thought to myself; then, gripping my friend’s arm, I asked him, straight-faced, with great seriousness: ‘You can see those dogs, can’t you?’
Thankfully, he could; but the point of this story is not the existence, or non-existence, of dogs, but rather to demonstrate something of the special atmosphere of Prague. It is a city, a beautiful city, that invites madness; it is a city of weirdness and wonder, where, one feels, or certainly I feel, anything is possible. It is not, I believe, a coincidence that much of the literature it has generated – The Maimed by Hermann Unger, for example – has that particular quality to it, as though the strange air of Prague has seeped into the pages. In this way, Gustav Meyrink’s The Golem held few surprises for me; which is to say that I expected odd, and odd is what I got.
“A brief rustling that broke off short, as if startled at itself, then deadly silence, that agonising, watchful hush, fraught with its own betrayal, that stretched each minute to an excruciating eternity.”
First published serially in 1913-14, The Golem is, on the surface at least, a gothic thriller. With little subtlety, but great relish, Meyrink turns Prague’s Jewish ghetto into a nightmare, with its ‘dark corners,’ ‘tomblike silence’ and generally gloomy, and threatening, atmosphere. It is a place where a ‘human spider’ with a hare lip [Aaron Wassertrum] lurks; and where a malevolent being, said to be the Golem, stalks the streets and the inhabitants, including the narrator, Athanasius Pernath. As one works one’s way through the book there are murders, robberies, secret rooms, inexplicable events, and suicide plots; there are references to cabbala and tarot; and all of this is great, dumb fun.
Yet there is, I believe, an underlying gravitas to the descriptions of life in the Jewish quarter. At the time that the novel was written it was, in fact, in the process of being demolished or cleaned up. For many years it had the reputation of being excessively dirty, over populated, and run down; and it was thought to be a hotbed of violence and criminal activity. With this in mind, Meyrink’s gothic thriller has perhaps more in common with Emile Zola’s theatrical naturalism than it does Lovecraft, Poe or Dracula. Moreover, this historical knowledge has the effect of altering the tone of much of what you read, so that when Pernath describes the houses as turning their backs on each other one sees in it, not something sinister, but something rather moving. Likewise, when he says of the inhabitants that they are ‘strange people’ who ‘seem to have been put together haphazardly, out of odds and ends.’
This is not to say that Meyrink, or at least his narrator, is entirely in sympathy with the people of the ghetto. Certainly, in the early stages I detected elements of anti-semitism, for there is obvious disgust in the way that Wassertrum and Rosina, for example, are depicted. Indeed, Aaron is said to have a ‘horrible face’ and ’round fish’s eyes’; he is a crook, who once sold a woman into prostitution. Rosina, on the other hand, is ‘repulsive’ and lascivious. Moreover, the evils of Wassertrum and his son are both linked to money, bringing to mind the Jewish stereotype of avariciousness. In contrast, the Czech characters, who are also living in poverty of course, are lovable rascals with hearts of gold. Yet, as the narrative progresses, Meyrink introduces Hillel and Miriam, who are positive Jewish characters; and this did go some way to soothing my concerns, especially as they are both self-denying and generous with money.
It is usually the case with these reviews that I spend a considerable proportion of them discussing the principle character[s], their motivations, psychology and personality. This is made more difficult in this instance, because Pernath is, for much of the novel, a man is search of himself, literally and spiritually. Indeed, at the beginning, he is handed a book with a prominent letter ‘I’ etched on it, which is not, of course, insignificant; and later it is hinted that the narrator may not be Pernath at all, having assumed this identity from a name in a hat he mistakenly picked up. In any case, he does not, we are told, remember anything about his childhood; there is the suggestion that he had some kind of mental breakdown, underwent hypnosis, and therefore repressed, or in some way lost, those memories, and with them his sense of self.
“The soul is not a single unity; that is what it is destined to become, and that is what we call ‘immortality’. Your soul is still composed of many ‘selves’, just as a colony of ants is composed of many single ants.”
It is interesting, in this regard, that when we meet him he is alive, certainly, but could not be said to be living, as though one’s past enables one to have a present and a future. In fact, it is only when he starts to recover his memories that he takes an active part in life. He romances two women, for example, and forms deeper, more valuable friendships. However, I ought to point out that this is, I’m sure, not how Meyrink intended his novel to be understood. It is full of obscure mysticism, or ‘waffle’ if you were being uncharitable, which, based on what I know about the author and his interests, would likely mean that he had something more philosophically complex in mind. Moreover, if you have read the book you will know that I have completely disregarded the ‘twist’, and the questions it raises about the nature of reality, dreams, and so on. But well, fuck it, I most enjoyed The Golem as a story, not about a man’s spiritual awakening, but rather as about a man beginning to feel some joy in living.
I often get asked why, as someone who appears to be politically switched on, I try and avoid the news media as much as possible. Well, the thing is, the truth of the world is too much for me these days. I can’t take it. Call it cowardice if you like, but I hate feeling angry or upset all the time. I’m not a masochist. A while ago I learnt that the UK government has agreed to sell arms to countries that have been blacklisted for human rights violations, countries that – as in the case of Libya, for example – our politicians will then go on TV and condemn. And that’s nothing new, you know. This has been happening for years [Saddam, the Taliban], but, still, the two-facedness is extraordinary; it doesn’t become any easier to swallow the third, fourth, fiftieth time. But this is only one example, a dribble of spit in a vast ocean of thick snotty phlegm.
In Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Robert De Niro’s character talks about how ‘someday a real rain will come,’ a rain that will wash all the scum – the corrupt politicians, the pimps, the crooked businessmen etc – off the streets. I don’t advocate violence of any kind, but the film’s popularity attests to how powerful and attractive a fantasy this kind of ‘clean up’ is. It is, moreover, something that is at the heart of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, although it takes a little time to warm up to all that. The early stages of the novel are mostly concerned with what appears to be a relatively straightforward murder investigation. The Continental Op has been asked to come to Personville by Donald Willson, yet Willson is offed almost as soon as he arrives. A number of suspects are quickly identified, including Willson’s wife, his father, a local tough and his gold digger girlfriend.
“I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn’t think anything of what he had done to the city’s name. Later I heard men who could manage their r’s give it the same pronunciation. I still didn’t see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves’ word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better.”
However, before too long the Continental Op has collared the culprit, sown up the investigation, and really should be intent on getting the hell out of dodge. Yet he isn’t. Indeed, one gets the impression that the author was eager to get all that stuff out of the way, that he himself wasn’t particularly interested in who shot Donald Willson, and that once it is all neatly tied up the real fun can start. It is from this point onwards that one truly comes to understand why Personville is nicknamed Poisonville, as Hammett embarks on a convoluted, twisty and twisted, tale of backstabbing, corruption, power games, homicides and attempted homicides, dirty secrets and double-dealing, involving just about every prominent person in the town.
In the centre of this maelstrom of violence and immorality is the Continental Op, who appears, despite his irascible manner, to be having a whale of a time. In fact, he could be said to be the director of events, as he takes it upon himself to smoke out all the rats, play them off against each other, and, in one way or another, put them out of action. However, one should not make the mistake of thinking he is the hero of the piece, or some kind of avenging angel; his ethics are far too sketchy and dubious for that. In fact, at one point he openly admits that he wants to clean up Poisonville as revenge for the attempts upon his life during his stay, and gleefully talks about opening it up ‘from Adam’s apple to ankles.’ At times the plot comes across as being little more than a bunch of psychopaths being rounded up and manipulated by another psychopath; and the overall effect is of a grim dance, one that will never end.
“Play with murder enough and it gets you one of two ways. It makes you sick, or you get to like it.”
It’s interesting that Red Harvest helped to pioneer the hard-boiled genre, because it only bears a superficial resemblance to the classic works that came after it. Certainly those by Raymond Chandler, who is probably the most famous titan of noir, seem safe and cosy in comparison. First of all, the Continental Op is overweight, apparently ugly, and, at 40, relatively old. He is tough, sure, and he cracks wise [although most of his one-liners are laced with spite, rather than humour], but he isn’t suave and is certainly no babe magnet. Moreover, he has absolutely no qualms about putting a slug in someone.
[Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo is generally thought to have been inspired by Red Harvest]
The femme fatale, Dinah Brand, doesn’t conform to one’s expectations either, being more fatal than femme. She is described as having stains on her dress, badly applied lipstick, and an untidy hairdo. She isn’t, it is fair to say, Jessica Rabbit. She’s also unscrupulous, with dollar signs in her eyes and just about any other place you could mention. In fact, outside of one of Balzac’s or Dickens’ misers, I’ve not encountered a character like her, i.e. one who would happily sell out her grandmother for a tarnished nickel. She does, however, have a strange kind of charm, in that there is something child-like about her attitude, her honesty vis-à-vis her motivations, and her insistence that it is only right and natural that she get paid for every service she renders. In this way, she reminded me of Undine Spragg, the villainess in Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country.
“You’re drunk, and I’m drunk, and I’m just exactly drunk enough to tell you anything you want to know. That’s the kind of girl I am.”
It ought to be clear by now that Red Harvest is at the grittier, darker end of the noir spectrum. There are a lot of savage and unpleasant crime novels these days, and while it cannot compete with those in terms of sheer graphic [or pornographic] brutality, there is a great deal of bloodshed, and, by the final page, the book has racked up a body count that would give Jeffrey Dahmer a stiffy. It is hard to say whether I find it admirable or not, but at no point does Hammett flinch. Perhaps the most surprising thing of all, however, is just how odd this book is, how surreal almost. Bullets seem to constantly be in the air, people go to prison and then minutes later are walking the streets, bodies pile up and no one bats an eyelid [at one point the Op enters a house and steps over an unexpected corpse without even breaking stride], etc, until Poisonville stops looking like a dirty old town, and more like a Boschian Hell from which it is impossible to escape.
I got to the end of this review and realised that I hadn’t at all engaged with any potential flaws or criticisms. I enjoyed Red Harvest a lot but the book, as is the case with all books, is certainly not perfect. Therefore, so as to not ruin the structure of what is written above, I’ll note a few things here, which may be construed as negatives.
I wrote earlier that Hammett’s novel has a convoluted plot, and, well, some might actually call it ridiculous, or unbelievable, or at least hard to follow [the pace is breakneck, which gives you barely any time to catch your breath]. Moreover, the characters have very little substance, all of them being a type or one sort or another, but, having said that, I don’t know if you turn to noir for character depth. It is also worth pointing out that the book is almost entirely composed of dialogue, so that at times it reads more like a play. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, or it didn’t bother me at all, but I imagine that it might put some readers off.
His career as a master criminal was short-lived. He was twelve or thirteen, and bored, bored with his life, with being poor, with having no prospects or anything to look forward to except the day when he could leave the stinking shithole where violence and misery stalked his heels like a pair of dark dogs. He had walked to Meadowhall, a large shopping centre that resembled a hellish doll’s house, and was kicking his heels. He had no money, but didn’t really want anything anyway. He just wanted to be somewhere away from what he knew, where, to his immature mind, people were living differently. He took a turn around a bookshop, lifting books from the shelves, and, without making any kind of conscious decision, put one of them under his t-shirt, tucked it down his jeans. He expected to be caught, to be nabbed at the entrance as he walked out, but he wasn’t.
He was more scared when he got outside, when he had got away with it, than he was in the act of stealing. He knew he had done something wrong, that it should not have played out like that, and that is why he went back. He realised afterwards, that he wanted to be caught, that being caught was part of it. Something had to happen, of that he was adamant; he wanted something important to happen to him, something momentous, to give his day some sort of meaning. So he went back in, and he came back out again. Another book. No one batted an eyelid. Three, four more times. Nothing. The situation had become absurd. He was untouchable, or so he felt. Why will no one acknowledge me? Am I really this insignificant? And then, eventually, they did notice him. He had become more and more reckless; he made no effort to conceal what he was doing, and, in fact, could barely walk for all the books he had hidden on his person.
He was relieved when the security guard touched him on the shoulder. He wasn’t rough, he simply requested that he turn around and accompany him. He took him ‘in the back’ and the police were called. Only he didn’t think they were really the police. They didn’t have on uniforms and they don’t send out non-uniformed officers to deal with teenage shoplifters. It was a ruse, a way of scaring him straight. He was already straight, they didn’t get it. He wasn’t going to steal again. He had done it and had got what he wanted, which was their attention, and a new experience. Something different. No matter how negative. The policemen drove him home. He sat in the back of the car swearing to myself. They threatened to arrest him. He smiled.
Redrick ‘Red’ Schuhart is a stalker, a criminal. He stalks the Zone at night, without permission. The Zone is what the aliens left behind, after the Visit; it is a dangerous place, full of alien litter, which can kill or mutate the people stupid enough or greedy enough to enter. However, this litter is valuable, and that is why Red is important. Schuhart is an average kind of guy, street-smart, but relatively poor. He has spent time in prison for stalking, which is illegal. He drinks a lot, swears a lot, and smokes a lot; he delivers wise-cracks like a hard-boiled, tough-talking PI; he is an irascible, but likeable anti-hero. On the most basic level, Roadside Picnic is a pulp novel, a noir, about an ex-con trying to go straight. Red frequently alludes to wanting to get out of the game, to become a normal citizen, and yet he never does.
[A still from Stalker, Andrei Tarkovsky’s film adaptation of the book]
It is suggested that Red became a stalker, i.e. someone who enters the Zone and steals and sells objects from it, for money; he says himself that he requires money so as to be able to live without having to count every penny. Therefore, sure, you could see Roadside Picnic as being about what people feel forced to do in order to survive, in order to live comfortably, but for me that is too simplistic. It struck me that Red is just like the kid I wrote about in my introduction, that he continues to be a stalker, even after being arrested and doing time in prison, even after the birth of his daughter, when he has so much more to lose, because he needs the excitement, he needs to feel like someone. The Strugatsky’s write about the ‘surrounding, indifferent chaos,’ Red himself talks about life being ‘gray,’ and this is, I think, most telling, most significant. Some people don’t want to go straight because that would mean they are just like everyone else, working for a cunt of a boss [Red is antagonised by authority and frequently rebels against it], plodding towards extinction.
“I lock myself in the stall, take out the flask, unscrew it, and attach myself to it like a leech. I’m sitting on the bench, my heart is empty, my head is empty, my soul is empty, gulping down the hard stuff like water. Alive. I got out. The Zone let me out. The damned hag. My lifeblood. Traitorous bitch. Alive. The novices can’t understand this. No one but a stalker can understand. And tears are pouring down my face—maybe from the booze, maybe from something else. I suck the flask dry; I’m wet, the flask is dry. As usual, I need just one more sip. Oh well, we’ll fix that. We can fix anything now. Alive. I light a cigarette and stay seated. I can feel it—I’m coming around.”
Roadside Picnic is not, however, simply a character study. While it isn’t as relentlessly philosophical, or thought-provoking, as, say, Solaris, there are many points of interest outside of the protagonist. The objects, for example, that are smuggled out of the Zone are, as previously noted, valuable to humans, both scientifically and criminally. However, one character, Doctor Pillman, states that as these objects are alien, we therefore cannot truly understand them or utilise them properly, not yet anyway. Stanislaw Lem makes a similar point in many of his novels, which is that if you can only bring human reasoning, understanding etc to an alien life-form or object or message then you cannot fail but to misunderstand it. Humans and aliens are, to all intents and purposes, incompatible; and contact, genuine contact is, therefore, impossible. Like in His Master’s Voice, the Strugatsky’s show humans misusing and misinterpreting the alien. The aliens are far more advanced than we are, and so when we try to interact with their litter, when we try to utilise it, we are, essentially, like monkeys using an ipad as a dinner plate.
There is also something darkly funny about the nature of the alien visits. I’ve long thought that we are interested in aliens coming to earth, in alien-human contact, not because we want to study the creatures or learn from them, but because, in our arrogance, we think that we are worthy of their attention. The Strugatsky’s brilliantly burst this bubble, by having their aliens visit earth, only to make a mess of it, then skidaddle without ever saying a word or doing anything of note or paying humans any attention at all. The upshot of their visit is that the aliens couldn’t give a monkeys about us, and why should they? They are, as I wrote in the previous paragraph, far more advanced then we are, so why would they want to hang around with the likes of us? This is, of course, where the title of the book comes from, which is to say that the aliens came to earth almost as a kind of stopover to somewhere more exciting, almost by accident, as though they had a brief picnic and then carried on on their way.
“A picnic. Picture a forest, a country road, a meadow. Cars drive off the country road into the meadow, a group of young people get out carrying bottles, baskets of food, transistor radios, and cameras. They light fires, pitch tents, turn on the music. In the morning they leave. The animals, birds, and insects that watched in horror through the long night creep out from their hiding places. And what do they see? Old spark plugs and old filters strewn around… Rags, burnt-out bulbs, and a monkey wrench left behind… And of course, the usual mess—apple cores, candy wrappers, charred remains of the campfire, cans, bottles, somebody’s handkerchief, somebody’s penknife, torn newspapers, coins, faded flowers picked in another meadow.”
I wrote in my review of Solaris that Sci-Fi doesn’t really do it for me, and maybe I ought to revise that opinion, because I enjoyed this novel very much. However, the Strugatsky’s, again like Lem, are more concerned with us than they are aliens. There are no intergalactic battles, no spaceships, we don’t even see the creatures that created the Zones. Roadside Picnic is a [broadly pessimistic] study of human nature. Think about how what is discovered in, or retrieved from, the Zones creates a black market and an industry whereby people are trying to snaffle up the stuff for themselves to serve their own ends. The message here seems to be that whatever man comes into contact with he will seek to exploit it, corrupt it, make money out of it. Furthermore, one could also point to the picnic idea as being a hint at environmentalism, as being a critique of the way that we treat our planet, and the animals that share it with us. The truth is that we are pretty disgusting, and we are making a big fucking mess of this eternally spinning globe. So, sure, there may be something out there, but is it any wonder that they have turned their backs on us?