Malcolm Redfellow's reading diary

"I guess there never can be enough books" (John Steinbeck)

Month: December, 2011

27 Venetian gloss

Some time back the Pert Young Piece brought a street-map (ahem!) of Venice back from her travels. Malcolm later tried it in situ: it doesn’t help. Perhaps the whole nature of Venice contends against mapping. Once, just once, the Lady in his Life and Malcolm hit upon a bar somewhere in Santa Croce: it was so pleasant, so delightful, so obviously positioned on a corner that, despite repeated back-trackings, they could never again locate it.

Once a year, for these last two decades, Donna Leon has given us an update on the doings of Commissario Guido Brunetti. He has become so “real” that he now has a cookbook and a guide-book. This latter (as right), by Toni Sepeda, is not a guide to the novels; but a guide to some of the many traverses Leon has him make through his native city. It comes with a cover in keeping with the novel-sequence (not too grand a term) and with an introduction from the Noo Joisey girl herself:

I first became aware of how little, and how badly, I knew Venice about thirty years ago, when I was invited to dinner at the home of friends of friends. I’d been there for dinner a number of times, but I’d always gone in the company of my friends Roberta and Franco, trailing along as the foreign guest. They, Venetian for generations, led the  way, and I walked along with them, listening, learning Italian and a bit of Veneziano as we walked. I heard the names of their friends, picked up vocabulary, greeted the relatives and colleagues we passed on the street, stopped to have a coffee, was advised which shops to use and which to avoid.

Every trip  with them had been a discovery as well as a bombardment of information. Because they led the way, I didn’t have to be bothered with boring details like where to turn left or where to turn right: I merely followed the leader. They were the sharks, I the pilot fish following in their wake.

This time, however, and for reasons I no longer recall, I had to get there on my own. And couldn’t. The host lived, I knew, over near San Giacomo dell’Orio, down on the right of that little calle that  ran into the canal, almost at the end. Further, I knew that Franco’s father, during World War II, had once fallen into the laguna when he went fishing with a man who lived on the second floor of the house opposite the apartment I was looking for.

Unfortunately for my purposes, the dinner began at 8:30, so it was dark when I walked through Rialto, on the way to what I was sure was the campo. Map? Me? I wasn’t a tourist, was I, so why would I bother with a map? I was the friend of Venetians, on the way to dinner at the home of other Venetians, so why a map?

A half-hour later, I stumbled upon Campo San Giacomo dell’Orio and began to look for the little calle that  ran  down towards the canal, the one where lived the man who … etc. etc. etc. They all looked alike. Even if I had had a map, I had no idea of the name of the calle, and I doubt that any map I might have carried would have marked the address of the man who was with Franco’s father when he fell into the laguna.

Finally I went back to the campo and asked in a bar where Giuliano the jeweller lived. When I finally arrived, I lied — of course — about  the delay and we got on with the serious business of drinking and eating.

Thanks to Google Maps, anyone can try and follow suit.

The bar, which the Lady in his Life and Malcolm could never rediscover, must also be in that Bermudan triangle.

Brunetti’s Venice is one of those books that Malcolm secretly treasures, which is why — weeks gone — it still lingers bedside, out of the guilt pile, and not yet consigned to the attic shelves. Much merely transcribes, with commentary, passages from the original stories — though it doesn’t come up-to-date on the later novels — but that makes it all the more delightful: it allows Malcolm to rediscover books from years gone by, and which he has not re-read. He would not want to use it for walking tours of the once Most Serene Republic: Brunetti’s Venice is a country of the mind, not of this earth, and not over-populated with tourist parties (which, no doubt, is why so many of Donna Leon’s tales take place “out of season”). Malcolm also doubts that, when he occasionally visits the city (always when it’s not a crush of American cruise-boaters, Japanese and — most recently — Chinese crocodiles), the routes suggested would accommodate Acqua Alta.

He just wishes he could locate that idyllic bar.

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26 Times with number

Well, all those confident promises to knock off Anthony Burgess’s The Kingdom of the Wicked and Gore Vidal’s Julian came to little. Both were deposited on the shelf of Number One Daughter in Noo Joisey.

Hey! But it was nice to have the print copies of the New York Times‘s and the Wall Street Journal‘s weekly book supplements.

What was read amounted to Stephen King’s 11/22/63:

Nice dust-cover: almost worth framing. Almost. It is, in Malcolm view, far better than the UK version (right). Curiously, the title seems to have changed subtly: a digital read-out rather than the use of slash-dividers. Since the bulk (and it is a bulk — see below) of the story belongs in the pre-digital era, that’s an odd artistic take.

OK, you’ve bought the beast. Well, you might as well — you know you’ll read the thing sooner or later, and at the Amazon discounted price the hard-back is as cheap as the paperback will be next year. And, as Anthony Powell made clear, Books Do Furnish A Room.

It is another beast: for your money you get some 850 pages of text, a smidgeon off three pounds avoirdupois, so another one not to challenge Ryanair’s baggage rules — fortunately, American Airways are more flexible. All of which kept Malcolm going for a few days.

So, in that spirit, let’s Dance to the Music of Time.

Malcolm sees that this is King’s 54th novel, and about the third Malcolm has read cover-to-cover.

For the record, one reason why Malcolm took this one on was the usually-reliable Mark Lawson’s near-rave review for the Guardian. Lawson, of course, has played the parallel-universe game himself. The best review in town, for Malcolm’s two-cents’ worth, is Jeff Greenfield’s for the Washington Post. That’s hot-linked here so Malcolm doesn’t need to provide a story-synopsis. If there are two Greenfield sentences to which Malcolm would echo, “Hear! Hear!, they are:

But the piling on of detail after detail slows the pace and the pull of the story. In contrast to very long books like “The Stand” and “Under the Dome,” this work could have benefited from some serious paring.

Hmm: perhaps that requires a re-think, since Malcolm has read neither of those comparisons. Still, the thought’s the thing. A true cynic might feel that here we have an over-inflated tome (Janet Maslin, for the NY Times, dignifies it as “Stephen King’s latest magnum opus”) concealing a very fine novella. Some reviewers spotted just that:

  • John Dugdale (another reliable, who here seems to be among the least-impressed by this book) for the Sunday Times [£]:

If you can buy the formulaic device of sweethearts racing to confront a villain before he kills, King’s denouement is gripping enough, and its aftermath is intriguing. November 22, however, occupies only 100 pages of a bloated effort that seems based on a gross miscalculation of his readers’ patience — one so blatant it’s astounding such a successful storyteller could have made it.

11.22.63 is quite something, an exciting, intelligent if overlong book that underlines all King’s powers as a novelist while exposing some of his flaws.

Whether with haunted cars or evil clowns that live down drains, Stephen King has long been adept at conjuring a gargantuan blockbuster out of a hokey premise…

Whilst there is a palpable sense of King expending his boundless ingenuity on a premise that does not fully reward it, there is still much to enthral as he ruminates upon his lifelong themes.

What Malcolm didn’t find in this book was any developed sense of “rumination”. Perhaps Malcolm lacks that stretch of imagination which lies in the FT‘s Adam LeBor (except to wonder, were you a reviewer with that surname, wouldn’t you change it?):

Which of us would not travel back in time, if we could, to undo some of the horrors of the past? This is the perennially fascinating question that Stephen King has been pondering.

The next two sentences of that review seem equally disconnected from logic:

Jake Epping, the hero of King’s new book 11.22.63, is not a scientist but a divorced high school teacher from Maine. Jake is puzzled how his friend Al, who seemed hale and hearty when they last met – 22 hours ago – has suddenly lost 30lb and developed terminal cancer.

Time-travel, umm. But with an English teacher from a small town in Maine, King’s central character hardly flew a long way from the nest.

Then the dystopia tacked on as one of two alternative conclusions doesn’t work for Malcolm. If this is to be a “romance” (in any sense of that word) — and that’s what’s implied in the extended love-relationship which concludes with the formulaic device of sweethearts racing to confront a villain before he kills and occupies only 100 pages of a bloated effort that seems based on a gross miscalculation of his readers’ patience [John Dugdale, see above] — then the saccharine second ending just about works. Even so, and deservedly, Much gasping won the Literary Review’s 2011 Bad Sex award.

Another review that, for Malcolm, hit the spot was Ian Berriman’s for SFX:

What a shame we don’t do little pie charts with our reviews any more, because the one for 11.22.63would have been a doozy: 35% The Time Traveler’s Wife; 20% The Shawshank Redemption; 15% Star Trek’s “The City On The Edge Of Forever”; 15% Glee (we kid you not); 10% It; and 5% those bits in Terminator when you get glimpses of the future and it looks like it’s been done slightly on the cheap (that may be an odd thing to say about a novel, but Stephen King almost seems to have written the apocalyptic scenes herein with a miniseries budget in mind).

Then again, King’s end-note acknowledges other “inspirations” — Malcolm struck on Ray Bradbury’s seminal A Sound of Thunder, from 1952 — which King/”Epping” both graciously tag, if only because of Edward Lorenz’s celebrated “butterfly effect” (also tagged in the text, repetitiously).

When this one goes into paperback, it’ll be just in time to clean up for the poolside lounger market. That’s about its level.