Monday, 6 August 2012

Wot I'm reading: CARLOS RUIZ ZAFON

The Prisoner of Heaven re-introduces us to Daniel Sempere who runs a bookstore in Barcelona with his ailing father. But the main character in this sequel to both The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel's Game is their oddball assistant Fermin who spent a few of the early Franco-era years in the city's medieval Montjuic prison. A fellow prisoner was the impoverished potboiler writer David Martin, falsely convicted because the venal prison governor wanted a captive literary 'ghost'. Fermin resolves to escape and seek vengeance for both himself and David.

Zafon always hints honestly at his sources, and references to Les Miserables acknowledge that this is, partially, a "hommage" to Victor Hugo. There is also another nod to Great Expectations, and some riverside scenes put me in mind of Vincent Price's camp extravaganza The Theatre of Blood!

The first 50 pages of this keenly awaited new novel suffer from an uneven pace and, for a book set in the 1930s and 50s, there are some jarringly modern words (Zafon's fault or the translator's?). An intermittently humorous tone, together with the plot emphasis on Fermin's impending wedding and David Martin's not-so-secret passion for Daniel Sempere's mother Isabella, nudge the book to the edge of romantic comedy. It's only the prison scenes that are rich in atmosphere and pop a surprise or two.

What we expect from Senor Zafon (and Isabel Allende and Salman Rushdie) is Magic Realism. This time Zafon serves up a bit more realism and a lot less magic. From almost any other author The Prisoner of Heaven would be regarded as a considerable achievement but The Shadow of the Wind was a magnificent achievement, raising the bar for all authors, including Zafon. In The Prisoner of Heaven he seems to be "treading water". It's a good book, but it's not a great book.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

RIP: Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal famously described Tennessee Williams's death in 1983 (choking on the cap from a bottle of eyedrops) as "a good career move". Well, now he too has made that good career move. Another great writer joins the celestial 'pantheon'.

He will be remembered (and missed) as much for his barbed wit, his put-downs and his spats with other writers (Mailer, Capote, William F. Buckley) as for his writing. Born into a Washington 'dynasty' he ruthlessly pilloried every president from FDR to George W. His epic cycle of political novels began crisply with Washington DC (1967) and ended flatulently with The Golden Age (2000) and included three of the most outstanding American historical novels of all time: Burr, 1876 and Lincoln. Personally, I was more an admirer of the brilliantly outrageous Hollywood comedy Myra Breckinridge and its sequel Myron. Duluth was also a joy to read.

His gay novel The City & The Pillar was incredibly daring for 1948 (and almost destroyed his reputation); the re-write in 1965, with its less melodramatic ending, was an improvement but the book was no longer ahead of its time. Charlton Heston was not told (and later refused to believe) that there was a homo-erotic 'subtext' to Judah Ben Hur's friendship with Stephen Boyd's Messala in Vidal's (uncredited) contributions to the Oscar-nominated screenplay. Gore's script for Suddenly, Last Summer (1960) added more great lines (and the splendid madhouse scenes) to Tennessee William's provocative one-act play and gave Elizabeth Taylor one of her best roles.

His best-remembered quotes include such gems as "Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little." and "No good deed goes unpunished." Here's one of my favourites: "There is no such thing as a homosexual or a heterosexual person. There are only homo- or heterosexual acts. Most people are a mixture of impulses if not practices.".

It doesn't have to be true but it reads well. Gore's life was like that.