Monday, October 25, 2010

Recent Reading

Things have been quiet on the blog lately, not for artistic reasons but because real life is intruding more than the ideal.  (Without burdening the casual reader with excessive detail, it is not the best time to be working in the UK public sector at the moment).

I have also been immersed in Adrian Goldsworthy's monumental biography Caesar, essential reading for anyone interested in the late Roman Republic.  Goldsworthy reviews the sources for the period to synthesise a fascinating account of Caesar's military and political career.  With a supporting cast as vivid as Pompey, Cicero, Crassus and Cato, it's hard to make this dull, and Goldsworthy seizes his opportunity.  I'd have regarded myself as a relatively well-informed general reader on the period, but I learned a huge amount from the book.

I found the political machinations more interesting than Caesar's military campaigns.  The difficulty in writing about the latter is that the only real source is Caesar's own Commentaries, which are simply propaganda written for the Roman Senate.  The various Gaulish tribes are never fully realised, being only legion-fodder for Caesar's conquests.

Caesar is a balanced assessment of Rome's most famous figure, and illuminates by showing him firmly in the context of his times and society.  I highly recommend the book, but make sure you have some time on your hands!

Monday, October 11, 2010

On the Big Screen

The Town
dir. Ben Affleck (2010)

Yesterday I caught the latest Affleck vehicle (he stars as well as directing and co-writing, so if you don't like the film you know who to write to).  In many ways it's wholly formulaic - a heist movie in which Affleck is a bank robber trying to go straight after one last job, which he takes on against his better judgement.  He falls in love with the manager of one the banks he's robbed (played with luminous appeal by Rebecca Hall) and of course this proves to be redemptive*.  The robbery does not, of course, go according to plan, and Affleck is forced to scramble for his life.  The ending, if not exactly happy, is appropriate and gives overtones of a brighter future.

You've seen this a hundred times before and yet--somehow--The Town is a scorching film.  Affleck manages at once to be level-headed, capable and yet vulnerable.  The blue collar Boston environment is vivid and believable.  This being Affleck's film, the audience's sympathy is with him, but unusually for the "villain as hero" genre, the police chasing him are not portrayed as bungling or corrupt: they're professionals with a job to do, and Jon Hamm as the FBI man always has our respect even as we want him to fail.  The action sequences are directed with brio, and the central relationship between Affleck and Hall, while not exactly convincing, is always compelling.

"Formulaic" is often thrown up as a criticism of films--and indeed books.  But what some see as a formula might more accurately be described as blending together elements which have been proven to work in the past.  What matters is the skill and vigour with which the ingredients are combined.  The Town might be formulaic--but so is Pride and Prejudice, so is The Big Sleep, so are Patrick O'Brian and Richard Stark.  If you don't like your dinner, blame the chef, not the ingredients.

I expected popcorn entertainment from The Town.  I found something rather better.  Highly recommended!

* I am no relationship expert, but this is not a dating strategy I would recommend

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Why Should I Read...?

Len Deighton, 1970

In my teens I read a lot about the Second World War, a phase I'm sure most bookish boys go through.  Until re-reading it this week, I haven't read Bomber for at least 25 years, but it always remained in my mind as a remarkable book, even once I had long forgotten the details. Reading it again now I can see why I remembered, and why judges as good as Kingsley Amis and Anthony Burgess rated it among the great novels of the 2oth century.

Bomber  is set in one single day ("31 June" 1943) and tells the story, in clinical "docudrama" style, of a bombing raid against a German industrial city.  The novel uses multiple viewpoints and perspectives, both from the British and German sides.  The raid is a disaster on every level: the light Mosquito bomber, in a precisely choreographed scene, drops its marker bombs by accident on a sleepy market town, with the result that the 700 heavy bombers following carpet-bomb the town instead of the target.  Most of the inhabitants we see are killed, as are many of the German fighter pilots and the British bomber crews.  Deighton doesn't take sides; instead, with chilling detachment he chronicles the varying fates of the characters, who die heroically, farcically, gruesomely (one plane is downed by a bird strike, another from friendly fire).  Of those who survive, one German pilot is arrested on landing and subsequently executed for protesting against concentration camps; the star British pilot is taken off flying duties for refusing to play in a regimental cricket match.  For all the crisp precision of the prose, this is an angry book, showing up the horror of mechanised warfare.

Technically the book is also a tremendous achievement.  Deighton makes us care about the characters despite the pared-back prose (and also allows us to differentiate a large cast in our mind), and to admire the bravery of both the bombed and the bombers.  I suspect that 40 years ago the book was even more revolutionary, both stylistically and in the way in which all the characters are portrayed as victims.  (I suspect that Alastair McLean's action stories like The Guns of Navarone or Where Eagles Dare are more typical of the period).

Bomber is not an easy read, but it is a bleak masterpiece.   

How has it influenced me?

Bomber was probably one of the first novels I read that dispensed with any pretence of happy endings.  The novel is a gruelling read but the reader recognises the rightness of the downbeat conclusions.  If the bomber crews had all come back safe, if the German pilots had all survived to collect their Knight's Cross, we might have been pleased for men we had come to care about, but it would have been the wrong ending for the novel.  It also shows that the writer can create sympathy for the characters without purple prose.  Deighton's ability to create memorable characters in a couple of paragraphs--one or two telling details can do it--is also something we can all learn from.