I’m afraid I have been severely negligent of both my own blog and those of all my friends during the past couple of weeks. Once again I have what I consider to be the excellent, if unwelcome, excuse of further dental surgery. In the first stage towards correcting the damage that was (necessarily) done back in April, last week I had a bone graft and a pin inserted into my jaw. This was every bit as uncomfortable as it sounds and not to be recommended as a recreational pastime. My distress was only added to by the fact that the surgery was scheduled for the week after Wimbledon. I couldn’t even comfort myself by curling up and watching tennis all day long. What I have been doing instead is blitzing on a re-read of the earlier books in the series from which two of the Summer School novels are taken so that, if necessary, I can fill in on back story.
The Rennie Airth novels are relatively straight forward. So far I’ve re-read the first two in his series featuring John Madden, River of Darkness and The Blood-Dimmed Tide. In the first, set just after the Great War, Madden is still in the police force, but in the second, ten years on, he has been persuaded by his wife, Helen, to retire and go back to his farming roots, and is only caught up in the investigation when a local girl goes missing. If memory serves me correctly, in the next two he continues to ‘flirt’ with the service in investigations which span the years on either side of the Second World War. I chose the fourth book, The Reckoning, for the Summer School because it raises issues to do both with those men who were shot as deserters between 1914 and 1918 and with the women who served in the SOE in the later conflict and thus acted as a bridge between the other two novels. What I had forgotten, however, is the extent to which Airth is concerned with the terrible psychological damage done to those men who came back from the First World War. In both these early books it is the prime motivating force behind the crimes that are committed, so I shall be interested to see if that is the same in The Dead of Winter when I get round to it at the end of the week. Sometimes a concentrated re-read like this can throw up links between books that you wouldn’t necessarily notice just reading them as they are published.
William Broderick’s early novels, The Sixth Lamentation and The Gardens of the Dead also share certain characteristics, although in this case it is more to do with structure and style than with thematic content. Brodrick writes beautiful prose. I moved from the first of these to a novel by a much better known crime writer and very nearly threw their book away in disgust, so pedestrian did the language seem after The Sixth Lamentation. From that point of view reading Brodrick is easy, but goodness do you have to keep your wits about you where the intricacies of the plot are concerned. Nothing is straightforward in a Brodrick novel and no one is what they seem on first meeting. It works well enough in the earlier book, which was highly praised when it first appeared – one of those books that everyone was reading – but I found The Gardens of the The Dead a less satisfactory read when it was published and I felt the same about it this time round. It may be to do with the fact that other than Father Anselm (the main ‘investigator’) I really couldn’t summon up sufficient interest in any of the characters to care what happened to them. Fortunately, A Whispered Name, complex though it is, is even better than The Sixth Lamentation. I think I had better leave enough time to read it twice, however, if I am going to lead a detailed discussion on it.
The only other book I’ve read over the past couple of weeks has been Tom Rackman’s Costa shortlisted novel, The Italian Teacher. From the opening chapters you could be forgiven for thinking that the work is about the mid twentieth century artist Bear Bavinsky, so dominating is his presence both in the book and in the life of his wife, Natalie and their son Charles, otherwise known as Pinch, however, what the novel really focuses on is the effect that being Bear’s son has on Pinch, the Italian Teacher of the title.
Bear Bavinsky is a middle rate artist whose works consist of paintings of parts of his numerous muses’ (lovers’/mistresses’) bodies. He is also a complete monster who believes that he can do whatever he likes, expecting the world to revolve around him regardless of who else is hurt in the process. Why nobody calls him out is beyond me. He moves from wife to wife, leaving women and children pretty much abandoned around the world with no thought for anyone other than himself. Even when they are in dire financial need he refuses to help them by selling any of his paintings, which he is determined will only go to museums and art galleries where his greatness can be widely appreciated. But Bavinsky is no Picasso, and the public institutions don’t particularly want his works. Their stores are full enough of mediocre art as it is.
The people who suffer most from this are Pinch and his mother, Natalie. Both of them subjugate their own talents and ambitions to Bear’s demands. Every attempt that Pinch makes to establish himself – as an artist, an academic – his father undermines. Bear may claim that what he wanted was for his son to push against his criticism and become stronger for it, but in their final confrontation he tells the truth when he shouts:
Do you honestly think I’ll be tagging along to gallery openings of my own kid? Listen to me. Hear this. You work for me. Get it? You always worked for me. … Get this: I win. You hear? I fucking win.
Ultimately, however, Bear does not win and neither does the institution that I take to be the author’s real target, which is the commercial art world itself, with its pretensions and its self-regard. This was rather apt reading with a new series of the BBC’s Fake or Fortune due to start on Thursday.