Thursday, 23 August 2012

Hollywood Cemetery by Liam O'Flaherty

Liam O’Flaherty abandons his usual stark tone and dark storylines for slapstick comedy in this hard-to-find 1934 novel.
The main character Brian Carey is a recognisable O'Flaherty creation - a sullen, arrogant, hard-drinking writer whose belief in his own genius makes him contemptuous of many of those whom he meets.
The rights for one of his books has been purchased by Hollywood media mogul Jack Mortimer who wants to turn it into a movie.
The novel opens in Ireland where Mortimer, reluctantly accompanied by Carey, is searching for a female lead.
The wild, promiscuous girl he choses is reinvented as Angela Devlin who is brought by Mortimer back to Hollywood but no-one is allowed to see her face as the mogul manufactures a media frenzy about his mysterious new starlet.
Carey, who despite initial hostility towards her has fallen in love with Angela, is bribed, blackmailed and eventually threatened with assassination to play along with the scheme.
O'Flaherty's portrayal of Hollywood is cartoonish - everyone is on the make, no-one, apart from Carey, has any real talent. Mortimer doesn't want to shoot the movie in Ireland because he reckons he can create a more authentic version of Ireland in his Hollywood studio.
The story becomes more convoluted to the point of absurdity as the novel progresses, any semblance of plot disintegrating in the process.
The brashness and falsity of Hollywood and the prostitution of talent for the sake of a quick buck is old hat these days, but that this novel was published nearly 80 years ago.
O'Flaherty was a native Irish speaker, born on the Aran Islands, who fought for the British army in the First World War, tried to lead a communist uprising in Dublin during the Civil War and became a prolific short story writer and novelist. He had direct experience of the movie industry. His novel The Informer was made into a film by his cousin John Ford.
He also worked in Hollywood during the 1930s, trying to make a living as a screenwriter, and so it can be presumed that this ultimately unsuccessful novel, is based on at least some personal experience.
As in interesting foot note, a quick web search on Hollywood Cemetery brought up this little nugget:
Sometimes an author arrives unheralded on the literary scene, publishes one book, then disappears without a trace. That seems to be the case with Mary Cavendish Gore, who appears to have produced one novel and nothing else. (The only Google hit shows that she renewed the copyright in 1961.) Or could the author, whose voice is masculine, be using a pseudonym? Could the author, in fact, be Liam O’Flaherty (best known for The Informer), whose life roughly parallels that of the protagonist? I admit that's not likely, but it would be fun, if true.
Mad Hatter’s Village by Mary Cavendish Gore. Alfred H. King (1934), 306 pp.
A pedantic writer hopes that his latest novel will bring him fame and fortune. In the meantime he lives in a shack on a beach near Los Angeles and ekes out a living on his pension check from the British army. Several of his friends are similarly strapped for cash. He is pursued by a nearly divorced woman with two children. Although he finds her unattractive, uncouth, and unresponsive, they start an affair. He can’t open up to her but can’t break it off the relationship either.
Despite its satirical edge, in the last analysis this is a plaintive story of a decent if talentless fellow who must cope with painful memories, unrealistic aspirations, and dire poverty. He tries to solve his problems by walling himself off emotionally, a strategy that fails in the novel’s surprise (and inadequately foreshadowed) ending. The protagonist, if not exactly likable, is credible and skillfully drawn. The same may be said for the girlfriend and the minor characters. In a just world this thoughtful and well written book would takes its place with other struggling-writer novels, such as Martin Eden and Ask the Dust. As it is, potential readers will be lucky to find a copy.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Who Is That Man? In Search of the Real Bob Dylan by David Dalton

Who Is That Man? In Search of the Real Bob Dylan is more a psychological analysis than a biography. It presumes that the reader already has a firm grasp of its subject—Dylan’s life story, the supporting characters, and the changing times in which he lived.
The reader should also be aware of additional costs that come with reading this study because David Dalton takes each of Dylan’s albums in his hands, holds it up to the light, and turns it at different angles to look for clues about his subject’s state of mind.
It is not just the lyrics that are dissected, but the guitar chord changes, the linear notes, and even the pictures used on the album cover. If you don’t already have them in your collection there is a serious temptation to go out and buy them, or in the case of this reviewer rebuy them, to compare notes with the author (musical and written).
Mr. Dalton contends that each Dylan album brought with it not only a change in musical style but a change in persona—the protest singer of The Times They Are a Changin’, the Rimbaudian beat poet with electric guitar who released Highway 61 Revisited, the trippy hippy from Blonde on Blonde, the country singer from Nashville Skyline, the abandoned husband of Blood on Tracks, and the Saved born-again preacher, etc.
Then there are the films he made, Renaldo and Clara and Don’t Look Back, his novel Tarantula, and autobiography Chronicles Volume I.
It is not a new thesis and has already been explored in the film I’m Not There in which different actors, including Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere, and Cate Blanchett portrayed different phases of Dylan’s public persona.
Mr. Dalton writes: “From his more than 500 songs to his linear notes, interviews, Chronicles, and heavily allegorical movies, Dylan is the most prolific writer of musical autobiographies of all time. But these are essentially works of fiction, and behind them there is a man who writes compelling tales about his character in a series of self-portraits that he then peevishly paints over. That’s who we want to know about.”
Mr. Dalton takes Dylan’s self-spun mythology by the throat in a bid to strangle out the truth.
When he arrived in New York in the early 60s Dylan claimed to have visited Woody Guthrie on his deathbed and been given his blessing to become his musical successor. Not true, insists Mr. Dalton saying that Guthrie would have been so ill at the time Dylan said he had visited him that he could hardly recognize his own family.
For years Dylan claimed that he was an orphan, even though his parents were alive and well and even attending his concerts.
The motorcycle crash that nearly claimed his life in 1966 was no more than a tumble that Dylan exaggerated, claims author Dalton, firstly to create a new level of mystique but also as an excuse to withdraw from public attention.
The main focus of Who Is That Man? is the iconic Dylan of the mid-1960s—the one who wrote “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” and “I Want You”—and who, according to Mr. Dalton, spent the following decades trying to flee.
The Dylan of the 1970s, the country singer and ex-Jewish born-again Christian also come under close scrutiny, but the 80s, 90s, and OOs are skipped over. Nonetheless, the portrait that emerges is no less interesting.
Mr. Dalton’s stated task of discovering the true nature of the man behind the multiple personas ultimately proves to be fruitless as he concludes Dylan himself could probably not untangle the fabrications, self-mythologizing, and urban legends that have grown around him from who he truly is.
That does not devalue this study. Who Is That Man? is a superb dissection of one of the most enigmatic figures in modern music. This review was written for and first published on New York Journal of Books

Friday, 10 August 2012

The Welkinn Complex by Keving Kiely (interview)

US PSYCHOLOGIST Darren Welkinn fantasises about seducing his female patients, is unfaithful to his wife and administers trial drugs to his patients knowing that they might have dangerous side affects.
He travels from the States to take up a position on the island of Guernesy in an exclusive clinic, the owner of which is testing XcellN - a new drug with psychedelic properties that brings to the fore suppressed memories and unleashes other psychological material.
The Welkinn Complex has big themes and insights into the world of psychology but these are a mere vehicle for a dissection of the twisted psyche of Dr Welkinn.
Author Kevin Kiely, who was born in Co Down and now lives in Derry, says he wrote his new novel while lecturing in the US.
"The idea for it came to me after talking to people in the US who had gone to clinics and told me about this practice," he said.
"People are being used to test drugs at clinics and the doctors who are administering them see this simply as part of their job and are ignoring the ethics.
"And clearly the pharmaceutical industry has a vested interest in making sure that their products continue to be used - there could be as many as 2.5 million people addicted to prescription tranquilisers in the UK alone."
Written in jerky, almost note-like form, The Welkinn Complex reflects the style in which Dr Welkinn might write up the case notes on one of his patients.
However, the real subject being analysed is Welkinn himself - his unethical medical behaviour, his self-obsession and his philandering.
He desperately scrambles for self-preservation after the police launch an investigation into the death by suicide of his lover, who Welkinn knew was psychologically unbalanced and vulnerable.
"Welkin is an icy person inside and was drawn from my experience of some types of Americans that I met," says Kiely.
"There are many Americans who have never gone to Europe, Republican Americans - Wasps - who see us as a museum, going back in time, and Welkinn is one of those.
"I'm not anti-American but they do tend to live much more in the present than we do here in Europe.
"Welkinn is surrounded by people who are cracking up and yet he functions with a cold detachment." This interview was first published in The Irish News.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Robert's Alibi by Declan Burke-Kennedy

Despite some pretty fundamental flaws in his story-telling technique Burke-Kennedy's 1988 novel has drawn me back to it a number of times.
Geoffry, the central character and sometimes first-person narrator, is an Irish novelist living in a mountain cabin in the Basque Country.
Although on the French Pyrenees his cabin is close to the Spanish border and the separatist conflict, which was much more virulent when the novel was published, occasionally impinges.
Indeed the historical identity of the Basque people – described by Burke-Kennedy as the equivalent of Europe’s native Americans who were subsequently displaced and marginalised by later waves of invaders – is one of the many layered themes of this novel.
Linguistic similarities between obscure Tibetan dialects and Euskara (the Basque’s indigenous language) are posited, although evidence is never presented.
Slightly more convincing is the similarity between the four pronged Basque Lauburu found on ancient tombs and the Tibetan swastika (an ancient Hindu and Buddhist symbol that existed long before it was hijacked by the Nazis – see below).
Geoffry’s solitude in his mountain retreat is interrupted by the arrival of an Irish woman, whose name we never learn, and her son Julian.
Although he has no idea who she is, Geoffry soon becomes aware that she is very familiar with him and believes that he was her late husband Robert's best friend who used to come and spend his holidays with Geoffry.
Geoffry plays along, initially hoping to learn more information and recall if he had ever actually met Robert, but he is also attracted by her physically and by her obvious vulnerability, and is reluctant to disillusion her in case she leaves.
He learns that Robert is missing and presumed dead following an avalanche while climbing in the Himalayas and that his widow wants Geoffry to edit the manuscript of a book he was writing about the region, its religions, links to the Basque Country and even European Druidism.
As Geoffry becomes further implicated in Robert's deception he and the widow work on the manuscript which initially fascinates him then repulses him. Parts of Geoffry's own past start to click into place – an affair with a Basque photographer called Noelle who took part in photographic expeditions to the Himalayas and who often disappeared out of Geoffry's life with no explanation.
While Geoffry has become complicit in providing an alibi to Robert’s deceptions against his wife, he gradually comes to the conclusion that he has also been deceived.
He in turn embarks on a deception, luring Noelle back to his bed by making her believe that Robert is still alive and that Geoffry is the only person who knows where he is hidding out.
The fairly soap-operish storyline and the author’s frequent insistence on ‘telling’ us that Geoffry is an enigmatic solipsists to whom women are constantly shooting “interested glances” and preening themselves to make him notice them, do grate slightly.
We also get an extended rehearsal of Geoffry's Nietzschean ideas, which just smacks too much of the author trying to tell us what he believes.
This is more a novel of ideas – perhaps Burke-Kennedy wanted to write the book that his fictional character Robert did. A quick google did reveal some speculation on ethnic links between ancient Tibetans and Basques.
There is a good novel in here trying desperately trying to get out but that is burdened down with simply trying too hard to make its central character Geoffry appear more interesting.
A Basque Lauburu
A Tibetan swastika