Wednesday, 10 February 2010

JACQUES CHESSEX'S A JEW MUST DIE

Like The Vampire Of Ropraz, Jacques Chessex's previous novel (see my review here) published in English translation by Bitter Lemon Press, A Jew Must Die is based on an historical crime, and like the first book it raised questions Swiss society did not necessarily want raised. But where Vampire was more concerned with the way society reacted to a crime, A Jew Must Die is more concerned first with the crime itself, the murder, in Payerne, of a Jewish cattle-merchant by Swiss Nazis, and by the lack of reaction from Swiss society to this crime. The beauty of the work, if beauty is the right word, is the way Chessex expands that lack of reaction into a wider indictment, an analysis using a Swiss microcosm of the awful phenomenon that was the Third Reich.

He does this in prose that is consciously bare, factual, its emotions controlled. Chessex grew up in the area where the murder took place; he was at school with the son of one of the killers, and there is something very Swiss about the cold rationality with which he presents his story. It is a tone which survives the translation by W. Donald Wilson, and since Wilson translated Vampire as well it is telling that he's able to convey Chessex's different voices so well.

There is also a fairy-tale, brothers Grimm feel to the story, particularly as the gang of ne'er do wells who make up the local Nazi party try to lure Arthur Bloch to his death on the pretext of buying a cow, one for which he appears to offer them a good deal. That they then butcher Bloch as they would an animal only heightens the monstrosity of the crime, but it is the relative lack of reaction from the locals which makes clear the parallel with the larger monstrosity that was the Holocaust, and the way the good burghers of Austria, Germany and more countries conspired with their silence and indifference to help it happen.

In the character of Fernand Ischi, the local gauleiter, Chessex both sets him apart and fits him into his community. Swiss authorities handed out severe sentences to the murderers, but the reaction of the locals was to ignore it, as if it had never happened. Yet when Chessex moves to the present, and himself, he discovers that in some ways nothing has changed in his small world.
Arthur Bloch's tombstone read Gott Weiss Warum. God Knows Why. Though in supernatural terms that may well be true, in this world, it is too pat a response. It is a telling and perfect amibiguity that lies at the heart, just beneath the perfect surface, of this novella.

Chessex died last October, my obituary was published in the Guardian two months later, you can link to that here, and to my IT posting here. The Last Skull Of M. DeSade, his last novel, is scheduled to appear from Bitter Lemon next year.

A Jew Must Die by Jacques Chessex Bitter Lemon Press, £6.99 ISBN 9781904738510

NOTE: This review also appears at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Sunday, 7 February 2010

IRRESISTIBLE TARGETS AT THE SUPER BOWL

Don't forget, for those of you in the UK of GB + NI, or who can see BBC 1, I'll be commenting on the Super Bowl tonight, live, at 2255, alongside host Jake Humphrey and Alex Smith of the San Francisco 49ers...the game, for those of you who don't know, is Indianapolis against New Orleans, and ought to be good (see my nfluk.com preview here). The halftime show is 25 minutes of The Who, or who's left of them. It's funny to think that after all these years, Ed Sullivan still books the Super Bowl halftime shows.

Plus there's a crime-writing connection. I've already had an email from that expatriate Cajun Robert Crais saying 'geaux Saints'. I wonder if Michael Z Lewin (creator of Albert Sampson) will be rooting for the Indianapolis Colts?

Friday, 5 February 2010

HOWARD ZINN: THE INDEPENDENT OBITUARY

My obituary of Howard Zinn is in today's Independent; you can link to it here. I was fascinated by his experiences as a B-17 bombadier; he was virtually the same age as one of my uncles, who did the same job during World War II, and was a staunch Democrat; I wondered if the two of them had ever compared notes.

My copy of The People's History Of The United States is in a box somewhere in storage; I couldn't check but I assume it was the first paperback edition so I don't know if that puts me among the elite 5,000 or not. But I recall reading it with great pleasure, not just because it was telling me that things I already knew where important, and showing me things I didn't know, but also because of those moments when I'd stop and laugh to myself, 'lighten up, Howard, we could've had a lot worse than Frank D Roosevelt; he wasn't THAT bad!' Of course, the failure, in progressive terms, of the last Democratic administration, and the perception that the current one is headed down the same road, brought neither me nor him pleasure. I believe the last thing he published was a small piece in the Nation evaluating Obama after one year--he pointed out that one year was far too short a time to be doing evaluations, but allowed as how he was prepared to be disappointed.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

VUILLARD AND ME: THE IMPRESSIONISTS AT SOTHEBY'S

There was a sale of Impressionist Art at Sothebys today. Yesterday my friend Michael Goldfarb and I skipped our usual weekly dim sum or pho or ramen lunch to check it out, and to see what was briefly one of best art museums in the world. The big publicity was for a wonderful Klimt, Church in Carcassone, looted by Austrian Nazis from the collection of the Jewish industrialist Viktor Zukerkandl, and it is a magnificent work whose shimmering quality suggests the sunlight on the landscape and river, and gives it a more romantic cast than much Impressionist work, which had obviously influenced Klimt when he painted it in 1913. The picture was actually taken down while we were there, whether for publicity shots or for private viewing by a high-roller, I don't know. The guide price was £18 million, which seems a bit out of my reach, at least, but I was struck by the thought that there were works on display I could have afforded to buy, especially if I hadn't just bought a house.

It was a hugely impressive display. Pissarro, my favourite of the Impressionists, had a lovely 1901 painting of the church at Dieppe in the morning sun, probably better value at a mere £2 mill. I recognised the landscape in Seurat's Hospice et Phare de Honfleur (1886) whose beauty comes from unusual understatement, both of the pointillism and especially the way the lighthouse is relegated to the fringes of the image. There was a 1907, very impressionist, Bonnard, of a field in front of a church, whose use of blocks of colour suggests things the Abstract Expressionists wouldn't be getting to for another forty years. There was an ink and brush drawing by Picasso of Arlequin, dating from about the same time, 1909, which breathed a new and shadowy life into that familiar image.

A Klee watercolour, Country House Near Fribourg (1915) is an almost perfect small work, and I found it and Max Liebermann's Flower Shrubs Near Wannsee (1919) somehow refreshing, as if one could recover from the thought of the Great War. I was also impressed again by Natalia Goncharova, a painting called Haymaking, done sometime between 1905-10. Her work seems to have been under-valued, perhaps because of its melding of Impressionism with early hints of Cubism, which you'd think would be a positive.

But it was as we were leaving, and I was hurrying to make sure there were no further crannies I'd overlooked, that I saw a painting that stopped me in my tracks, and made me re-consider yet again what it is that makes it special to be alive. It's a modest Vuillard, one of numerous portraits he did of Lucy Hessel, wife of his art dealer. Madame Hessel a Son Cabinet de Toilette dates from 1917, and is primarily done in a rich, peaceful green, into which Mme. seems almost to blend. All that sets her apart, aside from her bowed head, is the brilliant orange scarf around her neck. She is spotlighted by a white petalled lamp aimed directly at her, and another, red, scarf which hangs on the wall. Those brilliant colours provide hints, perhaps, of the person ready to step out of the shadows, or perhaps back into them; she is lost in her own thoughts, just a small step away from becoming one with her surroundings. It was profoundly moving, transcending its setting, and transporting me, for a while, with it, despite the efforts of London to intrude.

This piece appears also at Untitled: Perpspectives

PETER TEMPLE'S TRUTH

The world-weariness displayed by Stephen Villani, head of homicide in Melbourne's police, is a more direct, Australian version of the kind of dismay police work brings to detectives in Scandinavia (Wallender, Hole, Erlender) or Britain (Resnick, Faraday, Thorne). In Peter Temple's claustrophobic novel Truth, the feeling is somehow closer to the American, but it's not so much the sense of trying to fight against an implacable wall of crime, which produced in work as varied as Joseph Wambaugh and The Wire a kind of black humour and a portrait of dysfunctional personal lives. In Temple's case, it's more the feeling of running through sticky treacle, as the sugar-coating of Melbourne's super-structure starts to melt before your very eyes.

It's not just the metaphor of the out-of-control forest fires which threaten to consume Villani's father's house; Truth is primarily a story of corruption, of areas where truth matters and where it doesn't, where playing with it can be fatal, to a person or a relationship, and where an attitiude of 'economy with the actualite' is no problem at all, not even in the face of a murder investigation.

The body is an anonymous hooker; it's found in a new prestige apartment block whose developers are well connected. There's political change on the way in Victoria, and the police are a political football. Meanwhile, Villani's marriage has reached its own melt-down point; he's begun an affair with a popular newscaster, and his younger daughter has run away with druggies, and soon points the finger of scandal at her largely-absentee dad.

It's a mark of the genre that much of that synopsis seems not at all unusual, but what makes Truth stand out is the density of Temple's prose, which at time seems a concentrated kind of stream of consciousness, jumping between present and past, which winds up making Villani a character as deep, as complicated, and as flawed as the city he's policing. In the end, the flexibility of truth, and the willingness (or unwillingness) of people to believe or disbelieve is what defines them, defines loyalty and betrayal, and makes the book's conclusion seem downbeat even when the overall result is positive for Villani. Because that's what the truth really is. An excellent book, which makes me want to turn immediately to Temple's previous novel about Melbourne's police, The Broken Shore.

Truth by Peter Temple Quercus £12.99 ISBN 9781849161534

Monday, 1 February 2010

PERNELL ROBERTS: THE INDEPENDENT OBITUARY

My obituary of the actor Pernell Roberts appears in today's Independent, you can link to it online here. They've used a great photo: Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene) and his three sons (Roberts, Dan Blocker, and Michael Landon) in football stances, about to charge. That must've been about the end of the era for that style of photo to be fashionable; I have one of my dad in 1944, just out of high school and in his new Navy uniform, in his football stance about to tackle the original Axis.

In honour of Roberts, I watched Ride Lonesome again Saturday night. It's one of my favourite westerns, probably one of the top five of the 1950s, which was arguably the richest decade for the genre. Oddly, it was really the last decent film Roberts made. Roberts gets to shine partly because in the Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott westerns the villains always do, they are flamboyant and superficially attractive counterpoints to the unfathomable and indomitable presence of Randolph Scott's usually obsessive hero, and also because, unlike Lee Marvin or Richard Boone or even Claude Akins in others of the series, Roberts hasn't lost, or at least has rediscovered, his moral compass--that task of total villany is left for Lee Van Cleef, who only appears late in the film (as he did in High Noon) and even he appears to regret his more villanous past. And for all the brilliance of Burt Kennedy's terse exchanges between Scott, James Best, Van Cleef, Karen Steele, and James Coburn, it's Roberts who gets the film's key line, when he tells Steele 'there's some things a man just can't ride around.'