Saturday, August 21, 2010

London Match, Hardly Knew Her, Stalking the Unicorn, If on a Winter's Night a Traveller

The only book mentioned in the title that I've actually finished is Len Deighton's London Match, the third volume in his "Game, Set, Match" trilogy.  (I talked about the first two here and here).  In some ways, Deighton is covering similar ground to Berlin Game -- is there a mole high up in British intelligence? -- but he's much more self-assured here.  As in Mexico Set, Deighton spends a lot of time on Bernard Samson's private life, but here his personal and professional lives are more intertwined than ever.  In Match, Bernie's main opponent is Fiona, his wife who defected to the USSR in book 1.

In addition to clashing in a game of wits, Fiona wants to their children.  Bernie is worried that a judge might actually give her custody if push came to shove, and Deighton works to give this aspect equal importance.  My biggest problem here is that we never really feel that Bernie actually cares about the children.  I can't decide if that's supposed to be deliberate or if Deighton just doesn't write child interactions very well.  (Bernie's reaction when he thinks that his son has been captured seem to indicate the latter, though).

Since starting on this post, I've actually finished Hardly Knew Her and If on a Winter's Night a TravellerHardly Knew Her is a collection of stories by Laura Lippman.  Individually good, they suffer from proximity to each other.  There are about 14 stories in the collection, and about 10 of them are from that subgenre where someone commits a murder and gets away with it.  Even worse, the 4 that aren't are all put together at the end, so for most of the book, you already know the punchline to the story you're reading.  It's unfortunate, because each story is very good on its own merits; I've decided to try one of her novels, and see if I like it.

Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveller is a book that left a huge impression on me when I read it a long time ago, and I've been meaning to revisit it for some time.  It's a bravura performance, especially the opening "You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought."  Calvino dances through genres and literary theories through this book, which is deep but also occasionally laugh-out-loud funny.  It's such a brilliant work that it's easy to miss the subtleties the first time through, and so it was interesting to re-read the novel.

Although the book seems very fragmentary the first time, with its ten opening chapters, each in a different genre, as well as a plot that moves from a sublime love story to a ridiculous story of revolutionaries, counter-revolutionaries, apocryphal computer-generated novels and spies.  But when we look past those things, we can see a fundamental unity; Calvino is interested in the roles of the reader and the author.  There's also a clear progression in his central characters, "you" and "I".  "You", the Reader, is at first a generic person who has bought Calvino's new book.  He starts adding in details that could apply to many readers of this sort of book -- you're a bit jaded with the world, but hoping to find at least a little excitement in a new book -- and gradually draws the actual reader in, even as he distinguishes the Reader from the reader, adding in more and more specific details.  "I" in the first chapters goes through a similar process -- it's not for a while that he even gets a name.

Stalking the Unicorn has a lot of lame jokes, and I'm not sure I will finish it...

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