What are the Bugles Blowing For? a.k.a. The Bugles Blowing (1975)

Nicolas Freeling

The plot of the tantalizing titled What are the Bugles Blowing For starts interestingly enough with, in the first few pages, a high-ranking French civil servant, named La Touche, calling the police to confess to the murders of his wife, daughter and their lover. La Touche finds all three in bed and promptly fetches a gun to put single bullets in his spouse and offspring and four in their mutual lover.
There is no mystery or doubt to La Touche’s motives or guilt but detective Castang, Freeling’s protagonist of this and several other books, is ordered to ensure there are no political aspects to the crime. The dead lover was Jewish and so in the first quarter of the novel Freeling appears to be setting up the potential for international political stakes between Jewish and Arab interests. Then these stakes are abandoned. Detective Castang travels to England to investigate the potential connections to drug cartels and anarchist rings. These connections are also abandoned, quickly and dismissively, while Castang eats lunch and ruminates on the differences between English and French police. Detective Castang stands out as a detective character by being very bland. He has a measured and not overly dedicated work ethic, quiet home life, and shy wife. Castang does a lot of thinking and there are several subsequent mediations and asides about the nature of crime, the accountability of the elite and the meaning of the death penalty. Freeling touches upon the Nazi death camps (specifically Ravens Bruck) and the post-holocaust question of Jewish existentialism. In these sections, it seemed that the book had the potential for real importance and that it’s difficult style and meandering plot may have been motivated by an either Pynchon-esque obtuse brilliance or a Phillip K Dick-like struggle with focus. But then, the tide would turn to boring diatribes about food or anti-perspirant.
Unfortunately, ultimately, the book is just too hard to read for too little reward. The story is bleak and lacks any sort of narrative arc. The writing seems as if it were translated from another language or as if an editor had wanted to cut pages by carving out pronouns and prepositions. Sentences seem to start mid-way through and are followed by non-sequiturs, or run-ons, or whole paragraphs which are only tangentially related.
I finished the book feeling frustrated that I had wasted my time with it. A similar feeling, I had to when I finished Infinite Jest. I’ve since come around on the idea of Infinite Jest and David Foster Wallace and appreciate a lot of how that book treats the reader. Obviously, Freeling was writing on the same level but I wonder if he was writing with contempt for his readers? I don’t think he really cares about the reader with this book. I’d even say that the book was probably written quickly and dismissively over the course of a week to make him some cash. Which, unfortunately for me, only makes me more intrigued by Nicolas Freeling and his output. As an author, he won several awards and, even today, many of his books are still in print. So, is this book an exception or the rule to Freeling’s style? The work of angry rushed genius or misguided rushed ambition?
I guess the only way to find out is to once again strap myself in for another not so thrilling adventure with the non-descript and meditative Detective Castang!

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985)

Jeanette Winterson

I’m tempted to very clumsily look for a trend in the career of Jeanette Winterson with other writers of the mid-eighties. I feel as if Jeanette Winterson, Ben Elton and Margaret Atwood shared a similar sort of career path from writer to cultural identity and commentator that certain other eras of writers also have, for instance Updike/Mailer/Vidal or Ellis/Tartt/ Janowitz/ McInerney.

The comparison occurred to me because all three authors have always worked as writers, their work has all dealt with leftist social issues, and they have since become cultural icons unto themselves in a way. My idea of this mid-eighties trend is flawed. Winterson has little in common with Atwood and Elton other than sharing the same side of the political spectrum and a chronologically similar publication date of their bigger novels (Oranges…, The Handmaids Tale, and Stark, respectively.

I’m reasonably familiar with a lot of Elton and Atwood’s work. Elton, I think wrote too much too fast and diluted his own style without enough development until it approached a Morrissey-like level of self-importance and over earnestness. Though, of course, he has remained reasonably relevant by continuing to also work in film and television.

Atwood seems to have developed her style more by allowing herself space between books. She is also older and has a much bigger career than the other two authors. Even so it is hard work reading her earlier work which is much better than Elton’s but similarly earnest and altogether far too serious. I don’t have as much comparison for Winterson’s bibliography but certainly this, her first book, sits better with me than the earlier works of her contemporaries.

Perhaps it is because it is more personal than political and semi-autobiographical as well. The material seems to have more room to breathe and the themes of identity, sexuality and repression are allowed to unfold gently with the narrative events rather than being flagged from the start. But still it is a first novel and one written in the early eighties so it tries far too hard to be clever and is sometimes merely lucky in succeeding. Though succeed it does. At this point I’ve read more of Winterson’s non-fiction than fiction and have no idea what the rest of her fiction output is like. Hopefully good. Hopefully as lyrical and interesting and as smart. I hope her work didn’t become too self-absorbed as her star rose and the navel gazing of the late 80’s and 90’s beckoned and her cultural identity rivalled that of her role as a fiction author.

In terms of criticisms I did wish that the book was longer, which is of course a sign of enjoyment veiled as criticism, and there are artistic flourishes and decision in the novel that I felt were superfluous and could have been replaced. Again, though it is this artistic style which differentiates the personal as political in this book from the often hard to read speculative and satirical politics of Atwood and Elton.

I’ve also yet to see the BBC adaptation starring Maggie Smith.

 

Many of the early edition covers have post-impressionist art work as do the early editions of The Handmaid’s Tale. I’m not sure what, if any, connection there is in this similarity. Perhaps it was just the fashion at the time.

oranges2

 

David Brent: Life on the road

Ricky Gervais

Yet another movie that would have benefited from avoiding a heartfelt moment and instead aiming squarely for laughs. There was always the risk with this film that it would simply come across as an extended episode of the tv show and it does but, unfortunately, the episode it most resembles is the Christmas special. Except this movie isn’t a Christmas film and, unlike the special, doesn’t benefit from being a much-wanted bumper to the original series.

The humour, genius and tight one-set setting of the series is sacrificed primarily in establishing the character arc of David Brent. The movie focuses more upon making the audience feel sorry for Brent and so he occupies a strange no man’s land of offensive and pathetic. In this film, Brent, hasn’t progressed much in life. He is a traveling salesman who in a kind of mid-life crisis is staking all his savings on rebooting his nascent musical career which was briefly touched upon in the original series as a side-joke.

Not an awful or even bad movie but very much painted by numbers. No original actors or characters return. In so much as David Brent has a universe or canon this instalment doesn’t particularly add anything to the original series other than diluting the central character with this unrealistic and not very interesting attempt at a contemporary update of his story.

I would have been far more interested in a film where David Brent is again in a position of power and back in an office. This film seems to shy away from really wanting to place David Brent in a contemporary setting. Though it’s possible and likely that there are contractual problems relating to the rights resting with NBC or perhaps the feeling that the American version fully mined dry the concept of the office setting.

Even so it would have been nice had this film and Gervais been as willing to let the character shine fully once again.