(The) 25th Hour

David Benioff

25th Hour, originally published as The 25th Hour, is a rare example of a novel which was adapted into a much better film. Other examples I can think of, off-hand at least, include Stephen King’s Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption which as a novella was great but as a film, The Shawshank Redemption, was enriched and perfected by extended narrative space. I would also argue Mario Puzo’s The Godfather is a better film as there are fewer digressions about genital surgery and lounge singers.

Both book and film versions of 25th Hour have the same plot, the same narrative beats and, for the most part, almost identical dialogue. The protagonist, Montgomery Brogan, has been convicted of drug trafficking. The story explores his last 24 hours of freedom before he is sent to Otisville penitentiary for seven years. Flashbacks through both his perspective and as focalised through those close to him unveil key events which led to the present. There are elements of a thriller as Montgomery wonders who informed upon him and weighs up his options in the face of his incarceration. Will he will run, commit suicide, or resign himself to the oblivion of prison?

As with Shawshank, the film version of 25th Hour has an unfair advantage over the novel. The setting in New York city forms a large part of the novel but plays an even bigger part in the film. Directed by Spike Lee the film was the first to be shot in New York after the 2001 world trade center attacks. In the aftermath of the attacks and as rubble is still being cleared there is an added element of anger, fear and confusion imbued within the story and the setting. The novel, written and set before the S11 attacks, is about Montgomery as an individual and his own feelings towards others and the city as he travels through it on the last day of his free life. In the film, there is a sense that the whole city is angry, scared and confused and this both reflects and belittles Montgomery’s own feelings.

The greatest accomplishment of the story is the moral ambiguity of Montgomery’s characterisation. Benioff writes Monty as a likeable character and the moral push and pull of reconciling the sources of his riches and reason for his pending incarceration is left to his friends. In this way, the judgment and empathy provided towards Month shifts with the different focalisation and character arcs of his friends and loved ones. The character driven plot provides a natural countdown and Benioff dips in and out of the story time with expert use of segues to provide Monty’s back story.

I really struggle to criticise this book. Though it’s not perfect or great. Um… how about, the structure of a short linear story time interrupted by flashbacks is arguably generic and played-out. That’s some form of criticism but, even that, is a stretch. I am incredible biased because of how much I love the film. That too is the point. This is a prime example of a book that must be read before the film. With Spike Lee as director and David Benioff as screenwriter nearly every page and line of dialogue is perfectly recreated in the film. Perhaps I’m wrong and it is a great book or an amazing book but with such a perfect storm of cast, crew, score, cinematography and use of the city as character this, like Shawshank before it, is an example of a book which becomes redundant once you have seen the film.

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HHhH (2010)

Laurent Binet

Heralded as one of the greatest works of historical fiction HHhH takes on the simple and yet immensely complicated task of detailing the assassination attempt of Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the Nazi SS.

The book is many things under the one banner including a biography of the Reinhard Heydrich, a biography of the paratrooper assassins, a historical analysis of the development of the final solution, the invasion of Czechoslovakia, and an exploration of the act of writing historical fiction. Amongst all this content Laurent Binet also writes himself into the book as he muses on his role as researcher and author.

The books strength is in conveying large amounts of information and research in a smooth and continually interesting manner. Binet, in examining a different theatre of war than usual, goes to great lengths to detail the history of the German occupation of Moravia. He writes of the government in exile and the public figures who stayed and collaborated with the Germans. As part of his biography of Heydrich Binet also provides many insights into the inner workings of the upper Nazi echelon and the nature of their interactions.

The weakness of the book is it often feels too worried about itself. Binet constantly signposts what will happen next and why. That Binet as author includes himself in the book should and could serve as some sort of narrative to the reader but even this potential device is not allowed to exist independently or work properly as Binet feels the need to justify including himself. This level of self-awareness could still allow for the narrative of the researcher and the vast amount of time and effort spent gradually letting go of the story in writing but within the short length of the book it is biographical details about Binet himself which are lacking.

In the climax, when the climax is finally allowed to happen Binet is both too self-aware and intent upon sign-posting his intentions, his motivations and the motivations of his intentions. This leads from very early on to a feeling of anti-climax that, as I reader, I kept expecting would somehow be overcome. Instead the anti-climax is underlined and examined in the same clever way Binet examines much of his writing throughout the book and, I found, this led to a feeling of suffocation under the repeated waves of analysis, self-awareness and concern for the direction of the story.

Binet writes in the closing passages of the emotional investment and near trauma that he has taken on in researching and writing the book. I found this glimpse into his psyche promised so much of what seemed to be missing. I wish he had been allowed to write more about himself, even if it was indulgent perhaps even especially if it was indulgent.

I feel too that if Binet had been allowed another hundred pages to fully illustrate who he is and to also indulge in the personal and his own process of parsing and then writing on these atrocities then this book could have been more than a great work of historical research in the form of a novel. It could have shown how encompassing and dark was the cloud of the Nazi regime and how, even still, so many decades on it is so often impossible for us to comprehend this part of history. I would have happily read more of the guilt and trauma of Binet as he struggled to convey all of this.

But, too, perhaps this is my own worry that I’ll never be able to fully complete my comprehension of these events or the guilt I carry, as I think many of us do, that the fascination with the war and Hitler and the atrocities he committed is voyeuristic rather than academic.

And, so, ultimately undecided as I am this is another book that will remain in limbo on a shelf with few others that I want to read again soon and see how time and myself find it different on a second pass.

 

*The featured image above is the edition I have. To date this is the most edition variants I have found of a book online.

 

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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.

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All the Light we cannot See (2014)

Anthony Doerr

The book was the runner-up to Phil Klay’s Redeployment in the 2014 National Book Awards. Redeployment was one of the best books I read last year. All the Light We Cannot See, Doerr’s second novel is also on that list. As much as I love Redeployment I would hate to have to declare which of the two is a better book.

I was probably interested in this book because it had won the Pulitzer. Looking back, I’m surprised I read it as the plot doesn’t sound like something that would necessarily appeal to me. Doerr ties together the WWII experiences of a French girl and a German boy and their interested in architecture and radio technology and experiences in occupied France and the Hitler youth. The novel shoes the bystanders in each country and describes the seaside French city as the blind protagonist learns to navigate it. There is the moral confusion of the German boy in the Hitler Youth and his complicit guilt as his technological expertise spares him the cruel punishment meted out to his classmates. In some ways, the story shouldn’t work and Doerr does almost seem to come dangerously close to overusing central set pieces but never seems too weighed down by his various themes.

Within storylines that should seem obvious at times and themes which should jar Doerr builds incredibly subtle characters and relationships just as he also slowly creates and establishes the set pieces, city and world of the 1940’s French city. The most complimentary thing I can say is that Doerr’s book and the world within it is almost painfully immersive and as, such, the climax, is as hard to bear not just for the fate of the characters but also the inevitable destruction of the city Doerr has created and the architecture, buildings and secret spots I came to know within it.

Green Hills of Africa (1935)

Ernest Hemingway

It’s difficult, in 2017, to stomach a book about the simple pleasures of big game hunting in Africa written from an only vaguely self-aware post-colonial perspective. Yet that is essentially what this book is. The up’s and downs of one of the Hemingway’s big game trophy hunts in Africa in the early 1930’s. This is considered Hemingway’s second non-fiction book, the first being Death in the Afternoon which is about bullfighting. I haven’t read Death in the Afternoon. I wouldn’t rush to read it above the many other books stacking up on my shelf. I didn’t mind the descriptions of bull fighting in The Sun Also Rises as they added an interesting backdrop to the character drama. But that was a work of fiction whereby the plot necessitated that many other acts of writing had to be committed other than just a dissection of the art and skill Hemingway found in the sport of fighting bulls.

This then forms part of the problem with this novel. It is non-fiction. The writing is plain. Even for Hemingway. Yet the book is also very similar to his fiction work. Just as The Sun also Rises and A Farewell to Arms felt like fictionalised truth this novel feels like reverse situation and another potential novel that has not been allowed to float off into the freedom of fiction and is instead steadfastly moored in real life events and very much based upon description and dissection of stalking, killing and skinning rhinos, kudu, lions and sable.

I was willing to find some sort of macabre appeal in the content or grant some sort of romantic conceit based upon Hemingway’s passion for and connection to hunting. It’s hard though when he again and again describes the crack of bullets against various bones and seems almost removed from the actual hunting and still, as in his fiction, worried more about his interactions with his fellow hunters. As a result, the slaughter of various animals very often seems both joyless and pointless.

The asides are the real value of this book. Hemingway’s views on literature and fellow modernist authors are particularly interesting including his various encounters with James Joyce. Similarly, Hemingway’s struggles with envy, jealousy and his views of his fellow hunters and guides provide a sort of subplot and, ultimately, Hemingway does what Hemingway does best by providing, in the conclusion to the book, a simple little poetic twist doesn’t necessarily redeem the writing but which nonetheless hints at what this book could have been had it been more focused upon acting as a work of fiction. And perhaps this forms part of the books value also. A two-fold insight into who Hemingway was or at least how he sought to portray himself and also in how his writing operated and the indecision and doubt that paradoxically seemed to operate side by side with bravado and ultra-confidence.

This 1990 edition has a throwaway cover but does include some nice woodcutting style illustrations throughout. Grafton seemed to have done the complete Hemingway in this style with similar covers but of the two other Grafton editions I have only Green Hills of Africa has illustrations.

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Updike (2014)

Adam Begley

I was drawn to read Updike during a spat of exploring the work of Pulitzer winners. He seemed particularly intriguing as he is one of only three to have won the Pulitzer more than once, for two of his Rabbit novels. What I’ve found weird is that no one else that I know has read him. The impression I have is that his halo has dulled and his writing is less revered than some of his contemporaries. I’m not really sure why. Perhaps because Updike is unflinching in his exploration of gender dynamics and has been accused of misogyny in detailing what, I would argue, was an attempt to paint a true character and representation of gender dynamics in middle class America. Meanwhile the works of Hemingway, Miller et al remain popular with no such defence. Perhaps it is because Updike lived longer and was so prolific in his output? Perhaps he simply occupies an uneasy intersection of realism and high literature?

I was eager to read Adam Begley’s book to try and find the answers to these questions and know more about the Updike himself. On the latter matter, at least this book succeeds. It is a straight-ahead birth to death biography of a man who wasn’t particularly interesting even while all of his adult life was spent crafting stories and articles for the New Yorker. But even if the behind the scenes of this career was a little dull Begley still details all of Updike’s not particularly interesting life with the true enthusiasm of both a scholar and fan and it is this perspective which makes this book of value.

Begley manages to capture the sheer passion which Updike poured into his craft.  He conveys just how much of a genius Updike was and what went into his creating such a prolific output. Begley deftly covers Updike’s personal life and doesn’t appear to whitewash the many affairs which Updike embarked upon. In this respect, too there is a certain kind of second act in the book which is reminiscent of the Mad Men and shows how John Updike the man was as affected by the changing nature of sixties America as his main protagonist Rabbit Angstrom.

Unfortunately, this work doesn’t delve into how the perception of Updike may have changed with time. As if there is some great fact about him that could explain what he did and how he did it from such a young age. Because… while his books are great. They are just so mundane. And that’s what he wanted?!? How was he able to create such a style? To sell it. To somehow craft such gentle slow writing into such momentous and important works? Unfortunately, again, Begley like me, is a fan and if this book lacks anything it is a critical eye. Begley is even closer than me to the subject. He has no hope of being able to explain how Updike’s books do not seem to have prospered within the modern canon or how his ideas about honesty and diving deep into the mundane have become blasé. Or how his deep love of the written word and the luxury or revelling in it is not quite as in vogue as it once was. This book covers everything about a man whose life was lived in his writing. It just fails to address why this writing seems to be fading out of fashion.

Carmilla (1897)

Sheridan Le Fanu

Carmilla is said to be the first vampire novel. It pre-dates Bran Stoker’s Dracula by 26 years and Stoker is said to have taken influence from it. Sheridan Le Fanu was an Irish journalist and uses the minimalist spare style you’d expect from his vocation. From what little I know of him Le Fanu was a workmanlike author intent on writing ghost stories for money. The novel is interesting in its use of using the young female character Lauraas the protaganist and the allusion to lesbian sexuality between her and the vampire Carmilla. It is also interesting that it’s style has not dated as badly as other novels of the time.

This is said to be the beginning of a different perception of the vampire myth. The start of the vampire being a representative fear of the aristocracy. Until Carmilla vampires had been represented as poor shambling zombie-like monsters.

Published in 1897 this is a surprisingly readable book. Leagues ahead of Frankenstein from earlier in the 19th century and arguably more interesting to read than Dracula. It’s not even the proto-type vampire novel you perhaps expect. Instead it an almost very matter of fact ghost story. It doesn’t establish the vampire rules, I think that comes with Dracula, and probably benefits from being read by the modern reader who automatically attributes these rules into a story which doesn’t state them but into which they easily fit.