Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Our Man in Havana



Our Man in Havana (Graham Greene)

This book was not I was expecting. I thought I was getting a serious gangster or spy story - like Brighton Rock or The Quiet American - but actually this turns out to be a rather bonkers, flighty ‘entertainment’ as Greene termed it. It tells the story of a vacuum salesman in Havana that bizarrely gets recruited to work for the British SIS because no one else can be found. He doesn’t know what he’s doing and just makes up all his reports replete with a Cuban plot and ever increasing fictitious sub agents in order to earn money for his daughter. To his confusion, the things he’s made up start to come true. Parts of this were really funny, and all of it was entertaining; to my eyes, similar and better than Catch 22 although I haven’t yet read all of Catch. I especially liked the part where he met his fake agents and the capery of his lies unraveling in the last third.

The narrative has a real rhythm and drive behind it, and although the tone is mighty flippant and whimsical, you can feel Greene’s mastery everywhere, it’s in the little flourishes of description, the internal consistency of details and the tightly moving pace. if I had to criticise, I found parts went slightly too fast for me, and on occasion, the comedy overtook the narrative which left the writing feeling slightly imprecise. 

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Our Man in Havana is available on Amazon

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Bleak House


Bleak House. I’m in the final run, the home straight of the last hundred pages. I’m loving it now. I don’t know why, but the first half or two thirds were such a struggle for me. I found the book incredibly boring, and there were large parts where I didn’t understand what was going on and that seemed completely unconnected to the plot. I half-suspect that book has indeed got better and I have simply become used to his style, because at the moment it’s gripping. The scope of the book is enormous, and the way all the characters come together is really very impressive, it’s almost Middlemarch-size in scope. I would also say that this is one of the first books I have read where its plotting has seemed more intelligent than me - I sometimes feel like I’m missing out on whole plot twists, and thousands of little subtle  nuances in the text.

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Just finished Bleak House. What a book! The ending, and last third, is so good it surely counts among the best in literature. Even on finishing, there seemed to me to be plot twists that I missed;  I am unsure why the resolution of Lady Dedlock's story took place in Mrs Snagsby’s house, why Lady Dedlock was headed for the burying ground when she died, and whether it was true that Jo was Snagsby’s child. I like this continuing mystery though, the book’s plot felt like a challenge in the best of ways. And the story is so incredibly rich and warm, towards the end I really lived in it.

I could tell that Dickens wrote this as a serial. I couldn’t say for sure without re-reading, but I suspect that the tone of the book changed throughout, and especially the sympathy which certain characters were dealt with. I got a distinct sense whilst reading of events becoming true rather than being revealed. Lady Dedlock is Ester’s mother, but was she at the beginning? Also certain main characters, such as George, were introduced very late on in the novel, and there were large chunks of the book dedicated to characters who were not really important to the story in the end - the Smallweed’s for example, or Boythorn. Overall, whilst the plot was very complicated, I didn’t have complete faith that all the many strands of the book were all necessary and destined to be tied together. I don’t know though; there are so many hints, subtle nuances, vague suggestions, indications and plot twists that I haven’t kept trace of them all. I can’t immediately think of one that didn’t tie up. If they did, then Dicken’s has done something really quite astounding. I lost belief, somewhere along the way, that they all would.


Bleak House is a big, sprawling, mass of a book. There is just so utterly much going on it, it feels like the author has shot off thousands of apples into the air, and then, realising what’s he's done, he runs around trying to catch them all in his hat. Bits of the book go at all different speeds, zanily zooming-in to the minutiae of some things, skipping over others, characters are introduced that don’t go anywhere, others don’t get introduced, everyone is doing something different. And in the end the author does a phenomenal job of getting nearly all the apples in his hat, but not all - impossible for it to be all. In shorter words, the genius of Bleak House, for it is genius, is overshot only by it’s ambition and breadth of scope. Final verdict: I loved it! And now, despite my exclamations to the contrary whilst reading the first half, I shall read another Dickens and look forward to it to boot.

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I read this version