Posts Tagged ‘J.B. Priestley’

I am the owner of a sort of mixed bag of a vanity project by the estimable (though occasional uneven) J.B. Priestley.

The book, published in 1951, is called Delight, and it is comprised of short vignettes – one hundred and fourteen of them – of things which gave Mr. Priestley deep (and often secret) joy.

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Occasionally, when in need of a reminder of how many such delightful things the most ho-hum life contains, I dip into this book and read about Fountains and Cosy Planning and Orchestras Tuning Up and Waking to Smell Bacon, etc., and rejoice in my turn in those small goodnesses.

Here’s one I know we can all relate to, apropos of nothing in particular, as it isn’t currently storming – though it is a bit chilly outside – and once I venture out one last time to fill the greenhouse woodstove chock full of the biggest logs I can manhandle into it, my warm bed and a good book await me.

I hope your collective evenings contain a similar pleasure.

Enjoy!

Fifty-One

There is a peculiar delight, which I can still experience though I knew it best as a boy, in cosily reading about foul weather when equally foul weather is beating hard against the windows, when one is securely poised between the wind and rain and sleet outside and the wind and rain and sleet that leap from the page into the mind.

The old romancers must have been aware of this odd little bonus of pleasure for the reader, and probably that is why so many of their narratives, to give them a friendly start, began with solitary horsemen, cloaked to the eyebrows, riding through the night on urgent business for the Duke, sustained by nothing more than an occasional and dubious ragout or pasty and a gulp or two of sour wine (always fetched by surly innkeepers or their scowling slatterns), on side-roads deep in mire, with wind, rain, thunder-and-lightning, sleet, hail, snow, all turned on at the full.

With the windows rattling away and hailstones drumming at the paper in the fireplace, snug in bed save for one cold elbow, I have travelled thousands and thousands of mucky miles with these fellows, braving the foulest nights, together crying ‘Bah!’

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it's an old country j.b. priestley 001It’s An Old Country by J.B. Priestley ~ 1967. This edition: Heinemann, 1967. Hardcover. 247 pages.

My rating: 2.5/10

I’m a sincere J.B. Priestley fan, so this rating and following review pain me greatly. I’ll try to get it over with quickly, so I can put the book away (far away) and not have to look at it and be reminded of my disappointment.

It’s 1960-something, and 35-year-old economic historian Tom Adamson has just buried his mother in a Sydney, Australia graveyard. Tom is by birth English, having come to Australia as a toddler with his embittered mother and wee sister when his actor-artist father suddenly abandoned his family back in the old country.

Raised to scorn his absent parent, Tom has had a disquieting experience when, in her last days of illness, his mother hints that there was some sort of mystery as to why Dad cut all ties, and a deeper reason behind it all.

So Tom takes leave from his job as a Colonial Economic History professor at the local university, flies to England, and proceeds to seek his father, whom he feels is still alive (he’d know if it weren’t so, our author assures us, Tom being apparently blessed with some sort of superior filial intuition) and perhaps yearning for his long-lost son.

Tom falls in with a ne’er-do-well cousin, who in the intervals of between hitting Tom up for substantial “loans” of cash actually proves fairly useful in providing introductions to people who can give snippets of information regarding Tom’s elusive father. We meet a vast array of potentially intriguing characters – a seedy private enquiry agent, a senile noblewoman, an elegant European jetsetter (with whom Tom has an ultimately unsatisfying sexual escapade), various actors, artists, writers, pub-owners, ex-lovers of the father, ex-employers of the father, fellow workers of the father’s numerous jobs – an immense cast of secondary characters, and each one as sketchily portrayed and forgettable as the last.

I’ll tell you what Tom discovers, to save you from plodding through this thing for yourself. (Consider this your spoiler alert, though that very term implies something suspenseful or exciting, which is far from what occurs in the book.)

Turns out that Dad’s letters home were suppressed by a jealous lover – he’d really meant to return to his wife at some point but said lover maneuvered weak-willed Dad in a different direction. After failing at reaching success as either an actor or a painter, Dad enlisted in the army, fought in the 2nd World War, came out to a dismal civilian life, passed dud cheques, served time in jail, changed his name, and worked at a series of progressively less rewarding jobs until Tom finds him slaving away as an underpaid waiter in a South Devon hotel.

There is an underwhelming reunion, notable for its über-masculine soberness. Tom promises to set Dad up with an annuity and a new life in London, with the intimation that one of Dad’s old girlfriends who still carries a torch for the ineffectual but generally decent old guy will step in to provide female companionship.

Tom himself has found a love interest in a 25-year-old book editress, and the two find they share a sniffy dislike of the way English society is sliding into chaos – beatnicks versus the old guard – and decide that the happiest future shared career will be in working for the U.N. In a more developed part of the world of course: “(D)oes it have to be Ghana or Cambodia or Ecuador?…Couldn’t we make it Austria or Thailand or Mexico, my darling?”

The end.

It’s an Old Country fails to live up to expectation on every front. The plot is boring. The characters are strictly cardboard – even our “hero” Tom fails to come across as multi-dimensional in any way, shape or form. The dialogue is stilted. The style throughout reads like a first draft, a mere roughed-out outline without any living detail.

Even Priestley’s “big idea” – a reliable trope with this author is his inclusion of an intellectual motif to each book – is vague  and understated. In this novel, the gist seems to be that the youth of the day are sloppy and unambitious, a bunch of guitar-playing beatnicks, but perhaps that’s to be expected after the way the elder generation has mucked up the world with its wars and class divisions, and that the old guard is overdue for toppling. The “old country” – England, and also its colonial partner Australia – is fixed in its downward spiral – time for a forward-thinking man (that would be our Tom) to abandon ship. Hurray for tradition, it’s been swell but it’s over, see you later.

There are tiny glimpses here and there of the author’s true potential – micro-episodes and lonely glistening, gliding phrases – but so few and far between that they merely serve to remind the reader of how much better this book should be.

One could charitably excuse the absolute flatness of this dull, dull novel by maintaining that after over forty years of plugging out work after work after work the author was scraping the bottom of the barrel, getting old and tired. How then to explain the excellence of the book before this one, the quite stellar Lost Empires, published in 1965? Two years shouldn’t make that much difference. We know the man still has it in him, so where is it here?

It’s an Old Country is a hack piece, trading on the author’s good name, an underwritten, too sparse yet plodding novel that should never have made it to print.

In my opinion.

Over and out.

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These three books were not as diverting as I’d wished them to be.

Perhaps in another mood at another time I would give them better reviews – and I do intend to give Priestley’s Adam in Moonshine a second trial at some point – but today I’m calling them as I see them.

It won’t be a brutal massacre, I hasten to say, as all three had various degrees of enjoyability, but neither do I plan to hide my disappointment in their failings to entirely amuse.

As always, one person’s opinion – please don’t take it to heart if you love these novels, and do try to convince me otherwise if you think I’ve missed the point. One of my favourite things is when someone says, “Hey, wait a minute…” and eloquently defends something I’ve scorned, inspiring a second look from a new perspective.

Here we go.

adam in moonshine j b priestleyAdam in Moonshine by J.B. Priestley ~ 1927. This edition: Heinemann, 1931. Hardcover. 293 pages.

My rating: 6/10

That “6” is a very generous rating, given mostly because of Adam in Moonshine’s “first novel” status by a writer I mostly admire, and the more than decent quality of the writing.

The plot, on the other hand, might be described as virtually non-existent. Interesting reading for a Priestley collector, but if the author was someone unknown to me I’m thinking this one would be in the box by the door, waiting to be passed along.

Of course, because it is a Priestley, and because I went to the trouble to seek out and order it from England, and because it is an interesting read in view of the author’s later works, I will keep Adam in Moonshine and, yes, eventually re-read it. But I will not recommend it to the rest of you for amusement purposes, because it is ultimately not even as solid as fluff. Like the referenced moonshine, its genuine but slight pleasures are purely transient.

Handsome young bachelor Adam Stewart, setting off on a country holiday, is in a mopish state. He should be thrilled at the thought of rambling over the dew-fresh North Country moors, hobnobbing with the birds and the bees and the little wild flowers, but he can’t seem to wind himself up to the appropriate mood. And when his railway compartment companion turns out to be a sternly bombastic, pessimistic cleric, the holiday atmosphere deteriorates even further.

But wait – what’s this?! Here comes a third man, flustered and rushing and escorted by a bevvy of lovely young ladies  – well, only three when Adam takes a closer look, but the effect is that of a bevvy – and as the train pulls out to the fervent goodbyes of the girls on the platform, Adam has perked up considerably, because it turns out that there is a rendezvous planned between the mystery man (father of one of the young lovelies) and the girls at the very village which Adam is himself heading for.

The sudden and disastrous opening of an attaché case filled with false beards catapults the action surreally forward, and before he knows it Adam is deeply embroiled in a ridiculous scenario having something to do with a conspiracy to bring back the Stuart line of royalty to the throne of England.

A case of mistaken identity – “Stewart” being assumed to be “Stuart” – takes our Adam into the heart of the not-very-clever plot, and leads to his infatuated and ultimately unfulfilling dalliances with all three of the lovely maidens.

He gets his share of wandering about the moors in all sorts of weathers, and emerges back into the sunlight of his everyday life blinking and bemused. Was it all a dream…?

If so, a jolly solid one, at 292 pages.

kitty foyle christopher morley 001Kitty Foyle by Christopher Morley ~ 1939. This edition: Grosset & Dunlap, circa 1940, with movie tie-in dust jacket featuring Ginger Rogers. Hardcover. 340 pages.

My rating: 7/10

I enjoyed this one rather uneasily, as Morley’s man-writing-as-a-woman wasn’t entirely convincing, and our heroine’s stream-of-consciousness narration often felt forced.

Chock-full of casual racism towards pretty well everyone of every colour and race, but, to be fair, never in a mean-spirited way.

In our present time, “Kitty’s” casual commentary would be read as utterly politically incorrect – a heads-up for those hyper-sensitive to these nuances – but if taken with a dash of “era-acceptable” tolerance, rather an interesting take on how a character of the time might conceivably think.

The October 1939 Kirkus review had this to say:

Surprise! Surprise! This proves how facile Chris Morley can be, for this is a far cry from everything he has done, whether whimsy, humor or intellectualized satire… This is primarily the story of a shanty Irish girl, how she was born, bred, and put through the mill, done in stream-of-consciousness tough-baby style… But it’s right good reading. Kitty is a high spirited, strong, and very straight young woman. Her early childhood in Philadelphia, daughter of a crude but lovable cricket coach, is nicely done, giving quite a feel of the city, its lethargy, immutable traditions, etc. At sixteen she meets Wyn, a sweet weakling from a blueblood family, whom she is to love for all time. She lives with him, becomes pregnant, but does away with the child because she is unwilling to tie Wyn to her, knowing that he cannot buck his family if he marries her, and knowing that she will be dishonest with herself if she broadens her a’s for him. Career girl on the side, she works later in New York for a cosmetics outfit, and at the close thinks of marriage to a man she does not love for companionship and stability. There’s some telling background detail on Philadelphia, points east and west, there’s some ingenious writing on the stunt side, but all in all it’s semi-light fiction…

There you pretty well have it.

I confess I was a bit taken aback by the frankness of much of Kitty’s narration – she discusses the most sensitive topics with slangy candour – the physical relationship between her parents, her father’s prostate disorder, the realities of living with chamber pots and a “backhouse” for toilet purposes, her own adolescent physical development, including the onset of her first menstrual period while travelling alone on a train, the sometimes very active sex life of the single “white collar” working girl, an unplanned pregnancy and her subsequent abortion of the baby…all in all, rather strong stuff for a popular mainstream novel. No real surprise that it was soon labelled as “filthy” by various church groups once its bestseller hype brought it to their attention.

Mixed with this hyper-realism is a strand of fairy tale fantasy, for Kitty is portrayed as being something of a perfect person – smart, funny, beautiful, and very lucky in her casual acquaintances, and always, despite her frequent hard knocks, falling jam side up.

Sure, she voluntarily gives up her One True Love, the aristocratic Wynnewood Strafford VI, because she is so darned sterling-natured as to want to spare him the disgrace of having a not-quite-top-drawer wife, but it’s not the hardship it might be (aside from the “he and she will secretly pine forever” bit, and that abortion) because going her own way seems to be Kitty’s reward to herself, and fate proves consistently ready to cushion her every fall.

Kitty Foyle was made into a very successful 1940 movie, starring Ginger Rogers in her first “serious” movie role. “Very successful” should be repeated, as her portrayal of Kitty Foyle won Miss Rogers the 1941 Oscar for Best Actress, which would perhaps make this novel one for the vintage movie buff to investigate.

Chock full of period colour, and fast-moving enough to keep one entertained, so I will say “check it out” to those so inclined, but to be completely blunt this is a very minor sort of novel – Kirkus’s “semi-light” says it well. Solid melodrama, in case that hasn’t quite come across.

And oh, yes, this is the same Christopher Morley who wrote Parnassus on Wheels, The Haunted Bookshop, and the very weird (as in featuring anthropomorphic dogs) Where the Blue Begins, among dozens of other novels. Kitty Foyle is nothing like any of these; you have to give Morley credit for not getting stuck in any sort of a “formula” groove!

Of these three novels, Kitty Foyle is the only one I would recommend as worth going to some effort to experience, but mind the caveats and please don’t expect a masterpiece of any sort, though the writing is much more than competent.

aiding and abetting muriel sparkAiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark ~ 2000. This edition: Viking, 2000. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-670-89428-1. 182 pages.

My rating: 4.75/10

Hmmm. An odd little novel, even taking into consideration the quirkiness of this particular writer.

I occasionally felt the “chuck it across the room” urge, in particular during the cannibal scene near the end (yes, you read that correctly), but I soldiered on and made it to the end with an unwilling smile on my face. Dame Muriel pulled it off yet again, to my reluctant admiration – I finished it despite myself.

So – does everyone remember Lord Lucan? If not, go take a quick gander here.

For summation of the plot of Aiding and Abetting, I am going to fall back on yet another Kirkus review (they are so nicely succinct, when done well) this one from November of 2000.

With her usual and famous narrative economies—though without the deeper energies she’s created in other of her books—Dame Muriel weaves her own fabric out of the real-life bits and threads left by the vile Lord Lucan.

On November 7th, 1974, the seventh Earl of Lucan mistakenly bludgeoned to death his children’s nanny instead of his divorced wife—whom he managed only to wound badly in spite of his feeling that “destiny” called for her death (he was angry, it seems, that she’d been given child-custody). And then? After wreaking his cruel havoc, the shallow Lucan quickly disappeared, wanted for murder and attempted murder but aided by influential friends in escape and hiding. Twenty-five years later, as the present novel opens, there appears in the office of a Paris psychoanalyst a patient claiming to be Lucan—followed by another claiming the same. Which, if either, is the real Lucan? And what does he, or they, want? Money, not surprisingly, which he/they hope to gain by blackmailing the shrink, she being one Hildegard Wolf, herself still wanted for an earlier and successful life of criminal fraud under a previous name—a vulnerability that makes her, think the Lucans, unlikely to turn them in. But of course it’s got to be cleared up as to which Lucan is Lucan—as, meanwhile, other complications ensue, such as Hildegard Wolf’s quick disappearance into hiding in deepest London; the pursuit of the real Lucan by a pair newly in love but connected from far back indeed with Lucan and the horrible murder; and the skilled and timely maneuverings of Pierre, Hildegard’s lover back in Paris, which will result in—well, in the Waughesque end of the story.

Quick, incisive, often entertaining, sometimes mysterious, at a moment or two compelling, but overall and generally, slight…

I nod in agreement with the summation of the last line, except for the incisive bit.

I thought the tale much too repetitive, in fact, and not so much incisive as lazy. Corners were indeed cut, regarding character and plot development, but a certain cluster of sanguinary details was endlessly repeated, and in my opinion needlessly so, for I felt that they weakened the impact, though I suspect the author felt they might have some sort of talismanic effect. (“Blood, blood, blood…”)

The final fate of one of the Lucans is bizarre even for a typically morbid Spark dénouement, and do I detect a certain racist element (the “primitive” Africans) which is out of place even in a purely satirical end-of-the-20th-Century tale?

Rated rather generously at very close to a “5” because of who the author is, for I have enjoyed many of her other novels in varying degrees, though usually with some reservations.

As an example of her end-of-career work (Aiding and Abetting was her second to last published novel) it is acceptably diverting, but it’s not one of her best by a far cry. More of a novella than a novel, and not particularly well-developed or well-edited. In fact, for such a generally crisp writer, this one is sloppy. Firmly on Muriel Spark’s B-list, in my opinion.

What one is left with most memorably is the thought of all that sticky, sticky blood…

 

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the good companions musson j b priestley 001

The Good Companions by J.B. Priestley ~ 1929. This edition: Musson, 1930. Hardcover. 640 pages.

My rating: 10/10

A middle-aged Yorkshire laborer who has just been fired from his carpenter’s job at the local mill, a recent Cambridge graduate-cum-reluctant-schoolmaster with literary ambitions and a talent for creating catchy tunes on the piano, and a sedately dutiful upper-class spinster-daughter in her fourth decade recently freed of familial responsibilities by the death of her elderly father are all thrown together by the whim of fate.

The set-up of the main characters’ backstories takes up a good third or so of this very rambling narrative, and it is not until we are well into the book that their paths convene, as they fall in with another lot of fate-tossed travellers, the stranded members of a theatrical troupe, the ex-Dinky Doos.

The result of this leisurely and detailed approach is a likeable period piece of a book – “a long, comic, picaresque, a fairy-tale sort of novel”, to quote the author’s own words in 1937’s autobiographical Midnight on the Desert – as the newly united characters form a travelling concert party/pierrot troupe, performing in rural towns and small industrial cities throughout the Yorkshires and surrounding districts.

The Good Companions was written between the wars, when Priestley was dealing with some serious personal issues, such as the recent death of his young wife from cancer (leaving behind two baby daughters), and his own chronic physical difficulties resulting from injuries and gassing while serving in the trenches of WW I. His decision to create an ultimately happy novel – the characters, despite their very real troubles, all attain at least a modicum of their personal hearts’ desires – was immensely popular with the public, and the book was an astoundingly successful bestseller. But the highbrow critics sneered, and though Priestley enjoyed the much-needed financial security The Good Companions provided, the dismissive attitudes of his literary peers wounded him deeply.

The book retains its appeal today. The likeable concert party characters are all very human in their thoughts, desires, ambitions and reactions to various setbacks, and though we are aware of the author’s omnipotent hand in strategically arranging the various random incidents which result in the united happy ending, we good naturedly accept the more creative developments and cheer our people on. There is also a certain historical interest in the novel’s detailed portrayal of a now-vanished theatrical sub-culture, which, even as it still flourished, was being inexorably replaced by the “new-technology” moving picture shows, as is shown in one of the final plot twists of the novel.

Highly recommended, for “cultural literacy” reasons as much as for its engaging story.

Budget yourself a goodly chunk of time to read this one. At over 600 small-print pages, it takes a certain amount of optimistic persistence to embark upon, but once entered into will provide a lovely escape from the one’s own ho-hum everyday routine.

lost empires jb priestley 001Lost Empires by J.B. Priestley ~ 1965. Subtitled Being Richard Herncastle’s account of his life on the variety stage from November 1913 to August 1914 together with a Prologue and Epilogue by J.B. Priestley. This edition: The Reprint Society, 1966. Hardcover. 381 pages.

My rating: 9/10

J.B. Priestley revisits the world of the travelling theatrical party which he so famously documented in 1929’s The Good Companions, but this novel, written some three decades later, is a much grittier and less outwardly cheerful thing than its predecessor.

Whereas The Good Companions was written as a contemporary novel reflective of its time (though a highly sentimentalized and “feel-good” version, and that’s not meant to be derogatory, as the author himself states that this was his intention), Lost Empires is frequently melancholy and foreboding, and very much about looking back and describing a certain rigidly defined period of time in relation to what came after.

The casual reader might assume Lost Empires to be lightly disguised autobiography, so intimate are the thoughts and events recorded, but Priestley distances himself from the narrative by presenting himself as the author of both the preface and epilogue to the tale, with the set-up being that an old friend, the Richard (Dick) Herncastle named in the subtitle, has asked Priestley-the-famous-writer to look over the memoir for him. The framing device works very well, and the resulting novel is taut with a certain suspense, as we-the-readers know what young Dick’s future may hold. He’s a physically fit, unencumbered young man in his very early twenties, and the year is 1913. Everything is about to change beyond recognition in his world; we know that as we embark upon the first chapter.

But though war is looming – and a number of the wiser characters in Lost Empires are grimly predicting what later came to pass – the mood in England is one of wanting to be distracted from the political rumblings all around, and the music halls are thriving, into which unlikely milieu our young protagonist is initiated by his black-sheep-of-the-family Uncle Nick.

Dick, newly orphaned by the death of his mother, aspires to be an artist, but has been forced by circumstances to give up his plans of attending art school to instead work as an office clerk. Uncle Nick, attending his sister’s funeral, takes Dick aside and offers him a position as his assistant in his very successful variety show act.

Uncle Nick is an accomplished illusionist of the “vanishing lady” type, and his perfectionism and scornful antipathy to any sort of sentiment make him an awkward sort of employer, family ties or not, but Dick’s dogged determination to continue with his artistic goals despite the logistical difficulties earns his uncle’s respect, and the two settle into a mostly successful working relationship.

Dick has never been in a position to travel or to associate with people from such a broad strata of society as the touring variety show allows, and it rather goes to his head. His good looks and polite middle-class manners make him the focus of unnervingly aggressive attention from some of the women in the other acts (and also from his uncle’s own act’s female member, one of whose unofficial duties is to share the principle’s bed), but the one woman he would like to get on closer terms with is unaccountably cold and snubbing, though she unbends for a brief period, long enough for Dick to fall deeply in love with her, before she again cold-shoulders him.

Emotionally bruised and sexually frustrated, a situation made much worse by the continual presence of nubile young women in revealing costumes, Dick, still a sexual virgin as his variety-stage history opens, is ready to fall, and fall he does. He is seduced by and then obsessively enters into a torrid relationship with one of the older women in a co-starring act, with disastrous consequences when his real love is told of his defection to the well-experienced arms of another.

This book is chock-full of sex, not particularly graphic but described with enough detail to make one very aware of the change in times since The Good Companions first appeared to the time when Lost Empires was written. Though we have no doubts that some of the characters in The Good Companions were also sexually active, and prone to drinking too much on occasion, and sometimes involved in questionable personal pursuits, many of the details aren’t given, and the more risqué bits are generally glossed over, or given the light comedy treatment.

Very much not so in Lost Empires, with the result that it is a much stronger sort of novel in a modern, no-topic-is-forbidden sense, though Priestley provides a soft-focussed epilogue which echoes that of his earlier tale, with our hero finding his personal redemption and with most loose ends neatly tucked away.

And that final soft focus is what docked Lost Empires its point in my personal rating in comparison to The Good Companions‘ solid 10.

The Good Companions satisfied because it did exactly what it said it would on the flyleaf: it amused. The author dances his characters for us, and he blatantly manipulates fate to favour them, and, as it’s all part of the game and known to us going in, we cheerfully play along.

Lost Empires is, for the most part, a rather deeper book, with its vividly imagined and occasionally disturbing coming-of-age tale, and its sober look back at a nation heading unhappily into a devastating war. I felt, however, that J.B. Priestley pulled back just a bit from where he could have gone with it, and though Lost Empires is a very good thing, the eventual resolution of its hero’s problems felt slightly deus ex machina, hand of puppet master evident at the last.

This said, also very highly recommended. A good example of Priestley’s later fiction, and a must-read for anyone interested in exploring this prolific writer’s A-list.

 

 

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the shapes of sleep j b priestley 001The Shapes of Sleep by J.B. Priestley ~ 1962. This edition: Granada, 1981. Paperback. ISBN: 0-586-05201-1. 190 pages.

My rating: 5/10

Close call, J.B. You almost didn’t make that 5, but my enduring fondness for your many years’ worth of earnest and good-humoured novels and essays and memoirs tipped the balance.

This is not so much a baddish book as a terminally undecided one. It reads like the author can’t quite decide on some rather major plot developments so has decided to make it up as he goes. Which can work, but in this case means false starts, dropped threads, and a general lack of a sturdy backbone to build the story upon.

And J.B. Priestley has tried his hand here at writing sexy, but it reads very much like the author is extremely uneasy with the style, and the hands-on-breasts and rigid (or not rigid) nipple descriptions are much more embarrassing for the reader than titillating. At least I found them so. I absolutely cringed, and mostly because it made the writer look inept and out of his comfort zone, style-wise. This is Priestley, after all, and you’d expect a higher level of capability in handling a scene. Any sort of scene.

Following closely on the heels of 1961’s uneven “suspense-thriller” Saturn Over the Water, Priestley further experiments with the genre, using the action to sugar coat some intellectual musings about the continual deterioration of societal mores, the dangers of state-sponsored paranoia (this is smack dab in the middle of the Cold War), and the status of women inside and outside of marriage. There are some fairly substantial shades of proto-feminism here, with Priestley trying his darnedest to articulate his support and appreciation for the “other side” from his masculine point of view.

So, regarding the actual story.

Here we have a freelancer journalist, Ben Sterndale, on the declining end of what was apparently a stellar career. He is offered a small job which will require him to use his investigative skills rather than his writing ability. A pale green piece of paper covered in mysterious figures and foreign handwriting has gone missing from an advertising agency office. Strayed or stolen, it is wanted back. Luckily there is a tiny corner of the paper left behind, with a few word ends which Ben interprets to be of German origin, and the investigation is on.

People with guns and sinister accents pop in and out, as well as a female person who is rather obviously not what she seems. Ben tenaciously follows every little lead, and by a combination of sheer bullheadedness and a fair bit of luck (courtesy our old fictional friend, the blissful coincidence) tracks down the secret behind the green paper as well as the girl.

A Helen MacInnes-like hectic tour of Germany plays a central role in the story; Ben-voiced-over-by-Priestley does not care for the Germans much – as I already sort of had gathered from his (Priestley’s) jibes in Saturn Over the Water – which adds an uneasy element to his adventurings in that country.

The mysterious paper and the secret it holds the key to are the least important thing going on here; so much so that even when we get a firsthand description of the “shapes of sleep” and their sinister inferences (spoiler: this would apparently be brainwashing and social engineering, to be delivered via subliminal messaging/advertising), we can’t quite believe that they are worth killing and being killed for, and they fade away completely in the last scene of Ben/Priestley mulling over the deteriorating state of the world and the changing status of women and their vital importance to future “peace and prosperity.”

I couldn’t help but wonder how much of this was due to Priestley’s private life influencing his writing. When The Shapes of Sleep was written, Priestley was sixty-eight years old, and just a few years into his third marriage, with archeologist/researcher and fellow writer (and Priestley’s co-writer in their 1955 collection of travel and opinion essays, Journey Down a Rainbow) Jacquetta Hawkes.

All in all, a rather unsatisfactory book, mostly interesting to this “fan” to enable me to check off another entry in Priestley’s widely-varied oeuvre. I may read it again one day to see if my impressions can be revised; then again, I may not.

Here, see Kirkus for its take, from June 15, 1962. I was amused to read this briefly cynical review after I had formulated my own, and to see that I was not alone in my disenchantment regarding this novel.

An uneven writer is our Mr. Priestley; one scarcely knows what to expect. This time as in last year’s Saturn Over the Water he has turned to suspense and an international spy story, but has fallen down in two aspects that made Saturn engaging reading. He never in this new book sets his scene so that the reader becomes absorbed in atmosphere and mood. Nor – on the story line – does he hold to a central thread that, intricate as the windings may prove, goes from Point A to Point B. This time he substitutes motion for action. His newspaperman, with a keen scent for the unusual, jumps from London to the Continent, from town to town and back again in Germany; but somehow he seems to be chasing his own tail, and even the near misses of danger peter out. Finally, there is a touch – just a touch – of the element of mysticism, which characterized his The Other Place back in 1955. And this too somehow dissipates the effect. And the injection of some random sex and a romance in which one cannot feel too involved does not add to the sense of unity demanded.

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saturn over the water dj cbc j b priestleySaturn Over the Water by J.B. Priestley ~ 1961. This edition: The Companion Book Club, 1961. Hardcover. 255 pages.

My rating: I dunno. This is tough. It was a diverting read, but the ending was just too deus ex machine to swallow whole. What the hey, J.B.? Clairvoyants and psychics save the world at the eleventh hour?! Couldn’t they have stepped in a little earlier, like when the nefarious villains started their evil organization?

Oh. Right. No story.

Let me think. It was amusing in a campy sort of way, plus the hero was a moderately likeable sort. The action scenes were acceptable, though never with a fully developed edge. The women were a stumbling block, but I’ll waive objections to their overwhelming sexiness and sultry beauty because the author allowed them some competences. Okay, mostly that they were just good drivers. (And fireworks-inducing passionate kissers – does that count as a competence? In this novel, apparently so.) But he also made them just plain silly with men. Hm.

Full of goofy racial stereotypes; author Priestley/narrator Tim was particularly hard on the Germans; vestiges of the last war, obviously. And the Russians got some serious needling, too.

So with everything considered, and taking into account the other similar schlock that was being published at the time and the very real spy-versus-spy tenseness of the Cold War political situation, I think I can safely give this one a 7.5/10. Even with the cop-out ending. Because Priestley did an adequate job, and he had a few serious things to say hidden in the nonsense, and I appreciate his willingness to dabble in the genre. And it was rather a fun read, of the “so bad it’s good” school.

*****

So this was something unexpected. J.B. Priestley channels John Wyndham, with a dash of Ian Fleming, and a sprinkling of pure silliness. Here’s our story.

It all began with a call I had from Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, where my cousin Isabel was dying of leukemia. The Hospital didn’t say she was dying of course – they never do – but I knew she was and she knew she was. The scientists who enjoy playing about with these filthy bombs tell us it’s all quite safe and have figures to prove it; but before these bombs came along I’d never known anybody who had died of leukemia, whereas now my cousin Isabel was the fourth person I’d known who had died of it.

saturn over the water dj 2 j b priestley

This handsome cover depicts Joe’s scribbled clues. Can you read his writing? If not, don’t feel too bad. Tim had trouble too.

Career artist Tim Bedford, standing by Isabel’s bedside, reluctantly takes on a commission for her. Some years ago her husband, Joe Farne, a biochemist, had gone out to Peru to work for the privately owned Arnaldos Institute, where research on various nebulous “beneficial projects” was being carried out. Isabel had stayed in England, because she and Joe were having marital issues, but they’d made up via letter and all was looking up when something disturbing occurred. Joe suddenly left his job at the Institute and vanished, Isabel’s letters started being returned unopened, and no one was able to say where he had gone.

Then another letter from Joe came, but from Chile, not Peru. Three pages of hastily scribbled reassurances that he loved her, and on the last page a collection of cryptic jottings, names and phrases that made no sense to Isabel at all, but that must have some meaning, otherwise why would Joe have sent them?

Could Tim please track Joe down, to see if he was all right, and to explain to him why Isabel herself was unable to come to him, and to give Joe her dying message of love? Well, what could Tim do, especially once he visited Isabel’s lawyer and found that there was a tidy sum of money for expenses at the ready.

Before departing England for South America, Tim does some intital groundwork by tracking down the widow of one of Joe’s fellow scientists at the Institute, and what she tells him gives him pause. Something deeply sinister was going on in Peru, and she urges him to start his search there, to find a clue to Joe’s departure and subsequent popping up several countries over.

Coincidences start to occur thick and fast, as Tim sets off on his quest, soon to encounter a stunning Russian countess, a wealthy English lord, a variety of Communist sympathizers, a beneficent New York art dealer, a Peruvian multimillionaire with a brooding and artistic granddaughter, pseudo-Nazis, evil scientists, corrupt policemen, and a motley crew of shady characters occasionally on his side in the ever-more-pressing race to discover what is going on in not only Peru, but the Emerald Lake in Chile and the Blue Mountains of Australia.

Will Tim find Joe, and incidentally help save the Northern Hemisphere from annihilation by the H-bomb?

Of course he will, and he’ll discover the cryptic meaning of the Wavy Eight symbol, too, and the significance of the mysterious phrase “Saturn Over the Water”. (It’s much more daft than you could ever imagine.)

A true period piece, this one. If you find it in your travels, give it a go. Says me.

saturn over the water dj j b priestley

Eye-catching first edition dust jacket.

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Midnight on the Desert: chapters of autobiography by J.B. Priestley ~ 1937. This edition: Readers’ Union & William Heinemann Ltd., 1940. Hardcover. 312 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10. Extremely hard to classify this book, but I found it completely engaging. The time theories near the end were completely over my head, but I appreciated Priestley’s enthusiasm nonetheless.

*****

I had expected a travel book of sorts, and Midnight on the Desert could certainly fall under that classification, but it is also so very much more. An examination of what it means to be a writer and an artist; a critique of the state of the world in politics, religion, philosophy, architecture and the performing arts; an ode to nature; a manifesto for seeking the good in the world and overcoming adversity and “doing one’s part”; a record of observation by a keen and analytical observer.

I have been spinning out my reading of this marvelously unexpected gem, and have been racking my brains over how best to convey what this unique work is all about and why I found it so compelling. Words do not come easily to me, which is why I’m a reader and not a writer, aside from these attempts at distilling the essence of what I find on the printed page. Perhaps I will let Priestley speak for himself.

First, the “set-up”.

Let me begin with what I can remember quite clearly. It was the end of my stay on the ranch in Arizona, last winter…There was the usual accumulated litter of letters and odd papers to be gone through, and most of it to be destroyed. But that was not all. I had decided during the evening to burn certain chapters, many thousands of words, of the book I had been writing…Yes, thousands and thousands of words would have to go, along with the rubbish; good words, all arranged to make sound sense, and with a cash value in the market, and representing, too, something more than money – time, precious and priceless time, of which, they say, only so much is allotted to each of us. I dare not wait for morning. Midnight was the hour for such a deed.

The first chapter starts with an appreciation and evocation of a place dear to the author’s heart, a small writer’s hut at the edge of the desert on a guest ranch in the Mojave Desert, where Priestley had spent the better part of the winter. He describes the beauty and majesty of the still, clear desert night, and then branches of in a dozen different directions in a sort of free association of ideas – random – oh, yes! – but most clear and sensible – he never loses us in his side trips though we fetch up back at the beginning a mite breathless and dazed at the speed and scope of our journey.

The papers are not yet set alight, though the fire is lit and is roaring in the wood stove, but we are far away now from the desert, back in England, getting ready to set sail for America, at the beginning of this particular trip. The Atlantic is crossed, New York attained, and Priestley is off.

I told myself severely that for once I must take New York quietly, as just another city. I had some work to do – to produce my play – but I must do that work as calmly as if I were at home in London. (I overlooked the fact that it is quite impossible for me to produce a play calmly anywhere; for that mad old witch, the Theatre, tolerates no calmness…)

… All other cities … seem in retrospect like mere huddles of mud huts. Here .. be Babylon and Nineveh in steel and concrete, the island of shining towers, all the urban poetry of our time … I would hurry down these canyons and gulfs they call avenues, cry out as one magnificent vista of towers crowns another, hold my breath at nightfall to see the glittering palaces in the sky, and wonder how I can ever again endure the gloomy and stunted London …

… There is a deep inner excitement, like that of a famished lover waiting for his mistress, that I cannot account for – not when it outlasts the mere novelty of arrival, and goes on week after week … I would begin to feel empty inside. It would be impossible for me to sit still and be quiet. I must go somewhere, eat and drink with a crowd, see a show, make a noise. Time must not merely be killed, but savagely murdered in public. In this mood, which has never missed me yet in New York, I feel a strange apprehension, unknown to me in any other place. The city assumes a queer menacing aspect … I begin to fancy that perhaps it is waiting for some other kind of people – chromium-plated giants without dreams or tenderness – to come along and claim it …

.. I feel like a midget character moving in an early scene of some immense tragedy, as if I had had a glimpse in some dream, years ago, of the final desolation of this city, of sea-birds mewing and nesting in these ruined avenues. Familiar figures of the streets begin to move in some dance of death. That baker outside the Broadway burlesque show, whose voice has almost rusted away from inviting you day and night to step inside and see the girls, now seems a sad demon croaking in Hell. The traffic’s din sounds like the drums in the March to the Gallows of a Symphonie Fantastique infinitely greater, wilder, more despairing than Berlioz’. Yes, this is all very fanciful, of course, the literary mind playing with images; yet the mood behind it, that feeling of spiritual desolation, that deepening despair, are real enough…

That was the distillation of, let’s see, four pages or so, and the man can keep it up indefinitely. He turns the same sort of passionate stream-of-consciousness writing to everything he observes and experiences. Further along in the book we are treated to similar digressions on The Theatre and the experience of working as a novelist-dramatist taking the written word to the stage, and about the challenges of being an author in general, and the quest to both satisfy the inner urge to record and create, and to fulfill the ever-difficult goal of please one’s readers.

Give us, please, you cry, the real world, not some triviality taking place in a pretty-pretty imaginary world, no mere escape stuff. Certainly, madam; certainly, sir. Now what is happening in this real world? The Communists and Fascists are demonstrating and counter-demonstrating, preparing for a fight; the economic system of our fathers is breaking down; Europe is bristling with armaments and gigantic intolerances, Asia is stirring out of her ancient dream, America is bewildered and bitter; one kind of civilization is rapidly vanishing and God-knows-what is taking its place; some men are marching in column of fours, shouting slogans, and making ready to kill and be killed; some men – many of them in exile because their minds are honest and not without distinction – are arguing in a melancholy circle; other men are lining up in hope of finding a little bread, a little work, a little peace of mind.

And Priestley goes on:

But no, no, no, this will not do, you tell us: you want a novel, a fiction to take you out of yourselves, not a newspaper, a fat pamphlet, a slab of propaganda. After all, private life goes on; men still fall in love, women fall out of it; there are entertaining quarrels between the Smiths and the Robinsons; young men are suddenly promoted and girls are given fur coats and diamond bracelets; and there is still plenty of comic stuff about – oh, uproariously comic stuff. This being so, get on with your novel, and don’t give yourself airs, don’t come over the propagandist, the gloomy prophet, over us.

… You may be sure that whatever he [the author] decides, he will be blamed. He may succeed in displeasing everybody. Lucky enough in other respects, I have been unlucky in this. Some years ago, because I had long cherished the plan and was now in the mood to work it out, I wrote a long, comic, picaresque, a fairy-tale sort of novel, called The Good Companions. I am neither prouder nor more ashamed of having written it than I am of having written any of the other books and plays under my name. But it happened to achieve an astonishing popularity. Since then – and this s an exact statement – I do not think I have met or corresponded with five-and-twenty persons who have not blamed me, either for having written this particular novel, or for not having written a lot of other novels just like it. One party denounces me as a hearty, insensitive lowbrow. The other party asks what the devil I mean by turning myself into a gloomy highbrow … I am condemned – and for a long term, it seems – to offend all round … No wonder, then, my new novel needed some thinking out. I was not bored on those trains …

Travelling by train, observing every fellow human being he comes across, from baggage car attendant to well-preserved and painted elderly matron sharing the dining room, Priestley goes off on more tangents, such as the difficulties of being an American woman, never being allowed to drop your eyes from your goal of “keeping up” for a moment; then looking out the window, asit were, to the American landscape itself and the need for painters, writers and poets to develop to capture its unique quality – the processes of developing a regional form of the arts, true to the physical space which inspires the artists.

Odes to the great physical beauty of the American West are in this book – the deserts and mountains, the Grand Canyon, the stark glories of rock and sand and rivers carving out their otherworldly sculptures. Priestley is in love with this aspect of America, and he sings his praises most eloquently well.

What a fascinating book; what a full book. One to read right through without stopping; one to tackle in small bits, to digest and mull over and agree with and occasionally refute. Not all that much autobiography, despite the tag on the title, but many insights into what went on in the mind of this deeply creative and opinionated man.

An excellent read; a grand glimpse into the mind of a master writer.

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