Monday, May 21, 2007

A profitable weekend

Once upon a time Malcolm would have been easily satisfied by the lesser things in life: world peace, or the arrival of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Now, in the autumn of his span, he looks for something more: a decent bottle of wine for a reasonable cost, a good book, a nice surprise.
Well, this weekend, two out of three can't be bad.

The book

The book is C.J.Sansom's
Winter in Madrid. Obviously Malcolm has taken some eighteen months to get around to this one. That is a function of an antipathy to rave reviews, and lasting disillusion with historical whodunits (Sansom's previous speciality). However, eventually the combination of a Spanish Civil War background and a three-for-two offer at Waterstone's got him. Wowza! There are enough synopses and tasters on the Web for Malcolm to be excused the task of summarising. Nor is it a particularly complex story: it amounts to a series of interlocking emotional triangles. The essential theme is loyalties. Three factors make it different: a disordered time sequence, characters overcoming childhood crises, a superbly-realised and atmospheric background.

It was Chapter 10 when Malcolm came to this:
There was a susurrating murmur from the crowd. At the far end of the hall a door opened and a bevy of flunkeys bowed in a middle-aged couple. Barbara had heard that Franco was a small man but was surprised how tiny, even delicate, he looked. He wore a general’s uniform with a broad red sash around his paunchy middle. He held his arms stiffly at his sides, moving them back and forth as though leading a parade. His balding head gleamed under the lights. Doña Carmen, walking behind, was slightly taller than her husband, a tiara in her jet black hair. Her long haughty face was made for the regal expression it wore. There seemed something posed, though, about the stoniness of the Generalísimo’s face, the little mouth set hard under the wispy moustache, and the surprisingly large eyes staring ahead as he marched past the stage.

The Falangists in the audience sprang to their feet, stretching out their arms in the Fascist salute. ‘¡Jefe!’ they called out. The rest of the audience and the orchestra followed.
[Sansom admits in his end-note:
I have also invented Franco's attendance at the first performance of Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez, which was actually in Barcelona.
And where else than the Palau de la Música Catalana, on 9th November 1940. The first Madrid performance did not happen until December 11th (which would be too late for Sansom's chronology).]

Sansom's description is, for Malcolm, quite spine-tingling. In terms of skewering the characterisation and the
zeitgeist, it is as effective as, say, Dickens doing for the Veneerings. It is also less arch, less baroque, which adds to the noir sinisterness. Malcolm knows that it is essential for the writer of any critique or blurb to stretch for comparators. The Independent's reviewer (Barry Forshaw) invoked Greene (as did Michael Arditti in the Mail) and Hemingway; the Telegraph invoked Julian Mitchell; the Express threw in Sebastian Faulks and Carlos Ruiz Zafón (the latter perhaps simply because of the cover design and the Spanish location). Malcolm has already thrown in Dickens (if only for the complexity of the plotting), but would add Alan Furst (if only for the setting and the mood).

Incidentally, Furst's latest The Foreign Correspondent is out in paperback in the US, but not in the UK until the end of the year. Seems a good way to exploit the exchange rate.

The nice surprise

Malcolm has already mentioned Our American Cousin in these drivellings, and has come to rely on OAC for guidance through the maze of song-writers, particularly those from Texas. OAC severely counselled Malcolm on his ignorance of, among others, the late Townes Van Zandt. Now Malcolm is not entirely ignorant in these matters, but his knowledge of Van Zandt extended little further than his credits on a stack of fine songs and for Dead Flowers on the soundtrack of the final scene of The Great Lebowski. Then there was a worthwhile essay by Anthony Decurtis in Rolling Stone some years ago: the essay had Van Zandt's name in the title, but was mainly about Willie Nelson (which is how Malcolm came to it). RS's last review (or the last one Malcolm can see) of Van Zandt was pretty hot:
with the market flooded with all-too-often mediocre singer-songwriters, it would be very easy to overlook Townes Van Zandt. But it would be a mistake, because Townes is one of the very best... Townes' quiet, unassuming voice and guitar come across like a fresh prairie breeze. And if there were any justice in this world, he'd be a star, not just the property of a tiny band of followers who count his records among their most prized possessions.
So Malcolm put on his frog-suit and went a-courtin', and came back with the inevitable Best of ...

Not quite an instant revelation, but a growing recognition. This culminated by the 13th track: The Ballad of Ira Hayes. In common with anyone else still breathing, Malcolm knew this one mainly from Johnny Cash's version: upfront, quite up-tempo and bristling with anger. Let us equally celebrate that Cash, when asked to sing for Nixon, chose this and What is Truth? as alternatives to the President's choice of Okie from Muskogee.

Van Zandt makes Ira Hayes much more elegaic, more thoughtful, driving the message more subtly. As Michelin would say, "worth a special journey". And the song really belongs to neither Van Zandt nor Cash: it is by Peter La Farge.

So, another strike for Our American Cousin.
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