What do you do when you’ve written a characterless, plotless, textureless narrative (aka turgid crap)? Well, if you’re French you have the great advantage of dressing it up as a work of great literary and existential profundity. You give it a title that shudders with cosmic significance – say Chaos and the Night – how profound and intellectual is that? This, at least is what M. Henri de Montherlant did. And a sign of his success at bamboozling the literary establishment is that eventually you get your book clad in the grey of a Penguin modern classic.
I have opened the book at random to give you a taster of his immortal prose – and frankly the first para I set my eyes on was just as good an example of what I mean as any other:
“The stronger and more virile a man is, the more painful his physical decline as a result of age or infirmity: he has to pay for it. Celestine was by nature authoritarian, given to harsh and violent reactions. Moreover, by ideological inclination he was averse to taking orders. All his life, more or less, he had imposed his will on others, and now he was at the mercy of everyone.” How true, Henri, how true! Want more? “Reality had become for him another world: his own world was the world of death….just as, during the war, surveying a still virgin countryside, he used to wonder: Where will the first shell fall?” When his daughter said to him on the way out “See you tonight,” he never failed to answer: “If I’m still alive.”…” OK Henri, we get the message. “And always he would hark back to the same questions: “How will I die? How will I behave in the face of death?” Oh yes! Chaos and the night with a vengeance.
But turgid crap knows no national boundaries. We in Britain have produced truckloads of the stuff – I am thinking of the novels of Patrick Hamilton. I have in front of me a journalistic effort called Talking Blues: The Police in their own words. This is a selection of interviews with various cops written by one Roger Graeff, published in the late 1980s. Compare it with David Simon’s (he of The Wire fame) book Homicide. One book has a lot of people earnestly spouting attitudes (turgid crap piled on to turgid crap) – the other is a work of real literary quality. One is British, one is American.
So in America you can’t get away with turgid crap? Think again. Now Scott Thurow needs to have certain genuflections made in his direction. He is after all the author of that extremely compelling, memorable and intelligent suspense thriller Presumed Innocent. But sadly, he has decided to revisit the characters 20 years on in a novel entitled Innocent. I do wish he hadn’t. This is not his first attempt at confirming his place in the pantheon. He really shouldn’t have bothered. The bio tells me he has written eight since. I once picked up one – The Laws of our Fathers, I think it was – only to hurl it with great force at the cardboard box I have for this purpose. Some writers only have one good book in them. Just accept it. (This of course doesn’t apply to me!)