A Theft Saul Bellow (Penguin £3 .50) The Nobel laureate’s 14th book is doubly-distinguished from its illustrious predecessors. First, it is making its original appearance in paperback: good news for ﬁnancially embarrassed Old Bellovians. Second, its hero (for want of better shorthand) is a heroine and she has no sisters in the opus. But the faithful need fear not, for Clara Velde is patently a Humbolt or Herzog in shoulder-pads. A mover and shaker
‘l have to admit that I'm in a state of nervous tension at the moment. This is probably the most worked-up I’ve been since I started doing stand-up back in 1981 orwhatever and I'm finding it difficult to concentrate on anything at the moment, really, because all I want to know is what people think of the book!
The speaker is Ben Elton, the
, ‘stand-up’ is the gravel-throated brand of observational humour that has kept the 29 year-old at the forefront of British alternative comedy for the last eight years and the book is Stark, Elton’s first novel and the tome presently causing him so much ore-publication worry.
What the critics at large will make of his endeavours remains to be seen. The British have a marked aversion to anyone who causes confusion by wearing two hats simultaneously and Elton’s confrontational style has never particularly endeared him to the Press anyway. (Witness last week’s News of the World headline ‘Ben Elton’s girlfriend is a Tani’)
What can be said about Stark is that it is a big book: big in size (500 pages), big in theme (impending ecological disaster) and, most importantly for Elton, big in the implications that it holds for his future: ‘Stark is definitely the largest commitment I've ever made,’ he agrees ‘Both to my comedy and my ideas. My stage act has always been well written and well planned anyway but working with plots and characters is a very liberating experience indeed.‘ Elton hopes that Stark will prove to be the first in a long
line of novels to spring from his over-heated Apple Mac and hints that literary pursuits may eventually usurp his on-stage efforts: ‘Given the choice
from the sticks transformed into ‘the czarina of fashion writing‘ in Gogmagogsville (aka the Big Cox’s Pippin), she’s currently on husband number four, a good lay layabout who kills time between soft covers with P.D. James. Fond though she is of him, the love of Clara's life is Ithiel ‘Teddy‘ Regler, a Kissinger clone without the clout who shuttles in from Capitol Hill to chew over might-have-beens.
The potential for gush is limitless, particularly when the talismanic ring Clara has wheedled out of Regler goes missing. But it‘s sweet neuroses, not nothings, they murmur over dinner. Their repartee is one indication that Bellow is on
BEN ELTON SAVES THE WORLD
between books and stand-up, l’d choose the books every time. That’s why I hope to God this one succeeds. .
As it happens, he doesn’t have too much to worry about. Stark is a surprisingly accomplished debut, managing to juggle world-scale issues and personal neuroses with ironic skill, and narrated with the distinct rhetorical touch which rocketed the Londoner to fame as Friday Live’s motor-mouthed MC.
Which is another way of saying that the Elton style is written a mile wide across the page. As the man himself would say, it's a little bit pol-it-i-cal, a little bit shouty and occasionally a bit wimpy farly wet liberal. Whilst acknowledging the continuities from one form to another, Elton is keen to emphasise the finer points: ‘Well, the art of writing is very instinctual. You don’tsitdown and think, Right I’m gonna do a book that'll appeal to the 14-18 market. But, yeah, you can do things in books that are just impossible on stage. Stand-up is very shouty, very direct and it‘s hard to be subtle. Whereas in a book you can time your punch-lines much better, you can delay them, let them sneak up on the reader.
narrative that makes Flo Jo seem leisurely. Short and sharp, this is no mellow Bellow but the old cynic doing it the way only he can. (Alan Taylor)
ZUCKERMAN IN THE STAND
The Facts Philip Roth (Cape £11.95) In the Spring of 1987 —- on the summit of his literary success -— Philip Roth had a nervous breakdown. In ‘The Facts‘ he re-assembles the jigsaw pieces of his life: ‘In order to recover
' what I had lost I had to go back to the moment oforigin‘.
Roth‘s ensuing trawl reveals the parochial Jewish roots of his Newark boyhood. that smelter which cast him as creator of ‘Portnoy‘ and the continuing ‘Zuckerman‘ archipelago. There are college-day vignettes of Roth pursuing ‘the life of the mind', and ofhis love-lorn scrabbles with female students— mere limbering up for his angst-fraught passion with ‘the blunt, scrappy daughter of a
' Or not have them at all. You can make
your point without feeling “Oh God, it’s got to be funny" the whole time. Which, let metell you, is a very pleasant feeling indeed.‘
The point in question is not only particularly topical but, in Elton’s words ‘the biggest issue on Earth’. Stark envisages a world where the capitalist exploitation of our natural resources has reached pandemic proportions. Elton pitches his unlikely Aussie hero C.D. against the multi-national buck rakers, charting his personal traumas as well as the more troublesome environmental ones. How does Elton view Thatch’s
' recent Damascus-like adoption of the
Green issue? ‘The most worrying thing about that is she believes herself to be sincere, she reallythinks she is doing something worthwhile. In reality, the problem is mountainous and her efforts are molehillous. The one issue that market forces cannot deal with is the environment but, forThatch, market forces are a religion so how is she gonna reconcile the two? For a very longtime Britain has been the dirty person of Europe and we have to realize that market forces cause that.’
Elton has an illuminating comparison in mind: ‘Like, when you see an advert on television for a shiny new car and it's driving through the Highlands and it looks very noble, what we should really see is the same car in a traffic jam in London with the lead in the exhaust fumes rotting a child's brain. Because that’s what is at stake when you don’t take care of the environment. And it's the old story- If my book helps to change one person’s mind and entertains them in the process, then all the trouble will have been worthwhile. (Allan Brown)
working-class loser’ whose name was Josie.
That relationship formed the core of Roth’s adult emotional life, a knot which tightened into spasms of rage and hatred even after their parting. Told with elegance and sardonic wit, ‘The Facts‘ are polished for our consumption. All the witnesses are called by Roth; their testimony to his past creates a surface on which the mucus of real life is never seen.
“Making fake biography, false history. concocting a half-imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life is my life’ he has said. And here the creator of Zuckerman unbound calls on his old alter-ego to write the tail-piece to his book. It’s a clever ploy that still leaves us distanced from the question that counts: whose Zuckerman is Roth? (Tom Adair)
ON THE MINUS SIDE
Old Negatives Alasdair Gray (Jonathan Cape £5.95) The author’s many admirers, familiar with his prose writings and his inimitable drawings, will recognise immediately the themes and style of these verse-sequences. Written between 1952 and 1983, they are now set out chronologically, accompanied by illustrations which are erotic, mysterious or macabre — sometimes all three together.
The poetry is uncompromisineg bleak, imbued with sinister feelings of death, loneliness amd unrequited love. Although the imagery can be striking, the striving for dire effect is sometimes too obvious:
"Mind is a sky-machine
Kept stable by the breeze of breath: A rackety slipshod thing of gut and nerve,
Patched tube and twisted cable.’ Despite the energy and strength of the verse and the occasional clever use of internal rhyme, the unrelenting negative aspect of the human condition weighs heavily on the reader. And this is underscored in some of the poems by the feeling that this might be prose chopped up. An unusual, challenging and impressive production; but in the end, I preferred the pictures to the poetry. (Ken Morrice)
A Disaffection James Kelman (Secker & Warburg £10.95) Patrick Doyle is in many ways a typical Kelman hero: single, male, Glaswegian, ﬁsh-suppered, bevvied and bored. Disconcertingly, he is also a schoolteacher with shelves of well-thumbed books beside his two-bar electric ﬁre and a headful of soaring and diving, inspiring and painfully restrictive thoughts. It is inside his bursting head that this novel takes place. Don’t wait for an external viewpoint on Patrick Doyle; it never comes.
What does come is a song, a symphony for one voice. The serenades and dirges which echo through the pages might be happening between your own ears
“The List 10- 23 March 1989