Sunday 30 May 2010

The reissues (9) - Winter

Courtesy of the kind folk at Harper Collins' publicity team, I've secured copies of the latest reissues from the Len Deighton catalogue. Berlin Game, Mexico Set and London Match will be reviewed subsequently on this blog; but first up, it's Winter: the tragic story of a Berlin family 1899-1945.

When this novel was first published in 1987, the world was a vastly different place. Berlin was split down the middle by the Berlin Wall and remained an island of liberty within a sea of Communism. Berlin in 1899 - when this novel begins - was vastly more different. The story Deighton developed in Winter used the experiences of the Winter family to explain the story of Berlin in the first half of the twentieth century. Nazism was a tragedy for the whole German nation; this book understands how that tragic inevitability played out in microcosm on one family. In this respect, it is a similar style of novel to Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks, which brilliantly portrayed nineteenth century bourgeois Germany by examining the downfall of a bourgeois Lübeck family over four generations.

Crucially, Winter acts as a prelude to the first three Bernard Samson trilogy Game, Set & Match. Minor characters which are revealed in these novels as part of Bernard Samson's hinterland in the German capital - hotel owner Lisl Hennig, Bernard's boss Brett Rensselaer, and Bernard's father Brian Samson, whose decision to bring his family up in Berlin shaped forever his son's relationship with the city on the Spree - are given fulsome back-stories as part of this epic narrative. The quality of Deighton's writing and research is one of the reasons why in my opinion Winter explains as well as any history book why Nazism developed in response to Germany's experiences in World War One.

The new introduction
What comes across in Deighton's new introduction is the evident dedication with which he approached each new novel. In this case, the introduction recounts how he moved to Germany and Austria for over a year to ensure the authenticity of what he was writing. Fascinating stuff, too. Recounting an unexpected stop at a Bavarian Inn The Kramerhof during a snowstorm - which turned into a three-month stay researching life in small-town Germany - Deighton recounts how Winter was his attempt to write a novel about the 'real' Germany he'd known to love, one not corrupted by the popular culture clichés generated by recent historical experience:
"Winter was a biography of the Germany I had come to know over the years. We had lived in Vienna and in an Austrian village near Salzburg, which was now not all that far away, and my sons spoke strongly accented German. For many Germans, and many historians too, Germany and Austria do not have a separate existence. AJP Taylor, [Ed - noted British left-wing historian] who taught me so much about German history, persuaded me to consider both in unison and for that reason the story of Winter begins in Vienna. One of our neighbours in Riederau village had a son writing for a newspaper in Vienna. At my request, he rummaged through the archives to find out what the weather was like in Vienna 'on the final evening of the 1800s'. Now I had no excuse for delay."
To capture a sweep of German history from 1899 to 1945 on such a scale, Deighton decided early on to move from his favoured first-person narrative to the third person. The objective for what was to become essentially a family saga was to use each chapter to illuminate the key interactions between the characters in the novel to advance the narrative; as Deighton describes, in the same way that lightning briefly illuminates a long night of darkness.

Though starting his story in Vienna, Deighton chose not to write there, instead choosing Munich as his basis. It would become the third key city in the novel along with Berlin:
"The inhabitants of these three great German cities view each other with dispassionate superiority. While the mighty Austria-Hungary Empire dominated Europe, Vienna ruled. It was Bismarck, and the mighty Prussian armies that in 1870 marched into Paris, that displaced Vienna and established Berlin's ascendancy. At the turn of the century, Berlin's music hall got guaranteed laughs from jokes that depicted Bavarians and the Viennese as hopeless bumpkins. But Hitler changed all that. Hitler was an Austrian and his Nazi Party was born in Munich and when Hitler named that town as Haupstadt der Bewegung - 'capital of the movement' - all jokes about its citizens were hushed."
In following the fortunes of the Winter brothers Pauli and Peter across nearly half a century, these three cities shape their lives for good and ill. Deighton deftly uses historical events to advance the story lines for the two brothers, demonstrating how  individuals can be carried along by the consequences of major epochal shifts in history which change forever whole societies. The length of the novel, and the details in the dialogue and the narrative descriptions of each city, makes for a wonderfully absorbing tour through a nation imperceptibly taking small steps towards the cliff edge of historical oblivion.

The detailed research Deighton points to in this new introduction - such as lengthy interviews with a relative of Gehlen, 'one of the very few spies who influenced history' - marks out his worth as a writer who easily straddled fiction and history, and married them both to fantastic effect.

The new design
Designer Arnold Schwartzman cleverly portrays the essential storyline - of how the Winter family is split by the rise of the Nazi Party - through the image of a turn of the century photo of a father and son, torn in half. It also of course symbolises the subsequent division of the city after the War. Again, Schwartzman points to key elements in the narrative through ephemeral objects on the cover: early phonograph needles, a stamp with Hitler's image and postcards from the early flights of the Zeppelins.

Set against the clear white cover of the book, this visual language I think works really well in giving a compelling insight into what is an immense book. The title uses an interesting font, that draws to mind the sort of font used in early underground networks in Berlin and Paris. Works well, and is a departure from the other books.

Friday 21 May 2010

Harper Collins reissues - Len Deighton's French Cooking for Men

Following hard on the heel's of last year's successful reissue of the Action Cook Book for Men, this new edition is a bold refresh of one of the most influential cookbooks of the 'sixties.

Len Deighton's French Cooking for Men is an update of Deighton's guide to French cooking called Ou est le Garlic? It comprises 50 of Deighton's famous cook-strips in comprehensive tour of all the techniques and recipes with which the budding male chef can become maitre de cuisine.

Paté brisée. Choux pastry. Farce (Farce?!). Roti de Porc aux Navets. The mouth's already watering just reading those names.

In his introduction to this new edition, Deighton recalls his first visit to France in 1946 when he was just seventeen. Arriving at a Gare du Nord still full of troops and military personnel and with luxuries in short supply ('ersatz acorn coffee' anyone?), Deighton took himself off to the Grand Hotel de l'Orient. What follows was ten days of scrapes and fantastic encounters with chefs and restaurateurs, the results of which leap out of the pages of this book with the authentic evidence of the golden age of French cooking. Recounts Deighton:
"Paris was spread out before me. I shivered with delight. But I was a boy with a mission. I didn't know much about France or French cooking but I had read the greatest restaurant in the world was here. It was named the Tour d'Argent and it served  a famous dish of roast duck. The crispy breast is served as the first course. To make a sauce for it a vast silver-plated press is used to squeeze the juices from the remaining carcass. It is followed by the leg and a simple green salad. It was just the sort of performance I was ready for.
I went to the restaurant and sat alone while a sad-eyed waiter regretfully explained that a duck could not be split. It was served for two people. Recklessness overcame my disappointment, and I told him to pretend I was two people. He brightened and seemed delighted to go through the rituals, so that I had four courses, each served with a grave formality that such food deserves. When I was half-way through the second elaborate ceremony with the duck press, two Americans stopped at my table to tell me that they had decided that they had never see anyone so happy as I clearly was.
What an evocative retelling of the start of a love affair with la cuisine Française! This remains an impressive book; Deighton's knowledge of the different styles and basic building blocks of French cooking is encyclopaedic, but each recipe is recounted with care and imagination.

The new book is small but well proportioned in hard-back format. Arnold Schwartzman, Deighton's old pal and chosen designer for this new series of reissues, has done a fantastic front cover, mocking up Deighton sitting in front of a matriculation-style collection of grand chefs. Writes Schwartzman:
"Taking a lead from the author I sought after an illustration of a group of chefs that would reflect the book's slightly playful title. After considerable research I came across this vintage photograph of a large group of Continental chefs that seemed to fit the bill perfectly. They looked impressive, conveying a sense of professionalism, yet at the same time charmingly ridiculous."
Paul Bignell in today's Independent newspaper reviews the book and Deighton has provided a short interview with him as part of Harper Collins' PR push around the book (which seems to focus so far on this, rather than the Game, Set and Match reissues). Writes Bignell:
"Before becoming a writer, Deighton was a successful illustrator (his credits include the cover for Jack Kerouac's On the Road), a travel writer for Playboy and an airline steward. He now divides his time between homes in California, Guernsey and Portugal and hasn't written a novel for 15 years. In an age of technologically adept, ever-so-serious Bournes and Bonds, it's hard to imagine Deighton's sardonic, overweight, working-class spy Harry Palmer using an iPhone.
But if he were to write another novel, he says: "In the 1950s I came to know Beirut very well: cosmopolitan population, great cuisine and many stunning ancient sites. If I was to write a spy novel, Beirut would be at its centre"."
Harry Palmer in Beirut? Would be intriguing!

Wednesday 19 May 2010

Vote early. Vote often!

A reminder to readers of this blog to head over to Mister 8's blog tomorrow for the big bout of the first round of the Mister 8 May Madness contest:

Harry Palmer - hero of Funeral in Berlin, Billion-Dollar Brain and The Ipcress File  vs.  Jack Ryan, Tom Clancy's ex-Navy CIA agent.

It should be a tough fight but, surely, style should overcome brawn.

Vote Palmer!!

Tuesday 11 May 2010

Spies duke it out in a no-holds-barred contest

Do you ever experience those moments when you think: "Damn. That's a great idea. I should have done that."

This is one of those moments. Armstrong Sabian over at the Mister 8 blog is starting is Mister 8 May Madness contest, in which top characters from spy fiction over the ages fight it out for the title of top spy. Think WWE only with Glocks and wittier repartee.

As Armstrong says on his blog:
"For those unfamiliar with tournaments bearing the moniker of Madness, the idea is simple: you take 16 teams, rank them, arrange them in a tournament bracket, and have them play against each other until one is crowned champion of them all.
Instead of sports teams here at Mister 8, we’ll be featuring secret agents! But wait, you say, James Bond can’t play basketball! How will we determine the winner of these tournaments? That’s where you come in, dear reader. For each match-up, I’ll be posting a profile of each super spy, and a poll for you all to determine the winner. Voting will remain open until the day before the winner has to “play” in their next “game.”
Call for cheerleaders: I’m also interested in soliciting reasons why readers should cast their vote for each secret agent, and would be glad to run those testimonials alongside the profiles on the day of voting.
Should you vote for your favorite? The superspy you’d want on your side when the world is in peril? The secret agent you think most personifies the genre? Your reasons for voting are up to you!"
Below are the match-ups and dates for the first round of the tournament:

Game 1 – May 13

James Bond (the Duke University of spying) v. Tara Chace (self-loathing sandbagger for Queen & Country)

Game 2 – May 14

Jason Bourne (Ludlum hero in need of a steadicam) v. Cate Archer (UNITY’s best hope, but No One Lives Forever)

Game 3 – May 15

John Steed & Emma Peel (Avenging Edwardian gent and catsuited judomaster) v. OSS-117 (Eurospy extraordinaire!)

Game 4 – May 16

Napoleon Solo & Ilya Kuryakin (those magnificent Men From U.N.C.L.E.) v. Maxwell Smart (Fighter of K.A.O.S.)

Game 5 – May 17

Nick Fury (one-eyed, white-walled, director of SHIELD) v. Kelly Robinson & Alexander Scott (I Tennis Pro? No! I Spy!)

Game 6 – May 18

John Drake (Game 6, seed 6…trying to tell us something, Danger Man?) v. George Smiley (the Spy Who Sent Back Out the Spy Who Came in From the Cold)

Game 7 – May 19

Jack Bauer (voting in this game may only last 24 hours…) v. Jim Phelps & The IMF (…or maybe only five seconds until it self-destructs!)

Game 8 – May 20

Jack Ryan (fights the bureaucracy as much as he fights criminals) v. Harry Palmer (fights the bureaucracy as much as he fights criminals).

My favourite, of course, is Mr Palmer. Gun in one hand; whisk in the other, and sardonic zingers by the dozen.

Great idea, and I'd encourage all visitors to this blog to take part.

Harper Collins reissues more books - front cover previews

Good news! Harper Collins has just released the next tranche of Len Deighton reissues in time for Father's Day next month. I'm hoping to get review copies for each of the new edition and will post up reviews when I have them. Assuming they follow the same format as the earlier reissues, the books will each have a new foreword by Deighton plus comments by Arnold Schwartzman the designer about the new covers.

In this reissue are Berlin GameMexico Set and London Match, plus Winter. Intriguingly, there's a new title called Len Deighton's French Cooking for Men, which is clearly a reworking of his title Ou est le Garlic? from 1965, repackaged to appeal to a younger male audience by linking the rugged world of spying and cooking, something which was apparent in the film of The Ipcress File and in Deighton's Action Cook Book.

The other front cover images are below. They're certainly different from the earlier styles. They include a real-life representation of - one assumes - the Bernard Samson character. It's a brave design choice, and I'm unsure how readers will react. When FaithHope and Charity were published in the nineties - the last three of the Samson nonology - they had photo images representative of the main characters. This meant the image the reader had built up his of each character in their minds was challenged. Readers don't always like that, as imagination is what makes the reading experience powerful. That said, the cover images are striking.

What I also detect in these front cover images is a throwback to the first and perhaps most famous Deighton novels, those with the Harry Palmer character. The tortoiseshell glasses the model is wearing hark back to the Michael Caine character of old; perhaps HC are hoping the reader makes the connection too? However, of course, Bernard Samson is not Harry Palmer. He's of a different era; older, he's more careworn, he has a different backstory. That's the beauty of the character: while he shared some underlying characteristics, he was something fresh: the spy with a family, the spy as bureaucrat, employee, dupe and loyal friend.

Let's see what the reaction is.

Sunday 9 May 2010

New blog from Jeremy Duns

Spy fiction writer Jeremy Duns - author of last year's great Free Agent, which is now out in paperback and which I read as soon as it came out - has started a new blog!

It's called The Debrief (very good title, Jeremy!) and he refers to it as his "online playground". It has an interesting mix of writing about his books, links to stories about other fellow thriller writers, and the wider world of espionage and spy and thriller fiction.

It's well worth checking out. As Jeremy's linked to my blog, the only decent thing is for me to link back to Jeremy's blog. I'd encourage readers of this blog to check it out.

Jason King + Harry Palmer - the mash-up

When spy fiction icons interact! On the Deighton Dossier's message board someone called Chiops has posted a link to a fascinating YouTube clip. It shows a connection between Peter Wyngarde's fictional Jason King character - novelist and spy - and Len Deighton, novelist and spy fiction writer.

This video shows a clip from an episode called 'A Page Before Dying'. A capsule plot summary (courtesy of the Jason King episode guide):
King has written a novel which describes an ingenious way of smuggling a man from East to West Berlin by hiding him in a safe. The British want to get a man named Gorini out of West Berlin. Sir Brian decides to make use of Jason's book ... and of Jason himself. He is lured to West Berlin on the pretext of a fabulous offer for the film rights in the book. 
Unfortunately for Jason the C.I.A. also wants Gorini. And the Stasi know what's happening. The British have started an export business in safes with East Germany, and in charge of this is an attractive espionage agent named Ingrid. Jason is tricked into entering a safe and is unable to get out. The next thing he knows is that he is in East Berlin!
The authorities are waiting for him and he is trapped. Both Jason and the East Germans believe Gorini to be hidden in a safe, but when it is forced open, he isn't there. Gorini has been smuggled out of the country by an entirely different method. Maybe the East Germans knew what Whitehall had in mind; but Whitehall, in turn, knew that the East Germans knew! Jason realises that he has been used as a decoy. He also realises that he is in grim danger.
You'll see in the clip that right at the end, after King escapes from East Berlin, he is handed by Sir Brian a copy of Funeral in Berlin, Deighton's third novel, in which a man is smuggled out of Berlin in a coffin .... but isn't. Sir Brian says, knowingly:
"You might read this novel and draw your own conclusions.
Clearly, the fictional Whitehall Mandarin's had the good taste to read Deighton's novel and base their own exploits on 'Harry Palmer's' efforts to extract Colonel Stok from Berlin He - like King - was merely a pawn in a bigger game between the different side in the Cold War. King contemptuously throws the novel into the fireplace, accusing his bosses of being inspired by Deighton's novel, and not his!

So, a tribute and a salute by the writers to the previous decade's best-selling spy novels (the series was filmed in the early 'seventies').

This video is an intriguing little vignette that I hadn't seen before, and indicates that in the early seventies - as compared to now - Funeral in Berlin and Deighton's other novels were still fresh in the collective cultural minds that they could provide an obvious reference point to a story which the public would recognise.

Can readers of this blog think of any other instances in spy fiction, or elsewhere in popular culture, where disparate fictional worlds have been bought together in such a way?