EL James is back, and a titter ran through the crowd
A fortnightly look at books, writers and reviews
All along we must have been aware that more was coming from EL James, and now that moment has arrived. Her new novel, The Mister (Arrow), is out on Tuesday and (take note, fans of Fifty Shades of Grey) it’s sort of different to the fun and filth that preceded it.
And you can imagine the sort of pressure James has been under. When a small Australian publisher released Fifty Shades back in 2011, she was rather hoping to sell a few thousand copies at most. Instead, the world went bonkers for it. Expanded into a trilogy, her erotic BDSM saga sold more than 150 million copies, and was translated into scores of languages, including Mongolian. (What’s the safe word, you may wonder, when it starts to hurt in the yurt?)
James went on to co-produce the feature film series which grossed more than $1bn and further reined into the mainstream the anal plugs and handcuffs that were once the preserve of a niche fringe. But what now, having flogged that dead horse to its inevitable conclusion? How does one follow all that?
Well, with a more traditional sort of romance, it seems. According to the bumf, this one has all the hallmarks of the genre and there’s no apparent shortage of bodice-ripping. We are back in the realm of the ur-text here – Judith Krantz’s defining Princess Daisy.
The “mister” of the title of James’s novel is the handsome, aristocratic and impossibly wealthy Maxim Trevelyan, a scion of England’s landed gentry who is idly shagging his days away as he searches for a meaning to his life. Then tragedy strikes, and Maxim inherits even more wealth along with, sadly, “all the responsibility that entails”: huge estates he must look after. He is not prepared for this, and it’s frankly a bit of a struggle.
To make matters worse he meets an alluring and mysterious woman from eastern Europe with “a dangerous and troublesome past”. Ere long he has feelings for her that he has never experienced before, passionate feelings that he “dares not name”.
“In Hollywood terms,” as a recent New York Times feature put it, “it’s like a porny mash-up of Cinderella and Downton Abbey.” Fans expecting the usual array of gags and whips may be in for a letdown, the newspaper warns, but The Mister’s sex scenes are “explicit and extensive” although “not nearly as transgressive and boundary-pushing as Fifty Shades”.
What’s more, James has a bit of an agenda here that goes beyond titillation. Beneath all the froth, the Times reports, there are “unexpectedly weighty topics like economic inequality, the plight of undocumented workers, the oppression of women in conservative societies and the way social institutions and governments elevate the wealthy and powerful and exploit the vulnerable”.
These are themes, the newspaper adds, that resonate in the UK today what with the ugly divisions over class, race and identity exposed by Brexit. James, a passionate Remainer, has been fairly vocal about her desire that Britain stays within the European Union. It’s an issue that crops up repeatedly in interviews with European media and she’s aware of courting a possible backlash, possibly because the issue is so divisive, but also because she expects scrutiny of everything she does.
“Being a successful, middle-aged, overweight woman,” she says, “people are so angry that you’re stepping out of line. Sometimes it really gets me down.” One imagines, though, that such moments do pass rather quickly.
Further to Brexit, Britain remains at war, so to speak, and evidence of the “indomitable island spirit” is there for all to see in the slew of new and reissued books and events to mark the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings in June. Some titles stand out.
One such promising volume is James Holland’s forthcoming Normandy ’44: D-Day and the Battle for France (Bantam), which draws on previously unseen archives and testimony to bring a new perspective on this defining episode in World War 2, one that, according to its publisher, “challenges much of what we know about the campaign”.
Military buffs may also seek out the new anniversary “coffee table” edition of Cornelius Ryan’s 1959 D-Day classic, The Longest Day: Illustrated Edition (Andre Deutsch), which comes crammed with photographs, documents and maps. Antony Beevor’s D-Day: The Battle for Normandy (Penguin) remains a perennial military history bestseller. It was first published in 2009, reissued for the 70th anniversary in 2014, and may yet come out fighting this June.
For those more interested in espionage and the work that paved the way for the landings, a new book by historian David Kenyon, Bletchley Park and D-Day: From Code Breaking to Intelligence – The Untold Story of How the Battle for Normandy Was Won (Yale University Press), due next month, should have particular appeal. Using previously classified documents, Kenyon portrays the work of the Bletchley Park community in a new light, as not just a code-breaking establishment, but as a fully developed intelligence agency where the preparations for D-Day began in 1942.
I was fortunate enough to meet Kenyon at Bletchley Park recently, and he recommended fellow historian Michael Smith’s 2011 work, The Secrets of Station X: How Bletchley Park Helped Win the War (Biteback Publishing), as perhaps the best single volume on this unique one-stop spy shop. Kenyon, it should be said, is wryly dismissive of Hollywood’s portrayals of work carried out here, such as the 2014 drama, The Imitation Game, which starred Benedict Cumberbatch as the cryptanalyst Alan Turing. (“There was no tinkering about in sheds with spanners,” he says. The decoding machine Turing helped design was built offsite by a machine manufacturing plant.)
The best fictional account about the work done at Bletchley Park is Robert Harris’s 1995 spy thriller, Enigma (Penguin). A film version appeared in 2001, starring Dougray Scott and Kate Winslet. That too got a bit of a drubbing for its historical inaccuracies. But the book is a first class page-turner of the binge-reading sort.
Two other histories relating to World War 2 are worth mentioning.
One is Culture in Nazi Germany by Michael H Kater (Yale University Press), which details how in the prewar years, a wide variety of artistic forms were used to instill a Nazi ideology in the German people and to manipulate the public perception of Hitler’s enemies. During the war, music, literature, film, theatre, the press and the visual arts were closely tied to the propaganda machine that promoted the cause of Germany’s military campaigns.
Often the struggle between creative autonomy and political control lapsed into farce, according to Kater. One of the more bizarre accounts here is of the last film shot in Nazi Germany, 1945’s Life Goes On, directed by Wolfgang Liebeneiner and starring his wife, Hilde Krahl. The film depicted the travails of apartment dwellers in Berlin under the Allied air raids. The production ran out of film, but Liebeneiner pretended to carry on shooting. Had he stopped filming, Liebeneiner and his crew would have been immediately drafted into a more dangerous part of the war effort.
The other book, which is getting more attention, is Thomas Bouverie’s Appeasing Hitler: Chamberlain, Churchill and the Road to War (Bodley Head), which tears into recent revisionist hagiographies that cast Neville Chamberlain as a greatly maligned super-pragmatist who was somehow limited by the pacifism of the British electorate but craftily used the appeasement with Hitler as a tool to gain time for Britain to arm itself in preparation for the coming storm. Writing in The Times, critic David Aaronovitch notes that, after the war, the Soviets used a similar argument to rationalise Stalin’s pact with the Nazis.
Every act of appeasement strengthened Hitler’s hand. As Aaronovitch writes, “Every time Britain backed down from confrontation – German rearmament, the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, the remilitarisation of the Rhineland, neutrality during the Spanish Civil War, the Anschluss, the annexation of the Sudetenland, the occupation of Czechoslovakia – Germany was in a worse position to fight a war than it was in 1939.” In other words, they should have acted more aggressively against Hitler years before the war actually started.
There are, Aaronovitch argues, “awkward comparisons” to be made with Brexit in Bouverie’s account. The way, he says, that appeasers “altered reality” around them to fit a “delusional strategy” – namely, by giving him what he wants, maybe Hitler would go away – reminds him of leading Brexiteers. “Under Chamberlain,” Aaronovitch argues, “appeasement became a ‘Brexit means Brexit’ item of reiterated faith, and a test of loyalty.”
Talking of the D-Day landings and anniversaries, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, legendary poet, co-founder of San Francisco’s City Lights Booksellers & Publishers and cornerstone of the Beat literary movement, celebrated his 100th birthday last month with the publication of a novel, Little Boy (Faber & Faber), a roman-à-clef examining an extraordinary century: from an orphaned childhood in 1920s New York, to serving in the US Navy at the D-Day landings, to a post-war vagabond existence in Paris, to friendships with America’s greatest chroniclers of the counterculture.
As Ferlinghetti’s publisher notes, “This is the story of one man’s extraordinary life, and the madness of the century that witnessed it – a story steeped in the exhilarating energy of the Beats, a magical torrent of language that gleams with Walt Whitman’s visionary spirit. Above all, this is the literary last will and testament of the iconic publisher and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti: not only a meditation on his 99 years on the planet, rich in wisdom, emotion, and memories, but an inspiring reflection on what our future might hold.”
Critics have raved about the book, and praised Ferlinghetti for keeping alive the “Bohemian flame”. Bob Dylan said simply: “A brave man and a brave poet.” Billy Collins, the former US poet laureate, was a little more helpful and reported that the book may start off like a conventional memoir, but before long, “Ferlinghetti reclaims his beat soul, quickens the pace, dropping punctuation like a used-up booster rocket, and off we go on the last wild, motor-mouth, book-length riff of this poet’s generation. All finger-popping readers will be gleefully swept up in this hip word-flood, this spontaneous stream – no, make that torrent of consciousness …”
The Guardian offered its readers an example of that torrent: “AND Little Boy, grown up after an endless series of confusions transplantations transformations instigations fornications confessions prognostications hallucinations consternations confabulations collaborations revelations recognitions restitutions reverberations misconceptions clarifications elucidations simplifications idealisations aspirations circumnavigations realisations radicalisations and liberations, Grown Boy came into his own voice and let loose his word-hoard pent up within him.”
As the newspaper’s critic, Ian Sansom, remarked: “This isn’t a book: it’s a reckoning.” Many happy returns, then.