Monday, March 07, 2016

Victor Canning

We will yet save you from the glutine. The aples is better bruised first.

There was a moon, five days past the full, and striking sparks of quicksilver from the outcrops

the easeful sweep of his legs, and the feeling of hard ground under him, came like a balm after his cramped day in the pit

A great velvet moth burred into his face

Once from the pale sky a shooting star drew a curve of instant fire

a train rattling by, and as he opened his eyes he saw the brightly-lit windows swirl before him like a cinema-screen, saw nodding heads and faces that gaped through the glass

Victor Canning

Victor Canning was a hard-working popular novelist of the mid-century. Forty-one books are listed and I expect they are all good; the kind a straightforward reader could not merely enjoy but love. I suppose the hardbacks went into lending libraries (perhaps they are still there) and the paperbacks onto railway bookstalls in the home counties. The titles may be quotations (His Bones are Coral), sporting tags (Doubled in Diamonds) or the sort of thing that Robert Ludlum later tried to trademark (The Scorpio Letters). 

I have only read two of them, and they are very different, though not as different as they can be made to sound. Mr Finchley discovers his England (1934) is a rumbustious tale of a balding bachelor’s summer holiday, which turns into a chain of delightful misadventures. Venetian Bird (1951) is a taut thriller whose hero is a self-disgusted private enquiry agent. But the later book is fundamentally warm-hearted, and the earlier one is not as sentimental as you’d expect. Both heroes “find themselves”, just the thing that the readers dreamt of (I think the readers would have been men), as they peered out from their ossified jobs and ossified leisure. 

I extracted the lines above from two pages of Mr Finchley. Canning had a marvellous gift for description on the run. But the dialogue in Mr Finchley  belongs to an age before the talkies, expansive and literary. Venetian Bird, on the other hand, is like this:

San Marco itself seemed cut out of metallic paper, livid golds and greens under the powerful lights, and the Campanile was a great raw finger scratching at the dark sky with its sharp nail.

Rosa was lying back in her chaise-longue listening to the radio when he arrived. She held up a hand to stop him from talking, nodded at the bottle on the low table and went on listening. Someone was reading poetry – a resonant, compelling voice. Mercer poured himself a drink, half-listening . . .

            “Sperai ch il tempo, e i duri casi, e queste
                        Rupi ch’io varco anelando . . .”

Rosa had always had a weakness for poetry. He lit a cigarette and watched her. Her eyes were shut and the large face was stupid in its contented collapse. Ten years ago and few men would have turned away from her bed if invited. Now . . .her feet stuck out from the bottom of the wrap and he saw the pink bulge of flesh over the curve of her slippers like over-stuffed sausages.

                        “. . . Amor fra l’ombre inferne
                        Seguirammi immortale, omnipotente.”

The voice stopped and she switched the radio off.

“Ugo Foscolo – one of my favourites.”

“I like his voice.”

“You’re a barbarian, dear boy. Foscolo’s dead. It was being read by another poet – Madeo Nervi. He’s coming to Venice soon for some Arts Festival. I shall go and listen to him. You can take me – if you’re here.”

“I will – if I’m here.”

She said: “Within the last hour someone’s cracked you on the forehead. The blood’s scarcely dry.”

“I ran into a wall.”

“In your job that happens sometimes.”

He got up and walked around the room with his glass in his hand. He stopped by the window, running one finger gently along the slats of the blind.

“Did you find anything about the girl Medova?”

“Not much.” She knew he wasn’t going to talk. She didn’t want to know anything for herself, but talking might help him. She’d made it her business to have a look at the girl and had been jealous – pleased in fact by her jealousy like someone coming into a cold room and finding a red ember waiting to be blown to warmth under the grey ashes.

(How easily, by the way, the author deals with everyone speaking Italian throughout the book. Mercer’s is very good, of course, but not up to engaging with a poem on the radio when it’s already half-way through. Instead, he fixes on the voice.)

Eva Bartok and Richard Todd in the 1952 movie Venetian Bird



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