Friday, January 27, 2006

Malcolm Pryce: The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Aberystwyth

The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Aberystwyth is the third in Malcolm Pryce's series of novels about Louie Knight, a private eye who is based in, um, Aberystwyth. Which, for the sake of those living outside the UK, is a modest little town (with a lot to be modest about, one suspects) on the west coast of Wales. It has a university (part of the University of Wales), an old castle, a pier, an arts centre, and a marina. Pop. 13,500.

Pryce's first book in the series was Aberystwyth Mon Amour, which appeared in 2001; then came Last Tango in Aberystwyth, in 2003; and in 2005 the third in the series.

The Aberystwyth books are definitely cross-genre. At the very least they are crime/fantasy, thought they could be labelled crime/fantasy/humour. I enjoyed the first two enough to take the trouble to track down the latest.

In the great private-eye tradition of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, Louie Knight acts as his own first-person narrator. And, again in the great tradition, the story begins with a client sitting in the PI's office; only this time the client has a tail, because she's a monkey who was once an astronaut on the Welsh Space Programme, and her son, Mr Bojangles, is missing.

It gets weirder than that in places. Before long, for instance, we meet a veteran of the Patagonian War called Rimbaud. (Try pronouncing it in French, rather than Welsh.) And we also meet a nun called Sister Cunegonde. But fear not. You are in the hands of a most assured writer. This guy is smart, and he's been practising.

In fact, there are whole pages at a time in this book when the writing is so good that it really leaves one a bit breathless -- at least if you're a writer. If you're a reader, I think you probably won't notice, consciously, how outstanding it is. Because although it is very clever, this prose does not, thank God, stand up, wave a flag, and shout LOOK AT ME! AREN'T I BRILLIANT? In the way that many a literary author's prose does.

On page 111, for example, we have a description of a clapped-out seaside district which is quite outstanding in its power to evoke a scene which will be dreadfully familiar to many British readers. (Shades of summer holidays in caravans, with Mum and Dad, in places which looked lovely in the brochure but turned out to be a bit different.) Here's a brief quote. The town is described as being:

...about as poor as you can get without selling a kidney. It's not a one-horse town, not even a hoof, maybe the imprint left by a horseshoe nailed once long ago to a fence or maybe just a handful of oats.

After a short walk over the hilltop you arrive at the top of a valley that the sun never kisses; never even shakes hands with or even acknowledges with a curt nod....

Down below I found a few grubby bits of land on which caravans were anchored with bricks and strung together with a cat's cradle of washing lines and TV aerials; white pebbles from the beach were laid out to signify territorial possession....

For entertainment you can lose some money at the amusement arcade situated in a breeze-block room that anywhere else on earth would be called a garage. Or you can take a car out to the main road and drive fast over the hump-backed bridge.

In its bleakness, this description reminds me of Swinburne's great poem A Forsaken Garden. And you have to be pretty damn good to remind me of Swinburne.

Pryce's description of going into a girls school is also well nigh perfect.

The sweet descant of girls' singing drifted on the air like the scent of flowers at dusk. It was accompanied by something I hadn't encountered for many years: the smell of school dinner. Cabbage boiled to the colour of bone; the smell of water drunk from a glass made from car windscreen material; brown food colouring and flour and fat congealing into the brown tapioca that is called gravy.

And there's a lot more like that. Mr Pryce also has a nice line in original similes and metaphors. Nice, because they seem to come naturally, without having had an enormously long delivery time. Richard Condon and Chester Himes were a couple of other crime/thriller writers who went in for colourful similes, but in Condon's case they often felt a bit artificial: as when he described someone as having a voice which sounded like 'a suit of armour falling downstairs'.

In short, what we have in The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Aberystwyth is a gem.

I have no idea whether Mr Pryce is a full-time writer or not (his biography, as we shall see, is decidedly fishy). But, for what it is worth, I want to make the point that this book could certainly have been written by someone working in his spare time. And yet a very special kind of someone, because this man was not in a hurry when he wrote. I don't say that he spent hours sweating over each sentence. But the story has a leisurely feel to it. This was written by a man who was not so consumed by ambition -- to win next year's Booker, say -- that he rushed things along. And it shows. It has an unhurried and unforced feel to it, which in places is quite wonderful.

As for the humour... Well, it's certainly a very funny book in places. Towards the end it becomes a bit more serious and a bit sadder than I would wish. But hey -- it's not my book. And the author is entitled to call it the way he sees it.

I can't help feeling, having seen the wonderful Funland, that this would make a good TV serial. Let's hope so.

Now for further info. Mr Pryce's official web site, like his book, is a bit eccentric. However, his publisher (Bloomsbury) helps out. You can read the first chapters of the first two books, and also study his biography. This maintains, as such things always do, that he has worked on the BMW assembly line, and has sold aluminium; and, doubtless, worked as a doorman at a brothel for one-legged sailors. It claims that he lives in Bangkok. Personally I think this is all a load of kok from start to finish. I think he's a librarian in Swansea.


Lee said...

Thanks for this suggestion, which sounds delicious!

Bernita said...

I find a remarkable similarity at times between your prose and the writing of Leslie Charteris.
Yes, I know the adventures of the Saint were written long before I was born, certainly;but I make no apology for that or for my enjoyment of both his and your styles.
Last night I came across this passage:

"By this time all the world had heard of the Saint. It has been estimated( by those industrious gentlemen who estimate these things) that if all the columns that the newspapers have devoted to the Saint were placed end to end, they would reach from the south-east corner of the Woolworth Building, New York, to a point seventeen inches west of the commissionaire outside the Berkley Street entrance of the Mayfair Hotel, London - which, was remarked at the time, only goes to prove that the bridging of the gulf between rich and poor can be materially helped by the vigorous efforts of a democratic Press."

Anonymous said...

Bernita, old pen pal,
You are approaching an unbearable lightness of being, and I somehow got off the topic of Malcolm Pryce
and onto this incredible Czech movie I once saw. Just too banged out right now to czech into the epistemology of incorporating other titles into ones own book titles.

Maxine Clarke said...

Thank you for the fascinating post. I read the first "Aberystwyth" book when it first came out in paperback - the artwork, title and venue intrigued me (I used to be taken on family holidays to Aberystwyth as a child). I did enjoy the prose and the fantastically imaginative plot. However I did find the denouement and ending overheated (even for this book). I have not been tempted to read another in the series becuase I felt he'd "done" the idea.
I read the first Jasper Fforde book (which I think very like the Pryce one) with a similar reaction: loved the imagination and idea, but I just wasn't that motivated to read more of the same as it all became too self-regarding by the end.
But maybe I should.....

Bernita said...

Dear me, I am reproved, if not traduced.

Anonymous said...

Double treduce me, Bernita.
I am a lousy card player. One of the sure signs of being a writer (at least that's my excuse). Writers are supposed to hate time-killing passtimes, to use bad assonance.
Your blog, like this one, is extremely popular.
Grumpy no dwarf. Long legs.

Bernita said...


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