Thursday, March 06, 2008

Edward Whittemore yet again

It’s strange… reading Edward Whittemore’s books, no matter how often you do so, you still find yourself being mind blown by some piece of writing. It could be a brief phrase in a conversation that somehow sends a frisson through your brain at its aptness to the context of the moment and the entire setting of the novel. Whittemore’s writing has extraordinary depth. It is very wise, I think.

Take this short extract from Nile Shadows:

Long thoughts standing around like pilgrims outside an oasis, leaning on their staves and restlessly waiting to be spoken to life. Talk, the poor man’s gold. The thirsty man’s water.
It has that wonderful imagery of the pilgrims (in keeping with the Middle East setting) as an analogy for the brain’s function in formulating and expressing ideas in speech.

Reading Whittemore, as I have been doing over the past few months in order to gather a collection of quotations for a calendar for 2009, has delivered many of these moments of deep recognition that something serious and truthful is being expressed in the prose. And the prose, besides, is very beautiful.

It must be the tenth time I’ve reread the Jerusalem Quartet, but each time the books reveal further subtleties.

Nile Shadows is the third volume of the Jerusalem Quartet and is not even set in Jerusalem, but in Cairo during World War 2. It is an espionage novel, but it is also much more than that. In fact, it has to be the most unconventional spy novel ever written.

After the razzle dazzle of the first two tomes in the tetralogy, Nile Shadows is a much soberer novel and is thus sometimes dismissed as not up to the dizzying heights of invention of
Sinai Tapestry or Jerusalem Poker. Certainly it is darker in mood, but by no means inferior to the two earlier novels in style or content. Every time I read it I am astounded by it and deeply moved.

It is written in a highly unusual way, complete with exquisite Whittemorian prose, as a series of conversations between individual characters. Conversation/talk dominates this book, but the conversations are so enthralling you are never bored. Somehow or other the action of the novel forges ahead despite or because of the all the talk.

As an aside, Whittemore does not use quotation marks and minimal punctuation. The writing is so good that I for one didn’t even notice it the first time I read the books, nor has it mattered since. It is always clear who is talking, but quite how Whittemore manages this is beyond me. I think a lot of it has to do with the how the words are spoken. Whittemore’s books read well out loud, for instance, the excerpt above. The punctuation doesn’t make sense until you speak the words in your head.

Here’s another extract from Nile Shadows which somehow expresses the inexpressible:
I suppose we all have to delve into the Egyptologist’s craft now and then, and there even seem to be some hieroglyphs involved. A code, so to speak. Things I can’t decipher because there’s no Rosetta Stone for this one.

It strikes me as amazing that Edward Whittemore’s books are not better known He’s been obscure for decades and even when he was alive never sold many books, but no one writes or has written quite like him, before or since. He’s unique and I feel privileged to be part of his small world wide devoted readership.

1 comment:

Chad Hull said...

I finished this a few weeks ago, and found it to be a bit stiff. I certainly plan to re read it in the future; hopefully then I'll get the appreciate you seem to have for the novel.