Friday, 8 January 2021

Forgotten Book - Betrayals

Charles Palliser, an American long resident in Britain, is an interesting writer with a gift for pastiche. But that description doesn't do him full justice, because he has a considerable literary range as well as talent. This is well illustrated by Betrayals, a book published twenty-five years ago with more than a touch of Borges about it. It's much less well-known than his debut, Quincunx (which I'm hoping to read soon) but I found it very interesting.

The book is divided into ten sections. The first and last are extracts from a newspaper, the Daily Scot, an obituary and a review respectively. The former is a malicious piece of work, about a late Glaswegian professor called William Henry Dugdale. It refers to a number of mysterious incidents, and these allusive touches set a pattern for the book.

The next section, 'The Wrong Tracks', is particularly enjoyable. It's a collection of three stories, each told by passengers from a stranded train. It soon becomes clear that there are connecting themes, in particular about types of betrayal, and these connections continue throughout the narratives that follow. These are highly varied, and even include a parody of the then hugely popular Scottish TV series Taggart. I enjoyed Palliser's wit very much, even though I felt that particular section of the story was expanded beyond its natural length.

That said, the book doesn't, in the end, hang together quite as well as I'd hoped. There are various deliberate infelicities in the texts, and I'd anticipated a satisfying explanation for them; if one was provided, I missed it. I certainly got the impression that Palliser was paying off a few personal scores, and the book does not ultimately prove to be quite as tightly structured as it might have been, all the connections and repeated themes in the different sections of the story notwithstanding. So I can't claim that Betrayals is entirely successful, because to some extent I felt it fizzled out. But there's plenty of entertainment along the way. And plenty of ingenuity too.

4 comments:

Todd Mason said...

Interesting...playing some "Saki"-inspired games, perhaps, as well. Thanks for the pointer! I was aware of his bugcrushing The Quincunx, but haven't tried that or any other work of his yet.

J F Norris said...

I read The Quincunx years ago which I adored. It's one of the longest books I ever read in less than a week. I could not get enough of it. Talked about it for months afterwards when it first came out. One of the finest Victorian sensation novel pastiches I've ever read. Then I read his follow-up Rustication which is the only Palliser novel written about on my blog. I vaguely recall reading reviews of this one when it came out decades ago and I deliberately skipped it. However, I think you will find much to enjoy in his debut novel when you finally get to it.

Martin Edwards said...

Todd, I love that term 'bugcrushing'! It's certainly a big, big book...

Martin Edwards said...

Hello, John, and thanks. I've been daunted by the length of The Quincunx, but I'm very tempted, especially as I've been on a Dickens binge lately.