Saturday, July 21, 2007

Modesty Forever (CAUTION: Spoilers Galore!)

PenguinIndia's RetroRevival edition of the MB novels

I wrote this a couple of weeks ago but what with all the travelling and other mundane stuff, I didn't get around to posting it. I realize that MB is entirely unknown to large sectors of the universe but to those of us who grew up with her, she is the Peerless One. This long ramble is probably fit only for those who know her well and since it's full of spoilers, perhaps unsuitable to would-be new readers. The Penguin edition which I got for review is a must-have addition to anyone's library -- despite atrocious proofing errors (particularly in the first book -- apparently because the RetroRevival series is created directly from a scanned version of the original text)It is also the only source of a paperback version of the final book.

I've always known that Modesty Blaise occupied a very special place in my personal pantheon of fictional idols. Still, it was only when I read the final book of the 13 volumes of Penguin India's Modesty Blaise Retro-Revival series that the depth of my feeling for her reached out and punched me in the tear ducts.

As any MB fan knows, the thirteenth book (COBRA TRAP), is the one in which Modesty and her peerless partner Willie Garvin, shuffle off their perfectly proportioned, superbly coordinated and much-scarred mortal coils. I had always assumed that it was a novel, but no, it's the title story of a collection of five shorts. The book was first published in 1996 and like fans everywhere, I've been aware of it for all these years. But I'd never read it nor did I particularly want to. It's been a while since I felt much curiosity about Modesty and Willie and the last time I read one of her novels was really a long time ago - in the eighties, I think (LAST DAY IN LIMBO).

So when I received the complete set of MB books from India*, sent for review in OUTLOOK magazine, I was mildly amused at the prospect of re-immersing myself in that world of fast-paced adventure. It was only going to be a 250-word review so I didn't plan to read all 13 books before my deadline. I read the first six, wrote the review, sent it off and settled down to read the remaining seven at my leisure. My plan was to blog about the whole series at length, once I'd read the lot.

But here I am, at the end of the fifteen-day cycle - one book a day, with a break in the middle to write the review - feeling most uncharacteristically wet around the gills! It's VERY weird. Because, let's be clear - this is a comic-strip heroine. While she certainly has gorgeous legs and elegant combat skills and the books are thrilling to read, they are by no means showcases of deathless prose, nor (I'm sure) were they ever meant to be. They're adventure-thrillers centred upon a pair of tremendously likeable characters and that's all, that's everything.

So why this upwelling of grief? Why do I care? Why does the fictional death of a fictional heroine affect me so much?

Well …

It's like this: I first met Modesty in the comics' pages of the Bangkok World, in Thailand, when I was a short, dumpy, lonely, unhappy 12-year-old. Forty-two years later, I am only slightly taller, exactly as dumpy and though not quite as lonely or unhappy, long shadows remain of all the cumulative confusions dating from those three years in Thailand. Perhaps that's part of the reason why Modesty made such a deep impression upon me: I met her when I most needed an anchor and she didn't let me down. She was only a tiny, black-clad figure in a comic strip, but she imparted to me - and no doubt to millions of other confused youngsters like me around the world - important lessons about self-empowerment and self-reliance.

She was no steely-eyed vigilante, spy or detective. When she drew her sights upon wrong-doers it was because they had crossed paths with her and caused her to notice their moral deviance. She had strong loyalties and even stronger friendships. And though it may have been tempting to regard her as a standard-bearer for a certain kind of sixties' era feminism, in truth she was too much of an original to fit within the boundaries of any "-isms".

As a female character, perhaps her most striking quality was that she was resolutely heart-free. She had lovers a-plenty, entering into her romantic entanglements with enthusiasm and flair, but her heart was always her own absolute preserve. We never saw her moping over a paramour or listening anxiously to the ticking of her biological clock. The prospect of rape didn't terrify her, nor did she obsess over unpleasant sexual encounters once they were over. She was astoundingly talented in several arenas of the martial arts and yet she was never merely a warrior: she didn't fight for the pleasure of combat or for blood-lust, but because she had her favourite causes and she liked to save the lives of those who entered her field of influence. She wasn't a tedious old harangue-hag and she had moments of tremendous fun which included such commonplace pleasures as tobogganing or eating icecream at a village fair or going for a swim.

Reading the novels now, all these many years later, I found the old allure stealing up on me as I went from book to book. I had read perhaps five of them earlier. Now I saw how well-turned the stories are, even though they follow a repeating pattern: there's the preamble in which the cast of characters is assembled, the gradual build up of hostilities, the immersion in some impossibly complicated and sinister situation, ending with a rousing dénouement complete with duels to the death and hair's-breadth escapes from all manner of near-fatal encounters. There are the little details of texture and atmosphere, the stylish touches in Modesty's clothes and the off-beat tastefulness in the choice of wine, music or art. It'll be Braque and Miro on the walls, rather than Picasso. It'll be Frank Zappa playing in the background - so specific, such a very precise flavour that nothing more is required to describe the mood of that moment - rather than the Beatles or the Stones.

There are the exotic locales and the broader-than-usual palette of culture: Modesty, for example, merely passes for Anglo-European without necessarily belonging within the category. Her precise ancestry is a mystery that's never revealed. She may well, for instance, possess some Arab blood, what with her rich black hair and warm complexion. In today's world, that makes her practically revolutionary. Willie is Cockney and speaks with an accent, though we're told he can pass for any type of Englishman, when he chooses. And both villains and friends are drawn from a spectrum of European "types". Some are awful caricatures but I don't really care. Modesty's world encompasses a larger sector of the planet than just New York, London, Paris or Athens and that's part of what I love about the series.

Of course it's possible that one reason I don't mind the caricatures too much is that there are almost no Indians (I detected only one major character who happened to be Indian: a henchtwit by the name of Mrs Ram, described as a "Punjabi". She was indeed pathetic and I'm very glad she passed into oblivion with no-one to mourn her**) and therefore no specific antibodies for my literary T-cells to target. American characters were mercifully thin on the ground: I find that many English authors produce clod-like geeks with idiotic speech-mannerisms when they attempt American characters and I always find myself wincing when I encounter them in English books. But one of Modesty's most steady boyfriends is an American millionaire (John Dall) with Native American ancestors and her only enduring female friend is a Canadian girl (Dinah) who sprouts the occasional "honey" to prove her transatlantic credentials. So I am inclined to forgive the excesses.

Here's a quick run-down of my personal thumbs up/down/sideways:

MODESTY BLAISE
As the curtain-raiser it offers not only a very satisfying introduction to MB and WG, but includes an essay by the author about the provenance of MB's character – to the extent that there was any provenance. The book has dated only mildly and I find it attractive that the author/editors chose to leave it untouched. We can judge for ourselves the fact that we HAVE travelled some distance from those days when a woman like Modesty had to explain to an ex-lover that he doesn't own her, has no rights over the choices she makes with her body and that he's better off allowing her to take the lead when facing down a bunch of villains. Not a huge great distance but … still. It's also amusing to watch how much M and W used to smoke – I had forgotten that! It seems to me they smoke less and less as the books progress and I think (though I might be wrong) that there's no active smoking after DRAGON'S CLAW. Leads me to wonder whether or not PO'D is a smoker and whether he still smokes.

SABRE-TOOTH
This is the one I liked best of those that were new to me. There's a rough edge to it which is what I always liked about Modesty's adventures – she doesn't kid around. When she shoots the ex-boyfriend it doesn't have the quality of phony high-drama as in the Tomb-Raider movie. Modesty does it because she must and then it's over  he's the one who makes a big deal about the element of being one of her ex- s, not she. She doesn't fret, she doesn't agonize.

I, LUCIFER
There's often a teasing edge of mysticism in MB's world  and this is the book in which it is most manifest. I quite liked it, especially the deliciously camp quality of Lucifer's delusions. I thought MB's kindness towards him was quite exceptional  exactly what makes her such a sterling character. The old-couple villains were just over the edge of unbelievable, I thought, but then again, the puppets were a good touch – bizarre, improbable, but funny too. I liked the huge shifts of locale. Didn't anticipate the dolphins … But I must confess it was very difficult for me to accept Stephen Collier as boyfriend material. He's sweet but … uh-uh. Didn't work for me.

A TASTE FOR DEATH
Thumbs up. Good villain, great scene in the desert fort. I liked the way Dinah's gifts came gradually into use – the way that we're introduced to them, we're allowed to wonder why she's with us and how she can possibly, as a blind person engage fully in an adventure  and then of course we're rapped over the knuckles for thinking within the box. Once again, I liked the cross-planetary stretch – from South America to the Sahara  and even though I anticipated the pilot's defection (he reminded me of Knut, in Tintin – even though Knut is a good guy). Since I happen to be an amateur dowser, I didn't need to suspend my belief in Dinah's abilities (well, not the dowsing aspect). Loved the pearls!

THE IMPOSSIBLE VIRGIN
I'd read this before and remember liking it, but this time around I found Pennyfeather too utterly insufferable. I remember him from the strips too and never approved of him as a b.f. – my bias, no doubt. Tall stringy spaced-out chaps don't appeal to me  I associate them with messy personal habits and sloppiness in general  and I didn't enjoy the notion of him sharing a bed with Her Exceptionalness. Of course, there's the famous appendectomy – and MB's frightening loss of mental alertness due to drugs, but the pace of events became a little too jerky for me towards the end and I lost concentration. I just wanted to get it over with.

PIECES OF MODESTY
Hmm. Didn't much like the shorts. They were … well … too short. Perforce gimmicky. But then again, they were useful for covering a few broad stretches of narrative at a gallop. I liked the last three better than the first three.

THE SILVER MISTRESS
Read this before and enjoyed it once again. I have never forgotten that final scene in the cave. Always thought Tarrant must've enjoyed having a good old grope  and in an excellent cause, i.e., his own survival. In this instance, I found the way in which MB reverses the odds so that they are no longer overwhelmingly against her, more convincing than in some of the other books. Fighting in the water, covered in grease while the rascally opponent struggles for breath -- totally cool. Also loved WG's javelin throw at the end. I didn't much care for Quinn, though I could understand his type of confused young man -- a relic of the hi-jack era (remember that silly joke about carrying a bomb on board in order to alter the percentage risk of there being TWO bombs onboard?) -- but I always approved of the manner in which MB went to bed with him, entirely as a healing enterprise. That is the first time I had ever encountered a character doing that -- and I can't, off-hand, think of any instances since.

LAST DAY IN LIMBO
Yesssss … I remember reading this one. Very neat switching of locales, I liked all of that back-reference to Bermuda-Triangle-type mysteries -- an attempt to explain them. Once again, I was fascinated with Modesty's ability to ride over the whateveritwas sexual abuse – so all right, this is fiction: but OTHER fictional characters spend whole lifetimes struggling with a single instance of sexual abuse. How come we accept that Modesty can overcome her stuff? What is the quality of resilience that permits her to do what others cannot -- while remaining credible?

THE XANADU TALISMAN
This was a bit of a stretch, but I liked it anyway. Loved the old pack-rat in the mountains with the the Pahlavi Crown in his cave! I've seen that crown, the real one, in Teheran, so I felt an odd, goose-bumpy connection. Of course old Pennyfeather was on hand to bumble around, but the fight scenes were hot, I thought. And we don't see Pennyfeather again, after this story, thank goodness.

DRAGON'S CLAW
I sort of guessed about Solon, but not the how/why. I wasn't convinced about the artist because I never really believe in the Glory Of Art when it appears in novels. There's a forced quality about it that I don't understand  I've noticed it in a few other books  a kind of annoying reverence. It's like Art takes the place that is occupied, in other books, by Religion  the kind of books I don't read. But I liked the method of escape and the way it was set up. Didn't go for the bible-thumping assassin. Too camp for my taste.

DEAD MAN'S HANDLE
Ummhumm. Didn't like the nympho-satyr couple and the villain was a bit hackneyed now that we're down to the 12th book. Poor Willie's brainwashing was quite interesting though and I liked the way he struggled to overcome it  though, of course, we KNEW he would, so that wasn't suspenseful  but it was amongst the best moments in an otherwise slightly stale book. Maybe if I hadn't already beentheredonethat, it would have been different.

COBRA TRAP
What can I say? Despite all the fore-knowledge and mental-preparation, the actual curtain call just floored me. Flat out. I read the first four stories, drew in a deep breath and plunged in to the final one. And … it STILL laid me out. I actually couldn't read it straight through. I kind of meandered in and out of it, hopped-skipped-jumped and landed at the end in a crumpled heap. Had to go back to it later the same day to get all the details straight (you know … the setting up of the plastic explosives, the timing of the train's movement, all that stuff).

It's ridiculous! But there we are. It really and deeply affected me.

Though I began this essay immediately after finishing the books, this is now several weeks later. I can look back languidly to the first few moments of shock, grateful now for the distance. Nevertheless, I still feel very sad. I have been telling myself that it isn't really sadness, that there's a completeness here that is very much in tune with the whole of MB's character -- this is PO'D telling us that we must be clear-eyed till the end – and that there IS an end.

But. But.

Other fictional characters live on in their fictional infinity, despite our absolute knowledge of their mortality. They are allowed to be immortal on our behalf. Look at the others -- Tarzan swings on! James Bond shakes his martinis unstirred! Doctor Kildare twinkles roguishly at the nurses! From Little Nemo to Li'l Abner, even when they vanish from the newspapers, they don't vanish from their fictional mortality.

Okay, okay – so Sherlock Holmes died and so did Poirot. Superman has died several times, I think? And Batman has made at least two attempts -- at this moment, I no longer know whether or not he was left with a viable heartbeat at the end of the Dark Avenger. Yet none of those deaths were sad –- not for me, anyway -- so much as interesting, inevitable and quite satisfying.

Why was Modesty's death so hard to take? It was surely beautiful, after all. Very cool, in its way, neat and surgical. We could all wish for such completeness and poise at the final moment. It was strangely intimate too, in some way that is hard to define. I realize now I'm not going to discuss the final page -- those of you reading this either already know what I mean or you'll have to go there and find it for yourselves -- because it's rather too "inner-space" to talk about openly, in this glaring, world-wide web-stage. There's a quality of poetry and transcendence that doesn't belong in an adventure series, dammit! And yet even that is managed in the same rough-elegant style as all the rest: a slice of wry with a twist of poetry laid lightly across it.

So all right. Maybe I've got to tell myself that these aren't tears at all, just … appreciation. That's right, appreciation. Here's to you, MB! Thanks for all the fish.

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*they arrived by DHL, in TWO DAYS!! I was blown away - and when I expressed amazement to the cute young guy who delivered the package to me, he said, smiling wide: "Yup, that's us - King of International!"

** Reference was also made, in the same book (DEAD MAN'S HANDLE) to a "Patel", but he remained colourless enough to ignore.

1 comment:

Sharanya Manivannan said...

I had a crush on Modesty when I was about 9. She was just... beautiful.