Skip to content

James Ellroy: The Eye of This Storm

March 1, 2020

Now that some time has passed since the publication of James Ellroy’s This Storm, I thought it would be a good moment to revisit the novel and reassess it with some objective distance. To do this, I have been burrowing in the files and plunging deep into my subconscious.

One memory stood out. It was from when I saw Ellroy speak in Manchester during his 2014 publicity tour for Perfidia. Ellroy asked the audience whether any of them knew or admired the work of the English composer Havergal Brian. No one, including myself, in the largely British audience had heard of Brian. I was intrigued. Ellroy’s admiration for composers such as Anton Bruckner and Beethoven is well-known. He keeps a bust of Beethoven on his writing desk. But I had never heard him mention the name Havergal Brian before. I can remember Ellroy gushing about what he most admired about Brian’s work. Havergal Brian enjoyed periodic success in his music career, but by the end of his long life he was working in relative obscurity. Unlike other British composers such as Benjamin Britten or Ralph Vaughan Williams he did not enjoy the privilege of a middle or upper-middle class background or the patronage of the establishment to further his music career. He was noted for being prolific. He was still composing well into his ninth decade. And despite his lack of critical recognition his music was epic and ambitious – The Gothic is one of the longest symphonies ever written. Given the logistical challenges it presents, the work is rarely performed and is by no means universally admired by music critics.

Havergal Brian

The more I read about Havergal Brian and listen to his music, the more I see how his ghost looms large over Ellroy’s recent writing. Like Brian, Ellroy’s family background was modest. He never graduated from an Ivy League university to write about middle-class problems in Suburban America. His talent was driven by his burning obsessions. Ellroy celebrates his seventy-second birthday this week and his books continue to get bigger, increasingly ambitious and more challenging to readers and critics alike. Ellroy is too competitive and well-established in his field to slip into obscurity in the same way that Havergal Brian did. But part of Ellroy appreciates how Brian, through his constant outpouring of classical music, fulfilled his Romantic destiny to ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’.

If the work of Havergal Brian has been a hidden influence on Ellroy’s work then the references to WH Auden in This Storm were, at times, mystifying. The novel repeatedly employs the phrase ‘This storm, this savaging disaster’. It is supposedly an Auden quote, but the source is never fully made clear. Kay Lake writes in her diary ‘Joan (Conville) quoted it repeatedly and never ascribed a specific source.’ Ellroy has said of the Auden quote:

It’s an interpolation, a fiction. There is a letter WH Auden wrote to his friend Christopher Isherwood and I remember taking a look at it years ago and he used “this savaging disaster”, which, to me, felt incomplete. I wanted a title for this book that reflected my themes, reflected LA in winter and reflected the Pacific coast and I came up with the words “this storm”, which I felt I’d seen somewhere previously. In the book I attribute “this storm, this savaging disaster” to Auden even though he didn’t write that complete line.

As Peter Strempel has pointed out, Ellroy’s memory of Auden’s words has put the line through several permutations. He took it from a poem Auden wrote to his friend, and sometime lover, Christopher Isherwood titled ‘To a Writer On His Birthday’. The line actually reads ‘Who gives us nearer insight to resist / The expanding fear, the savaging disaster?’ The fluidity of memory and influence in Ellroy’s writing seems apt given the difference between the original LA Quartet and the recent novels. Personally, I don’t think once the new Quartet is finished Ellroy will have written a fully coherent fictional history of the US from 1941 to 1972, which he claims is his aim. How will he reconcile Dudley Smith’s parenting of Elizabeth Short with his absence from her murder investigation in 1947 if, as Ellroy insists, the new Quartet ends on VJ Day, 1945?

The new novels are more complex and dreamlike than that. For the first time the reader is in Dudley Smith’s head and it’s a strange place to be. With his opium habit, kimono fetish, blood-drenched memories of the Irish War of Independence and communion with a mystical wolf, Dudley is not a reliable character to make historical revelations. This might irk readers who usually revel in Ellroy’s ability to create and shape a plausible secret history but, upon revisiting This Storm I found that once I accepted these compromises I began to enjoy the text far more. Oh, and another thing, ‘The Expanding Fear’ might be a great title for volume three in the Quartet.

This Storm is Auden rewritten and Havergal Brian writ large. It is also quintessentially Ellrovian.

This Storm

 

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Dan permalink
    March 11, 2020 1:57 am

    I will probably re-read This Storm in a month or so. I am probably more positive overall than many other long-term fans about the new quartet while recognizing there are some flaws that I don’t think would have happened 20 years ago.

    My biggest concern is opening up a Pandora’s Box of questions that never even existed prior to the new series (the questions around the Black Dahlia case being the most obvious). I am excited by the possibilities but worried that Ellroy either has no inclination to address them or never has the chance as he gets older.

    • March 11, 2020 2:27 pm

      Hi Dan, it definitely improves on the second reading. And at east with the abundance of sub-plots you can lose yourself in one that you like.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: