REVIEWS ANCIENT AND MODERN
PAPER AND DIGITAL
REVIEWS ANCIENT AND MODERN
PAPER AND DIGITAL
Over the past 2-3 years I have posted over 150 reviews of books on sites such as Amazon, Good Reads, Bookgrouponline, the Freethinker and recently my blogsite.
Here in alphabetical order by author are some that have appeared on Amazon, on Good Reads and as Nonsuch on Bookgrouponline:
Ackroyd, Peter, English Music
I couldn't get through Hawksmoor or Chatterton, but found Ackroyd's Dickens superb. Of course as a Londoner who is obsessed by Dickens, Ackroyd is to some extent pre-programmed. The same themes keep coming up - mystery, nightwalking, dreams, nightmares, spiritualism etc, but always with a new slant. He's certainly an acquired taste and those who love him will love him. Not sure I could ever be one of their number.
However, I picked up English Music at a charity stall a few weeks ago, and remembering the reviews from way back - and particularly a ferociously panning one by Peter Kemp on Radio 3 - I determined to be fair to the man and give it a go. The verdict? Well, as always with Ackroyd's novels, I was fascinated at the beginning, charmed along the way, but not exactly panting to get to the end of the road 400 pages later.
English Music is, as Ackroyd addicts would expect, 'a literary novel,' meaning one written in elegant prose and not produced to formula. It aims above all and like all such literary novels to reveal the consciouness of a central character. Ackroyd, however, unlike, say, Henry James, is quirky and bizarre, mixing genres - farce, melodrama, philosophical ramblings, sermon and pastiche with straight narrative that tells a story. English Music recalled for me a totally different kind of fictional mish-mash - Melville's Moby Dick. Each new chapter seems to embark on a fresh track, often dipping into our (i.e. English) literary heritage, to show the reader how much life is a dream, a recurring fiction whose forms change but whose message is always the same - that life is a dream etc. For Eng Lit students this is often quite fun, but for the common reader - well, he or she will probably agree with Peter Kemp that enough is enough and too much is way too much.
However, I'm a lit crit wallah and hence found a certain fascination in having Alice, Miss Havisham, Robinson Crusoe, Defoe himself, Purcell, Byrd, and even Man Friday (a dog in this case) as my companions as I wandered with Tim (surely a reincarnation of Tiny Tim) to try to find his spiritual (and spiritualist) father (Yes, Joyce is never far away) amongst English Literature and English music.
So the story's no good but what about the elegant prose, then, and the 'philosophy'? Sometimes Ackroyd will hit upon a truism of staggering banality, such as 'even in childhood, it is possible to entertain two opposite sides of consciousness at the same time.' What is the reader to do with this - underline it? Mark, note and inwardly digest it? We are treated to such gems of wisdom throughout the 'story.' The themes are banged home: The Eternal Return. Son seeking Father. Language flowing like music, like ideas, like life. Spirits merely inhabit bodies for a time and other neo-Platonic fantasies. Here characters pop out of fiction at the drop of a hat; they have walk-on parts in Tim's fantasies, are archetypes or prototypes. With Tim (and Time - yes, Ackroyd is not above the obvious pun) we are conducted through the streets of London, where every man is a child and every body a walking spirit. Someone has read too much Dickens. Me, I prefer Dickens.
Adair, Gilbert, Love and Death on Long Island
This fictional memoir of a love affair between a defunct ageing writer and Ronnie Bostock, a handsome young actor is an engaging study of an obsession bordering on madness. The reader soon realises that the sophisticated and highly articulate narrator has nothing in common with the rising star, a young pin-up whose image appears on sundry teen magazines as a role model. In fact Ronnie’s picture on the stills outside a Hampstead cinema becomes the seed of a monstrous passion that drives the narrator to fly to Long Island to meet his love object.
This short novel is beautifully paced, as the narrator intellectualises his physical yearning for the boy: ‘Was I alone in tracing beneath the conventional surface a timeless and universal ideal, an almost supernatural radiance of pure heart, of innocent spirit and of sun-inflamed flesh?’ The details about the youth’s ripe redness of the lower lip, the way he wiped sweat from his brow and even ‘the inside cup of his elbow’ show how far the obsession has gone, but we are as yet only a third of the way through the book; the pair have yet to meet, and, although Ronnie knows nothing of his latest fan, a meeting is inevitable.
The style Adair adopts is deliberately pedantic and meticulous. In some sentences the distance between subject and eventual object can exceed 50 words. Precision and accuracy are essential to the narrator’s fidelity to his feelings. He is the archetypal dilettante, with a sublime contempt for the world around him; the fake and tawdry trappings of the entertainment industry, for instance, allow him ample opportunity for invective, as do the clichés of the press. Yet when the banalities of gossip columnists are lavished on Ronnie, the lover is delighted: ‘that he would kiss a girl on their first date “only if she made it clear she wanted me to” and that his greatest ambition was to play in a movie opposite Madonna. ‘Had he ever been in love?' “Who hasn’t?” Pet hate? ‘Designer stubble.’ And his secret unspoken fantasy? ‘To go to bat for the Mets.’
Embracing the mandarin style of a Henry James and the self-referential qualities of a Marcel Proust, Love and Death on Long Island is a classical display of fine writing in miniature format. Overall it’s a haunting account of romantic love, the supreme idiocy that flesh is heir to.
Adefope, Jidi, The Shaping Spirit
Jide Adefope's wide-ranging study of the human spirit is something
of a cri de coeur to non-believers. In the author's attempt to embrace
religion, science and politics the author leaves himself open to the charge of
populism, and even superficiality. For this is a book for the lay man, one
without those infuriating prefaces and other apparatus such as end notes that burden more in-depth studies.
However, behind his investigation of man's genetic and racial inheritance, the reader is aware of that spectral Creator who is under considerable attack in contemporary thinking. In fact, after having all but disposed of the anthropomorphic deity of former centuries, Adefope goes on to invoke that very ghost: 'God created His wonderful work of Creation out of His Living Power.' This reads like nonsense and betrays the author's earlier objective and illuminating study of man the clever animal who is burdened with scientific knowledge.
Further departures from contemporary thinking occur when the author introduces four laws (or as he prefers it Laws)that are treated as universal truths. Deriving from the author's guru Abd-ru-shin (ie Oskar Ernst Bernhardt 1875-1941), these three basic laws, we are told, 'gear into each other in the perfect mechanism of the entire Creation.' They are the Law of Attraction of Homogenous Species, the Law of Reciprocal Action, and the Law of Gravity.' Adefope explains how these laws work at some length and few would dispute his argument for their efficacy as moral precepts. But laws they are not.
It is unusual today to find a thoughtful and generally fluently written book that unashamedly invokes the Creation, yet this author, while sceptical about Big Bang theory, embraces anthropology, cosmology, bio-chemistry and quantum physics. Underpinning the universe, according to the author, is the Creator, not seen as an impersonal manic force but, strangely and incongruously, as a divine and purposeful presence. Many today may wish they could share that optimism.
Adiga, Aravind. The WhiteTiger
This Booker-winning novel exposing the corruptions rife in contemporary India comes with many plaudits from America, Britain, India, Germany, but not as far as I can see from China or Russia - which is significant in that the ills besetting the last two countries are not dissimilar to those of India, except that poverty is as far as one knows less extensive.
Adiga’s novel begins with an address to ‘The Premier’s Office in Beijing, Capital of the Freedom-Loving Nation of China’ given by the son of a rickshaw-puller, Balram Halwai. Balram, our narrator, is a wanted man, having, as he soon tells us, cut the throat of his employer, Mr Ashok. Balram was his driver and had become that very rare thing, a trusted servant, in his employer’s eyes.
Gradually we learn of the seedy world behind the fine promises of democracy; we learn of the way that the ever more expanding and ever more desperate poor are treated by the rich and powerful, of the hypocrisy and indifference of the rich few to the plight of the teeming millions whom they exploit. And in this book it is funny – for we readers, that is.
Does Balram exaggerate? Possibly, but the reader is entertained by the antics of this ‘entrepreneur’ who is forced to become, and happy to call himself, ‘a mass murderer.’ True he has only killed one man, but his example will likely be followed by other slaves who are obliged to kill in order to survive. Addressing His Excellency Wen Jiaho in the Premier’s Office in China, Bulram boasts ‘my start-up has got this contract with American Express, my start-up runs the software in this hospital in London,’ but this is not his story, which is about Indian politics, which boasts of democracy, while it beats up dissenters. The way up, as pigherd Vijay discovered was to ‘let the politician dip his beak into his backside,’ to grease and brown-nose your way to the top of your profession as an entrepreneur. It’s an unsavoury business, but it gets results and keeps you from dying of hunger. It’s so sad that laughter is the only possible response. This is not exactly documentary, but closer to it than the satire of Swift and Orwell.
Albert Alvarez (A or Al Alvarez) is known mainly as a poetry critic, anthologist and novelist, but none of this would be apparent from this recent journal, which deals with his daily routine of swimming in the Hampstead and Highgate ponds. We learn a good deal about the vagaries of English weather, the various waterfowl that visit or are resident on the ponds and the fact that our author is an ardent poker player, but literary talk is kept to a minimum. The prose is disarmingly simple, largely restricted to facts about wildlife, the changing seasons and their effect on the writer. Hence on Saturday 10 May, 2008, after recuperating from a stroke: `A beautiful summer day - almost a week of them in fact - but better than summer because it's the beginning of May and everything is suddenly in bloom. The mayflowers are heavy with blossom and the chestnuts with candles, Queen Anne's lace is waist high, the great copper beech shines and shimmers with light, the air smells sweet and the whole world is green and young and fresh.'
The ponds, especially in winter, are frequently seen as a Paradise, and the daily swim, which becomes increasingly difficult for the geriatric Alvarez, is essential to his bodily and spiritual well-being. But this is a story not only about the delights of moving in water, but about the process of growing old, of facing up to failing powers and the author's ultimate demise.. With his eye open and his senses alert, Alvarez has described the water, the air and the natural world supported by these elements with precision and accuracy. Nature, especially water, has kept Alvarez literally and spiritually afloat in a world that is beautiful but sad - at least to we humans. As he struggles to swim a few yards, flanked by two faithful lifeguards who will help him to dress and hobble to his car, Alvarez begins to lose interest in reviewing, finds life literally a pain (he has been a cripple for years, after suffering from a mountaineering accident) and has to admit, `the truth is I really am falling apart depressingly fast.'
The reader, however, comes to admire the author's scrupulous honesty in recording this gradual process of decline and his heroic determination to carry on. We understand his anguish and anger - as when he is refused renewal of a disabled sticker because he can still walk. The getting into a car before a swim and doing up buttons after it become huge challenges. Thankfully the author still has a devoted wife, loyal friends, and, one trusts, many readers rooting for him.
Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
This first volume of Maya Angelou’s autobiography is a tribute to the human spirit’s triumph over adversity. It tells the story of Maya’s childhood in Arkansas and her adolescence in California, outlining her development as a thinking moral person. It’s very much about the ethos of slavery, of mind and body. For those brought up in the tradition of liberal democracy it’s a revelation. How does it feel to be ignored or treated as an object? How do you react to oppression, constant insult and the ever present threat of violence?
As an eight-year-old Maya is raped by her mother’s boyfriend, the ironically named Mr Freeman. But the little incident is accepted by the child as just one of many ills that flesh is heir to: ‘I wasn’t afraid, a little apprehensive maybe, but not afraid.’ Only gradually does the reader come to realise that Maya’s ‘mother’ is a prostitute. Abandoned by her husband, left with two children, what else is there for her? The word ‘whore’ is generally used as an insult, but here the oldest profession is simply a way of life, if not the only way of life. And her mother, a strict disciplinarian, is the key to Maya’s education in life.
Only in the West, where the family move to in the war, does Maya realise that black and white are not necessarily poles apart. In anger and frustration she gets herself pregnant via one of ‘the most eligible young men in the neighbourhood.’ As with the rape she remains quite matter-of-fact about the sexual act: ‘Would you like to have sexual intercourse with me?’ she asks the boy, who promptly accepts the offer and disappears from her life. Even the unwanted pregnancy is no trauma; she’s still alive, isn’t she? And the birth is easy pie.
Morally supported by Mother, she takes arms against racism and sexism. Maya’s triumph is not simply in gaining diplomas but in forcing others to accept her as a worthwhile human being. In career terms she does this by becoming the first black bus conductress in San Francisco, refusing to take ‘no’ for an answer. Maya Angelou in her own way is as militant as Malcolm X; and she needed to kill nobody. This is an inspiring book.
Appelfeld, Aharon. Blooms of Darkness
Translated from the Hebrew by Jeffrey M Green
This story of an eleven-year old Jewish boy who finds shelter with a Christian prostitute who is obliged to entertain German soldiers is captivating and moving. The boy, Hugo, is entrusted by his mother to Mariana, her old school friend ‘working’ as a sex-slave in The Residence, an occupation she detests but which gives her the means of survival in German-speaking Ukraine. As with the Diaries of Anne Frank, the reader is ever-conscious of the horrors lying in wait for all those found guilty of harbouring Jews, who are routinely rounded up and transported. The tension of a knock on the door, the rumours, and the hopes and fears of the residents keep the imprisoned boy Hugo and the reader on tenterhooks throughout. We see only as much as Hugo sees of the outside world, as he is hidden in a closet, while nightly Mariana entertains her clients. As the days turn into weeks and years, Hugo gradually comes to realise the nature of his adoptive mother’s work. Each comes to depend on the other for solace and support and eventually they become lovers, much to the scorn of the other residents. The threat of exposure to the enemy is ever-present.
As the tide of battle outside moves in favour of the Russians, the threat increases. All the women are now jumpy, many falling back on their Christian belief for succour. Collaborating whores are likely to be severely dealt with when the Russians arrive, and this indeed happens to all those who are later interrogated by the new occupiers of the city, one never mentioned by name, but clearly not far from the Carpathian mountains that Hugo and his family used to visit before the war. The mountains in fact become a symbol of hope for both Hugo and Mariana, one sadly without any substance. Both learn to endure the hardships of hunger and displacement, the loss of family and the contempt of neighbours.
Mariana, a Christian, is a beautifully realized character. Strong-willed, compassionate and self-absorbed she admires Jews for their intelligence, sensitivity and stoicism. Nevertheless she is puzzled that so many of them are virtual unbelievers and never attend synagogue. Hugo’s family, too, it seems are far from orthodox, one bohemian uncle being a declared atheist. Mariana herself is muted in her Christianity and, like Hugo’s Uncle Sigmond she is addicted to the bottle. She imagines that she should have married Sigmond, but when they had spoken of it, he had made ‘a dismissive gesture with his right hand as if to say, I’ve already tried that. There’s no point to it.’
This is a sad but totally absorbing novel, in which dreams of the past mix with and alternately cloud and brighten the miseries of the present. Gradually Mariana reveals her past to Hugo in fragments such as this: At first I thought that he didn’t want to marry me because I’m a simple woman. Later I understood that he was a lost person. I was willing to marry him as he was, to cook his meals and wash his clothes, but then the hard days came, the persecution and the ghetto, and he told me something I’ll never forget: ‘I can’t be saved any longer. Save yourself. The Jews have been condemned to death. You’re still young.’ Well, not so young now but still to Hugo beautiful as ever, his first love, her last love.
Michael. The Breath of Night.
The Breath of Night is essentially a political novel. Its narrator Philip Tremayne paints an unremittingly bleak picture of life in the Philippines under the Marcos regime. Like other fictional exposures of corruption from the top down, like, say, A D Miller’s Snowdrops or Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, the main impulse here is to expose a self-serving regime that grinds the faces of the poor. An investigative reporter is usually the main device, a sort of innocent eye who has the courage to find the truth at no small danger to himself. The focus is naturally on the deprived who become depraved, the victims. The aim is the verbal mutilation of the corrupt hierarchy and hopefully the triumph of the hero.
The problem for the reader of the three above-mentioned dystopian novels lies in the character of the narrator. Is he simply a device, or is he a credible human being? And does the reader need to take what the shining, or even blemished, hero says cum grano? The aesthetic question is, does this exposure, this hatchet job, make a genuine novel or would it carry more weight as a memoir or an informed article? Arditti’s long list of secondary sources suggests the latter
My answer is if it’s a satirical novel, one done with verve and humour, like Adiga’s, that’s just fine and dandy; but if it’s a relentless dredge through the sewers of poverty, drugs and prostitution, the reader soon becomes satiated. One smiles at Adiga’s ‘White Tiger’ narrator and he smiles at himself as he climbs the social ladder, giving as good as he gets, working the system to his own advantage. Philip Tremayne, Arditti's narrator, on the other hand, is a humourless investigator who never engages the reader as a real person, one whose relentless ‘interviews’ with the natives seem mere devices, each informant being present merely to expose one more horror in a catalogue of horrors. Arditti’s get-out is to have an Afterword in which we learn that Philip’s account is but his novel, that he has a political axe to grind, and that presumably things on the ground are not quite as hopeless as they’ve been painted. An artful device, but not too convincing.
Arnold, Gaynor. Girl in a Blue Dress
Girl in a Blue Dress tells the story of a writer’s life from his wife’s perspective. Alfred Gibson has just died and his family begin to look back over the great man’s tragedies and triumphs. The last two nouns are a deliberate echo of Edgar Johnson’s biography of Charles Dickens, about whose life this novel is an almost transparent rendering. For Alfred Gibson read Charles Dickens, for Dorothy (Dodo) Gibson read Catherine Dickens, for daughter Kitty read Mamie or Katie, for Gibson’s friend and supporter O’Rourke read John Forster, for Sissy read Georgina Hogarth, for Alice Gibson (deceased at 17) read Mary Hogarth, for Eddie read Charley, for Augustus read Wilkie Collins and so on through the dozens of others including the Dickens’ parents, the Hogarth family and of course Ellen Ternan, rechristened Miss Ricketts.
Whatever the purpose of such renaming may be, to the reader who knows Dickens it is sure to prove at least unnecessarily confusing, and at worst damned irritating. Whether those readers innocent of the real Dickens – if any such animals exist – will find this roman a clef with no clef equally frustrating is difficult to say. For those who love acrostics or crosswords there may be some pleasure to be found in tracking down the original characters in history. For me, it was the one great stumbling block in what could have been an enthralling read about a fascinating man.
Of course the novel adds nothing new to our knowledge of the frenetic authoritarian philanthropist who was always right in his own eyes, but who made others suffer, especially his own family, while basking in the admiration of his public image. That he was a covert lover of young girls whilst preaching those widely publicized ‘family values’ is now no secret. Of course one feels sorry for the much-abused Dodo-Catherine, who is for the most part the calmly enduring narrator, who is gradually eased out of her position as mother and her home to make way for others. Some of the scenes are quite compelling, especially that between Dodo and Miss Ricketts, the ex-mistress.
Major flaws, apart from those listed above, are the occasional use of modern idiom, long scenes over the tea cups while family members recall their past experiences of Papa, and an ‘inaccuracy’ in the chronology where Eddie-Charley is told that he was not yet born when Alice-Mary Hogarth dies. Charles Culliford Boz Dickens was in fact a few months old when Dickens’s ‘angelic’ sister-in-law died. But then this ‘fact’ only stands out because of the otherwise faithful rendering of the Dickens story.
Auret, Ronald. The Land of Lost Dreams
The Land of Lost Dreams is more family memoir than novel. In meticulous detail it tells the story of three generations in Rhodesia-Zimbabwe. As a historical document and a protest against political expediency it is something of a cautionary tale. The protagonist, Peter Steyn, whose father is murdered in the first chapter, sees his country decline into anarchy as hard-working white farmers are betrayed by the West’s misguided anti-racist policies. The result is financial and moral bankruptcy as thugs take over the Land of Lost Dreams.
This fluently written saga of over 1,000 pages is a cry from the heart but it will not please the discerning reader, for Auret is no novelist. Redundant qualifiers and Archers-style dialogues clutter every page. He can devote a whole page to the making of a cup of tea or who sits where in a car. This grinding compulsion not to omit trivial detail and this tendency to give a history lesson or moral lecture posing as dialogue soon palls. The prose is stiffly formal and often cumbersome. Thus instead of ‘said’ as a speech marker, Auret prefers ‘invited,’ ‘introduced’ or ‘conceded.’ There is abundant material here for a good novel, but this is potted history and autobiography, a nostalgic lament for a time that never was.
Bailey, Paul. Chapman’s Odyssey
Despite the title Paul Bailey’s new novel is hardly a sequel to Homer and still less a tribute to George Chapman, the Elizabethan poet who first made Homer accessible to a vast readership, culminating in John Keats with his sonnet, ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.’ No, our hero is not Chapman, the poet and dramatist, and his voyages, alas, are extremely constricted, for throughout the novel Harry Chapman is confined to a hospital bed, from where, forever so to speak at death’s door, he is subject to an array of physical and mental tortures as he tries to put his life into some sort of perspective before his inevitable demise.
Harry is obviously, like his author, steeped in literature, a lover of poetry and the quirks of language, a sometime teacher and writer of sorts. None of this would necessarily endear him to a modern reader not a fan of highbrow English literature. The reader may well be tempted to conflate Harry with his author and find his constant so-so apt quotations to himself and to the surrounding hospital staff a little tedious and pedantic. To some extent this may be true; one would not relish spending half an hour at his hospital bedside while he spills out his learning and forever recites perfectly remembered lines. The many attendant nurses, medical orderlies, consultants and surgeons who visit him, however, seem to be fascinated and even delighted by their garrulously eccentric patient; they demand more and more. Give us a poem, Harry! Something cheerful, this time. And Harry duly obliges, sandwiching in between operations a little Shakespeare, Spenser or what-have-you before or after ‘going down to the theatre.’
A clever idea, and all good fun for the Eng Lit pundit, but perhaps not for the common reader and surely not for the ward orderly? What, however, is even better fun are the voices that pursue Harry in his sleeping or semi-comatose states. Pip of Great Expectations visits him a few times, as does Herman Melville’s Bartleby. His whole reading past comes back to him under or after anaesthetic. But even more insistent are the voices of his long-dead lovers and above all that of his acerbic mother, forever at his back and calling him to order. The mental and moral jumble caused by voices from his real and imagined past are even more painful and at times more exquisitely revealed than the immediate physical pain he endures from his lower bowel - and twice as embarrassing as he confides to the reader, but not the staff, his not so pretty history as a sexual deviant and moral leper.
In the end one comes to like, or even love, this hopeless and helpless wreck of a man who manages to keep his spirits up and even entertain others. For Harry the pedant and pervert, self-obsessed as we all are, reaches out from the grave (almost) to touch the reader. Here is a man, who, while being constantly confused, is in his heart suffering from very few or no delusions. Here, the reader feels, is an honest man – a deceiver who knows he is a concealer of much that is socially unmentionable, not respectable. Ultimately Harry wins us over because his revelations allow him to be honest to himself and to let the reader (though not the medical staff) into the inner reaches of his consciousness. You don’t have to be an Eng Lit wallah to enjoy this one; but if you are, then that’s a bonus.
Bailey, Morgen. The Serial Dater’s Shopping List
This is basically a Sex ’n’ Shopping novel, but without the sex. And it’s hugely enjoyable - without the sex. In diary form Isobel, aka Izzy, gives the reader a daily account of her activities at home, in the office and on the series of dates she is obliged to endure, and possibly enjoy, for 31 days. This project is set up for her by her boss, the somewhat brusque and anti-social William, editor of the local rag. Izzy, a forty year old extrovert lady always up for a challenge, agrees to meet and report on a partner a day (or night) for a whole month.
Isobel is an engaging narrator, witty and intelligent, but addicted to food, very tall, overweight and scatty in the Bridget Jones mould. The fact that the book hovers between Chic-lit and Romance may warn away the highbrows, but for sheer fun and a good laugh it takes a lot of beating. Oddly enough, despite all the chat over the merits and demerits of partners with her friend Donna, their dialogues present a fascinating and revealing, but light-hearted, portrayal of the dating game.
Of course, as Wittgenstein or Einstein have shown us there’s more to life than dating. Here there are no intellectual heavyweights among her partners, but a series of lost souls or guys on the make. The girls, mainly Isobel and Donna, are forever seeking that elusive ‘spark’ in their clients, the lack of which leads to a plethora of comic scenes, when they come up against lechers, smoothies, liars, gamblers, catatonics, drunks, boring environmentalists and a fine selection of male chauvinists.
The danger of becoming bored by all the narrator’s focus on the quotidian details of kitchen and shopping lore is offset by the sheer energy of Isobel, ‘a chatty little soul’ in the phrase she uses to describe one of her clients. Although she spends most of her free time watching soaps or reading thrillers and romances, she is obviously no fool. Even the simple-minded Donna knows her Hamlet and is something of a technocrat. When it comes to men these girls know – or at least think they know – what they want.
No doubt about it, the book is definitely middle-brow entertainment, the story being told almost wholly in the vernacular, larded with cliché and teenage argot (‘yay,’ ‘up the anti’ and ‘sad’ meaning pathetic). It seems authentic to me as do the many references to popular and ‘celebrity’ culture that are outside my experience. But obviously not Izzy’s, a bright lass who tells us ‘I’d like to write a book someday.’
Bainbridge, Beryl. Master Georgie
Historical novels have a habit of being history in fancy dress. The interest lies in the differences between say, Roman, Medieval or Renaissance times and our own. The emphasis is on disparities in thought, politics, scientific advancement, religion and so forth. The reader is captivated by the way things have changed and how unlike the presented fictional world is to the way we live now. Introductions, footnotes and bibliographies tend to bolster up these frequently massive tomes. Appreciation depends on knowing who’s who (Mantel) or what’s what (Peter Carey). Beryl Bainbridge simply gets inside a consciousness (as in Queenie in According to Queenie) and tells the story from a point of view.
In Master Georgie, a novel set in the time of the Crimean War, the reader is taken inside the minds of Myrtle, a vivacious young woman, Dr Potter, an uxorious geologist and Pompey Jones, a photographer’s assistant. By chance all end up in the hideous slaughter of the war, Georgie sawing off legs and staunching the blood flows of the wounded, Myrtle, a loyal follower of the hero, her seeming brother, and Potter, whose immersion in Lyell’s geological discoveries isolates him from the present horrors of war. Pompey Jones once aloof from the war gets reluctantly drawn into it, capturing images of the maimed and slaughtered.
The eponymous hero is seen through the eyes of the bystanders, each one having a different ‘take’ on George the reformed drunkard, now a tight-lipped saviour of dead and dying. Hence the over-riding theme of the book illustrating that human beings cannot be pinned down even by photographic methods. The various sections of the book are separated by captions with dates rather than photographs, emphasising the simultaneous need to record with the limitations of the visual image.
Unlike the typical historical novel Bainbridge doubts the stability of facts. She gives us a different kind of truth, the feeling behind the facts. The reader never questions the accuracy of her facts about the Crimean War – and embedded within the novel there are many – because of the book’s truth to the shifting perspectives that humans are heir to, seeing the world merely through a glass darkly.
Banville, John. The Sea
The Daily Telegraph found Banville’s 2005 Booker-winning novel his best so far. This may well be the case, for I had to abandon his Doctor Copernicus when Nicolas and his clownish brother felt obliged to quit Bologna to see the Pope’s celebrations, where ‘the Lord of Darkness himself had come forth to be acclaimed by the delirious mob.’ This was in the jubilee year of 1500. But then, I have always had trouble with historical novels – the dates, the whole battery of important names to keep in mind, the constant need to adjust to two timescales. Maybe it’s just my problem, as they say, or lately I’ve just had too much Hilary Mantel. I never quite manage to lose myself, never manage to stop myself from asking why bother with all this fustian. I prefer history undiluted.
So The Sea was a welcome relief and a book well worth re-reading. Indeed, I knew I’d been impressed five years ago on first reading, but that apart couldn’t remember much about the novel. But this time I found Max Morden’s nostalgic exploration of his past brought on by a recent bereavement even more seductive and haunting. I believed his every word and needed to accompany him on this necessary journey into the interior to assuage his present grief. As with all good novels it is the understated and not stated that intrigues, the seemingly irrelevant diversions that add ultimately the touch of conviction. Thus Max recalls his boyhood curiosity about birds’ eggs, his ‘simple passion to know something of the secrets of the other, alien lives.’ One day he visits the nest to find it robbed, one egg smashed: ‘All that remained of it was a smear of mingled yoke and glair and a few fragments of shell, each with its stippling of tiny, dark-brown spots.’ The narrator takes time to speculate on the gorse and ‘the buttery perfume of its blossoms,’ before returning to ‘those brown speckles’ of the egg, ‘the emblem of something final, precious and irretrievable.’ All of which would be fine and consoling were it not for the final shock of his wife ‘leaning sideways from the hospital bed, vomiting on the floor, her burning brow pressed into my palm, full and frail as an ostrich egg.’ By this time both Max and the reader have forgotten all about his bereavement. The sudden shock of recognition is poignantly true to life.
Similar hints that tease the reader into Max’s world are provided throughout. The book bristles with unanswered questions. Why is Max still obsessed by the Grace family, all now passed into the land of lost desires, in love with the mother rather than his coevals, Chloe and Myles? What is the significance of his devotion to the work of Bonnard, about whom he is struggling to write? And what about Cedars, the old house, lingered over, pondered on, still standing and still run by the same enigmatic Miss Vavasour, whose mission now seems to be dedicating herself to the Colonel, who may well be an imposter anyway? What happened to Chloe in the end, a sparklingly independent lass who has some affinities with Dickens’s proud Estella? Max’s revelations are slow and stumbling, as he moves between the crowded past and the empty present. And behind it all is the ever-present allure of the sea.
This is a fine novel, a worthy award-winner, one that stands head and shoulders above so many other flavour of the season best-sellers. As The Times reviewer believes: ‘it will still be read and admired in seventy-five years.’ Or longer, much longer.
Barnes, Julian. The Sense of an Ending
This first person narrative is a study in obsessive guilt. Tony Webster looks back to his first encounter with Adrian Finn, the new boy at school. Adrian is obviously a cut above the rest of the lads; he is serious, logical and inquisitive, destined for great things at Cambridge University. Years later Tony hears of his suicide, a carefully arranged affair, with appropriate notes to family, friends and authorities. He had once told Tony that Camus maintained that suicide was the only true philosophical question. The subject arose when a fellow student, Robson, hanged himself after getting his girlfriend pregnant. What possible connection could there be between the fatal decision of the mediocre student Robson, whose last words read simply ‘Sorry, Mum’ and the signing off of the genius Adrian?
The clue – to that part of the novel at least - lies in the relationship both Tony and Adrian have with a rather classy and prickly girl known as Veronica (later Mary) Ford, whose parents Tony visits for a disastrous week-end in Chislehurst, where he is treated rudely both by Veronica’s father and her brother Jack, but kindly by Mrs Ford, Veronica’s mother. Only in his later years, which absorb most of the second part of this slim novel, does Tony – and possibly the reader - begin to ‘get it’ as Veronica continually puts it about her family situation. By then we have learned of an insulting letter Tony had written to the unhappy pair, Veronica and Adrian, which may or may not have been the trigger that caused his demise. The reader will need to read the novel a second time to pick up on the clues Barnes plants regarding the abortive love affair with the hostile Veronica. In fact the whole book is about unravelling mistaken notions, discovering hidden meanings in past conversations, finding new clues to understanding the self, its delusions and unintended slights with their unforeseen consequences.
I found the book both fascinating and frustrating, as was no doubt the author’s intention. It is undoubtedly a clever book, but to me, as with the same author’s Flaubert’s Parrot, rather too cerebral, lacking the warmth of real human relationships. There are so many things the narrator and reader do not ‘get’. Why, for instance, should Tony continually pursue a girl, then the girl as woman, who was only using him as a plaything? It makes no sense to him or the reader. Is it sufficient to say that it is the donnée on which the whole book rests, just as other obsessives, like for instance Kemal in The Museum of Innocence or Charles Arrowby in The Sea, The Sea, expend vast energies in pursuit hopeless causes? The difference is that both Pamuk’s and Murdoch’s novels delve deep into the psyches of their narrators. We understand, sympathise and forgive them, even when they are boring us. At least Barnes’s novel is too short to be boring. It is indeed, extremely readable and in its own way, strangely haunting.
Benatar, Stephen. Wish Her Safe at Home
Stephen Benatar’s novel Wish Her Safe at Home is, according to John Carey’s introduction, ‘an impressive study of [a] woman going quietly and genteelly crazy.’ It is also a most engaging novel. There aren’t too many novels whose every word delights and sends a shiver of recognition down the reader’s spine. I found this to be a rare treat, a book that fascinated and amused from start to finish. It’s leisurely pace seduces so that even the banal and everyday musings of an old lady provide insights not only into her heroic struggle with senility but into the way even the sanest of us build up fantasies to such an extent that for most of the time we are ‘not living in the real world.’ It’s reassuring to know that others are as nutty as oneself.
Only gradually does the reader come to realise that Rachel Waring, the narrator, is making a desperate effort to cling on to her sanity. Like all of us her mind flicks from fluid everyday concerns to reassuring and static pictures of the past. The difference between the mad and the sane is that the mad cannot distinguish between reality and fantasy, that the mad inhabit both simultaneously. Ultimately Rachel, while sounding so eminently sensible and ‘on the ball’ drifts towards the inevitable Home of the title. Rachel’s private indulgence in wistful memory - as snatches of song and scenes from vintage movies drift through her mind - becomes increasingly accompanied by a desperate gaiety in public. She becomes a social embarrassment, fit only for some sort of protective environment. It is thus no accident that two of the many recurring images that haunt the book are those of two very contrasting fictional heroines: Scarlett O’Hara and Blanche Dubois, as played by Vivien Leigh in the movies of Gone with the Wind and Streetcar Named Desire. The vital and always amusing Rachel Waring is a heroine to cherish and remember with delight. She shows us that old ladies are forever wonderful - some achievement indeed! Her creator is to be congratulated. As Carey says, he ought to have won the Booker.
Bennett, Alan. Hymn and Cocktail Sticks: Two Recollections
The Hymn composed by George Fenton was first performed at the Harrogate Festival in 2001. This selection is prefaced by Bennett’s apologia, explaining what the music means to him and reflecting on his youthful struggles as a violinist and his father’s homely approach to the whole business of art, where there’s no need for ‘a lot of carry-on, or as Dad always put it, “a lot of splother.” Whether the reader is a musician or not Hymn is a useful lead into Cocktail Sticks, the typically whimsical Bennettian world of middle-class mores that exist no more.
In his introduction to Cocktail Sticks the author takes a wry look at Northern Writers and their stance towards something that used to be called ‘culture.’ It involves of course educational achievement, a kind of alienation from family roots and a plundering of personal experience, the grubbier the better. Looking back to the Sixties he finds, ‘There seemed to be agreement that a working class child educated at university found it difficult thereafter to come to terms with – relate to if you like (which I didn’t much) - his or her parents who looked on bewildered at this graduate cuckoo they had reared in their back-to-back nest.’ In this painfully funny play Bennett shows his parents trying to reconcile their no-nonsense ‘working class’ values with the newly ‘educated’ offspring. There is ample scope for misunderstanding between the generations, beautifully exploited here by Bennett.
Every scene, dialogue frequently intercut with mature Bennett commentary, is alive with acute observation and an unerring ear for real speech. The reader cannot help but imagine gestures, pauses, the cringing postures of the hapless characters playing out their roles:
Mam You’ve been to college. You’ve got your cap and gown, what more credentials do you want?
AB I want a past that’s a bit larger than life. I wish I’d had a harder time.
Mam We do our best, let you stay on at school and go away to college and now you’re saying you wish we’d sent you out to work at sixteen. You might have been like Eric Portman. He had to work as an assistant in a gents’ outfitters in Halifax. I’ve been in the shop many a time. He was sensitive, you could tell that.
AB Do you mean he was homosexual?
Mam I mean he was polite to his mother and didn’t come out with words like that.
Here Mam typically cites people she holds up to her son as models of decent and correct behaviour; they personify her notion of having arrived, having become rich and even more important decent and famous for it. AB, like his father, understands but doesn’t share Mam’s urge to better herself by mixing with the right people and ‘doing things properly.’
Mam I wish we went out a bit more.
Dad We do go out. We go on a bus ride practically every week. Otley. Ilkley. Harrogate.
Mam I don’t mean that.
Dad Well, what do you mean?
Mam I’d like to go to cafés now and then.
Dad We do go to cafés. We never go out but what we go to a café.
Mam No, I mean proper cafés – where the waiter’s a man and they come up with the pepper. A café where everything doesn’t have tea, bread and butter included. I was reading about these artichokes.
As ever, here we find Bennett looking back on his past with a mixture of warmth and wonder. Here is the History Boy delving into the archives of his past with affection and puzzlement. Bennett is never found looking back in anger or even regret; he has always known that there’s nowt so queer as folk, and finds in the domestic confusion and misapprehension inherent in his Leeds childhood the ideal terrain for his comic vision.
Binet, Lawrent, HhhH (translated from the French by Sam Taylor)
Binet’s self-conscious documentary of the rise and fall of Reinhard Heydrich stretches the notion of the term ‘novel’ to its limits. Like Norman Mailer’s The Executioners’ Song or Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood the well-researched background and the use of real names throughout undermine the very notion of a fictional story. But the impulse behind the book is neither biographical nor historical, but personal. Binet is compelled to tell his story in the only way he knows, which, as he frequently admits, must involve making things up, guessing, fictionalising. Since this debut work of faction was awarded the Prix Goncourt du premier roman it must be shelved under ‘novel.’
It is certainly less smooth than the above-cited works of Mailer and Capote, the author frequently intruding into the narrative. Well, what an asinine thing to do, Binet says: to write about someone who has never existed, putting words into his mouth, pushing him around at will! In his determination to be true to fact, he occasionally admits to lack of a knowledge, to using guesswork, to making things up. Here in this passage on the German occupation of Prague he corrects his original narrative: ‘Actually I don’t know if it was a tank that first entered Prague. The most advanced troops seem largely to have driven motorbikes with sidecars,’
Sometimes the author will even rewrite a passage that he has later found untrue or unconvincing, and yet he cunningly still leaves the original confection undisturbed. But however much the narrator protests his unswerving devotion to fact, the novelist in him is compelled to fictionalise – in matters of dialogue for example: thus Heydrich to Göring at an Air Ministry meeting two days after the infamous ‘Crystal Night’: ‘Even if the Jews are eliminated from economic life, the main problem remains. We must kick the Jews out of Germany. In the meantime,’ he suggests, ‘we should make them wear some kind of sign so they can be easily recognised.’ A fictional reconstruction obviously, since Binet was not even born at the time. Well, even historians have to invent, and like biographers to cheat a little, by exaggerating for dramatic effect.
The truth that overwhelms the reader in this book, however, is not the truth to fact, but the truth to feeling. Binet, presumably a native of Prague, here celebrates not so much the downfall of a tyrant and the demise of a psychotically-led regime that tore Europe apart for some absurd Aryan dream of conquest, but the heroic devotion of a handful of brave men who resisted and died for the freedom to protest against the iron fist of fascism.
Binet’s work is not a novel story; indeed, he cites authorities, documents, rival novels, reports and anything he can lay a hand on to convince the reader of its veracity. One imagines him still searching in museums and archives, adding, revising, cancelling, but meanwhile he has written an extraordinary novel. It’s a spy thriller, a lament for the millions who perished and an indictment of pacifism in the face of tyranny. It’s a most eccentric novel, but one well worth reading; it has pace and purpose.
Bird, John C. Alby & Me.
John Bird’s story of two contrasting school boys adrift in post-war Birmingham is both sad and funny. Like all school tales it tells of swots and bullies, of kinky teachers and boring lessons. The book could have been a riot of routine gags and youthful rebellion, but it has a spark of genius at its centre; and that’s found in the portrait of the narrator’s friend, Alby, whose insouciance and invention enable him to coast over all of his own and his best mate’s problems and come out smiling, even at the prospect of his own encroaching death. Alby has a maturity beyond his years and a refreshing buoyancy to rise above life’s torments.
Matt, the straight narrator and Alby, his eccentric and inventive pal, get into a few scrapes, but are good boys at heart. However, each is threatened, Matt by a gang of bullies, Alby by incipient terminal cancer. They take refuge in each other’s company and earthy humour. There’s lots of good fun to be had, but always a dark cloud in Alby’s mind, one he disperses with mockery and wry reflections about the Big Fellah who hold all the cards.
Bird has an ear for dialogue that has stood him in good stead as a comedy scriptwriter. Thus the boys look to their future:
‘I thought you wanted to be a doctor,’ I said.
‘Yes, I did fancy it for a while. Think it was after seeing old Albert Schweitzer on the newsreel doing his stuff in Africa.’
‘Schweitzer. You know, the bloke with the big droopy moustache and funny accent. Plays the organ and runs that hospital in the jungle. The natives think he’s a saint.’ Alby’s face took on a wistful look. ‘Come to think of it, I could quite take to the idea of becoming a saint. Don’t believe we’ve ever had one in the family.’
I suggested sainthood might cramp his style somewhat. I doubted if saints spent their school dinner money backing horses or forged doctor’s notes to skive off cricket.
Thus the banter, which embraces sundry schoolboy jokes about the amorous potential of girls and female staff. True, this can become a little tedious, as can the continual invocation of the Big Fellah, although the latter does have his part to play in the plot. There is something predictably ordinary about the story as well as the characters of the bullies, the parents and the pupils. What is not ordinary is the creeping darkness among the jollity.
Blackburn, Julia. The Three of Us: A Family Story
After the seductively gentle title Julia Blackburn at once plunges the reader into the hard facts of her father’s drug addiction, which, combined with alcohol, ‘made him increasingly violent and so mad that he began to growl and bark like a dog.’ The tone is bleak and factual, but not devoid of humour, for Thomas Blackburn, teacher and poet, ‘was tried out on all sorts of substitute pills, including one which he proudly said was used to traquillize rhinoceroses.’ Despite his furious rages - one of which led him to attack his wife with a carving knife - Thomas maintains a relaxed and benign attitude to his daughter. Young Julia is always the piggy-in-the middle, while her mother, Rosalie, a painter and bohemian socialite, after divorcing Thomas, takes in a series of male lodgers. The story of Julia’s relationship with her mother and the lodgers takes up most of the book.
The book is multi-layered, having at least three perspectives - Julia as a child, as a young woman and in maturity as a comforter to her dying mother. In addition the story embraces extracts from Julia’s note books, diaries and text messages sent mainly to her husband whom she regularly updates on her mother’s seemingly slow demise.
The central relationship, however, is between mother and daughter, Rosalie being unkind and unfair to her surviving daughter (the complex reasons for this are adumbrated in the retrospective chapter ‘The Story of Boonie and Tuggie’). Clearly there is jealousy on the mother’s part, for having schooled her daughter in the act of sex, when the mature lodger Gerald takes a fancy to the teenager the mother loses her mind. But Rosalie is soon on the decline, no longer able to charm the young men and, sadly, stricken with cancer.
Perhaps the one weakness of the book is the author’s determination to have a happy ending. Rosalie must die happy (she refuses treatment) and in this she is supported by her daughter. The horrors of the book are in part alleviated by the growing friendship between the mature woman and her decrepit mother. Maybe I’m cynical but I felt I was being manipulated into accepting their reconciliation. We are not told of Rosalie’s conflicts, left alone as she is in hospital for most of the day. Instead our attention is diverted back to the almost forgotten Thomas - a marvellous portrait, by the way, who would dominate any novel - and his serio-comic ending with a violent cerebral haemorrhage as he attempts to climb into bed.
This apart, the memoir is everything one might wish for - scrupulous honesty, lack of self-pity, characters galore and, for those who need it, a message of hope.
Blackburn, Julia. Thin Paths
A melange of travel book and memoir, Thin Paths is an enjoyable read. The sub-title ‘Journeys in and around an Italian Mountain Village’ appropriately excludes reference to the seeing-eye author, whose ‘rescuing’ of a life that is being swiftly outmoded gives a melancholy tinge to these tales of persistence and occasionally derring-do. The smooth transitions between past and present are well handled: the anecdotal stories of real people, many of whom are now in their nineties form that vital link.
Julia’s partner Herman is for the most part kept hidden, and his long visit to Amsterdam for cancer treatment that must have been traumatic is deliberately underplayed. The author is too preoccupied with studying the flora and fauna and of unlocking the peasant life that is gone and lost for ever. She has a snatching eye that seizes on fragments, some of which are caught on camera, which reveal the mutability of this isolated community. In a section entitled ‘Fragility’ she picks up a bit of a tombstone and takes it home: The stone was heavy and its rough edges bit into the palm of my hands. I found a place to prop it at the back of the water tank. Reflected in the water, the sunlight flickered on the surface of the marble. The shadow of maidenhair ferns flickered across it and shuddered in the wind.
If you have read the author’s previous memoir of her horrendous upbringing, The Three of Us, you will understand her need to find peace and tranquility in the remoter areas of Liguria. Deadly snakes and cat-eating peasants are as nothing in comparison. Nature is predictable and observable, while the human heart remains a dark mystery.
Booth, Kevin. Celia’s Room
If your Spanish is up to it and you don’t lose patience with the epigraphs to every chapter then you could well enjoy Kevin Booth’s immersion into the Barcelona sub-culture of the 1990s. The novel begins with Eduardo’s struggle to confess his inabilty to reconcile himself with his father, who calls him a ‘faggot’ and refuses to pay his university fees in the arts faculty in Barcelona. We soon learn that Edu (as he’s called throughout) is a painter who has rented a huge decaying villa, which he soon fills with bohemians and junkies, mostly male. Early on the reader gets a feeling for Edu’s obsession with art when he exposes readers to a eulogy on a painting of a seductive whore. Then it’s back to working with the hated father who tells his son to find a girlfriend. After which we move to Narcissus and Alvaro, two gay tenants, the first of the in-crowd whose promiscuous presence pervades the book. Edu remains throughout the book very much a disenchanted and disorientated loner.
Later the reader is plunged into the consciousness of another, more vibrant youth, the cynical world-weary Joaquin who vividly recalls a painting of Toledo. He too is not the son his father had hoped for. He in turn despises his father and wonders why. But at least his father is safely dead - as is his favourite sister, although this dual loss is only to be revealed later to the eponymous, and androgenous Celia. Thus our two heroes are drawn to Celia, who also has suffered bereavement.
Celia is the fulcrum who balances these two opposite males seeking fun, escape and all kinds of sexual experience. Edu paints her, while Joaquin admires him/her from afar. For Edu she is ‘a kind of Hollywood star sheathed in white satin,’ while Joaquin confesses she is ‘a strong presence’ and later ‘a powerful goddess’in his life.
So the transvestite Celia, with her false boobs and witch-like charms draws both Edu and Joaquin into her lair, and while Joaquin declares ‘I think I loved her, but I don’t know now,’ - - that is now that she is revealed as androgynous, Edu find that ‘Celia’s room was my best painting ever.’ Altogether an exciting, if demanding, adventure for the reader.
Bowen, James. A Streetcat Named Bob
James Bowen is a reformed drug-addict, a man on benefit who pulled himself up from the lowest echelon of society to become a minor celebrity via his publication of this book, his website and allied books about his adopted cat, Bob.
This is a simple, honest and revealing tale with the `feel-good' factor that wins hearts. I must admit I'm not usually won over by stories of innocence rewarded, but this book had me reading to the end - I finished it in one sitting of a couple of hours. I put aside the fact that the story is obviously ghost-written and that somebody had jumped on the bandwagon when they first met and talked to the author, a lonely and desperate street musician.
For those like me who habitually pass by on the other side of buskers and petitioners this book has somewhat softened my heart to the so-called down-and-outs. This is partly because James comes across as such an engaging and sociable fellow, one happy to help others, kind to animals who has come of age, as it were, as a useful citizen after suffering the insults and indignities of being a beggar - although busking is no easy option and miles away from being a benefit addict. I just might buy a copy of The Big Issue after reading this.
But, as the title indicates, the real star of the show is the ginger cat Bob, who adopted James, rather than the other way round. Bob gets lost, gets injured, flees from bully boys, but like Lassie in the end comes home to her guardian and friend for life. James attributes his reincarnation to Bob the street cat, who first chose James, and then drew a host of admirers to put their hands in their pockets and drop a coin into the busker's guitar case.
Bowles, Paul. Without Stopping
Paul Bowles's autobiography moves, as the title indicates, at a furious pace. He has so much to pack into his near 400 pages, has visited so many exotic places, from Buddhist and Hindu temples in India and Thailand to Bedouin encampments in the Sahara, with occasional side-trips back to New York, Paris and Tangier, that the reader needs a map as well as a list of dramatis personae to keep up with him. For Bowles, novelist, musician and seemingly friend of almost anyone who is (or was) anyone, is not just the celebrated author of The Sheltering Sky, but the very soul of restlessness. He seems willing to take on any task, from writing articles for the New Yorker, to translating Sartre, writing scores for dozens of movies, making his own films and going anywhere to meet anybody. A typical paragraph reads: I stayed on in Monte Carlo until December, when the weather grew unpleasant and I began to dream once more of North Africa. Soon I went to Marseilles and got a ship across to Algiers. The first night in the bar I talked with a group of French army officers, one of whom told of a place in the desert called Ghardaïa, which he recommended highly for a winter sojourn. `Il y a une palmeraie qui est une merveille!' he said with enthusiasm. I determined to get there and see it. As with most of the book, this passage reads like a hasty diary entry. Bowles has no time for literary lingering.
It is not only places that flash by the reader, but people, mostly distinguished writers, artists, film directors, musicians and personalities such as Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas. The cover of the book lists but a handful: WH Auden, Francis Bacon, James Baldwin, Tallulah Bankhead, Djuna Barnes, John Cage, Truman Capote, Allen Ginsberg, Peggy Guggenheim, Katherine Hepburn, Jack Kerouac, Carson McCullers, Jackson Pollock, Susan Sontag, Virgil Thompson, Gore Vidal, Lucchino Visconti, Orson Welles, Thornton Wilder and Tennessee Williams. The index lists a sackful more. Sartre, with whom Bowles had a dispute regarding his translation of Huis Clos, is not even mentioned on the cover.
Like Gore Vidal, Bowles is often lumped with the Beat Generation of artists and writers, but, although the book contains photographs of the author in the company of such as Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Gregory Corso, Bowles is much more than a social rebel and experimenter with form; he's a man frankly reporting on encounters with remarkable people in remarkable places: That these encounters are often terse or bleak is essential to Bowles's purpose, which is not mere name-dropping, but lightning impressionism: One very stormy night in the winter [in Tangier] Christopher Isherwood came to see me. It was my first glimpse of him since before the war. I noticed that his speech had become very American. Enough said for Bowles. Again: Francis Bacon was a regular visitor to the apartment that season. I extended the admiration to him as well. He was a man about to burst from internal pressures. And: When Bill Burroughs came around (for we had finally come to know each other),we would discuss everything but writing. Little more than diary jottings make up page after page as Bowles pounds the globe always looking for something new to wonder at, but not ponder over too long before moving on.
If Paul Bowles can be classed a travel writer he is one who has little time for contemplation or spiritual revelation like, say, Gavin Maxwell or Patrick Leigh Fermor. Bowles has a quick darting eye that seizes the essence and then looks to the next place.
Brennan, Kevin. Yesterday Road
The road from California to Vermont takes many twists for Jack and Joe, two mentally insecure travellers. Jack has lost his memory and Joe his mother. They meet on a train when Joe, a huge man with an infantile mind, wanders away from his guardians to sit next to Jack, a geriatric seeking to orient himself to the real world by finding Linda, who might well be his daughter. Names mean a lot to Jack, who clings on to clues that might lead to Linda, a girl living somewhere in the East. But the first girl he meets on the road turns out to be not Linda, but Melissa, who offers him a ride to San Francisco, where his daughter he thinks lives. She asks his name, but he’s not sure, finally settling on Jack. Luck favours him in Reno, when he finds himself carrying a wad of money after police interrupt a drug deal.
The package forms a pillow for Jack’s many nights on the road with Joe. Only gradually does he come to realise that this stack of hundred dollar bills with the smiling face on them can be useful to settle accounts - to feed himself and the ever-hungry Joe, a cretin but bright enough to remind his senior partner not to forget his soft package. These two going nowhere innocents encounter plenty more trouble: the worst being the loss of their rescuer, waitress Ida Peveley when she leaves them in her car to make a phone call, only to find them gone on her return. A carjacker kidnaps both at gunpoint and drives them ‘East,’ which is exactly where Jack believes he will find Linda.
The reader of this extremely funny and exhilarating story of innocence abroad will need a map to trace the route of these beautiful losers seeking something called home, a country of the mind, seemingly attainable but forever just out of reach.
Brink, Andre. The Rights of Desire
André Brink is Professor of English at the University of Cape Town as well as being a prolific novelist and winner of many awards, being twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize. This is my first acquaintance with him and, although not over fond of the supernatural in otherwise realistic novels, I found The Rights of Desire an engaging read. Set in post-Mandela South Africa, it is suffused with a sense of displacement and impending violence.
Ruben Olivier, a librarian forced into retirement, has lost his wife, his best friend and is about to lose his second son to Canada, the first having already settled in Australia. But, stubbornly and against his family’s best advice, Ruben insists on remaining loyal to the spirit of his country in chaos, where gangs and mobs proliferate in both rural and urban areas, the police are hamstrung by fear of reprisals, bribery is a way of life for the middle class and crime the only hope for the ever-increasing numbers of the poor. When his sons finally manage to persuade their father, who has already suffered a heart attack, to at least take in a lodger for comfort and security, he tells them. ‘I’m not living on my own. I have my ghost to look after me when Magrieta’s not here.’ Magrieta is his old nursemaid who flits from the old Victorian house Ruben has lived in all his life to visit friends and family and report back to him the latest scandals and atrocities in the town. The ghost is Antje of Bengal who was brought to the Cape as an infant slave in 1696, and became the much abused mistress of Willem Mostert, who had her from a friend who bought her at a slave auction. Oddly enough Antje of Bengal, who was murdered and decapitated, appears not only to Magrieta and Ruben, but to his new tenant, Tessa Butler, a beautiful young publisher’s reader with whom Ruben predictably falls head over heels in love.
If the reader finds the appearances of the ghost somewhat bizarre and even unbelievable, he or she will find the love affair between ageing Ruben and feisty young Tessa quite outrageous. For Tessa brings scores of lovers into Ruben’s house, has wild drug-fuelled parties and what’s more tells him all he wants to know – and more – about her sexual activities. Ruben, however, while being granted every physical liberty except sexual union, remains her protector and lover. Any sensible landlord or lover would have sent her packing ages before, but not Ruben. Their love must remain Platonic, or as near to that as possible. It’s not that Ruben is impotent or lacking sexual drive, but that he accepts Tessa’s terms that consummation would ruin their relationship. There’s no doubt about it, Ruben is an incredibly saint-like man, occasionally compared to St Anthony, but surpassing him in devotion to the goddess Aphrodite, or rather, Diana.
But if you accept Antje’s ghost, you must be prepared to accept Tessa’s flagrant dismissal of conventional domesticity, for both are counterparts; free spirits, each perhaps taking revenge after centuries of male domination - mutatis mutandis the same now as it was then. All in all, once you acclimatise yourself to Antje the familiar as a real presence, then you are quite prepared for Tessa, a sympathetic though tough as old boots heroine, and her defiance of the romantic love imperative. Although I occasionally became impatient with our narrator Ruben’s passivity and with his constant recourse to musical analogy, in the trade citations from literature and high-flown simile (After one of Tessa’s flings he finds himself ‘like the sole survivor of some apocalyptic catastrophe,’ and ‘medieval darkness wrapped around me like a hermit’s shroud.’) this is a thoughtful and well-planned novel, steeped in the native soil of South Africa.
Bryson, Bill. A Short History of Nearly Everything
This ebullient book about the history of science is at once informative and entertaining. For the layman keen to know a little more about those who have contributed to modern science it is a revelation. Here the adjective ‘superficial’ is a compliment.
Those who know Bryson will be familiar with his friendly, jokey approach to serious matters. It begins with the title, where 600+ pages are deemed ‘short,’ and the author admits to only covering ‘nearly everything.’ In his exordium he welcomes the reader, a unique presence composed of ‘trillions of drifting atoms,’ that have somehow managed to assemble themselves in such ‘an intricate and curiously obliging manner.’
In a few brisk and breezy paragraphs Bryson deals with life on Earth. Once again the reader is addressed as if he is a bright child learning the ABC of science. Facts and figures are buried in a narrative that tells of miracle upon miracle, how matter becomes man over eons: ‘Life on Earth, you see, is surprisingly tenuous…. The average species on Earth lasts for only about four million years.’
Moving swiftly into the reader finds that ‘at various periods over the last 3.8 billion years you have abhorred Evolution oxygen and then doted on it, grown fins and limbs and jaunty sails, laid eggs, flicked the air with a forked tongue, been sleek, been furry, lived underground, lived in trees, been as big as a deer and as small as a mouse, and a million things more.’ The matey exuberance becomes infectious - or slightly annoying.
But this is perhaps the best way to engage the common reader, who, like Bryson, is a sucker for a good story. For, after all, at base our author is a novelist. What I especially relished about the book were the potted biographies not only of the famous but also the many forgotten contributors in the march of science.
Einstein, we learn, was ‘a bright but not outstanding student,’ at Zurich Polytechnic. He fell in love with a fellow student, who bore him a child outside marriage, a child whom he never saw. Within five years of graduation he had done most of the work for his Theory of Relativity. James Hutton, a neglected 18th century mineralogist whose A Theory of The Earth was you might say ‘ground-breaking,’ was it seems no stylist, for ‘nearly every line he wrote was an invitation to slumber.’ This is certainly not the case with BB.
It must be admitted Bryson’s own style can aggravate, slipping into easy cliché as when we are told that ‘carbon dioxide is no slouch as a greenhouse gas,’ and absurd litotes when we learn that meteoritic samples of lead are not easy to obtain being 4,550 years old. (At least this time he didn’t say ‘only.’) But that’s the man, the entertainer who opens up huge vistas of time and space, who impels us to wonder at the miracle of existence and whose research lies lightly under a veneer of chat and spicy gossip.
Burnside, John. The Devil’s Footprints
Lately I’ve been reading quite a few books, fiction and non-fiction, about father-son relationships, and John Burnside’s novel is one of the most fascinating. No doubt a good deal of the book is autobiographical, for the dust jacket tells us that the same author’s memoir A Lie About My Father ‘appeared in 2006 to enormous critical acclaim.’ Be that as it may, the father in The Devil’s Footprints is not at the centre of the story, which is a first person narrative of a recluse whose family attempt to settle in Coldhaven, where an atmosphere of hostility threatens their family life. ‘I don’t want to say there was some kind of concerted action, some plot,’ says Michael Gardiner, the narrator, ‘because they hated one another just as much as they hated people like my parents.’ The malice that seems to dog Michael’s life is all the more mysterious because it is non-specific, felt rather than explained by any act, though there are plenty of violent acts, including at least two murders.
But this is no detective thriller with the reader being asked to identify motive or track down cause and effect. Much of the hostility is gratuitous and quite possibly mainly in Michael’s own psyche. While the father accepts that the locals are ‘all right ...they’re different from us, I’ll give you that. They have different – ideas,’ John, a friend with an interest in the local landscape, wants to know more. ‘My father took a moment to think about it, then launched into one of his wordy, mock-serious analyses. “Well,” he said, “Imagine you have been set down in a strange place, amongst strange people, people who resemble you, superficially, physically -” But if the natives of Coldhaven are strange, Michael himself is always the odd man out, as often as not estranged from himself, driving himself towards suicide, following a teenage girl whom he feels he might have fathered, walking out into the darkness on country roads in the depths of winter, drifting, a stranger in his own skin.
Religious imagery hovers over the final pages as it has from the title, but there’s no salvation for Michael; he has passed through his dark night of the soul and reached some kind of equilibrium: ‘As it happened, my little chats with Dr Gerard helped: the authorities eventually took the view that I had been suffering from depression,’ He returns to solitude, a distance away from Coldhaven, where he can be alone with the birds on the point.
I found this a fascinating rendering of a poet’s angst. Burnside has already written eleven collections of poetry and has here written a sensitive portrayal of the essential outsider.
Burroughs, William. Junky
This compelling autobiography of the leading Beat writer is for me reminder that gold often lies among the trash in the centre of the city dump. Years ago I sampled Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch, but gave up in despair at its incongruities, its sudden passages of brilliance being insufficient to compensate for what often seemed mind-wandering drivel. I thought I’d never touch Burroughs again. Junky, however is something else; its sad-eyed, intelligent and honest writing strikes a melancholy chord. I might even try him again.
Like much American autobiography Junky captures the reader from the start with its tough no nonsense, stick to the facts approach to story-telling. Open the book at any page and you find passages like this: ‘I was in a cheap cantina off Dolores Street, Mexico City. I had been drinking for about two weeks. I was sitting in a booth with three Mexicans drinking tequila. The Mexicans were fairly well-dressed. One of them spoke English. A middle-aged, heavy-set Mexican with a sad, sweet sang songs and played the guitar.’ It’s difficult not to want to know more. Burroughs sets the scene, then focusses on one character, a well-dressed musician in a dive bar. What will happen? This deadpan, Hemingway style never becomes monotonous. The reader believes in the writer’s integrity and trusts him to tell it like it was.
Of course, the writing is not as artless as it seems. As in Hemingway, in a story such as ‘The Killers’ the quietness conceals an underlying threat, a suggestion of desperation and violence. This is Mexico, dammit, and our narrator is a wily and possibly dangerous psychopath.
The surprising thing about this notorious drug-fiend and burnt out literary genius is that he came from a highly respectable middle-class background, attended ‘one of the Big Three universities’ and later ‘saw a way of life, a vocabulary, references, a whole symbol system, as the sociologists say.’ Hence this prose in a paragraph from Burroughs’ Prologue is, compared to the rest of the narrative, sophisticated, well-muscled, just as sharp and cynical, but more inclined to elaboration, yet ending colloquially, ‘But these people were jerks … and I cooled off on the setup.’
I could guarantee that once you pick up this book, the Penguin edition of which bears the warning or invitation ‘Keep out of Children’s Reach,’ you will not easily put it down.
Byatt, AS. The Children's Book.
The Sunday Times blurb on the back cover maintains that `This is the most stirring novel A S Byatt has written since Possession. This may well be the case, but since I was somewhat underwhelmed by the much-touted 1990 Booker winner I was not entirely surprised to find myself struggling with this 600+ page indulgence by a historian posing as a novelist. Novels, for me at least, work best when they show a world from a character's point of view. The less the author tells, the more the reader engages with the central consciousness. But AS Byatt tells us all about the period, the 1890s-1910s, the clothes worn, the wallpapers, the carpets, the food, the political background (Fabianism, suffragettes etc), the ancestry of her characters - at least 50 are named and not easily kept track of, their ambitions, their thoughts, their attitudes to science and art, politics and parentage. In short, the characters are overwhelmed by their setting.
One Amazon reviewer has spoken about the author's `beautiful style.' Style which is `beautiful,' is usually drawing attention to itself and this is certainly true of this book's elegant prose, written not in the voice of any character but from the four-square narrator or chronicler (the give away verb `to be' is conspicuous throughout) who hops in and out of consciousnesses. Our ex- cathedra narrator is very careful and elegant in her word choice ('insouciant' and `exiguous' for example) and revels in truisms and cliché: bland generalisations such as `Knowledge is power' or `Walking fast is a good way of channelling all sorts of emotions, fear, desire, panic,' or `we shall know each other, as the Bible says' with a wink to the reader who picks up on the sexual connotation. If you want style go to Hemingway, where epithets are sparse and usually essential to plot or character.
This novel has no plot and its characters are picked off the wall as social types; they are sensitive or dominant, predators or prey, never ambivalent. Many are little more than names, adding to the mountains of fine detail in an already cluttered book.
The saga covers the progress or regress of three inter-related families who live in changing times, the period when Victorian conventions were being undermined by shocking ideas, such as free love and women's education. Having recently read David Lodge's fictional biography of HG Wells A Man of Parts I was disappointed by the author's reticence in matters of free love.
The major theme of the book is carried by the children's novelist Olive Wellwood, who is compelled to write fairy tales, first for her children and later for herself. This is both protest and escape from the challenges of a new society. Her children, who at first line up behind her, later rebel. There is a strong undercurrent of feminism in the story: women are consistently ignored or exploited, even by the more open-minded males. It all seems terribly dated and contradictory, where liberation is buried under a plea for more fairies and fine dresses. I was reminded of a female Galsworthy; it was almost as if Virginia Woolf had never existed.
Carim, Enver. The Price of an Education
The Price of an Education tells a story of seduction by money. At times, especially when treating the drug scene, the novel has the cutting edge of un roman engagé. ‘I’m going to become a lawyer regardless,’ declares the narrator Leo Allen early in the book, ‘That’s the best way to get that bastard who shot my dad - by smashing his support system.’
But it costs money to get through law school, and the economy is on the slide. By sheer chance however an offer comes: Arlene, his widowed mother, is at last on the brink of a career as a singer. Her fabulously wealthy female promoter Bobby Cullen is about to launch her internationally. Leo is asked to entertain the 52 year old entrepreneur while mother gets ready. The imperious visitor asks Leo to drop his jeans, at the same time proferring a £50 note. ‘The fifty-pound note didn’t burn a hole in my pocket; it didn’t stay in my pocket long enough. What it did instead was put me in two horny dilemmas.’ Bobby likes what she sees and even more she relishes the nights that Leo spends at her luxury retreat in Primrose Hill.
The other horn of the dilemma, so to speak, is Heidi, Leo’s girlfriend, a comely and highly intelligent lass attending classes at University College. Heidi is a ‘go-er,’ who rarely says no. She and Leo are a unit. But how can Leo keep a mistress - or, rather, be kept by her in splendour - and never divulge his clandestine relationship to girlfriend Heidi? Bewteen two wealthy women who dote on him for different reasons, Leo is stymied. He compares himself to the drug lords ‘busy building skyscrapers’ in West Africa or South America whose drug-fuelled operations ‘had to be given a spotless, untraceable provenance.’ The women are, however, different, for whereas Heidi obviously loves Leo as a person, Bobby shouts at him as he brings her to a climax, ‘Oh God, Leo. I love you up me.’
The quandary is resolved by the deus ex machina of a revenging force reducing our hero to incapacity as a man and possibly lover, when during the Notting Hill Carnival of 2002, out celebrating with Heidi, Leo is set upon by toughs intent on disfiguring him. Why he more than another? Is this just bad luck, just as Bobby was the reverse - a miraculous provider? Well, don’t rely on luck - it never works, especially in novels. That is the message or moral.
The novel is immaculately presented and intriguing in its unwindings - integrating apposite interludes in Leo’s past with his (and his author’s) compulsive urge to realise a vision of social order from the impending disaster of the iniquities of drug trafficking. What Leo Allen has in spades is integrity. He is a blood donor, one committed to defeating corruption by drugs, and he feels guilty at taking Bobby’s money - although for her it’s simply a quid pro quo, a fair exchange. Whether after his beating-up she rallies round is beyond the novel - an open question. As already seen, Leo also agonises over his deception of Heidi. He tries to do the right thing, but fails and is punished by some outside force, the god Nemesis, if you like, striking to punish the hero and satisfactorily ending the novel.
The Price of an Education is not simply an entertaining novel, but a very moral one. By that I mean that its hero struggles with a problem that he has unwittingly brought upon himself - he strives to achieve solvency but fails to become the white man that others admire in him. Leo is caught between taking money for fun and being an upright citizen, a reflection of the white suit he dons for his mother’s initiation as a superstar at the Hi Hat club. In this he unconsciously mimics the larger concern with the drug scene he is determined to fight: he has sold his soul for easy money.
Carim, Enver. The Trouble with Sophie Gresham
Despite the title, there’s no ‘trouble’ with Sophie Gresham. She is in fact, according to the narrator, Charlie Venn, the most beautiful and cultured creature this side of Paradise. The trouble between the newly married young couple is not Sophie but her husband Charlie who has nightmares about his wife’s infidelity.
From the start it is Sophie who sets the pace, not only of their Cambridge University life together but of their voluptuous nocturnal sessions between the sheets. Sophie has promised herself that on her graduation day she will lose her virginity, and from their first meeting at the ceremony she takes the reins, booking a flight and hotel rooms in Paris and giving her husband the cultural tour of Paris. The bouquet of flowers she buys, however, is not for Charlie but is destined to be placed on the grave of Charles Baudelaire who died on May 5, 1857. Therein lies the possible stumbling block to their seemingly blissful marriage, for while both are signed up atheists, Sophie is a student of literature, looking backwards; Charlie, by contrast is a geneticist committed to eradicating inherited diseases and slowing down the ageing process.
Charlie is bemused by his wife’s obsession with history and languages (she’s fluent in French and Arabic, especially Biblical studies) while Charlie is bent on analysing chromosomes and has even adopted an infant bonobo chimpanzee as a research project in his work at the Institute of Molecular and Neural Genetics in Cambridge. The Time-span of the action is ten years during which Sophie becomes a success as a writer of historical romances.
It is only after Charlie witnesses an accident in which a boy is knocked off his bicycle and eventually dies that Sophie moves into writing contemporary fiction. The unwitting agent in this transformation is the born-again Reverend Baldock who insists on Charlie and his wife attending a ‘resurrection ceremony’ for the dead boy. Surprisingly Sophie is enthusuastic and the tragic death of the boy leads to her conversion not to spirituality but to a change in her attitude to her husband’s work that she once derided as ‘playing God.’ Sophie’s ‘trouble’ thus emerges not as sexual infidelity but failure to believe in her husband’s mission.
This is the second novel I’ve read this month in which the conflict between female art and male science have threatened to undermine a marriage. In David Nicholls’s Us Douglas’s work on the habits of the fruit fly is close to Charlie Venn’s genetic investigations. In both books the thrall of science threatens to divide the partners, but in Carim’s novel the sexual imperative of youth is always uppermost - many pages being devoted to bedroom encounters - whereas the couple in Us were never quite a unit. I suppose it’s a truth universally acknowledged that boys tend towards science, while girls prefer the humanities, but I still look forward to the novel in which a novitiate priest falls for a lady doctor.
Carter, Mike. One Man and his Bike
Mind, muscle and machine! If these are in working order you may rest
content. That’s the message embedded in
this fascinating account of Mike Carter’s round trip from London through
Scotland and Wales. Halfway through his mazy journey he enters a bar in
Sutherland and orders double egg and chips. There are only two customers: a
drunk and a middle-aged woman eating egg and chips. He greets the woman who has
a non-Scottish accent:
‘Long way from home?’
' As far as possible.'
She was straight into it. ‘Gave him a second chance but it was a mistake.'
‘Had to get away.
'It was hard giving away all my furniture, everything, but it’s so expensive to store and I didn’t need it. People here have been very kind.'
Carter relishes his own company, but once off the bike he engages with whoever he meets. He finds himself an object of curiosity, a lone cyclist whose mission is to complete a tour of his native island. On the way he asks himself why he's doing it, and there’s either no answer or a dozen. The reader gathers in passing that he’s a middle-aged atheist divorcee, seeking escape from urban living and materialism, relishing nature, as though seeing it freshly for the first time.
Every one of the book’s twenty-five chapters contains amusing and revealing incidents. Both places and people engage Carter, many of the latter becoming soul mates, like the Lindisfarne monk, the lighthouse keeper at Cape Wrath or the pensioner from Bury St Edmonds who has walked 5,000 miles in 5 years.
Fascinating as Carter finds almost everyone he meets, he must forever be off and away on his bike. Masochistically he is determined to survive in his one-man tent, enduring hailstorms floods and tempest or being edged off the road by murderous hauliers, because sooner or later he knows he’ll be ravished by the most spectacular natural beauty.
Despite the thorough illumination of natural scenery and human traces in the landscape this is no dull and factual guidebook, but a jokey glance at the strangeness of human nature, its odd obsessions, like collecting junk or dressing up, its variety of accents and attitudes, always seen through the author’s wry eye. Thus this self-confessed atheist, having fallen off his bike in Wales and injured his wrist, is encouraged pray. Chapter 23’s epigraph from Mario Cipollini, a former World Cycling Champion, tells us ‘The bicycle has a soul. If you succeed to love it, it will give you emotions that you will never forget.’ Mike Carter’s tidings to the world!
Cary, Joyce. The Horse's Mouth.
Joyce Cary's The Horse's Mouth was first
published in 1944, republished in Penguin 1948 and reissued by the Folio
Society with drawings by John Bratby in 1969. It is the first part of a trilogy of first
person narratives involving Gulley Jimson (artist), the central character and
Sara Munday, his model.
I was captivated by its exuberence and humour when I first picked it up in Hampstead in 1952 and have re-read it several times with increasing relish. This is an internal portrait of the artist as an old man, obsessed with his painting, always looking for a wall to daub on, wicked, lively, amoral and scheming, but ever good-humoured and resigned to human folly, especially his own. The sense of London as it might appear to an artist looking for a reflection of himself in the river is marvellously recreated.
‘We had turned east along Greenbank. The moon was coming up, as if somebody had flashed a torch under the far edge of a dish-cover. A fog of white light seeping up into the blue air. Overhead the sky was as black as Prussian blue. The stars were sparkling like electric cars. And the river crawling along, the colour of pig iron, like a stream of lava just going solid.’
Cates, Anya. Daniel, asleep
This debut novel tells the story of a woman, Marie, who loves a convicted murderer and rapist. Daniel escaping after a crash while in transit to hospital after being beaten-up in prison for being a child rapist, flees to Marie for shelter. The hunted criminal draws her into many devious plans for a future abroad. But is he really guilty? And how far is her complicity justified? The questions are posed and pondered intelligently.
The plot is compelling and the characters well-drawn, but the telling through Marie’s eyes is often flawed by pretentious prose and a plethora of self-analysis from Gates’s very articulate narrator. ‘My body feels as dense and heavy as a dwarf star,’ declares Marie, who on one occasion finds the traffic has ‘left my nerves feeling strung out to the point of twanging like a demented out-of-tune fiddle.’ Marie also has an irritating penchant for social criticism (of, say, the intrusive press, the justice system or the NHS). I suspect it is the author as author condemning dim-witted policemen or a health service that ‘no longer has time for the individual but treats patients like inconvenient cattle.’
Chan, Darcie. The Mill River Recluse
This is a story about a woman whose traumatic experience as a 16 year-old pupil drives her into something like Asperger’s syndrome, from which she never recovers. Until the day of her death (which comes early in the novel) Mary McAllister lives virtually alone in a marble villa in the rural enclave of Mill River. She is self-isolated, called a witch and only at the end miraculously - and posthumously - restored to the community.
Mary seems to have been particularly unlucky. After being raped by her English teacher (a Mr Smee, who promptly vanishes from the novel) she marries Patrick McAllister, a scion of a millionaire marble enterprise, who indulges her love of horses and wealth. At the wedding ‘her exquisite beauty caused all to ‘gasp as she glided past.’ And perhaps for the last time ‘her beautiful face’ is ‘relaxed and serene.’ Too good to last, for soon we find that kind Patrick is transformed into a monster whose ‘green eyes were hungry, almost ravenous,’ and he will not take no for an answer from his pathetically shy bride; he is determined to ‘get from Mary what he wanted most.’ But then things begin to look up: after a frenzied attack in which he savages his wife’s pet horse and leaves her half-blinded he dies in the crash of his midnight blue Packard Clipper coupé. Mary retreats to her marble house-cum-catacomb.
Luckily the McAllister clan is not all bad, for there’s a fairy godfather, Grandpop Conor, who leaves Mary his fortune, which she shares by anonymous gifts to the community. The fire service, the police department and other needy folk are puzzled but grateful beneficiaries. All this is finally revealed on Town Meeting Day, when Mary’s will is read out to a weeping congregation by Father O’Brien, her only supporter through the bad times that were her life.
There are sub-plots too, involving a good cop and a thieving lecherous bad cop, both of whom naturally get their deserts. There’s crazy Daisy, who is not at all what she seems and is (you’d never have guessed it) distantly related to a Mr Smee! We ultimately learn that the recluse heroine had a ‘personal library’ of over 4,000 books. So Mary was probably absorbed in Plato, Dante and Shakespeare during her many decades of isolation in the marble house!
This is the sort of tale that in years past would have been a mouth-watering prospect for the Hollywood film industry. It’s as American as … yes, apple pie, where goods are good, food is plentiful, pot-luck suppers and covered dishes abound, bad guys get the boot and the nice guy gets the girl - in this case Claudia Simon, a reformed foodaholic schoolmistress who is won by the good cop, a deserving widower who knew all along that Mary wasn’t a witch.
Cohen:, Tamar. The Mistress’s Revenge
Tamar Cohen’s debut novel is written in the form of a diary, addressed by Sally Ipsis to her former lover Clive Gooding, a wealthy television journalist and compulsive womaniser. At the start of her memoir Sally’s covert relationship has been going on for five years and this monologue is her attempt to come to terms with her loss of the man who had promised her eternal love, marriage, an escape from her unexciting partner, Daniel, and a new start in life. But when Clive finds he cannot leave his wife Susan and his two children for Sally, she falls into severe depression, having resource to therapy and a variety of drugs.
So far, so trite, the reader may feel. Is this another ‘woman’s novel’, pure pulp fiction, as the narrator spills out her agonies like a soap opera? Not exactly, for this everyday story of punctured romance is told so compulsively that one becomes intrigued by Sally’s rich array of coping strategies, as she visits first her young blonde GP who lends her a sympathetic ear, puts her head on one side and scrunches up her lips, repeating ‘Poor you’ to the blubbering patient; then Helen Bunion her stern therapist who recommends deep breathing and various commonsense strategies such as knowing who you really are. Clive is an illness from which Sally must cure herself; but this she is unable to do, having constant recourse to imaginary (and ultimately face-to-face) confrontations with the ex-lover. Sally sinks into drug dependency and subterfuges such as email and Facebook snooping, but mostly a reliance on the friendship of Susan, Clive’s unsuspecting wife whom she befriends in an attempt to spy on Clive and track down every detail of his life. As Sally becomes increasingly drug-dependent, she finds herself isolated from friends, husband and her two children, Tilly and Jamie.
Some Amazon reviewers have been put off by the feckless heroine with nothing else in her life but dreams of the past and hopes of reunion with the selfish and heartless Clive, who is also undergoing therapy, but via BUPA. These two empty characters ‘deserve each other’ is one dismissal; they are equally selfish and despicable. This may be true, but they are each presented in such a lively and believable way that their fencing becomes a fascinating duel. What will they do next? Will Sally force her way back into Clive’s life? How long will it be before partner Daniel confronts Sally, or wife Susan finally twigs what’s been going on? Will therapist Helen Bunion’s counsel prevail and Sally come to her senses? Above all, how will the affair affect the children of each party?
Sally Ipsis is the archetypal hopeless woman, one who can’t look after her children, who loses her job, her husband and ultimately her family, one who neglects herself and takes refuge in sleeping pills and isolation in her bedroom. She is so obsessed with the notion of regaining Clive that she becomes a compulsive liar, forgets to pay bills, answer letters, to attend parents’ meetings and even her son’s birthday. She is ‘too busy’ tracing what she imagines to be the day-to-day life of Clive. Yet as we get to know her, she becomes strangely likeable: intelligent, witty and in her own way incredibly resourceful. When her therapist finally loses patience, Sally deflects the threatened termination of treatment with typical mockery of professional jargon: ‘It’s reached the point where I feel I must urge you strongly to seek further help,’ she told me. ‘You are stretching the boundaries of my remit.’ Isn’t that classic? Stretching the boundaries of her remit. I even wrote it down, I liked it so much....You know, I rather think that’s what you might have done, Clive – stretched the boundaries of my remit. Maybe all that stretching is what keeps hurting so much.’
Although the book is an easy read, it’s far from being a lightweight Sex ‘n’ Shopping novel and it’s certainly a mile away from Chiclit or the typical Romantic Novel. In fact, with pardonable exaggeration, I see Sally Ipsis as the Clarissa Dalloway of our time.
Cooper, Carol. One Night at the Jacaranda
Since its narrator flits like a butterfly between a dozen or so consciousnesses One Night at the Jacaranda fails to qualify as Chick-lit; otherwise it has all the hallmarks of its archetype the Bridget Jones diary. It is fast, funny and deals with that thing called love, which here, as often as not embraces hatred, envy, lust and the need for companionship. In many ways the book reminds me of Morgen Bailey’s The Serial Dater’s Shopping List,where a reporter is assigned the task of dating thirty men in thirty days. In both novels the total idiocy of trying to find a mate through the agency of electronic media is exposed. Of course it goes without saying that we are all equally ridiculous in our neurotic quest to find the eternal other, but at least Cooper and Bailey, unlike Jane Austen for instance, more or less face the fact that our searches are doomed from the start.
But to the story - or in this case the series of interconnected stories of our protagonists, all of whom are credible and even in some ways likeable. But of course we want to know why - and how and where and when it all takes place, and by ‘it’ we here mean coitus and its ambient tremors of lust, rage, self-satisfaction and personal aggrandisement. The caste - of housewife, lawyer, jailbird, stringer, general practitioner, teacher - and almost off-stage, marruage deserter, soldier and Hungarian cuckold - is Chaucerian in its social range. And as with Chaucer the subjects’ diversity is unified by their starting place; in this case the dating club at the Jacaranda, where three miniutes introduction is the maximum time for chatting-up.
That this tale is successful is indicated by the scores of appreciative reviews commending its realism, its saucy demotic dialogue and its general high-spiritedness. That the book is imbued with a feelgood factor is undeniable. Many readers stayed up all night until they finished; others recommended it unreservedly as excellent holiday reading. I would agree with this verdict; it is a beautuful escape into a land we all know, but, although the book works as entertainment, is this all one expects from a novel? One reviewer dslikes its open-endedness, while another finds it sad. There is after all more to life than dating, more to endings than romantic couplings. But only cats die in this book and to ensure that this one remains acceptable, our author gives a couple of final tweaks to ensure a ‘happy ending.’
Courtenay, Bryce. The Power of One
As with André Brink and other South African writers, the political situation in his native land makes it expedient for Bryce Courtenay to live in and write out of Australia. The Power of One is a first person narrative of a seven year old boy, dubbed Peekay, who endures the tortures and humiliations of being born an outsider, in this case a white boy of British descent among Boers (or Afrikaners), who themselves are outsiders in that they are settlers in a Kaffir country and numerically overwhelmed by blacks. Racial hatred and the exploitation of the less powerful are thus endemic to the story, which is about how one boy manages to survive and prosper in the most horrific circumstances.
With his Rooinek ( or English) background Peekay is the natural target at school for taunts, bullying and all kinds of physical and mental torture. These he stoically endures with the help of Hoppie Groenewald, a boxing champion, adopting Hoppie's mantra: First with your head and then with your heart, a boxing metaphor meaning be clever before you hit out. So Peekay watches and waits, never complaining, while listening to advice and studying hard. Being mocked and persecuted simply makes him stronger, so that in the end Peekay masters not only English but all the different tribal tongues, and, believe it or not, ultimately wins a place at Oxford and comes close to achieving his ambition of becoming the world welter-weight boxing champion.
The novel thus has something of a Boy's Own fantasy feel-good factor built into it. In spite of the authentic recreation of scenes in the bush, the small villages and ultimately the diamond mines in South Africa, this is far from being a realistic novel. The characters, like those in a comic book, are good or bad, larger than life, sweeter than honey or nauseatingly harsh and bitter. Peekay's triumphs are essentially those of authorial wish-fulfilment.
I found the book's 629 pages more than a little indigestible, and probably demanding at least another sequel, or even a series. Some readers might well appreciate this, but for me one heavy-going volume was more than enough. Of course, even the best novel may contain moments of tedium, surplus detail and narrative redundancy, but Bruce Courtenay, or if you like, Peekay, loves to linger over the boxing routines - for instance, there are interminable sequences about gloving up, intended presumably to build up tension before the blow-by-blow description of a fight in which Peekay (a David who relishes taking on Goliaths) will inevitably triumph, and they have precisely the reverse effect.
The book's prose style is, possibly intentionally, unremarkable. Peekay writes like an enthusiastic adolescent and has a remarkable aptitude for drifting into cliché and banality: `hurt like hell,' `missed by miles,' `smooth as a baby's bottom,' `the best thing since sliced bread.' I'm not sure how all this will go down at Oxford University, when he gets there, as I'm sure he eventually will.
A more grievous fault - and for this we must blame not the narrator but the author - occurs when the good German, known as Doc and under house arrest, is asked to play for the assembled prisoners. The good doctor opts for Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, suitably heroic of course and essentially the noblest specimen of European culture. The problem is that Doc plays not the Fifth Symphony, but the Fifth Piano Concerto (known as the Emperor Concerto). The natives wouldn't have known the difference, but author and reader ought to.
de la Pava, Sergio. A Naked Singularity (Kindle Edition)
Sergio de la
Pava's painfully detailed study of the law in action amongst the underclass in
New York is an insightful examination of court procedure and the conscience of
the poor. Social and moral questions thread their way through the protracted
dialogues between attorneys and clients. How can you defend a man who is a
liar, a betrayer and a recidivist criminal? How and why? Well, Cassi, the more
or less narrator believes it's his duty to do the best for his clients,
selected mainly from the scum of society. He works frighteningly long hours
with unpromising material for a derisory reward. He does his best in a hopeless
situation, for drug enforcement laws are sacred in NYC. Society must be
protected and criminal locked up for as long as possible.
As a novel this book is something of a disaster. Interminable speeches are interspersed with almost equally interminable dialogues, between client and attorney, between the attorneys themselves. Light relief, if that's what it is, is offered by immaculate transcripts of judicial procedure. There is all the material for a fine novel here, a cri de coeur for something more sensible and humane in the justice system, but the pain of digging it out is as hard as Cassi's self-imposed daily torture.
Delanoy, Michael. Denton
Welch: The Making of a Writer
Denton Welch (1915-48), while a student at Goldsmiths’ School of Art, was cycling to visit an aunt in Leigh, near Reigate, when he was run over by a car and sustained appalling injuries from which, thirteen years later, he died. During this period he became clinically introspective and isolated, producing not only a journal of many volumes, but a range of short stories, Maiden Voyage, an account of his childhood and the unfinished autobiographical novel A Voice Through a Cloud. Michael De-la-Noy, who edited the Welch journals, here traces the life and development of the doomed young artist, quoting extensively from his work.
The accident was certainly responsible both for Denton’s change of career from art to literature, as well as for the kind of writer he became: a neurotic observer of the human scene around him, escaping into his own past when relationships fractured, as they frequently did. As a perforce repressed homosexual, his life appears fraught with dreams and disappointment. It is in his work that he is most virile, seizing on just the typical flaws and follies of his subjects, lingering on their peculiarities, decorating his verbal portraits meticulously. From De-la-Noy’s account it appears that almost everyone Welch meets is doomed to become an object of study, like a still life. Here, for instance, is Denton’s portrait of his friend Eric Oliver as he appears, thinly disguised, in the story ‘The Diamond Badge’: ‘I know him by his searching, rather anxious eyes. They were not the eyes of a man about to welcome wife, sweetheart or friend; they were too guarded, too ready to save the stranger from embarrassment. I liked at once his beaky nose, his tallness which was yet not overwhelming, the bank of dingy fairish hair flopping over his forehead. The sleeves of his open-neck shirt were rolled up and his beltless trousers seemed to hang on his hips rather precariously; they were slack around his ankles as if they dragged on the ground behind. I knew just what the hems would be like at his heels – caked with mud and beginning to fray.’
As in introduction to Denton Welch, the man, his work and reputation, De-la-Noy’s biography is concise and well-documented. The many quotations give the flavour of the work and the insider anecdotes illuminate the nature of the man who according to Edith Sitwell was ‘a born writer.’
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations
Dickens tells an intriguing yarn, creates suspense and amuses us with a range of eccentrics, friendly such as Wemmick or Herbert Pocket, or macabre as with Pumblechook or Jaggers. As in David Copperfield, he gives us strong and often threatening women, like Betsy Trotwood, and here Mrs Joe. Both of these semi-autobiographical novels begin with a shock to a child that reverberates through the rest of the action. Both are seen from the dual child-adult perspective; both belong to the Bildungsroman genre. Both have been repeatedly adapted for stage, screen and radio drama, and yet both have their weaknesses of characterisation and narrative tedium.
Several decades ago it was not unusual to find a Dickens novel as a set text for public examinations. Today this would be unheard of: ‘Too long, Sir!’ ‘Boring, Sir!’ I recall attempting to ‘teach’ Nicholas Nickleby to secondary modern school pupils in the Sixties. Then that outmoded method of ‘reading around the class’ was still in vogue. The lads enjoyed that and were doubled up laughing as Nickle Arse and Queers went about their business. Those who say they still love Dickens today, are probably thinking of one or more of the excellent BBC adaptations rather than the text of the book itself. Reading a Dickens novel today, except as a Simplified Classics text, is no mean feat.
It has taken me several weeks to get through Great Expectations, reading it in bite-sized pieces, often as a Book at Bedtime treat. That is probably the best and most appropriate method, since like most Victorian novels it was designed for serialisation, which also of course accounts for the repetitiveness and the prolonging of tension by ending each Part on a cliff-hanger. It is not easy for the modern reader to read with the eagerness and innocence of his Victorian counterpart. The sheer thickness of the books and the at times plodding nature of the narrative demand a time and patience that for most of us today is in short supply.
Nevertheless, I am pleased to have made the effort, and was for the most part captivated by the narrative and relished the sheer exuberance of the language, as when Dickens allows Pumblechook or Joe Gargery to indulge in their respective bumbling monologues. True, I got tired of Pip’s continual self-analysis as he expounds on his guilt in rejecting the advances of good friends like Joe, Biddy and, later, the convict Magwitch aka Provis. I cringed, too, at the moral miracles of a converted Miss Havisham, kneeling before Pip. And the fire was an unconvincing contrivance. As for the cooked-up non-serial happy ending, the less said the better.
Doctorow, E L. Homer & Langley
I have come from reading several genre novels to what I love best - a literary novel, the kind of book you don’t rush through, but relish each word. Here Homer the blind narrator takes a break from his piano to recall times when playing for silent movies he would be assisted by sixteen-year-old Mary: 'She was a brave but wounded thing, legally an orphan. We were in loco parentis, and always would be. She had her own room on the top floor next to Siobhan's and I would think of her sleeping there, chaste and beautiful, and wonder if the Catholics were not right in deifying virginity and if Mary's parents had not been wise in conferring on her frail beauty the protective name of the mother of their God.'
This passage takes on greater poignancy when years later Homer hears of her fate as a missionary in Africa. By that time he has fallen for Jacqueline, a French reporter who saves him from being run over in New York. Unlike his elder brother Langley, an embittered and paranoid survivor from gas attacks in the Great War, Homer pretty much accepts the world of crime and corruption he finds around him at the time of the Depression. Both damaged bachelors live in a decaying house off Fifth Avenue, within sight of Central Park. While Homer writes and plays the piano, Langley fills the house with junk and embarks on the project of compiling the ultimate newspaper. To which end he buys all the daily papers and collates reports of murder, rape, robbery and scandal.
As is his wont Doctorow bases his fiction on historical fact. Homer and Langley Collyer were a fabled pair of New York recluses whose crumbling mansion housed piles of junk, a dismantled car in the living room and rats in the woodwork, and whose visitors included policemen, prostitutes and hoodlums. Doctorow even extends their lives into the Hippy period, where the pair meet Flower Child approval. Although deprived of mains services, winter is welcomed as a bastion against teenage vandalism, the young stone-throwers then being confined indoors. The book ends sadly with Homer writing on a newly scavenged braille typewriter ‘with only the touch of my brother’s hand to know that I am not alone.’ But this downbeat note is perfectly pitched and the novel’s heroes earn our respect and even admiration for defying the safe and relatively secure world of civilized society.
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The House of the Dead
picked up Dostoyevsky's The House of the Dead in a charity shop in
Epsom, where I had half an hour to idle away before the next bus. I was so
gripped by the opening that I continued reading the next 30 pages on and off
for the rest of the day. After a week I've finished it, to the exclusion of
other pressing engagements and books on the pile, some recently bought.
What it is about this author that has always stirred my spirit I can't exactly say. I've read The Idiot, Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov (twice) and all have haunted me. I've still got The Possessed, The Gambler and the short stories to read one cold gloomy winter when the heating fails and I'm in bed with a fatal illness.
He's not exactly a barrel of laughs, is he, Dostoyevsky! But what a writer to get under your skin and make you feel this is my story, everyman's story. Solitude, self-loathing and despair at the sheer cruelty of man's fate are his common themes. In The House of the Dead, the hero or victim is sent to Siberia to live in fearful conditions amongst men who are often cruel, loathsome, self-seeking, cunning, always filthy, and always dreaming of escape. We meet a cross-section of the criminal class, some of whom are utterly despicable, but yet understandable. Floggings - sometimes up to 500 lashes happen continuously, but even worse, it seems, is the spite, bitterness and hatred between convicts.
The story is semi-autobiographical, for Dostoyevsky himself was sent to Omsk for 4 years of penal servitude. The crime or 'crimes' committed are immaterial, as is the arbitrary nature of justice: - thus, an old man is given a hundred lashes for supposed insolence before he has even settled into the hostile shed of ice where he is to serve an indeterminate sentence. That's life at the rough end. You'd better get used to it.
Beneath all this torture and hatred, however, a political message emerges from time to time. This was life under a totalitarian regime of oppressive czars; there is hope in the working man, in the simple peasant class or in the artisan. Well, that sounds too sentimental of course and we know what Communism gave the average Russian - an even harsher deal, just as brutal and corrupt, and just as, or even more, intolerant of dissent.
However, this is not a political pamphlet but a human document; a plea not so much for social justice as for an awareness of the strangeness and surprising nature of fate and one man's reflections on it. Thus Goryanchykov, the narrator, concludes:
There is in the Russian character so much down-to-earth sobriety, so much inner sobriety, so much inner mockery directed at the self ... It may be that it was this perpetual state of secret discontent that caused these men to be so impatient in their day-to-day dealings with one another, to be so implacable and jeeringly malicious in one another's regard.
Prison is the microcosm, the crucible that brings to boiling point the discontents lurking in what the author would call the soul of man.
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Idiot
Dostoyevsky wrote The Idiot during his sojourn in Europe (1867-71) where he had fled to escape his creditors. His obsession with gambling and the powerful impression made on him by Hans Holbein’s figure of Christ taken from the cross are key motifs in the novel, which is dominated by the contrasting themes of acquisitiveness and Christian charity.
Prince Myshkin, the Idiot and central figure, like his author, returns to Russia after four years in ‘civilised’ Europe, where he has suffered poverty and epileptic fits. It is these seizures, as well as his childlike innocence that have led to him being dubbed ‘the idiot’ by most of his fellow citizens. In a novel of over 600 closely packed pages and crammed with up to a hundred characters, the Prince is the sole touchstone of goodness. His frankness and innocence are seen by many as stupidity. He is even accused of vice and cunning when being simply disarmingly honest. He is often used as a pawn by calculating figures, such as the ‘villain’ Rogozhin and the beautiful ‘fallen’ woman, Nastasya Filippovna. To the Prince these are desperately unhappy people whom he seeks to rescue, but without success. He is trapped between two equally beautiful and impulsive young women, Nastasya Filippovna (full name used throughout) and Aglaya Yepanchin, the youngest of General Yepanchin’s three unmarried daughters. The Prince, who confesses love and seems to have proposed marriage to both, is torn between their needs and his own need to save them from their darker selves. Both women have several suitors, some offering respectable futures, others desperate passion. Myshkin moves tortuously between both, giving advice, chasing after them, offering his disinterested love, yet in his heart knowing that he is a hopelessly laughable suitor.
Behind the love stories there are several recurrent themes that continually resurface, most notably the position of Russia in Europe – what it means to be a true Russian in a continent where the natives are seen as backward and uncivilised peasants. Tolstoy, too, was much concerned with this question, although to Dostoyevsky both he and Turgenev (with whom he quarrelled when in Europe) were contaminated by French and German influences. In fact the Prince, just before the onset of one of his epileptic seizures, uncharacteristically breaks silence, bursting out with a long tirade, inveighing against nihilists, Jews, atheists and the Catholic Church, much to the embarrassment of his hosts, the Yepanchins, who are, with other notables, about to celebrate his engagement to Aglaya, their youngest daughter. In other scenes, long speeches on legal, commercial, political and spiritual matters are given by others, but in these the Prince is either absent or remains quiescent. And of course there are always ‘the woman question’ and the land ownership question, together with a sense of a decline in spiritual values.
I am not sure whether the modern reader will appreciate the rather old-fashioned narrative modes that Dostoyevsky employs in this novel. There are constant asides to the reader, telling us for example that ‘the motives of human actions are usually infinitely more complex and varied than we are apt to explain them afterwards, and can rarely be defined with certainty.’ One is a little reminded of George Eliot, the Wise Woman who couldn’t resist pointing a moral to adorn a tale. Then there is the position of the narrator himself, who confesses to being often absent at crucial times and being reduced to interpreting gossip or making speculation as to what might have happened. Chapter 9 of Part Four, for instance, begins with a Fielding-like introduction, putting the reader in the picture with ‘A fortnight has passed since the events described in the last chapter, and the position of the characters of our story had changed so much that we find it extremely difficult to continue without certain explanations. Yet we feel that we have to confine ourselves to a bare statement of facts, if possible, without any special explanations, and for a very simple reason: because we ourselves find it difficult in many instances to explain what took place ...’ The digression continues and the reader waits impatiently. Of course the delaying tactic is a novelist’s stock-in-trade, but Dostoyevsky, in this novel at least, occasionally oversteps the bounds of decency. Much of the ‘action’ indeed is told through unreliable gossips or malicious liars. Myshkin goes missing for long periods and we are constantly given letters of distraught repentance, passionate love and regret (often false). Yes, our narrator, as he explained above, has a miserable time getting to the facts behind appearance and conjecture.
But these are perhaps minor quibbles in what is for the most part an intriguing and surprisingly convincing tale of a basically good and honest man in a nest of vipers. We have here again the solitary soul, the alienated Underground Man, but now resurfaced in the world of high society. The absorbed reader follows Prince Myshkin’s encounters with drunks, braggarts, liars, deceivers, gamblers, lechers and murderers, from the streets of Petersburg to the country estate of Pavlovsk. Although the novel climaxes with a terrible murder, it is a less dark novel than the author’s earlier Crime and Punishment – in fact it is at times extremely funny, for example when the sisters collapse with laughter over the Prince’s revelation on seeing the donkey (ie himself) after a dream - but the theme of redemption through Christian suffering is paramount. Prince Myshkin embodies Christian values, but without being in the least evangelical or doctrinaire. He is able to laugh at himself and his foolishness - for he is often gauche and embarrassed in company - even managing, in spite of dire warnings, to break his hostess’s precious Chinese vase in the exuberant outburst noted above. This is indeed a remarkable portrayal: – a Christ-like figure with no dignity and a keen sense of humour.
Du Cann, GCL. The Love Lives of Charles Dickens
This systematic debunking of the Victorian idol will not please everyone, especially in the Year of Our Lord 2012, when Dickensmania (rivalled only perhaps by Austenmania) rules the literary torrents. Du Cann's book is now over half a century old and yet it is as stimulating and readable as it was when first published in 1961.
Since then, of course, we have had several new biographies, earnest, well-researched and certainly not as obsequious as that of John Forster or as boringly thorough as that of Edgar Johnson. Acroyd and Tomalin have done Dickens the Man proud and might even be thought 'definitive.' Both are lively and not shy of dishing the dirt where necessary.
Du Cann, though,is different; he's a knocker and proud of it. The titles of his chapters alone indicate this: 'The Pocket Venus: Maria Beadnell'; 'Floradora Far and Fair: Maria Winter'; 'First Sister Supplanter: Mary Hogarth'; 'The Fruitful Vine: Kate Dickens';'A Virgin Heart: Christiana Weller'; 'Queer Mrs de la Rue'; ''Second Sister Supplanter: G Hogarth'; 'The Little Actress: Ellen Ternan' and so forth. Behind the bravura, however, is much honest research and informed guesswork. Although inevitably short on key facts (the coded diaries only came to light later) Du Cann cites sources that others up to that point had either glossed over or been ignorant of. By focussing on the key word 'Love' and 'Love Life' he has struck a major chord of the Dickens psyche. Why was this great family man so loved by his public while he treated his wife and indeed children so unsympathetically? Why for that matter do his novels deal so poorly with the subject of sexual love - not explicitly of course, but unconvincingly escapist about normal human relationships? Of course, John Carey and others have. since Du Cann, gone into these matters in some depth, but Du Cann was the first to raise these issues and look at the more sordid side of the man who was undoubtedly the genius of his age.
This book, which maintains that 'Charles Dickens as a human being is far more interesting than any book which he ever wrote' seems somewhat out on a limb today, but it's surely a corrective to the mindless acceptance of the view of Dickens the man as keeper of the Victorian conscience. As with any great writer the man behind the mask is perennially fascinating.
Dunlop, Ian. Van Gogh.
This richly illustrated and informative biography, despite some misplacement of the sections early-on, is a treasure to keep. Every page is alive with large, often page-sized, reproductions of Van Gogh’s drawings, sketches and paintings. As well as giving us a chronology of the painter’s tortuous life, from Holland through Paris and Arles to his final resting-place in Auvers cemetery, Dunlap includes much epistolary correspondence, especially that between Vincent and his brother Theo.
The Introduction to this Great Lives edition by Elizabeth Longford reminds us of the enduring and ever-expanding popularity of Van Gogh’s art among non-cognoscenti, exactly as the painter would have wished. She touches on the best-selling aspect of his work, the major exhibitions and the literary and cinematic offshoots. In fact she maintains that ‘the man himself has suffered from over-exposure.’ This is ironic in view of the fact that his work was to his contemporaries generally considered crude, ugly and shockingly unfinished.
Elton, Ben. Blind Faith
‘The Lord made Heaven and Earth. The Lord made us. The Lord does this, the Lord wants that. We don’t know how or why, we don’t need to know, it just happens. There’s never any explanation, it’s all a miracle. Children are born, some die, it’s God’s will, we can’t change it. Don’t you think that, in a way, that’s sort of ... sort of ...?’ Thus Trafford, the hero of Elton’s Blind Faith, puts the question to his wife Chantorria, a terrified conformist in the insane world of London several centuries after a global warming disaster has driven humanity back into an age of faith. Yes, this is a cautionary tale, a savage exposure of man’s need to believe and conform.
The novel harks back to Orwell’s 1984, but with a lighter touch and emphasis on religion rather than politics. In place of Big Brother and The Party we have The Temple, the authority that never fails, one that through the power of The Love controls cyberspace and individual thinking. Reason is subordinated to faith, science merely a manifestation of the Lord’s power; democracy is the will of the people, but a people brainwashed, threatened and in terror of non-conformity. Huge wallscreens in every apartment and public space monitor behaviour, with leaders demanding displays of faith in The Love, in which personal revelations of one’s indulgence in, say, feasting or oral sex, are mandatory. Pleasures must be shared, as must pain and grief caused by the perpetual child mortality rate – the water is polluted, London a reeking sewer, commuting replaced by Fizzy Coff – a physical appearance at the office, a necessarily rare occurrence in the overheated congested city.
Despite the parallels with Orwell – incipient paranoia when indulging in Own Life for example – Blind Faith’s totalitarianism encourages, nay, demands, self exposure. There is no Puritanism here: nakedness and sexual activity at all times, especially in public, are de rigueur. In fact, abstinence or reticence in these matters suggests a dearth of respect for The Love and is a serious concern of the local Confessor or the apartment censor Barbieheart, ‘the principle eyes and ears of the building, an enormous, globular, housebound sentinel who, although too big to leave her apartment, occupied every room.’ Like Winston Smith, Trafford falls secretly in love with a dissident, but ultimately with wider consequences when his viral email causes millions to receive their first Humanist mail shot.
Blind Faith is an exuberant and gripping novel that pillories evangelism and political correctness, delighting in exposing People Power and the cant and hypocrisy at the heart of belief. From obligatory local Hug-ins to massive pop-style congregations at the New Wembley Stadium, where The Love rules and you’d better not only believe it, but say it loud, shout it Big Time, and never betray a scruple of doubt. For heretics the torture chamber and the stake await! Books are out and wallscreens are in. Birthing videos must be posted, as must one’s private sex life. After all, what’s to be ashamed of? The Lord gave us genitals that we may celebrate Him, Big Time! Darwin is the Devil’s agent and science is merely the Lord’s way of reminding us of His power. Vaccination and those who support or practise it are defying the Lord’s will and must be hunted out, tied to the stake and burned over a pile of seditious books, any that may yet be found floating in the upper stories of deserted houses.
Of course this is all over the top, but very funny and not so far-fetched that it doesn’t chime with certain tendencies in our insidious world of what Elton calls ‘infotainment’, where cheerful idiocy rules the airwaves and cyberspace, and privacy and modesty are heretical.
At the end of the book, when Trafford’s daughter, Caitlin Happymeal, is the sole infant survivor in the latest smallpox epidemic (because of her covert vaccination) he is ‘ordered to stand on that stage at Wembley and credit divine intervention ... to give thanks to a stupid, vicious, capricious, illogical, immoral, maniacal deity who clearly exists only in the imaginations of idiots and bullies.’ Will he conform or be a recusant and face the consequences? Elton’s nail-biting plot has several more twists and turns before we know whether Trafford, like Orwell’s Winston Smith, will become yet another victim of orthodoxy.
Ferguson, Josephine. The Stuffed Stoat.
This memoir of the daughter of a cavalry major in the Indian army begins in 1916 and ends in the 1950s, telling of the author’s grandfather and her prestigious family connections with lords and viceroys, including Gordon of Khartoum.
It begins rather like a family scrapbook not aimed at the general reader, but soon the wry accounts of private schools and falling finances start to amuse and engage. It is as much a cultural history as a family document, always keeping an eye on public events and changing attitudes to dress, manners and education. The writer constantly deplores the passing of old ways when it seems standards were high and people were reliable. She can get quite cross about ‘young people, these days’ sounding off thus:‘It seems that inverted snobbery has taken such a hold on this country that anyone who speaks correct English is suspected of being a Tory and therefore BAD.’
Despite bouts of invective against falling standards, the author is frequently amusing, especially over her many humble jobs as office girl, typist and, eventually, ship’s purser, all the time on the lookout for a husband. Full of jokes and good fun, this is an entertaining read.
Finn, Gordon, Yesterday’s Porridge
This autobiographical novel is based on the author’s WW2 experiences as an evacuee. The first chapter - in which Matt, a geriatric shopper encounters a buddy who, like him, was an evacuee - is somewhat redundant. The real story begins in Chapter Two when Francis, the real narrator, begins to tell his story of being assigned to a foster home. It is a fairly familiar tale of hostility to unwanted newcomers, war time shortages, town boys’ adventures in country places, American GIs taking all the women, who have been left by their fighting husbands. It has a good deal of knockabout humour (Alfie in the projection room for instance), but is a bit thin and routine compared to other evacuee stories, such as Carrie’s War or Angela Huth’s Landgirl series.
Although the book is physically well-presented, there are plenty of spelling and typographical errors (‘a roll model’, ‘Count Base’ ‘slopping field’) some grammatical flaws, and a good deal of anachronistic diction (‘TLC’, ‘let’s take five’ and ‘dishy’). And I found the overuse of the same phrasing slovenly (‘new found friend’, ’not best pleased’ - the latter used at least three times). So, not a difficult read, but often an irritating one, especially when unlikely dialogue takes the place of simple narration
France,Anatole. The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard
In his time Anatole France (1844-1924) was regarded as a great man of letters. He was a poet, journalist and novelist, the son of a bookstore owner who became a member of the Académie Française and was ultimately awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Although he must have appeared to his contemporaries to be a revolutionary writer, a scourge of the Church and a witty satirist, The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard is a somewhat plodding read today. True, I have only read a translation of the work of this so-called master-stylist, a first person narrative of the eponymous hero that frequently dragged.
The main trouble for me is that Bonnard, a fusty old scholar with an enquiring mind and wide sympathies, doesn’t actually do anything until the end of the story when he adopts a young girl, Jeanne, rescuing her from an oppressive scholastic regime. Not that our hero (or anti-hero) is unsympathetic. He is earnest and meticulous in his pursuit of ancient texts, having devoted his life to recovering works that nobody but he is ever likely to read. He sees life, as Johnson said of Milton, ‘through the spectacles of books.’ To Bonnard’s credit, he is only too aware of being buried in the past: “Bonnard,” I said to myself, “Thou knowest how to decipher old texts; but thou dost not know how to read the Book of Life.” The archaic language is maintained throughout, serving to underline the narrator’s distance from what we might call ‘the real world.’
The out-of-touch bibliophile is constantly being orientated to practical issues by his dominatrix of a housekeeper, Therese. ‘On re-entering my lodgings I had to endure the sharpest remonstrances from Therese, who said she had given up trying to understand my new way of living.’ His new way of living (his Crime in fact) entails living with ‘the child’, Jeanne, who becomes his ward and indeed spiritual inamorata, although he ultimately but reluctantly cedes her to Gelis, a younger man - shades of Esther Summerson, perhaps?
But even the old man’s happy relationship with the rescued Jeanne is seen by the scholar a re-enactment of the Antigone situation. Thus when Bonnard reads the Chorus of Antigone to Jeanne, the tragic heroine’s face appears before him ‘in all its passionless purity.’ He tells his ward ‘I am reading, Mademoiselle – I am reading that Antigone, having buried the blind old man, wove a fair tapestry embroidered with images in the likeness of laughing faces.’ The realistic Gelis who overhears this protests that this ending is not in the text. No, Bonnard agrees, ‘It is a scholium’ – a marginal note, but adds Gelis ‘Unpublished.’ Thus does the wish-fulfilment of life in the end triumph over the reality of textual scholarship.
Gillard, Linda. House of Silence
Marek, the tall, dark and handsome hero, alias Tyler the gardener, at one point says to the heroine Gwen, ‘It all adds up. I just don’t believe it.’ This was my feeling about the whole novel. The plot machinations are cleverly worked out, but the reader is asked to accept a great deal. The novel begins impressively with easy jocular exchanges between Gwen and her partner, the elusive small-part actor Alfie. The dialogue is sharp, cynical and colloquial, but this all changes when we switch to third person narrative. I found this device awkward and distracting, savouring too much of expansive footnotes. I prefer to find out for myself, to let the story unfold slowly through a consciousness. However, in the end, as it must with a Romantic thriller, ‘it all adds up.’
Romance is in the air from the start, but Gillard never lays it on with a trowel. We learn that Gwen hates Christmas because her mother died on that day from a drug overdose. Moreover, she shudders when recalling her dysfunctional and her now mercifully dead relatives. So, now, an orphan seeking a new happy family, she manages to persuade a reluctant Alfie to invite her to spend Christmas with his family at Creake Hall.
Of course the rambling Gothic mansion forebodes trouble, although Tyler the taciturn gardener with his ‘unfathomable dark eyes’ fascinates her. Gwen is welcomed into this friendly family, but Alfie remains aloof. The reader is introduced to Alfie’s four sisters, all well drawn, although the dialogues between hosts and guest border on information overload, as does the profuse detail of food and furnishing in this cold, gloomy manor house. That some ‘dark secret’ lies behind the outgoing sisters’ hospitality soon becomes apparent. So Gwen visits the deserted windmill nearby, where Marek lives and broods in silence. She feels there’s something not quite right about Alfie: is he really the adopted son of the reclusive and senile Rae, alias Rachael Holbrook, and author of best-selling children’s novels featuring Tom Dickon Harry?
Gwen’s self-imposed task is to penetrate this House of Silence, to discover what lies behind Alfie’s acting façade, and about friendly little Hattie, the youngest sister whose splendid quilt is made from scraps of old letters, hinting at the collusion of this happy family in deception and possible murder. Beware, the plot takes a lot of unravelling, and the reader will need to keep a notebook handy to trace who’s really who and why.
For those who enjoy thriller-melodrama with a Romantic flavour this book has a lot to offer, but as in many plot-driven novels there are times when credibility is sorely tested. On the other hand, the reader may well admire Gillard’s valiant juggling act as the plot twists and turns, one version of what happened being replaced by another. Abortion, suicide, murder – and all concealed by lies – what more do you want? Well, a happy ending of course. Fine, but which of the two heroes will get the girl? Better go to Creake Hall and find out!
Grace, Harriet. Cells
Martha, efficient features editor of the Chronicle, suffers from headaches, depression and frustration in her quest to become pregnant. Husband Grant, an analyst with family in the USA, is frantically busy and unable to help. The seeming solution seems to be IVF, but that proving ineffective, Martha, in Grant’s absence invites office boy Jon to do the necessary. But all’s well that ends well in this feel-good domestic caper set in suburban South London. The story is told through the three pedestrian perspectives of Jon and the couple.
While this might be a consoling tract for those deprived of parenthood, as a novel it fails to intrigue or excite. The characters have a frozen fixity, purely illustrative, totally predictable in action and reaction. Love scenes are glossed over and Jon the wimpish office boy remains throughout an authorial device, ultimately expendable. His pathetic forays into the love game consist of puppy love for an office girl simply referred to as Black Plaits and an unlikely one night stand with Martha. The reader is left to decide whether it’s Jon or the IVF treatment that finally does the trick.
Gray, John. , The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths
John Gray maintains that science and myth are simply the human animal’s way of dealing with chaos. His latest book strips away the comforts of science and religion, mere shelters from a world we can never know. In his latest book, Gray attacks the very notion of progress, a doctrine that cannot but fail to delude. As our forefathers put their faith in gods, modern man clings to science and technology. He cites a range of authors, from Conrad to Ballard who present worlds where chaos dominates over civilisation. If civilisation is natural, then so is barbarism.
Gray refuses to believe in so-called scientific advance, his mentors being Freud rather than Darwin, and Llewelyn Powys rather than Richard Dawkins. He quotes extensively from the little-known Powys, an atheist ‘adamant that rejecting religion meant renouncing any idea of order in the world.’ Gray’s bleak and nihilistic viewpoint echoes that of Beckett: God is a man-made phantom, a bastard who doesn’t exist. Gray ends with a clarion call from Powys: ‘It is not only belief in God that must be abandoned, not only all hope of life after death, but all trust in an ordained order.’
This is a fascinating and wide-ranging account of myth in the comprehensive sense of the word. Gray cites a range of philosophers, economists, poets, theologians, anthropologists and social commentators, all of whom have found shelter in certainties. The fact is that man’s dreams of progress are but makeshifts, stages in a perpetual cycle that has no purpose or meaning.
Grèmillon, Hélène. The Confidant
The Confidant is a story within a story. Camille Werner, a publisher’s reader, receives a long unsigned letter from an unknown man, Louis. He tells the story of his childhood love for a school friend, Annie, whom he associates with a porcelain doll and how he symbolically threw one of her mother’s model dolls into a deep lake. The story makes no sense to Camille, who is more concerned with the sufferings of the ailing Madame Merleau the concierge of the flat she is about to leave. But the letters keep arriving, and she has no way of tracing Louis, there being no signature or return address, only a postmark indicating postage from the fifteenth arrondissement in Paris. Camille reads Louis’s story of Annie’s wartime rejection of him, chosing instead to be incarcerated with Monsieur and Madame M in L’Escalier, a rural estate nearby. She becomes intrigued: ‘I wanted to find out what happened, what was the terrible tragedy involving Monsieur and Madame M.’
Eventually the reader guesses, and Camille soon discovers, that she has been chosen as the confidant for the crucial role she unwittingly played in her late parents’ sexual shenanigans. The reader will need to keep track of who’s who and who was who: who is the confidant’s mother, father and brother. Indeed, who does she think she is?
This story of wartime betrayal by lovers of a soldier engaged at the front, is somewhat reminiscent of Raymond Radiguet’s Le Diable au Corps, especially with its muted wartime background to the love idyll and the deceptive naming of the newborn by a mother in the throes of childbirth. The point of view of course is more complex, for here we have diverse letters of confession and reported scenes going back fifty or more years, for this, distantly, is World War Two with Paris under threat and Hitler on the rampage.
As a mystery story the book has a certain compulsion, but I became irritated by the breathless prose of Annie, Louis and the pomposity of the sententious Madame M (as impersonated by Louis) and I remained unconvinced by her attempts to reach her ward’s ‘innermost feelings through the decor if I could not reach then through my words.’ Nevertheless Madame M is an intriguing villainess, who is ‘literally possessed by my obsession,’ as she (via Louis, remember) infelicitously puts it, and who sells her husband’s lovechild into brothel slavery. Sad news indeed for Camille the confidant, whose parents were not who or what she believed!
Gritten, John. Howard and Son: Rebels of a Kind
The highly professional cover, binding and printing of John Gritten's memoir of his father's life and political career make a good first impression. The photographs of family and public events covering over a century add greatly to the pleasure of this at times acerbic account of the father, who was a long-serving Conservative Member of Parliament for Hartlepool.
Correspondence between Howard and such as Lloyd George, Ramsay MacDonald and Lord Londonderry do much to illuminate the political ethos between the wars. The father-son relationship, never cordial, becomes quite bitter on Gritten's part after Howard's death, when he discovers his father's secret life and family betrayals. Moreover, Howard's Tory politics are anathema to Gritten, who becomes an ardent leftist and is questioned by police for distributing the Daily Worker.
For the general reader there is rather too much family background, some going back to the 1830s, but the narrative soon begins to grip and this wicked exposure of a cunning old-style Conservative becomes both fascinating and amusing. The style throughout is dignified and formal, full of rhetorical questions, sometimes posed about other father-son deceptions, such as the McEwans. This gradual disclosure of the sins of the father is both history and mystery.
Grossman, Vasily. Life and Fate
Vasily Grossman (1905-1964), a Ukrainian Jew, was a war correspondent for the Red Army newspaper Red Star, reporting on the defence of Stalingrad, the Fall of Berlin and the Holocaust. His earlier work, Glyukauf (1932) had been criticised by Maxim Gorky for its excessive ‘naturalism’ or truth to nature, while in 1961 the manuscript of Life and Fate was confiscated for being ‘Menshevik in sympathy.’ In 1941 his mother was one of 12,000 Jews to be exterminated in his native city of Berdichev, and Grossman never forgave himself for failing to help her or to protest against the ‘cleansing’ policies of Soviet Russia. In part, Life and Fate is the author’s attempt at redemption.
But this epic novel is much more than a protest against the Holocaust; its vast panorama of society in time of war covers military and civilian life, life in the trenches and life at home, starvation and death being commonplace in both.
However, even the German prisoners are seen as real human beings, sometimes cruel and cynical, at others depressed, angry and even cheerful or charitable. Interrogations, being informed on as a possible dissident, being ignored by friends who fear official displeasure if they do not conform and condemn – all these possibilities hang over the heads of every character, whether of high or low degree. Nobody is beyond suspicion in wartime. Anybody could betray you to save his life or reputation, and landowners (kulacs) who protest against collectivisation are sent with their families to starve to death in Siberian camps.
It would be futile to outline the many strands of plot that meander through this sprawling novel of 864 pages and a cast of over 160, but the central character Victor Shtrum is obviously based on Grossman himself. Life and Fate is an engrossing, but by no means an easy read. For a start the reader needs to keep a marker in the 8 page List of Chief Characters at the end of the book. These figures inhabit some 16 different venues, from Moscow to Kuibishev, from Stalingrad to the Kalmyk Steppe, from the Lubyanka prison to the Gas Chamber. Time shifts and characters movement supply an additional hazard, as does character identification among multiple forenames, nicknames and patronymics. The fact that several of them have almost identical surnames adds to the task; thus we have a Krymov, a Karimov, a Klimov and a Kirilov.
Grossman’s novel has been rightly compared to Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and its title alone invites the comparison. Under the stress and horror of war a human being is tested to his limits and the extremes of his character are highlighted. How brave, how loyal, how physically and morally strong is a man under fire or under interrogation? How often is he or she obliged to jettison deeply cherished friendships or convictions? Grossman’s Stalingrad, like Tolstoy’s Borodino, becomes the crucible that tests a man’s mettle.
Unlike other war epics, such as, say, All Quiet on the Western Front, Grossman’s novel avoids protest; he also shuns taking sides. He gives us a scrupulously neutral narrator, one whose main business is to record rather than stir the reader to anger. German and Russian are shown as similarly human, both victims of totalitarian regimes whose survival depends on subservience to the iron will of the state and its necessity to crush dissent. The supremacy of state control over the individual will is matter for astonishment to the narrator: ‘There were cases of huge queues being formed by people awaiting execution – and it was the victims themselves who regulated the movement of these queues....Millions of innocent people, knowing that they would soon be arrested, said goodbye to their nearest and dearest in advance and prepared little bundles containing spare underwear and a towel. Millions of people lived in vast camps that had not only been built by prisoners but were even guarded by them,’ And nobody dared say a word. Such total state control not only of behaviour but thought recalls the notions of Machiavelli, Hume and Nietsche, but was only put in practice in the Twentieth Century by the Messianic zeal of the world’s notorious dictators. Yet but both Stalin and Hitler appear in the novel, not as monsters but as perfectly understandable and honest human beings.
Although for the most part the narrator is an objective reporter, occasionally, as he gives the viewpoint to the nuclear scientist Victor Shtrum, he shows that even a morally good and rational man can learn to hate, bear grudges and even be obliged to betray a friend. Just occasionally we find Grossman intruding as a wise commentator, as in this passage, where novelist becomes preacher or philosopher: ‘Human groupings have one main purpose: to assert everyone’s right to be different, to be special, to think, feel and live in his or her own way. People join together in order to win or defend this right.’ This optimistic and highly debatable intrusion in manner and matter is thankfully rare - although not without precedent in most of the Russian novels ( in translation) that I’ve encountered.
Such authorial philosophising is not what one especially relishes in today’s fiction, but it is a minor glitch in what the Daily Telegraph rightly sees as ‘One of the finest Russian novels of the twentieth century.’ Linda Grant in her 2011 Preface tells us that ‘In the seven years since I first read Life and Fate I have urged all my friends to read it. In part this is from a sense of obligation to a great writer, to rescue his masterpiece from state-sponsored obscurity. But it is also because I want others to feel as I have done – that they are entering the heart of the twentieth century, touching its pulse.’ And so say all of us, possibly according with the views of the panellists on a recent BBC Radio 4 ‘Start the Week’ consortium that this novel should be made compulsory reading in schools. Except that this dictate sounds far too authoritarian for Grossman, the staunch defender of personal freedoms and quirky individualism.
Hardman, Robert. Our Queen
I was rather put off by the cosy title, but found this popular book more and more compelling as it progressed. It’s a book not only of interest to royal watchers but the general reader.
It must be difficult for any researcher invited to peruse the royal family’s private papers and private lives to give an objective portrait, but Hardman does pretty well. Andrew Marr’s comprehensive though somewhat hagiographic account of the Queen’s life did the job well too, but Hardman’s book supplies an abundance of intimate detail and scores of glossy pictures that show a perpetually smiling monarch shaking hands with dignitaries, beaming at crowds, and just occasionally dutifully solemn in her robes.
This is a book for anyone who is remotely interested in what goes on, both on parade and backstage. The ceremonies and processions are meticulously detailed, the clothes, the carriages, the protocol, the cock-ups, right down to the sweepers of horse manure.
Holloway, Dan. Self-publish With Integrity: Define Success in Your Own Terms and then Achieve it (Kindle Edition)
Dan Holloway's book on the place of self-publishing
in a writer's armoury is well worth reading. As its title indicates the book
has a sharp hortatory edge - not, this is how to do it, so much as you
constantly need to ask yourself as a writer: why are you doing this and for
whom? Dan neither recommends nor disparages the self-publishing process, but
simply accounts for his own need for and indeed love of its opportunities, and
the changes in his lifestyle it has afforded him. The book is a refreshing
change from other s-p how-to books obsessed with 'success' and burgeoning sales
Encourage others, but do not give them false hopes; be aware that well-meant comfort or praise is often deleterious to a writer: 'the single biggest problem with "you'll get there in the end" is that ... most of us won't.' That's telling it like it is and that's healthy for everyone, that writers, readers and publishers. One of the huge pitfalls of self-publishing is that with digitalisation it has become so easy; it's so democratic that gatekeepers have been swept aside by gate-crashers. Holloway doesn't exactly say this, but it's self-evident that we now have an escalating Kindle slush-pile.
Look for an audience, no matter how small! Write because you love writing and need to communicate with others! Forget sales targets, prizes and reviews from the famous, because these aspirations stand in the way of your real task in life! Well, the book is a bit evangelical in fact, unswerving in its appeal to morality and conscience. Examine yourself and your motives and you'll be the wiser for it. I enjoyed it very much. It's concise and pointed throughout and not devoid of humour.
Ishiguro, Kazue. The Remains of the Day
This worthy Booker winner, first published in 1989 and later made into a successful movie, starring Antony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, still maintains its power to move and fascinate. It tells a first-person story of a humble and dutiful butler, Stevens, whose slavish loyalty to his master, Lord Darlington, exceeds the call of duty and even, perhaps, commonsense. In calm and dignified prose Stevens describes his journey to interview Miss Kenton, once the housekeeper at Darlington Hall, and now a disconsolate woman separated from her husband. Although he never admits it to the reader, Stevens is secretly regretting the fact that he did not develop his budding relationship with Miss Kenton many years ago. The back-story of his interest in the housekeeper and his present regret is fed into the account of his journey to the Cornwall to meet her. Typically, he refuses to admit his interest in her and is rather more than discreetly professional, and that under his politeness and dignity lies a stifled passion, and a sadness at a life that is gone, never to return.
To talk about the novel’s style and to use such meaningless clichés as ‘beautifully written’ or ‘wonderfully crafted’ would be even more critically useless than usual. The fact is that this elegant, restrained prose account, with all its circumlocution and repetition is the perfect mirror of the butler who has disciplined himself to suppress any unseemly emotion or light-heartedness; in a word to fear the ‘bantering’ which he frequently encounters from his new employer, passing strangers and above all the Miss Kenton he recalls from the past. In.’ place of bantering, Stevens offers us dignity, without which no butler can ever be called ‘great’.
I have now read the novel three times, and with each reading derived more pleasure from it. It is one of the most unsensational and yet moving stories in fiction, about a small man’s struggle to become a moral being; something achieved at considerable cost to his emotional life.
Ishiguro, Kazuo. The Unconsoled.
I found this very fluent account of the narrator’s struggle to become orientated in a nameless town in possibly Germany to be compulsive reading. It is partly about memory loss and it recalled to me Karinthy’s Metropole,where a professor of linguistics ends up in a bustling modern city in central Europe in which nobody speaks any of the languages he knows. In The Unconsoled Mr Ryder, Ishiguro’s narrator-hero, is met with extreme politeness by hotel staff, but frustratingly he fails to get exact clarification of his mission. He is scheduled to address an audience in a small town where Mr Brodsky, a reformed alcoholic pianist has returned to perform some classical studies. Everyone in the town knows of Mr Ryder’s reputation and initially at least he receives nothing but generous plaudits wherever he goes. The reader, however, begins to doubt his sanity, since he fails to arrive for vital consultations and is easily persuaded to take on tasks for others - such as hearing Stephan, his host’s son, practice. What is almost a sub-plot involves Ryder in trying to make sense of the broken relationship between Leo Brodsky and Miss Collins. Complications multiply when we learn that Ryder’s parents are arriving to hear their son’s performance - pianistic or simply as Brodsky’s front man. Ultimately there is some doubt as to whether the Ryders senior have arrived or indeed whether they even exist within the book’s time frame.
The Unconsoled is a challenging book that deliberately frustrates its reader’s expectations. Dozens of unanswered questions are raised, many remaining unsolved at the end. Readers who like a tight plot and a tidy conclusion are unlikely to finish the book. For those who stay with it the book has many treasures and a great deal of humour - seemingly not aroused in Ryder, who incidentally has not only no parents, no wife, no son, and no first name. In place of a wife and family he becomes attached like a father to Boris, a charmingly unco-operative boy and to Sophie, the boy’s mother, a caring but frustrated picker-up of pieces dropped by her two male dependants, Ryder and Boris.
At times the book has the feel of a Lewis Carrol wonderland. Conversations mainly narrated via Ryder lead to further hints of past events; the interior becomes exterior; the unlikely is accepted as fact - when Ryder meets his old car and goes back in time to childhood for example. Some readers insist that the novel is surreal and many sequences do indeed have the floating quality of dream. We feel, Ryder feels, that we’ve been here b efore and there are deja vues galore. Those who seek a tidy plot should be warned that in The Unconsoled there are time breaks and time bends in this gallimaufry plunge into consciousness.
Jacobson, Howard. The Finkler Question
Despite the attractive cover and the accompanying blurb, this novel about Jewishness is far from a riveting read. I never trust the encomiums of reviewers, who surely cannot be serious in calling this Booker winner a ‘masterpiece,’ ‘wonderful,’ and ‘brilliant.’ If you know Jacobson, you know what to expect: much agonising over the question of Jewishness, central characters who are self-conscious about their faith or lack of it, plenty of in-jokes about Jewish customs and of course an abundance of tedious puns about ‘Juno,’ ‘d’you know?’ ‘what d’you think?’ and so on.
In this case the main character Jewlian or, rather, Julian Treslove (very loved, I don’t think!) is not a Jew, but wishes he were. He admires the social panache and ease of his rich friend Finkler and his rival Jew, Libor, both of whom have opposed views on Zionism. Julian takes revenge on Finkler by making love to his wife while Finkler is out seducing other women. This is the most unconvincing of several attempts that describe Julian’s determination to become accepted by a woman. Julian is a pretty ugly character, child-hating, woman hating and self-hating, impotent socially and sexually, though managing to ‘make love’ to unlikely women who scorn him – and how right they are!
I didn’t care about Julian, Finkler or Libor’s Jewishness and neither, it seems, did they. The problems are all Treslove’s. He’s a man in mourning for a past that didn’t exist, unlike his friends who apparently have genuine sorrows to keep them happy.
If Jacobson is, as the Mail on Sunday declares, ‘the greatest novelist working in Britain today,’ there must be a glut of terrible novelists around. As for ‘the music of his language, the power of his characterisation and the penetration of his insight’ found by the reviewer of The Times, all of this passed me by. The characters are thin, mere stock figures, projections of an angry outsider; the language is absurdly colloquial (people are always ‘doing’ or ‘not doing’ God, sex or whatever) as well as being gratuitously pornographic. For me, like so much of the applause showered on ‘award-winners’ the kindly reception accorded The Finkler Question is yet another case of the Emperor’s new clothes. There comes a time when a novelist is replete and ageing but refuses to give up, and he surely deserves a heart-warming send-off such as the Booker prize.
James, Henry. The Portrait of a Lady
It's been coming for a long time - my
first reading of The Portrait of a Lady was half a century ago at university. I skipped the James option, but later got
hooked on The American and The
Ambassadors. For some reason I, too,
couldn't enthuse about The
Golden Bowl and have even recently found What Maisie Knew a bit of a drag. Washington Square, though,
since 'teaching' it, has always been my favourite James and in many ways The Portrait reminds me of WS.
The isolated good heroine theme continually recurrs in James. She is always surrounded by advisors and controllers or would-be controllers from whom she has to fight free. Sadly. social mores always triumph over self-expression and, as in most Victorian fiction, duty always wins. Love, that other 4 letter word, usually brings disaster to the heroine, who is either locked up in a convent in the end or obediently returns to her controllers.
If you can stay with it this is an enthralling novel. One really cares about Isabel and comes to loathe some of her suitors. Surely the triple-suitor-for- the-heroine motif is taken from Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd and Caspar Goodwood is not a million miles away from Mr Boldwood. They were so obsessed by marriage, weren't they, these Victorians, not to mention their forerunners, Austen, Richardson et al.
But, as others on this thread have pointed out, the plot is not the main element - it is in fact pretty conventional - and the style is everything. Talk about The Psychological Novel! HJ just won't leave a notion alone without teasing it to death, surrounding it by pussyfooting subjunctives and absenting himself as narrator in saying such as 'this is no part of our story.'
As a warm-up to Proust this is an admirable taster of what has been called 'The Mandarin Style.' If you enjoy style and re-reading sentences for the sheer delight in language and selection of le mot juste you'll love it.
Johnson, Luke. Victim of Compromise
This police-procedural thriller opens with a corpse, to which is added other killings, all to be investigated by DCI Ray King and his sidekick Sergeant Donovan. The story moves at a breathless pace as a range of suspects are interviewed unofficially, interrogated officially, and finally either pursued or discarded. Both local politics and Force politics hamper King’s enquiries, which lead him into hotel bedrooms, night clubs, seedy bars and a sophisticated garden party. Women figure prominently in the plot, as seducers, comforters, officers of the law and criminals. Indeed, Ray marries a colleague and one lady solicitor acts as part-time call-girl. As the summer heat wave intensifies, both in the streets and at Wellstone Central police station, so does the heat of the investigation. Addicts of fast-paced thrillers, where plot dominates and intrigues abound, will enjoy this one.
Johnson, Samuel, Lives of the English Poets
Lives of the English Poets is probably the only work of Johnson’s likely to be read today beyond academic circles. Despite the fact that he was in his sixty-eighth year when he began the task of writing the lives of fifty-two poets of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, his ‘little Lives and little Prefaces’ display a wealth of sparkle and critical insight. We can almost feel Johnson enjoying his fusion of precise fact and carefully weighed opinion, not to say personal prejudice. Even if some of the poets are dull, Johnson here is never dull. It was the kind of undertaking for which Johnson by nature and temperament was ideally suited; that is it required meticulous research, a slavish dedication to ploughing through many minor and often inferior works and a lively interest in the vagaries of human conduct. As with the seven-year compilation of his Dictionary, here again in the Lives one feels Johnson’s underlying need to provide a touchstone, an element of stability, as well as a service to the nation and posterity. Lives of the Poets is not merely a memorial to fifty-two English poets, but a memorial to Johnson himself.
Perhaps more than any other writer Johnson is conscious of the passing of time, of the futility of human effort in the face of the eternal, of the vanity of human wishes. ‘Nothing is more evident than that the decays of age must terminate in death,’ he writes in The Idler in 1759: 'The life which made my own life pleasant is at an end, and the gates of death are shut upon my prospects.’ All that a mere human can do in the face of such vast emptiness is to hope and pray, and commemorate the passing of those who have gone before. Johnson’s letters, diaries, sermons and essays are replete with such threnodies as we find in his sermon on his wife’s death in 1752. This lament on Tetty’s death, delivered not at her funeral service, which he did not attend, and not published in his lifetime, is more a meditation on mortality than a celebration of her life. Thus the undelivered sermon warns the phantom congregation: ‘Let those who entered this place unaffected and indifferent, and those whose only purpose was to behold this funeral spectacle, consider, that she, whom they thus behold with negligence, and pass by, was lately partaker of the same nature with themselves; and that they likewise are hastening to their end, and must soon, by others equally negligent, be buried and forgotten!’
Although Johnson declares that ‘Nothing excites a man to write but necessity,’ and that ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,’ the fact that he was prepared to accepted a mere two hundred guineas for the massive undertaking of the Lives suggests that he wrote because he loved writing biography for its own sake, rather than for purely mercenary motives. True, for most of his life he was dogged by poverty and his pen was ever his fortune; however, we never find him haggling and he relished celebrating the lives of those, like Savage, of a carefree disposition, rather than, for instance, the puritanical Milton. That Johnson, who enjoyed the company of ordinary as well as extraordinary men, was more likely to befriend a poor man than a rich one is typified in his generous bequest to his servant, Frank Barber.
Indeed, Johnson finds that the celebration of great men is frequently misplaced. In The Adventurer (No 99, 1753-4) he refuses ‘to vindicate the sanguinary projects of heroes and conquerors, and would wish rather to diminish the reputation of their success.’ He goes on to vilify Caesar, Catiline, Xerxes, Alexander the Great and Peter the Great, wishing them ‘huddled together in obscurity or detestation.’ And in ‘The Vanity’ he tells us ‘Great Xerxes comes to seize the certain prey/And starves exhausted regions in his way.’ His contempt for vain memorials is epitomised in Rasselas, in Imlac’s contempt for the Pyramids, ‘which appear ‘to have been erected only with that hunger of the imagination which preys incessantly upon life.’
However, Imlac may well be voicing only one side of Johnson’s view of memorials. The Lives of the Poets are testimony to the author’s need to record meticulously the thoughts, feelings and tempers of the poets in their everyday doings. These are the best kind of memorials for him: sincere tributes in words, rather than graven images. For, irrespective of public esteem, a man’s thoughts and words are for Johnson always worth preserving. ‘In a man’s letters . . . his soul lies naked.’ And, as Boswell believed when pursuing him for copy for the biography, ‘he was secretly pleased to find so much of the fruit of his mind preserved.’ One suspects that it is the flamboyant and insincere lying epitaphs of ‘great’ men that incur his displeasure. In a similar way he deplores the fulsome dedications and panegyrics common at the time – though often essential for patronage. Of Richard Savage’s dedications he declares, ‘his compliments are constrained and violent, heaped together without the grace of order, or the decency of introduction: he seems to have written his panegyrics for the perusal only of his patrons, and to imagine that he had no other task than to pamper them with praises however gross, and that flattery would make its way to the heart without the assistance of elegance or invention.’
It often seems that for Johnson a man’s own words and deeds are his best memorial. Hence his passion for recording the exact details of the lives he commemorated and his need to keep, as far as possible, to the original words of Shakespeare in his edition of the Works. And in his advice to biographers he reminds them that ‘chronology is the eye of history’ for ‘every Man’s life is of importance to himself. Do not omit painful casualties or unpleasing passages, they make the variegation of existence.’
And some there be, which have no memorial
We may wonder why Johnson included in his Lives such minor figures, both in quality and quantity of output, as Halifax and Thomas Parnell. Indeed he commences his Life of Parnell with hesitation and reluctance: ‘The Life of Dr Parnell is a task which I should very willingly decline.’ He then goes on to commend not Parnell himself but his previous biographer Oliver Goldsmith, ‘a man of such variety of powers, and such felicity of performance, that he always seemed to do best that which he was doing; a man who had the art of being minute without tediousness, and general without confusion; whose language was copious without exuberance, exact without constraint, and easy without weakness.’ Thus the typical Johnsonian rhetoric; but what about the eponymous Parnell, known latterly as the Father of the Graveyard Poets? In a work that, in the Everyman edition, devotes 100 pages to Pope and 83 pages to Dryden, it is perhaps fitting that Parnell should be allocated a mere two pages, giving the bare outline of his life and works. After all, Parnell only published nine poems in his lifetime. But then why then include him at all?
In his debates with Boswell over the moral qualities of the various poets in the Lives and the possible dangers of celebrating those whose habits were vicious, Boswell recalls Johnson’s remark that ‘Addison and Parnell drank too freely.’ But Addison, eminent politician and editor of the Spectator, is awarded a more than respectable 42 pages; Parnell ‘too much a lover of the bottle’ must be satisfied with just a couple. Clearly, then, it seems not to be his addiction to alcohol, but the paucity of his output that results in Parnell’s curtailed biography. Yet Boswell himself was puzzled by his mentor’s omission of the Latin epitaph in his Life of Parnell:
Qui sacerdos pariter et poeta,
Utrusque partes ita implevit,
Ut neque sacerdoti suavitas poetæ,
Nec poetæ sacerdotis sanctitas, deessset.’
Johnson can of course turn a neat Latin quatrain, but he is reluctant to indulge in pious and lying epitaphs for the undeserving. As with Stepney, who ‘apparently professed himself a poet’ and whose juvenile compositions ‘make grey authors blush’, so here: ‘The general character of Parnell is not great extent of comprehension, or fertility of mind. Of the little that appears, still less is his own.’ In fact, much of Johnson’s Life of Parnell is taken up with exposing the subject’s borrowings and plagiarisms. He is nevertheless noted in the great work, not commended, but, rather, remembered as a man for having lived at all.
Occasionally one feels that, as regards his own family, Johnson, rather than celebrating their lives, would rather wipe their names from the slate of memory. This is certainly true of his brother Nathaniel, and, to a lesser extent, of his wife Tetty. Having run up debts, failed in business and been found to have cheated customers, Nathaniel was to his brother a pariah, fit only for transportation to America. Death spared him this ignominy, but even before Natty’s funeral, Johnson had set out for London with his tragedy Mahomet and Irene in his pocket. To Mary Prouse who later wrote to him seeking information about Natty, he merely confessed that ‘he was my near relation.’ He wanted no memory of and no memorial to his failed brother.
Johnson’s comparative neglect of his mother has been remarked on by many of his biographers, but even more striking is his attitude to his wife, Tetty, whom he praised and effusively prayed for only after her death. The fact that he did not attend her funeral has been already noted, but the distance between the couple was not simply one of a twenty-year age gap and for some time the separation of their respective locations. Mrs Johnson (formerly Porter, neé Jervis) was a rich, plump widow with three children, who came to the marriage with a dowry of £600. The marriage was obviously one of convenience and in a sense no marriage at all. He confided to Boswell, ‘My wife told me I might lye with as many women as I pleased, provided I loved her alone.’ Put simply, Johnson had a predilection for younger girls and needed an independent life in the city; Tetty sought a support, a companion and a man of literary promise to flatter her vanity. In this she was disappointed and, after a life of addiction to the bottle, died an opium addict. As with Nathaniel, she needed and received no engraved memorial – not until some thirty years later in Johnson’s final days.
‘I have often thought that there has rarely passed a life of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful,’ Johnson declares in his Rambler essay, No 60. Indeed, we continually find Johnson celebrating the humble as opposed to the great, the ordinary as opposed to the extraordinary, and the natural against the supernatural. He is a great retriever of scraps that others would barely deign to notice. The drudgery of compiling catalogues is as important to him as the study of literary history. Little things count. Typically, he refers modestly to his finest work as ‘little Lives and little Prefaces.’ Johnson is forever engaged on the dual task of preservation and annotation of works and lives that he would not willingly let die. Were it not for Johnson we would hardly know of that man of fashion ‘ostentatiously splendid in dress’ William Walsh, whose main claim to fame lies in his acquaintance with Dryden and Pope, and whose work ‘seldom rises higher than to be pretty.’
Whatever its value as literary criticism, Lives of the English Poets remains a great work of preservation and celebration. Johnson can hardly bear to think of a man’s passing without a word of commemoration. ‘It is unpleasing to think how many names, once celebrated, are since forgotten,’ he says, taking time out from his earnest biography of Dryden and lamenting that ‘Of Newcastle’s works nothing is now known but his Treatise on Horsemanship.’ And his account of Edmund Smith (of whose life ‘little is known; and that little claims no praise but what can be given to intellectual excellence, seldom employed to any virtuous purpose’) concludes with an encomium to his friend and boyhood mentor Gilbert Walmsley. There being so little to commend in the work or character of Smith, Johnson indulges himself in an ubi sunt of his boyhood hero: ‘At this man’s table I enjoyed many cheerful and instructive hours, with companions such as are not often found; with one who has lengthened, and one who has gladdened life; with Dr James, whose skill in physic will be long remembered; and with David Garrick, whom I hoped to have gratified with this character of our common friend: but what are the hopes of man! I am disappointed by that stroke of death, which has eclipsed the gaiety of nations, and impoverished the public stock of harmless pleasure.’
But their name liveth for evermore
At the end of his life Johnson wrote epitaphs for his father, his mother and his brother. He directed that these be engraved on ‘deep, massy and hard stone’ and placed in St Michael’s Church in Lichfield. Writing to Lucy Porter the week before his death he tells her of the stone he had laid over her mother’s grave in Bromley. The Latin inscription, translated for Lucy, celebrates Tetty as ‘a Woman of beauty, elegance, ingenuity and piety.’ Boswell had described her as ‘very fat, with a bosom of more than ordinary protuberance, with swelled cheeks, of a florid red, produced by thick painting, and increased by the liberal use of cordials, flaring and fantastic in her dress, and affected both in her speech and her general behaviour.’ Of course, an epitaph’s function is to memorialise the dead, rather than to tell the truth. Mendacity is permitted and to a large extent expected. But a biographer has totally other obligations, as Johnson points out in Rambler, No 60: ‘If we owe regard to the memory of the dead, there is yet more respect to be paid to knowledge, to virtue, and to truth.’ Samuel Johnson’s own life and work are surely perpetual reminders of this obligation.
Karinthy, Ferenc. Metropole
'With time, Metropole will
find its due place in the twentieth-century library, on the same shelf as The Trial and1984.'
For once the blurb is likely to prove correct, for Metropole is a powerful and engaging portrait of a stranger wandering helplessly through a metropolis choked with masses going frantically about their meaningless business. Like K and Winston Smith, Budai can make no sense of the world in which he is set adrift. The book begins with his having been put on the wrong plane without his luggage (symbol number one). As a linguist (bound for a conference in Helsinki) and speaker of many languages one would expect him to be able to communicate with at least one person in this vast city of teeming people, but in fact few of those Budai manages to accost among the rivers of swarming robot-like figures can even be bothered to attend to his sign language. Bruised and bullied he wanders day after day, gradually losing hope not only of ever reaching his conference but of ever returning to any recognizable former life-style. He has to become thrusting and bullying to survive.
This book is far from an easy read - almost no dialogue and 66 pages before one gets even a glimpse of Budai's past, his childhood. He wanders through markets, fairs, brothels, stations, a sports stadium, a prison, a hospital, old town, new town, all the time looking for clues to where he is, but whether he tries German, Dutch, Polish, Portuguese, Turkish or even Ancient Greek he cannot break through the walls of the language prison. Drawings, gestures, shouting and even kissing (he manages to be befriended by a girl lift attendant) are equally futile. Even after beating up his girlfriend in sheer desperation, apolgising and finally making love to her, Budai is left alone in his hotel room, his sanctuary in a world of mad, feverish and meaningless activity.
In spite of the strangeness of the setting there are so many features of cityscape, character and situation that resemble modern urban life. Anyone who has travelled alone in central Europe, especially during the Cold War, will recognise the terror of totalitarianism, the routine dehumanization of ordinary people going about their frantic everyday lives. Anyone who has waited in vain for lost luggage to appear from an airport carousel, been shuffled off the pavement in, say, New York, or treated as an idiot, a beggar or a thief when merely trying to get oriented in a strange city will identify with Budai's dilemma.
The book was published by Ferenc Karinthy in Paris in 1999, so it barely makes it into the 21st Century, but this very readable English translation By George Szirtes was made in 2008. In any case Metropole is a book about struggling humanity, alone and lost, adrift in the modern urban world, and, like The Trial and 1984 it is one for all time.
Kerouac, Jack. On the Road.
The ‘road novel’ is an essentially American genre and Kerouac’s is its prototype. This predilection for travel is partly due to the vast spaces available and the relative ease of communication networks (including language), but mainly attributable to the essential restlessness of the American spirit. Everyone is from somewhere and about to head for somewhere else. While the railroad facilitated movement the automobile demanded it.
Sal Paradise, the narrator, crosses the continent several times, desperately seeking something, he knows not what, probably Paradise itself. His friend Dean Moriarty is more a god or guru than a travelling pal, sometimes a mere image in Sal’s mind, an idealised great human being. Dean’s vision and his openness to the vicissitudes of life is the crux of the book, which may seem strange when we learn that he is a compulsive thief, law-breaker and deceiver of women. A truant by nature, Dean lives for kicks, has done time, drives like a madman, takes risks and is up for any challenge. He is also, a very intelligent and, when not too self-wrapped, a caring sensitive soul, but unpredictable and totally unstable.
Travel is something that Sal, Dean and a collection of hangers-on are programmed to do. They need to find out what’s beyond the mountains or the desert, how other people live and talk or simply how they stare and listen. Thus the South or Mexico are revelations. Faced with this collection of Beats, ‘The Southern folk looked at one another and shook their heads.’ The Mexicans on the other hand accepted them as brothers, supplying the necessary anodynes of hash, spirits and girls, revealing a spirit of joy in spite of poverty.
The book’s final paragraph whose first noun is America and the last words Dean Moriarty is like a hymn to a great land and the spirit of a great people, desperate seekers among the wonders of a vast continent: ‘So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming of the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know the children must be crying in the land where they let children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? … I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.’
Ko, Dani. Dreaming Spires
Erotic Music, 1 May
Mr. D. James "nonsuch" (london, uk) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Dreaming Spires (Kindle Edition)
Dan Holloway under the pseudonym of Dani Ko gives us a beautifully balanced story of two young people who meet at Christ Church College Oxford where the girl Kayla attends for interview. For her it's an opening up to sexual bliss, an experience that she and the reader will not easily forget. This is more than a fine piece of erotic fiction, but an exploration of the deeper needs that lie behind the mere business of satisfying academic requirements. Juxtaposed between bouts of physical passion is the so-called 'real' world of exams, appointments and social chit-chat. Academic requirements have to be satisfied, but more important is the hunger for physical exploration and self-discovery, one might even say 'soul-discovery' except that this is a transitory though vital experience through another person. Here, there is no suggestion of a future, of a happily ever after conclusion.
The fact that Kayla is studying philosophy while Colin is an organist is almost irrelevant. Life goes on outside, but what concerns the reader is the inside story, not a sudden change or moment of revelation, but a quenching of lusts that is normally glossed over. The coming together of the young people is both accidental and yet necessary. The world outside the bedroom is static, the taciturn professor at her oral exam is called Crabtree and the distance between oral sex and oral examinations could hardly be greater. The necessary female in the trio of examiners (two men the token female who understands the charade) is called Claire.
This is a story of the joy and terror of sex, the need for its release, and the coming together of opposites, male and female, body and soul, heart and mind. When Kayla is not dreaming of cock she is thinking of Pascal.
This review is from: Dreaming Spires (Kindle Edition)
Dan Holloway under the pseudonym of Dani Ko gives us a beautifully balanced story of two young people who meet at Christ Church College Oxford where the girl Kayla attends for interview. For her it's an opening up to sexual bliss, an experience that she and the reader will not easily forget. This is more than a fine piece of erotic fiction, but an exploration of the deeper needs that lie behind the mere business of satisfying academic requirements. Juxtaposed between bouts of physical passion is the so-called 'real' world of exams, appointments and social chit-chat. Academic requirements have to be satisfied, but more important is the hunger for physical exploration and self-discovery, one might even say 'soul-discovery' except that this is a transitory though vital experience through another person. Here, there is no suggestion of a future, of a happily ever after conclusion.
The fact that Kayla is studying philosophy while Colin is an organist is almost irrelevant. Life goes on outside, but what concerns the reader is the inside story, not a sudden change or moment of revelation, but a quenching of lusts that is normally glossed over. The coming together of the young people is both accidental and yet necessary. The world outside the bedroom is static, the taciturn professor at her oral exam is called Crabtree and the distance between oral sex and oral examinations could hardly be greater. The necessary female in the trio of examiners (two men the token female who understands the charade) is called Claire.
This is a story of the joy and terror of sex, the need for its release, and the coming together of opposites, male and female, body and soul, heart and mind. When Kayla is not dreaming of cock she is thinking of Pascal.
Kundera, Milan. The Unbearable Lightness of Being
‘Love does not make itself felt in the desire for copulation (a desire that extends to an infinite number of women) but in the desire for shared sleep (a desire limited to one woman).’ Thus pontificates the narrator in Chapter 6 of Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984).
This intriguing and at times irritating novel, set against the background of the Prague Spring, is at times more philosophy than story, the latter being based on the contrasting relationships between two pairs of lovers, Tomas and Tereza, and Franz and Sabina. The first pair carry the main plot, although the artist Sabina also features as one of Tomas’s many mistresses. As a gynaecologist, Tomas avails himself of any opportunity he has for examining women’s bodies. ‘He was not obsessed with women,’ the narrator tells us, ‘he was obsessed with what in each of them is unimaginable, obsessed, in other words, with the one-millionth part that makes a woman dissimilar to others of her sex.’ This is followed by a typical Kundera unravelling of Tomas’s passion in which he is never quite able ‘to put down the imaginary scalpel.’ The narrator ingenuously continues: ‘We may ask, of course, why he sought that millionth part dissimilarity in sex and nowhere else. Why couldn’t he find it, say, in a woman’s gait or culinary caprices or artistic taste?’ The answer given by our commentator-narrator is that ‘Only in sexuality does the millionth part dissimilarity become precious, because, not accessible in public, it must be conquered.’ In this book’s clinical examination (at least in Tomas’s case) it must.
Fascinating as this analysis of the root causes of sexual love may be, it tends to flatten out the characters, who become pawns in an intricate game rather than rounded human beings. Not every reader will have the patience to follow the drift of the narrator’s essentially analytical mind which floats godlike over the action. The movie based on the book (shown last week late at night on BBC2) solves this problem by having Tomas on first encountering a ‘sample’ order his women to strip for examination. There is thus ample opportunity for cute and acute camera angles, a field day for porno fiends. In more ways than one is the film a stimulating experience.
Kundera’s book is no run-of-the-mill romance, but it manages to have enough plot to keep an intelligent reader interested to the end. Behind the love stories is the terror of the Russian occupation of Prague, where sexual love is seen as just one more tool in the need to dominate. - just as Tomas must dominate his love object of the moment, but ultimately lose the battle and move on to fresh conquest. Thus the Czech women sexually tease the occupying Russian forces; the secret police plant women to tease out information. The obscurity of the title, by the way, need put no reader off reading the book – it is explained before the story gets underway in reference to Nietzsche’s notion of the eternal return, the heaviest of burdens. If we only have one life then, we are told, our lives can stand out against the eternal return ‘in all their splendid lightness.’ But in that lightness of being lies the agony of uncertainty.
Le Clezio, JMG. Terra Amata
Chancelade is the hero of this book, but as a character he does not exist. He is engulfed by his author’s meditations, a puppet who has a name but who is really just a presence, a consciousness, a vehicle for his creator. True, the book is held together by the birth-to-death sequence through which the hero passes, but rather like Bea B and Monsieur X in the same author’s War, he is a mirror-reflecting character called Everyman; except that he doesn’t do anything, has no ambition and doesn’t learn anything from his intense experiences of nature: ‘Chancelade was being devoured alive by the monster without thought and without love, and soon he would be nothing but a room, a mere room with bloodstained walls, hard furniture, and a window of cold glass.’ Clearly the reader is not in the world of Pip or Mr Polly, (and neither is it Bloom’s Dublin or Clarissa Dalloway’s London) but is cast adrift in a void in which ‘there were no more men, no more women, no more anything anywhere.’
In a gallimaufry chapter called ‘To Tell the Whole Truth’ the author speaking as Chancelade poses questions such as ‘Can trees think?’ ‘Is God good?’ and ‘Am I going to die?’ After various sub-headings entitled ‘CHAMP SALADE,’ ‘Kissing in the Korean Style,’ ‘A Paradise,’ and a visit to Mina washing her hair in another room, our hero is left on the toilet, wondering ‘What use was the sun? What use was the moon, trees, poppies?’ and bored with all this he leaves the Whole Truth ‘the cistern flushing loudly behind him.’
In this most bizarre novel Le Clezio manages to pack in a great deal of thought and some brilliant passages of description, notably the account of the boy attacking an ants’ nest. But although ‘filled with cosmic ruminations, lyrical description and virtuoso games of language’ as the back cover puts it, its lack of ‘real people’ won’t be for everybody.
Lelord, Francois. Hector and the Secrets of Love
The second volume of Lelord’s Hector’s Journeys series is every bit as delightful as his bestselling first, Hector and the Search for Happiness. The novel is a heady mixture of satire and realism in which the reader follows Hector to the Far East on a research project sponsored by a go-ahead drug company. Behind little Hector is big business, and before him the tortuous experience of love potions and seductive young ladies from the East. All of which sounds wonderfully fascinating, but proves to be heart-searchingly painful to Hector the earnest but naive psychiatrist, who must leave Clara his true love to find metal more attractive elsewhere.
The charm of this book lies in its simplicity, and its wisdom in being grounded in universal experience of the tender passion. The chapters are short and the language and sentiments unpretentious. Like any good professional, Hector is always learning – about life, about himself and his misconceptions; he makes notes, makes generalisations and then modifies them in the light of experience. Here he is, in the penultimate chapter, learning from a young client, also called Hector, what he’d wish for most in the world:
Little Hector didn’t hesitate for a second. ‘To become a grown-up straight away!’
Hector was surprised. He’d expected Little Hector’s answer to be: ‘For my parents to get back together’, or ‘To get better marks at school’, or ‘To go on a school ski-trip with my friends’.
So he asked Little Hector, ‘But if you became a grown-up straight away, it would mean that you’d already lived a good few years, and then you’d have fewer left to live. Wouldn’t that bother you?’
Little Hector thought it over. ‘Okay, it’s a bit like a video game when you lose an extra life. It’s annoying, but it doesn’t stop you having fun!’
Then he looked at Hector. ‘What about you? Would it bother you to have already lost one or two lives?’
Grown-up Hector thought that Little Hector might become a psychiatrist himself one day.
François Lelord has had a successful career as a psychiatrist in France and the United States. Hector’s next journey is entitled Hector Finds Time. If it’s as funny and engaging as Hector’s grappling with the intangibles of happiness and love we are in for a treat.
Levi, Primo. If This is a Man
Because he was a chemical engineer and because he was lucky Primo Levi survived the death camps. This memoir of his life before and after incarceration is less a protest at the Holocaust than an enquiry into the nature of human beings capable of participating in the greatest evil of our time. The power of the book lies in its bare and factual approach, based wholly on one man’s responses. In his Afterword Levi, who has lectured extensively to diverse audiences in Italy and elsewhere, replies to frequently asked questions: Does he feel hatred for the Germans? Did the Germans know what was happening? Why were there no large-scale revolts? What about the Russian camps? And so on. He gives full and detailed responses, showing for example that death in the Russian camps was usually a by-product of hunger, cold, infections, hard labour and indifference, but not basically intended. One can, he says, picture a Socialism without concentration camps, but never a Nazism.
Why should one read about the horrors we all know about? What is the point after all this time in reopening old wounds? I would say because this is a human document that attempts to understand the dark side of our nature, not through theory or speculation, but by simply recounting facts, clearly and unemotionally. Thus we find not every Capo was a monster, nor every inmate a saint. The writing, understated and often poetic, endears us to the author, now dead but living in his words, such as these: ‘When the music plays we know that our comrades, out in the fog, are marching like automatons; their souls are dead and the music drives them, like the wind drives dead leaves, and takes the place of their wills. There is no longer any will; every beat of the drum becomes a step, a reflected contraction of exhausted muscles. The Germans have succeeded in this. They are ten thousand and they are a single grey machine; they are exactly determined; they do not think and they do not desire, they walk.’ The Will to Power is set to music and doing its work in flattening out humanity. ‘We all look at each other from our beds, because we all feel that this music is infernal.’
Lodge, David. A Man of Parts
David Lodge’s latest book, A Man of Parts, is subtitled ‘A Novel,’ but it reads and feels more like a biography of its subject, HG Wells. Lodge has become increasingly attracted to drawing on literary figures for his fiction and this latest ‘novel’ not only straddles the two genres, but perhaps to its detriment ends by falling into pure biography. Unlike his fictional Henry James novel Author, Author, the Wells book attempts to cover the whole story of the life and loves of the protagonist. This is some feat, as Wells had a long life, passing through two world wars, seeing dramatic changes – the rise of socialism, feminism and the erosion of traditional social and moral structures – and mixing in the most elite political and literary circles. A concise account of his encounters with friends, contacts and mistresses would fill volumes, and indeed, A Man of Parts is a modestly compact 565 pages. So the book, while never exhaustive can at times become exhausting, as we follow our hero from his shabby-genteel background to his position as popular writer, scientist, prophet and visionary on the world stage.
Perhaps the problem is that Wells himself is almost larger than life, too grandiose anyway to be fitted into novel form.
During the reading one forgets that this is a novel, that most of these conversations and meditations on the state of the world are fictional. ‘Nearly everything that happens in this narrative is based on factual sources,’ declares Lodge in his brief introduction. Thus the words of the major players speak for them. ‘Quotations from their books and other publications, speeches, and (with very few exceptions) letters, are their own words,’ he informs us. This is admirable practice for a biographer, but slavery for a novelist. One episode in Wells’s life – say his relationship with Gorky’s mistress – would have provided material enough for an intriguing novel. Instead of this we have a lively biography of a Man of Parts, most of them private and here teasingly made public, as Wells practices what he preaches with sundry nubile virgins of like mind in the healthy practice of Free Love.
This book will not disappoint the prurient, its accounts of sexual congress in hotel bedrooms and en plein air, add an additional spice to the narrative, especially when Wells’s partners are famous literary figures. The naughty joke begins with the title and continues as our hero exploits various Kamasutra positions, including bestial acts, cunnilingus and fellatio. All good fun for the author and his freelover hero! But those familiar the novelist’s work will neither be surprised nor shocked at these Lodge-istic antics.
All in all, this is a fascinating life of a notable figure, an idealist who sadly fails to see his ideals for himself and humamity realised. It is also a valuable source book for students of the period.
Lodge, David. Therapy
There are always strong autobiographical strains in Lodge’s fiction, so much so that the conflation of author and character bemuses and might even inhibit immersion into the fictional world. The ageing narrator in Deaf Sentence, for instance, is a semi-retired academic, a specialist in linguistics and English Literature. Like his author he suffers the agonies of not being what he used to be, plus the suspected ridicule of others, feelings of redundancy, deafness and all the impotent symptoms of the ‘male menopause.’ He inhabits a midland town, as does the professor in Nice Work, and the cityscape is pretty obviously a simulacrum of Lodge’s own Birmingham. Campus life is endemic to Professor Lodge’s fiction.
In Therapy we are once again in Rummidge (i.e. Birmingham), but this time our linguistically-obsessed narrator is a television script writer – Lodge ringing the changes by drawing upon his experiences with the dramatisation of Nice Work. As ever, marital conflict looms large, as the obsessed writer strives to reconcile the demands of work and domestic life. Laurence ‘Tubby’ Passmore, however, carries his neuroses to extremes, undergoing treatment from his GP, a psychoanalyst, an aroma-therapist, a sex therapist,, an acupuncturist, various drugs and almost any young female who can relieve him of his feelings of inadequacy. ‘Tubby’ is so obviously a paranoid neurotic that his life is constantly in tatters. If you divorce you’ll regret it, if you don’t divorce you’ll regret it. Divorce or don’t divorce you’ll regret both. Small wonder that he finds comfort in Kierkegaard, the author of Either/Or. Of course, nobody who is capable of writing as fluently, perceptively and humorously as Lodge could be as dysfunctional as Laurence – dysfunctional, except that, as ‘Tubby’ the narrator, he is capable of earning a small fortune by writing a sit-com The People Next Door, which, while pure soap rubbish, seems for a time to have a large viewing public by the throat. Not that Laurence is ever recognised as the author – he is but an essential cog in a vast popular machine.
Always readable, always funny and inventive, this as an immensely enjoyable novel. At one point, Lodge seems to move away from relaying Laurence’s journal to presenting us with several internal monologues by his intimates, but this, rather cleverly, turns out to be yet another therapy recommended by one of his practitioners – an attempt to see himself as others might see him. The concluding third of the book, begins with ‘Tubby’ desperately attempting to revive an old love affair, whose subject seems to be the answer to a reject’s prayer. Reminiscent of the obsessive return to an old romance experienced by the narrator of Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea, this twist provides an additional tension and a somewhat sobering but not desperately sad ending to a fine book.
Macdonald, Helen. H is for Hawk
This is a book for nature lovers, especially hawk lovers, but I found it no more than moderately interesting, and at times damned annoying. True, I learned a lot about hawks and other wild creatures and I expanded my vocabulary no end, having recourse to the OED, the New Oxford American Dictionary and one one occasion to my faithful ‘Shorter’ OED. I now know or have at least noted the meanings of many hawkish accoutrements and learned (and forgotten) words such as ‘accipitrine’ (pronounced ‘aksipitruin’), ‘argillaceous’ and ‘endorphins.’ The reaching out for the learned word was just one of many affectations encountered. I probably should have known ‘coruscate,’ ‘particulate,’ ‘cere,’ ‘brunous’ and ‘swag’ (meaning, in this case a festoon of flowers) but needed to check before proceeding.
Less excusable are Macdonald’s recourse to scores of fragmentary sentences, the compulsive use of the present tense, the drift into italics and asides such as this: ‘Strawberries, I think, as the white nubs brush against my hawking waistcoat. Didn’t Victorian gamekeepers plant them as cover for pheasants? Oh, Oh no.’ Whether Victorian gamekeepers did or did not plant strawberries as cover for pheasants has to be left dangling for Mabel has plunged into ‘a cityof pheasants.’ Yet another crises interrupts the author’s meditation. And I really did need to discover the truth about Victorian gamekeepers - did I heck! Snippets such as this are dropped like bird fodder throughout the narrative and the reader is left panting.
Macdonald’s Shandean story about hawking is padded out with T H White’s sad biography, one in parallel to her own - both are loners, obsessives and compulsive austringers haunted by the past and eager to escape into thin air. You could say that our author’s struggle to train her hawk is mirrored in her own struggle with words and that the strain on the leash or lead is mirrored in her straining for le mot juste, but that is surely too fanciful, too trite. Does the choppy narrative really recreate the physical experience of hawking? The story reminds me of J R Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip - by an invert, like White, in which an animal becomes a surrogate human, the keeper a child who has never grown up.
All in all there’s much for the psychologist to mull over in the book, but is it an entertaining read or is it, for the non-specialist, more a test of patience (one of Macdonald’s watchwords)?
Magee, Bryan. Growing up in a War
Chosen by at least one reviewer as one
of the best of 2007, this latest autobiography by Magee describes his childhood
in WW2. As yet another document on evacuated children it surpasses even The Evacuees and the author's own Clouds of Glory, on which a movie was later made.
Magee became well-known to TV audiences in the Seventies by his series of interviews with philosophers, 'Men of Ideas,' later made into a book. I read his Confessions of a Philosopher (1997) with absorbing interest. In that book he tells of his mental and spiritual journey from studying History at Oxford to becoming a leading populariser of the great Western philosophers, from Plato to Kant and Wittgenstein. Combined as it is with his own life story the book makes philosophy human and even humorous. As he tells us in Confessions : 'By far and away your most important perceptions about the work of a great philosopher are those you have for yourself.' For Magee it's not so much what is said as what it means to you at the time.
Growing up in a War is not concerned with philosophy but with giving an account of the childhood of a cockney boy from Hoxton who wins a scholarship to Christ's Hospital and ends up in the Intelligence Corps. As a record of wartime deprivation and survival on the Home Front it is lively, amusing and rueful. We learn much about Magee that nobody having watched his suave performances on camera - interviewing the likes of Chomsky, Quine, Berlin, Ayer and Marcuse - could possibly have imagined. That he was once a liar, a thief, a pugilist and a gorblimey cockney and proud of it almost beggars belief. A tall popular but aggressive boy, the young Magee is always thinking for himself, an intellectual rebel who consistently weighs evidence and sees through adult cant and hypocrisy, but who is usually canny enough to keep his own counsel.
Having grown up in many homes myself in the war, I found the book both true and moving. Not as a contributor to philosophic thought, but as a reader and communicator with ordinary intelligent men, Magee stands supreme.
Malcolm, Norman. Ludwig Wittgenstein
This memoir by Norman Malcolm, who attended Wittgenstein’s Cambridge lectures on the philosophical foundations of mathematics in 1939, is an intimate and revealing study of the man behind the philosopher. Malcolm confesses that he ‘understood almost nothing of the lectures,’ until re-reading his notes some ten years later. The ‘lectures,’ given without preparation or notes, were as informal as the man himself, and Wittgenstein himself preferred meeting in his own rooms or those of friends. Nevertheless ‘one had to be brave to enter after the lecture had begun and some would go away rather than face Wittgenstein’s glare.
Wittgenstein’s severity, Malcolm believes, was an essential part of his passion for truth. He would be a harsh critic of himself and others, ‘an awesome and even terrible person,’ yet one who relished (but never relaxed with) American movies. He disapproved of jokers, but loved questions, especially those without answers; for example: Why, can’t a dog simulate pain? Or Can there be such a thing as a riddle?
Wittgenstein had a horror of the academic life, and when Malcolm asked him if he should become a professor of philosophy he suggested farm work or some manual labour, which accords with the man’s own practice. He wanted to be practical and useful, was a house painter, an architect, a sculptor and a musician, and in both wars volunteered his services, in 1942 as an orderly at Guy’s Hospital. As a soldier in World War 1 he kept a notebook in his rucksack, with ideas that germinated in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. He hated lectures as such, and at Cambridge wanted to resign from ‘the absurd job of a prof. of philosophy. It is a kind of living death.’ Four months later he was dreading the new term when he would ‘talk a lot of rubbish.’
Malcolm’s Memoir includes much epistolary material illuminating the honesty and modesty of one of the Twentieth Century’s greatest thinkers, a man who wanted to show philosophers that they had all along been misled by words, which were only part of a ‘language game,’ and had no intrinsic meaning. For him language was a toolbag with many functions, one of which was to name things. It could never name feelings or experiences.
Towards the end of his life, when he was suffering from cancer and he felt his powers failing, Wittgenstein was offered the possibility of a research grant by the director of the Rockefeller Foundation, but he declined it on health grounds and the unlikelihood of his being able to do good work. It was quite possible, he wrote, that his productions would be ‘flat, uninspired and uninteresting.’ Readers of his work, or indeed of this memoir, would be unlikely to accede to this possibility.
Marr, Andrew. The Diamond Queen: Elizabeth II and Her People
Andrew Marr, a lapsed republican, gives a very respectful, not to say hagiographic account of the life and work of the Queen. As the title indicates the book is a celebration of fifty years in her reign, from her birth by Caesarian section on April 26, 1926, to her accession to the throne in 1952 and her continued occupancy of the royal seat through many changes of government until the present. The work penetrates deeply into both domestic discord and Britain’s changing place in the world, the Queen’s relation with her court, parliament and her encounters with a host of international heads of state. We pass through the war years, austerity, the lively Sixties and the present period of economic downturn, the wise queen adapting with equanimity to every crisis. In a first chapter outlining ‘What the Queen Does,’ Marr concludes with the resounding cliché that after her death ‘there will be a gaping, Queen-sized hole in the middle of British life.’
If ever there was a book capable of shoring up the dying institution of monarchy this is the book. Marr the fair-minded liberal leans over backwards to support the heroic little woman whose devotion to ‘family values’ has persisted through the ages. Thus he quotes her message to the Mothers Union rally in 1949: ‘We can have no doubt that divorce and separation are responsible for some of the darkest evils in our society today.’ Thus speaks the royal ‘we’ who goes on to attack a materialism and selfishness later to be epitomised in the wild capers of her younger sister. But the spectre of divorce was to haunt the royals in the coming decades, when the queen was obliged, publically at least, to hold her tongue. But the waving and the smiles returned with the new generation; the public forgave and forgot. The gush of sentimentality over royal romances and royal babies it seemed would never die. Once the monarchy began paying taxes the royal image was revamped. The heroic ages of Victoria and Elizabeth I were invoked, for Murdoch knew what the public wanted was a mixture of scandal, sentiment and ceremonial.
The Diamond Queen is an absorbing troll through the archives, throwing up many fascinating royal encounters that show the queen as a tough-minded but discreet antagonist. Her meetings with Tony Benn are especially revealing. The vexed questions of the House of Lords and birthday honours lists lie behind the duel over the queen’s head appearing on postage stamps. The chapter entitled ‘Off with her Head’ amusingly records the seemingly polite but bitter struggle between republicanism and monarchy. Marr, as ever, is fully supportive of the Queen, who is such an obvious target for levellers such as Benn, who after taking the oath of loyalty to be admitted to the Privy Council ‘left the Palace boiling with indignation and feeling that this was an attempt to impose tribal magic and personal loyalty on people whose real duty was only to their electors.’ The debate continues. But for how long?
Mawer, Simon. The Glass Room
This is a story about a house, designed by a Jew and confiscated during World War Two. It is a modernist construction with onyx walls and a huge glass room. We learn about the various visitors, notably German occupying forces and Russian liberators, but mainly from the tenants’ point of view. People come and go through times of strife and deprivation, ruin and neglect, but the symbolic house remains, variously a laboratory for Nazi genetic experiments, a nursery for handicapped children and a ballet school, seeing the collapse of German rule and the rise and fall of communism.
The characters are thus dwarfed by their setting, the beautiful human artefact, despoiled by its miserable human occupants. The many copulations that take place on the floor of the stupendous Glass Room underline the squalid uses to which beauty is heir. The myth of Ondine, for example, floats above the house’s sordid seductions, by German, Czech and Russian visitors.
I found this ambitious novel covering many decades of war and peace extremely lacking in depth of character. Our interest in the owners becomes supplanted not only by the building but by several sub-plots, rather precariously tied together at the end. I didn’t care that much about any of the people, whose inner lives we discover by authorial explication and rather heavy-handed imagery and prolonged dialogue as people explain themselves.
The book is peppered with imagery, which too often runs to cliché. Drafts whisper and trees throw caution to the wind ; passengers, a motley collection of young and old, are like sheep emerging from a stable, or later, like sheep jostling at a gate. As indicated above, there is quite a lot of explicit sex in the book, which becomes so mechanical that one cares neither for the doer nor the sufferer. A German officer raping his Slav mistress ‘spreads her buttocks apart so that she is open to his gaze, the dark valley, the tight mouth of her anus, the dark fold of her shame.’ We are told ‘he even feels pity, that emotion you must learn to expunge.’ If you’re one of the Master race, of course, taking your pleasure from an Untermensch. Oddly enough the reader feels nothing, neither for him nor her. A long and at times irritating read; even the titillation falls flat.
McCullers, Carson. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
Carson McCullers’ debut novel continues to thrill readers, at least according to reviewers on Amazon, but I found this naive, simplistic and sentimental tract a bit of a bore. I totally agree with the Dubai Reader when she says ‘the plot is slow, tediously slow at times and I couldn’t help but wonder what the point was to all these people wandering in and out of Singer’s room.’ Singer, by the way, is the deaf mute who listens to all the other carefully selected victims oppressed by society: a drunken labour agitator, a tomboy who dreams of getting a piano, a very observant cafe owner and an idealistic black doctor. The point is that only Singer listens, listens to all their troubles on behalf of the reader, who is expected to empathise.
‘The book makes for excellent discussion,’ the same reader concedes, but is that the main aim of reading a novel? I read a novel in the first place to engage with the protagonist, to get inside the skull of another consciousness, to understand how it feels to be him or her. I do not want a novel that bores me with big issues, that presents types, counters to be moved around on a chess board: the handicapped, the drunk, the idealist, the informant, the outcast. McCullers picks her types and then pushes them into situations. They are not interesting as persons in their own right.
Much of the gushing response to this novel seems to derive from the author’s ‘wonderful’ writing, but not one of the reviewers on Amazon quotes a line from the book’s banal and dreary prose. Another reader admits to not ‘feeling any empathy towards any of the characters.’ Exactly! And why? Because the naivety of the young author is revealed in her simplistic internal monologues. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they all ‘talk’ alike (Blount is given some remarkably cogent – but most unlikely – drink-inspired speeches). But on the whole both the language and the acts of all four major characters are stilted (Singer’s hands always in his pockets, Copeland always discreetly spitting into his handkerchief).
McCullers’s prose for the most part is undistinguished and juvenile and it would be better had she retained her naive voice, for when she seeks to sway the reader she employs a ludicrously unconvincing bombast. Thus Biff, the good drunkard: ‘in a swift radiance of illumination ... saw a glimpse of human struggle and of valour. Of the endless fluid passage of humanity through endless time. And of those who labour and of those who – one word – love. His soul expanded. For in him he felt a warning, a shaft of terror. Between the two worlds he was suspended....The left eye delved narrowly into the past while the right eye gazed wise and affrighted into the future.’ You’d better believe it, but sadly I didn’t. I didn’t trust the teller or the tale.
McEwan, Ian. On Chesil Beach
Just finished On Chesil Beach. I see now
that Edward was not quite as shy and sensitive as I thought. I'm glad about
that. I felt a great sense of relief when he let fly at Florence for her
frigidity, but also sad for her.
What about him being a bit of a pugilist though? He didn't seem the type to hang around pubs at night looking for ‘a spot of bovver.’ I liked him when he stood up for his Jewish pal however, and understood his qualms about betraying his own ideals of good form etc. Was this broadening of Edward's character done to prepare us for his verbal assault on Florence at the end?
I thought the sex scene was well-handled, even if Edward’'s private person wasn't! I didn't find it, as one reader did, 'a crude exposure of something never usually dealt with at length.' But then I was brought up on Henry Miller and have recently peeked into my 14 year-old son's My Booky Wook.
I was reminded of another fine novel about a musician - The Soloist by Mark Salzman. There, too, an obsession with music seems to cancel out sex drives. What is it about musicians?
Another reader says On Chesil Beach is 'a tragedy of "what ifs."’ Well, aren't all tragedies this? Don't we feel with Othello - 'the pity of it, Iago'? If only someone had said a word at the right time . . . but it's more than that here: it's a combination of many large and tiny details that lead to the misalliance. And even if they'd got over this problem, they'd have got bored with each other,
brought up the past, blamed each other and themselves.
McEwan, Ian. Saturday
Saturday tells the story on one day in the life of Henry Perowne, a London neurosurgeon. The week-end lies before him as he wakes early to gaze out over ‘the perfect square laid out by Robert Adam … an eighteenth century dream bathed and embraced by modernity, by street light from above, and from below by fibre-optic cables … and sewage borne away in an instant of forgetting.’ It happens to be the day of protest against the government’s decision to support America in invading Iraq. London will be clogged with traffic, diversions galore, an influx of thousands of demonstrators, feverish news bulletins, and of course brigades of policemen, additional traffic wardens and hordes of spectators with their cameras.
A lot can happen in a day, and unlike Joyce and Virginia Woolf who use the day as a framing device to follow the lives of ordinary people, Ian McEwan’s hero is an exceptional middle-class professional, much in demand, wealthy and socially active. Saturday should be his day off, time for rest and recreation, but chance decrees otherwise. An encounter with a pair of hoods in a narrow street, where Perowne inadvertently removes a wing-mirror, provides the reality shock that encompasses all his family when they barge in on a domestic celebration.
The tension aroused in the protracted scene, when the intruders threaten, take control and order Daisy, Perowne’s daughter whose first book is about to be published, to strip naked in considerable. The lads mean business and the Perowne family is no match for them. But there’s a get-out clause in that Baxter, the leader, is suffering from a brain disease, where, as the surgeon explains to the baffled lad, ‘the globus pallidus, the pale globe, is a rather beautiful thing, deep in the basal ganglia, one of the oldest parts of the corpus striatum.’ And Baxter, unaccountably, is fascinated by the notion of a cure for his illness - almost as unaccountably as his sudden appreciation of poetry as read by Daisy (albeit that it’s Matthew Arnold rather than her own work that she reads to him). By which time Nige, Baxter’s henchman, has lost patience and left. Time to attack! Theo and his father end by throwing Baxter down the stairs and cracking his skull, but … Dad is on hand to take care of things; he operates successfully on his antagonist!
Endings are notoriously difficult to bring off, and my main reservation about this intelligent book lies in the cooked-up ending - too easy, too pat, a moral miracle to end an otherwise fascinating story. Naturally this weakness is not alluded to by any of the triumphant chorus of reviewers from all parts of the world that takes up the first four pages of my paperback. But then you wouldn’t expect it from Sunday paper reviewers, whose job is to shout loud and long - and with some justification - about a truly remarkable book, that does, nevertheless, have its longueurs and difficulties. Warning: you will probably need a dictionary of medical terms to decode the jargon.
Montaigne, Michel de. The Complete Essays
Unlike Francis Bacon’s (1561-1626), Montaigne’s essays, written while Bacon was still a boy, are reflexive, personal and eccentric. Both founding fathers of this diffuse genre habitually announce a topic, and then write on it, but where Bacon is terse Montaigne is rambling. Bacon is general, where his predecessor is personal, typified by a comparison of the two men’s essays on Solitude and Friendship.
Both men share the need to cite authorities, naturally Greek or Latin, and both enjoy pronouncing moral maxims. ‘Whosoever is delighted in solitude, is either a wilde beast, or a God,’ declares Bacon. Man needs a friend to open his heart to, says Bacon, referring to Caesar and Brutus and others such as Tiberius Caesar who built a temple to friendship.
Montaigne, in Chapter 38 of the Essays, drifts from his alleged topic of Solitude to speak at length of officials who serve themselves rather than the public. He then regales the reader with an account of Albuqurque, Viceroy of the Indies, who rescued a boy in a shipwreck only to save his own skin, using the boy as a shield ‘that the boy’s innocence might serve to protect him.’ Whither Solitude? He then proceeds to quote Virgil, Horace and Diogenes Laertius, giving the reader a discourse on reason and prudence, concluding that travel is not the answer to a man’s problems, for he always carries them with him: ‘If a man do not first discharge both himself and his mind of the burden with which he finds himself oppressed, motion will but make it press the harder and sit the heavier, as the lading of a ship is of less encumbrance when fast and bestowed in a settled posture.’ All this to say that although it may broaden the mind, a man cannot escape his problems through travel. His 46 page essay on Solitude – glancing at Lucan, Cato, Juvenal, Diogenes Laertius, Charondas, Antisthenis, Horace, Virgil, Persius, Lucretius, Seneca, St Augustin, Tibullus, Terence, Quintillian, Arcesilaus, Democritus, Cicero, Pliny and others - is an exhaustive but rough guide to classical learning - and a rough ride for the reader compared to slick-skater Bacon with his jewelled aphorisms. Wordy but worthy is the Mayor of Bordeaux who retired from public office to concentrate on writing his landmark Essais in 1570.
Although steeped in the classics – almost every statement is supported by Latin authority – Montaigne prefigures the modern essay in his frequent relapse into personal anecdote and reference to contemporary events such as, in ‘Friendship,’ the Siege of Rouen (1562) and the assassination of the Duc de Guise (1563). He also speaks of a brother for whom he has little affection, quoting Plutarch in support, who declared of his brother, ‘I never make the more account of him for coming out of the same hole.’ All this is to illustrate his thesis that blood relatives, even fathers and sons, are not necessarily spiritual kin.
Although an orthodox Christian, Montaigne is not above questioning belief, asking pertinently: ‘How many things were yesterday’s articles of faith that today appear no other than fables?’ Typically, Montaigne puts the question where Bacon would give the answer. The Essais are literally trials or explorations of a topic; as he says in his final book: ‘En fin, toute cette fricassée que je barbouille icy n’est qu’un register des essais de ma vie.’ (Roughly translated, ‘Ultimately, all the medley that I serve up here is but a record of the trials of my life.’) Thus Montaigne introduces a new genre into literature, one to be exploited by stylists such as Johnson, Lamb, Hazlitt and countless others.
Middleton, Stanley. Holiday
‘Fifty years hence, someone will pull me out of his head. I am not displeased.’ Thus Stanley Middleton in his poem recalling names from the past. Author of over 40 novels, joint winner of the Booker Prize in 1975, Middleton refused an honour from the Wilson government, and published Holiday to refute Auberon Waugh’s dictum that flashbacks were the death of any good novel. In fact flashback is here an inherent part of the structure of Holiday, whose hero, Edwin Fisher during a period of marital breakdown tells of his childhood, school life, courtship and his disastrous marriage to Meg, a woman who is his very antithesis.
The novel begins in an East Coast seaside resort, where Fisher has gone to escape from constant domestic squabbles with his bellicose wife. While he drifts from beach to bar, from church to his digs with their lace curtains and view of rooftops and television aerials, he meets a range of tramps, holidaying families, sunbathing girls, and ultimately chances upon his father-in-law, David Vernon. The one thing that Edwin and Meg have in common is an imposing and embarrassing father. But while Edwin’s father is safely dead, Meg’s is only too alive. David Vernon has clearly arrived at the resort as a peacemaker, a friendly but interfering solicitor, who after puffing and blowing sits down ‘raising the tails of his coat,’ and says ‘I was sorry to hear about your business,’ meaning the marital break-up.
Miller, AD. Snowdrops
The title comes from Moscow slang for a corpse that lies buried under the winter snows, emerging only in the thaw. In this narrative of an expat lawyer’s experiences of corruption, bribery and cynical murder in post-communist Russia, ‘Snowdrops’ is the perfect metaphor haunting the pages of a disturbing novel.
Nicholas Platt, an English company lawyer, is a hardnosed observer of the inner workings of power in a morally bereft and economically declining state. He, almost knowingly, makes two bad mistakes early on: he tends to believe what people tell him and he falls in love with a girl who promises much but delivers only what all pretty Russian girls are apparently schooled to give. ‘What am I doing here in this crazy country in my turquoise shirt? I’m thirty-eight, I’m from Luton.’ His cynicism deepens as he becomes involved with a cartel that mysteriously vanishes once he has put his company’s imprimatur on their false documents. Anything and anybody, he discovers, can be bought and sold, used and disposed of. ‘In my experience,’ Nicholas tells us – or rather, his fiancée to whom the whole confession is addressed – ‘you could roughly gauge the level of depravity in a Slavic city by the time it took, after you arrived, for someone to offer you women.’ Despite his hard-bitten exterior, Nicholas is essentially a benevolent innocent in a corrupt and corrupting world.
The prose of Snowdrops is bare and factual, the narrator’s tone spare and Chandleresque. His cynicism is expressed mainly in hyperbole and extravagant metaphor: Old-fashioned felt boots are issued to the traffic police as ‘an ancient Russian precaution that kept their feet from falling off while they hung around extorting bribes from people.’ It’s a tough hard-drinking world that takes no prisoners. After all, this is Russia where individual needs and human rights are traditionally mere matter for sad jokes. Apart from the police, perhaps the notaries are the most bribeable profession: ‘They are essentially pointless functionaries left over from tsarism, whose job it is to issue and stamp the legal documents that you need to do almost anything in Russia.’
This is a gripping and intriguing novel. It may not give the most balanced picture of contemporary Russia, but while reading it I found this story of an almost innocent abroad totally convincing.
Miller, William Ian. Losing It
The title is remarkable from this polymath who is obviously very far from losing it. The colloquial term ‘losing it’ is however an essential part of the man who is still very much in touch with the ambient world, who has much to say about the ease that western man is wrapped in, with its consoling cliches and the comforting assurances of advertising. Miller is a professor of law and a teacher of Nordic sagas, in which life was a bitter struggle that sorted men and heros (same word) from the commonalty.
While it is true that Miller cites his forgetfulness (‘blanking’), his aches and pains, that he scrutinises his gradual and literal loss of ‘face’ and knows about the truth of Altzheimer’s brain research - the mind, in this book at least, is well-stocked with ammunition to throw at positive thinkers and psychobabblers. He has a particular aversion to ‘our modern-day wise men and women who, the more famous they are, the more likely they are to be charlatans.’ [Reader supply names] For ‘even a wise pastor, rabbi or priest of today, the equivalent of the village wise man … would now have their wisdom compromised by the psychobabble, positivist cant, new-agey motivational-speaker drivel, and opinion polls that are no less inimical to wisdom in the low-to middle- brow range than are the academic Freudianism and Lacanianism or the faux tough-mindedness of genetic determinism and economics at the somewhat higher-brow end.’ If all of this takes some digesting, it is certainly not the blather of one who is losing it.
The book is far from the cantankerous ravings of a defunct cynic taking pot shots at politcal and psychological innovators and moral guardians. Miller is a meticulous and entertaining raconteur, interspersing his diatribes with Nordic sagas and Roman and Biblical tales of hardship and derring-do. Yes, he is an angry old man, but he has some vital things to say about, for instance, the imbalance of world resources and the irreclaimable debt the old owe to the young. All in all, Miller’s book is a blast against modernism. He talks up the medieval ages, a time when ‘life hung in the balance more often for them than it does for us in the free West.’ Then turning on himself he concludes, ‘You old fool, Miller ….Claiming perceptual acuity is only further proof of your losing it.
Morton, Alison. Inceptio
This story set in the fictitious state of Roma Nova will appeal to those who love fast-paced stories of high adventure set in exotic locations.
Before the action starts the author spends some time introducing us to the historical background. I would have preferred to be plunged straight into the fictional world, which is on the whole intriguing and convincing. It is none-the-less an efficient thriller, a Graham Greenian nightmare of political intrigue in which a gutsy heroine, Karen Brown, fights back against Renschman, a monstrous villain who relentlessly pursues her from New York City to Roma Nova. There is of course love interest, in that her protector, Conrad Tellus, an ambivalent Special Forces agent, ultimately proves true.
Morton is meticulous in her placing of local detail, the names predominantly Latinate and swarming over the pages to the point of confusion. If we are in doubt that we are in a Roman principality we are soon reminded by expressions such as ‘By Juno!’ or ‘Venus save us!’
The characters, as ever in this kind of fiction, fit easily into types. We soon know who are the goodies and the baddies and they remain in those categories throughout. The introduction of so many merely functional characters, in place not for their own sake but simply to tell the story can at times become tedious. But on the whole tension and interest are maintained.
I do have some reservations, however, about the writing style. Adrenaline is always flowing out of Karen’s socks and she is constantly waiting for ‘the adrenaline rush’ or ‘an adrenaline high.’ Electricity also seems to flow excessively through her body, and there is an abundance of ‘smiling,’ sinister or ambivalent usually, throughout. Nor did I feel convinced by the health trainer who ‘radiated fitness on a nuclear scale.’ These may be quibbles but they do jar even in a mystery thriller.
Mosley, Nicholas. Look at the Dark
There was a time when I was drawn to the Hindu idea that in old age a man should hand over earthly power and possessions to younger members of his family; that he should leave home equipped with little more than a begging bowl and go out onto the highways and byways to watch the world go by.
This seductive opening of Moseley’s first-person narrative promises much, but the novel runs aground in the middle and ends with rather a whimper. The first sentence quoted above suggests that the reader is in the presence of a man pondering over his past with some regret at the way things have turned out, ideals having disappointed. The tone is intimate and confiding, inviting reader participation; for me it recalls Wordsworth’s ‘There was a time when every meadow, grove and stream’ and ‘There was a boy, ye knew him ...’ from The Prelude. The brooding, philosophical note is developed in the second sentence with ‘By thus casting off mundane attachments he might gain spiritual power; which at the approach of death should be of more use to him anyway.’ The narrator then moves from the general to his present situation of living in comfort in the here and now, giving the reader facts about his present life as a retired academic living in London, supporting himself by giving occasional radio talks and television interviews, watching the box and being looked after by his second and younger wife, thinking about language, lies and truth. In the first few pages, in dialogue with his wife he emerges as clever, cynical and strange. ‘Towers fall by the force of gravity: God is the force of levity.’ Thus is the sort of language conundrum our narrator loves.
Gradually the past begins to take over, Valentina, the present wife, is supplanted in the story by the past wife Valerie, who is still alive and gradually comes to occupy centre stage. The similarities in the names strike him as they do the reader, but there are other coincidences and soon the reader is in Africa as the storyteller relates his experiences, elaborating on one in which he makes love to a one-legged woman simply because she wishes it. The dialogue is blunt, matter-of-fact and shorn of speech direction.
In some ways Look at the Dark is an anti-novel, for cause and effect are frequently arbitrary. Children appear and disappear for no obvious reason, except that life’s like that, a lot stranger than fiction. Both narrator and reader frequently find themselves catching up with ‘what happened’ after the event, and even then neither is sure of the facts or the truth. One important fact is that the reader comes to trust the narrator not necessarily to tell the truth but to be faithful, as far as he can, to his perceptions. The two Vals seem to be more sensible and reliable, providing the reader as it were with a sheet anchor in the teller’s drifting sea of adventures. When he takes the children to the zoo, for example, he ‘arrived home on my one leg and one crutch’ and begins to tell his wife about it, but he finds it ‘so unlikely that I found myself saying ‘I don’t suppose I’m getting all the details right.’
The zoo metaphor then takes over in his mind while his wife talks of a party for a book launch she’d like him to attend. ‘It struck me that this might not be so different from a trip to the zoo, though it seemed not worth working out why.’ Exactly! As in life appearance and reality are forever at odds, things have to be suggested rather than defined, the dark is always there, but while for me the zoo metaphor works well, as does the image of darkness and lameness, long before the end the overused turn-turtle metaphor begins to pall. Our engaging narrator is becoming just a bit too clever, and the minor characters have failed to interest or come alive, dwarfed as they are by the teller of the ragged tale, this Shandean cock and bull story.
Motion, Andrew. In the Blood
This moving and detailed account of Andrew Motion's
childhood has all the quality of a novel; in short, it's a page-turner, but one
that the reader is reluctant to speed through. Moreover, almost every page has
that special quality of lucid language and insightful detail that one expects
from the best poetry.
Some Amazon reviewers have referred to the 'class issue' and one of them harks back to Sassoon's Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man, which is perfectly apposite. But the fact that Motion in adolescence resigns from the hunting set puts him in the modern age of enlightened thinkers. As a child one is a victim, subject to many influences and pressures that later need to be questioned. Motion does all of this, but never loses touch with his roots, as the title indicates. In fact, the nuclear family - Andrew, brother Kit and the parents - are exquisitely drawn portraits of loving, caring people, and this book is a tribute to them as much as a revelation of the ex-Poet Laureate's childhood.
I would heartily recommend this book, both to young people, who will identify with the Andrew Motion's struggles with the problems of adolescence, and oldies, like me, who remember the war, evacuation, rationing, and times when schools were largely punitive institutions, intent on turning boys into real men, by floggings and the arbitrary imposition of petty rules. In this book it is not only the child but the mother whose stiff upper lip trembles before each new term. Indeed, the intimate relationship between Andrew, the elder son, and his mother is the golden thread that unifies the book. The school scenes recalled to me Joyce's portrait of Clongowes, while, in passionate intensity, the domestic scenes rival those of Sons and Lovers.
Mouskouri, Nana. Memoirs
This Nana Mouskouri memoir (written in conjunction with Lionel Duroy and translated from the Greek) tells of the great singer’s poverty-stricken childhood in Nazi-occupied Greece, her aborted singing career at the Conservatory, and her eventual rise to international fame. Beginning as a nervous teenager, performing folk songs in tavernas and nightclubs in Athens, Mouskouri’s passion for music eventually prevailed against her deprived background, her father’s compulsive gambling and promoters’ prejudice against her lack of chic. Torn between her love of classical music and her addiction to popular songs, she kept a foot in both camps and had repeated tours throughout Europe, the United States, Australia and Japan. On the way up she was encouraged by such luminaries as Maria Callas, Harry Belafonte, Quincy Jones, Bob Dillon and Yves Montand.
This story of innocence rewarded is told simply, as childlike as Mouskouri’s favourite book, The Wizard of Oz. That her rise to fame was an uphill struggle is an understatement. Fat, bespectacled and so terrified of audiences that she sang with her eyes closed, the singer had only her golden voice to recommend her. However, the voice alone was enough to cause the director of Never on Sunday to consider dubbing it over that of the film’s star actress Melina Mercouri, for Nana, who lacked stage presence, had a voice to melt all hearts.
Infinitely adaptable, Nana was to learn and sing in English, French and German in order to please her hosts. Once she becomes an international celebrity, Nana/s life becomes a hectic sequence of engagements - in New York, Paris, London, Geneva, Barcelona, Sydney and, of course, Athens. Her frantic life of jet-setting, hotel bookings, interviews, try-outs, performances and recordings inevitably puts a strain on her family relationships. Unsurprisingly, her marriage to George the traditional Greek husband ends in divorce and family disapproval.
But, in keeping with this simple and humble account of a life devoted to music, Nana Mouskouri’s final tribute is to the audience (often literally unseen) who changed her from an ugly duckling into an enchanting princess. Here are her last words to her fans: ‘I didn’t want to know what you thought of me as I first came on stage in my lace dresses and my butterfly glasses. So I shut my eyes tight, in exactly the same way I turned away from myself in the mirror... I would wait for the applause before I dared open my eyes, and what I then sensed from your expressions was like a miracle to me every time, like an apparition. You seemed moved, touched, sometimes even dazzled. Never mind my glasses, my figure – now it was as though you no longer noticed them! You loved me for what my voice said about the woman I am, you quite simply loved me, and little by little (I can say it to you today) it was through your eyes that I learned to love myself. You gave me the desire to live. You rescued me!’
Munro, Alice. Dear Life
I found Alice Munro’s latest collection of autobiographical fragments, so called short stories, less than enthralling. They are more random sketches, without chronology or aesthetic unity rather than coherent stories with a beginning, middle and end. Set in a small town in Western Ontario, they attempt the difficult fictional task of representing ‘real life’ in all its unpredictability. After all, like history, life is just one darned thing after another. Often the anecdotes read as mere autobiographical jottings with no unifying point of view or stable protagonist. Thus the first story ‘To Reach Japan’ introduces the reader to Peter on board a train after having brought his wife Greta to the station with her case. He is happy to jump off the train and wave to her with an enigmatic smile to his daughter Katy. We are then told that Peter’s father died in a sanatorium before he could get him out of Soviet Czechoslovakia, and then how his mother survived in British Columbia and brought Peter up to be an engineer. Peter’s scientific education, however, has a cramping effect upon him. When Peter has business elsewhere, Greta, a poet, and Katy house sit for one of Greta’s friends in Vancouver, where the poet is invited to a party of literati in North Vancouver. At first she feels an outsider, but later meets what seems to be her soul mate, a reporter named Harris Bennett. But they lose touch, he goes to Toronto and Greta pines. We then focus on the Greta-Katy relationship and the daughter’s ability to socialise with other children. Meanwhile Greta runs into Greg, with whom she strikes up a friendship and makes love. But during this Katy gets lost and Greta becomes distraught. All this we now find is happening on the train Peter vacated. The third person narrator’s story, such as it is, has a happy ending. But whither Japan? Shsh, Japan is a metaphor for escape and adventure. It’s a poet’s response to an engineer.
Murray, Paul. Skippy Dies
I had two major problems with this extraordinary novel: it was too long and over-hyped; not that the author can be held culpable on the second count. However, despite these reservations I persevered with the 600+ pages and, on the whole, found this marathon read rewarding. As a send-up of the public school ethos it was entirely successful: funny and satisfactorily putting the boot in to snobbery, pomposity and conceit masquerading as piety. Some of the Acting Principal’s harangues and public speeches are quite hilarious and admirably sent-up by his dissenting pupils - as varied and anarchic a bunch as you could wish to eavesdrop on.
This great sprawling book is awash with characters, who divide into three main groups: the pupils; the staff and the users who fuel the discontent and distress of the others. Skippy, the titular hero is the transparent centre around whom the rich cast of characters revolve. Even, or rather especially, in death, he pervades the thoughts of others. We learn most about him through the minds of the priests, the bent swimming coach, his teachers and his so-called friends, who rally round him only after his death. This seems to be the ‘message’ if the book has one: that only in memory can one be a hero or even a friend.
Skippy’s room-mate Ruprecht Van Doren (aka Blowjob, Fatso and other uncomplimentary soubriquets) is a geek, the butt and victim of school bullies and pranksters. He is also the guiding spirit and master intelligence behind many schemes to explore the universe and its mysteries. He is both admired and mocked, a sort of Christ figure who takes everyone and everything seriously. He is also the only boy not obsessed by sex and ironically the only one to break into the heroine’s bedroom at the adjacent sister school of St Brides. It is fitting that he should be rescued from the conflagration of Seabrook College by the male adult protagonist Howard Fallon, a serial loser in love and life, but nevertheless our representative in this crumbling world of outworn useless values embodied by the College.
I often felt I’d like rather more of the misplaced Howard and his fractured love-life and pathetic career and rather less of the sniggering youths and their tedious banter and games of one-upmanship, but I see the author’s indulgence in schoolboy lore (heads in toilets, ignited farts e.g.) does have a parallel with that of the staff-room. In both, good intelligent people are sacrificed to expediency, and pompous self-seeking is rewarded at the expense of honesty. Often funny and always true to life.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita
Humbert Humbert, who tells the story of his obsession with twelve-year old Dolores (aka Lolita) Haze is an engaging narrator. To society at large, this middle-aged college professor who seduces and kidnaps a schoolgirl is a monster of depravity, but, strangely, to the reader of his memoir he is an entertaining and even endearing charmer rather than a disgusting pervert. How does this come about? Well, at the start at least Lolita is half the wooer. When Charlotte Haze, Lolita’s mother, is about to drive her daughter off to camp to keep Humbert to herself, the girl impetuously keeps her waiting to dash back into the house and embrace her elderly lover: ‘A moment later I heard my sweetheart running up the stairs. My heart expanded with such force that it almost blotted me out. I hitched up the pants of my pajamas, flung the door open: and simultaneously Lolita arrived, in her Sunday frock, stamping, panting, and then she was in my arms, her innocent mouth melting under the ferocious pressure of dark male jaws, my palpitating darling!’ That the girl later wearies of her ardent pursuer - and he resorts to bribing her with expensive clothes and jewellery, not to mention the long trip across America and back - is another matter. Selfish and obsessed, Humbert constantly tortures himself rather than the girl, whose attitude to him during the long escapist trek after her mother’s death swings wildly between affection and contempt.
‘I am trying to describe these things not to relive them in my present boundless misery, but to sort out the portion of hell and the portion of heaven in that strange, awful, maddening world – nymphet love. The beastly and the beautiful merged at one point, and it is that borderline that I would like to fix,’ Humbert explains to the reader. The novel is one vast apology for his life and the obsession that gives it meaning. It’s at once absurd, comic, pathetic and sad, but always entertaining and even enlightening. The contrast between the protagonists assures that their intimacy will never be dull. Lo is a far from innocent, feckless American brat being cosseted and indulged by a sophisticated European. Alone together the sparks are bound to fly. Whether Humbert’s resort to firearms are: one, justified, and two, convincing in the final scene of carnage is another matter. But after all, the setting is gun-toting, wild America with all its gewgaw distractions. Here, where anything goes; why not a little harmless incest?
Süskind, Patrick. The Pigeon (translated from the German Die Taube by John E Woods)
The story of Jonathan Noel’s encounter with a pigeon in his Paris flat is extraordinary and banal in equal measures. The account is told by an omniscient narrator whose viewpoint and diction merge obliquely into those of Jonathan himself. Thus he despairs of the concierge, Madame Rocard: ‘She’s just a concierge and her job is just to sweep the halls and the stairway and to clean the shared toilet once a week, but not to rout pigeons. By this afternoon at the latest she’ll be drunk on vermouth and have forgotten the entire affair.’ But for the most part the narrator sticks to the ‘facts’, the main one being Jonathan’s immaculate devotion to order and time-keeping, which the stray pigeon has utterly desecrated.
The tale is compressed into 24 hours and 100 pages, as compressed as is the hero himself into a bunkhouse that admits minimal light and comfort, for Jonathan is an aesthete devoted to his work as a security guard positioned on the bank’s staircase, a post he has occupied for 30 years. To say that he is a lonely repressed old man would be an understatement. Boiling within is anger, rage at pedestrians, and at ‘those good-for-nothing young, stupid waiters, who loitered among the tables and chairs, the louts babbling and grinning and smirking … And then the drivers! Stupid monkeys in their stinking tin crates … Do you have to use the last bit of breathable air, suck it into your motors and burn it up and blow it back, mixed with poison and soot and hot fumes, into the noses of respectable citizens?’ Jonathan has visions of shooting them all, even shooting up ‘the whole dreary, loud, stinking world.’ But, the narrator informs us ‘He was nor a man of action. He was a man of resignation.’
The interior monologues of Jonathan Noel’s Paris nightmare encompass terror at failing to be on duty when his boss arrives, meetings with a clochard whom he envies and a seamstress whom he unavailingly begs to sew up a rip in his trousers. All of this angst and anxiety is released by the pigeon which haunts the passage and drives him into hotel accommodation. The reader is drawn into each catastrophe in the life of this shy, conventional little man who bears within him the seeds of a potential murderer.