April 22, 2013
It’s a good idea, I think, to revisit favourite books from time to time and see how they are faring, how you and they measure up against one another. I did it last year with Joseph Heller’s Something Happened. Martin Amis’s 1984 novel Money, probably his most highly-praised, has pleased me so much in the past that, more than a decade ago, I used its narrator’s name for my own online identity and have been stuck with it ever since. Vladimir Nabokov, a literary hero of Amis’s, said that “one cannot read a book; one can only reread it.” And furthermore, that “a good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.” This is, he said, because a first reading is consumed with the “complicated physical work upon the book”; only with rereading does a book penetrate directly to the mind. I first read Money in 1995, having felt ambivalent about previous Amises – The Rachel Papers and Success – but it didn’t take me long to realise that if the word “breakthrough” meant anything in literary terms, this was one. (Geekish sidenote: I’ve read Money a couple of times since, but what prompted this re-read was the type being reset for the first time since its original publication. This, perhaps madly, was important to me because I always have a strong visual memory when reading a book of where particular phrases or scenes appear on the physical page. Furthermore – bear with me – I feel that rereading a book with all the words laid out in the same way as before will somehow deaden the reading, and stop me from seeing the book in a new way. I hope that that is not a unique experience: or if it is, what the hell.) The new typesetting of this Vintage Classics (at last!) edition of Money gave me a good reason to go back to it. The cover to this edition of a book about a 1980s advertising executive is, suitably, by Saatchi & Saatchi.
Money is a novel of pairings and extremes. This is common in Amis’s work: he is a “broad and comic writer” and describes - or at least reclaims the criticism of - his work as dealing in “banalities delivered with tremendous force.” The pairings are obvious in novels like Success – two brothers, one successful, one not - or The Information – two writers, one successful, one not. But they are there too less brashly (well, a little less brashly) in the underrated Night Train – Jennifer Rockwell and Mike Hoolihan, opposites drawn together – and House of Meetings – the brothers in the Gulag. Pairings enable Amis to highlight differences by contrast – a useful illuminatory tool when there isn’t much brightness in the worlds he creates. There are more pairings in Money than perhaps in any other Amis novel: John Self and his creator Martin Amis (who appears in the novel); John Self and his younger, fitter, happier business partner Fielding Goodney; Martin Amis and his New York counterpart Martina Twain – both mentors of John Self in their ways; the pairs of male and female actors in Self’s film; and other pairings which don’t become clear until the end.
John Self is an ad-man who is making a feature film to be titled either Good Money or Bad Money (the money men can’t quite agree). He flies between London and New York and each long chapter describes a trip to one or other city. Self is “200 pounds of yob genes, booze, snout and fast food”, driven by desires: for the fast food, the booze, the snout (“‘Yeah,’ I said, and started smoking another cigarette. Unless I specifically tell you otherwise, I’m always smoking another cigarette”), for pornography. He is “addicted to the twentieth century.” Self is a great success – money is drawn to him – and a terrible failure. His jetsetting life means that he never feels at home. He wakes up each morning feeling worse and worse (“Refreshed by a brief blackout…”). Before he left London, he was told that his girlfriend, Selina Street, was cheating on him. And who can blame her? After all, he wants to cheat on her. “I can never find anyone to be unfaithful to her with. They don’t want what I have to offer. They want commitment and candour and sympathy and trust and all the other things I seem to be really short of.” He’s violent. “It’s hard. It’s quite a step, particularly the first time. After that, though, it just gets easier and easier. After a while, hitting women is like rolling off a log.” He goes to strip joints. “The chicks on the ramp provided some variety. None of them wore any pants. At first I assumed that they got paid a lot more for this. Looking at the state of the place, though, and at the state of the chicks, I ended up deciding that they got paid a lot less.”
You can see what Amis is doing here. “A broad and comic writer.” Jokes and fizzy phrases are the holy grail and nothing is off-limits, not even domestic violence (elsewhere in the book, Self tries to rape Selina). Is this OK? Maybe so, as Self clearly is a really terrible person – yet there is also an attempt to make us empathise with him. Maybe this is OK too: after all, Humbert Humbert rapes twelve-year-old Dolores Haze, but by the end of Lolita he is, to me, a sympathetic, or at least pitiable, character. Amis himself, in this fascinating interview with (the?) Patrick McGrath in 1985, makes it clear that he “always adored him.” Self does at least have some insight into his condition. On the one hand, he misreads his reader: “Look at my life. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: It’s terrific! It’s great! You’re thinking: Some guys have all the luck!” But, he confides to us: ”I long to burst out of the world of money and into – into what? Into the world of thought and fascination. How do I get there? Tell me, please. I’ll never make it by myself. I just don’t know the way.” He shows impatience with the qualities that make him what he is:
Sometimes I feel that life is passing me by, not slowly either, but with ropes of steam and spark-spattered wheels and a hoarse roar of power or terror. It’s passing, yet I’m the one who is doing all the moving. I’m not the station, I’m not the stop: I’m the train. I’m the train.
Self gets some help with this from Martina Twain in New York, and from Martin Amis in London. Amis (“his face is cramped and incredulous”) appears as a character in the book: “a writer lives around my way … This writer’s name, they tell me, is Martin Amis. Never heard of him. Do you know his stuff at all?” This Self-indulgence is reportedly the moment in Money which caused Kingsley Amis to throw the book across the room, though that may be no more literally true than the story that after a certain age, Amis Sr would not read any book that didn’t begin “A shot rang out.” Martin Amis the character helps distance the author from the narrator. Martina Twain, like Martin Amis the author, takes on the role of reforming, and re-forming, John Self. His enthusiasm for going on a date with her (he is still trying hard to be unfaithful to Selina) means she can get him to try new things, like reading Animal Farm. (“What the fuck are popholes?”) Martina, in contrast to Selina, has had money all her life, and her power for Self is indivisible from this.
Money is everything to John Self. He is the poster-child for the ‘me decade’. That term, commonly associated with the 1980s, was coined in 1976 by Tom Wolfe, who went on to write that other great novel of 1980s money-men, The Bonfire of the Vanities. Money is set in 1981, and, like American Psycho published ten years later, it seems not so much a summation as a prediction. Books like these, cultural touchstones, help with the neat reduction of decades to one quality. In the 1980s UK of the book, money is a cushion, the only difference between happiness and misery. Men control it (“I am in a cab, going somewhere, directing things with money”); women are at the other end of it, paid, exploited, unaware. Often the relationship is defined in pornography. Self watches a film in a “porno emporium” – these are the days before the internet, before home videos even, made solitary pastimes more efficient – featuring a porn starlet named Juanita del Pablo and a nameless hunk. “By the time he was through, Juanita looked like the patsy in the custard-pie joke, which I suppose is what she was. The camera proudly lingered as she spat and blinked and coughed … Hard to tell, really, who was the biggest loser in this transaction – her, him, them, me.” Even Self’s stepmother, Vron, is “proud” of her appearance in what in those days was referred to as a jazz mag, “crouched over a flat mirror.” When he is looking at such magazines in a sex shop, a girl approaches him. “‘Why aren’t you ashamed of yourself?’ ‘But I am,’ I said.”
Money is a novel of extremes, with everything at its end-point, the streets populated with the madmen, the damaged, the motiveless: the moneyless. The notion of things never having been worse than they are now is always popular, and Amis interrogated it relentlessly in Money and some of the books that followed: Einstein’s Monsters (1987: nuclear armageddon), London Fields (1989: millennial environmental catastrophe), even, in a minor key, The Information (1995: intimations of mortality, the absurdity of the human project in the universe). Money, too, is a novel of great ugliness described with surprising beauty. It’s all in Amis’s shiny, hyperpolished, superprecise sound, full of lists and pairings (“in smiting light and island rain”, “tears of barbaric nausea”), variations and combinations (“blowjob knowhow”), repetition (“Fear walks tall on this planet. Fear walks big and fat and fine”) and comic brand names (cars called the Culprit, the Autocrat, the Boomerang, the Fiasco). The language is full of hardworking words like “heft” and “twang,” both of which recur throughout the book - indeed, heft and twang is a pretty good description of Amis’s high style. He likes his ellipses too – “I don’t know what it’s like to write a poem. I don’t know what it’s like to read one either…” – which to me seem a little like an author laughing at his own jokes, a mumbled exclamation mark. Self addresses the reader, too, involves us and claims our sympathy.
After all we are only human beings down here and we could do with a lot more praise and comfort than we actually get. Earthly reassurance – it’s in permanently short supply, don’t you think? Be honest, brother. Lady, now tell the truth. When was the last time a fellow-Earther let you rest your head on their heart, caressed your cheek, and said things designed to make you feel deeply okay? It doesn’t happen often enough, does it. We’d all like it to happen a lot more often than it does. Can’t we do a deal? Oh boy (I bet you’re thinking), that head-on-heart stuff, whew, could I use a little of that.
Here is a book built out of language. A friend once observed (speaking about The Information, but it’s as true for Money) that where some authors make you stop and note something every few pages, with Amis it happens every few lines. Its intensity, its volume, its full-throated technicolor charge should be maddening and tiresome, but instead it’s energising: it transmits its own energy, generates its own electricity. Self, of course, is a slob and a yob, yet his narrative is sparkily eloquent. Amis said he made this work – and it does – by distinguishing between Self’s thoughts (pearls) and his dialogue (drivel). To paraphrase Nabokov, he thinks like a genius and talks like a child. Within the thickets of the language there is a plot, but it is twined in with the talk and the repetition so thoroughly that it doesn’t seem like a plot so much as a life. There is a delayed script, woe with Selina and Martina, trouble with Fielding and Frank the Phone (an anonymous voice who calls up Self to threaten him, and provides a counterpoint view of his behaviour), and tussles with arrogant actors which provide many of the book’s best sustained comic riffs, like the one where Self tries to persuade humourless leading man Spunk Davis to change his name.
“The thing is,” I said, “in England it means something else.”
“Sure. It means grit, pluck, courage.”
“True. But it also means something else.”
“Sure. It means fight. Guts. Balls.”
“True. But it also means something else.”
Amis was never a great plotter, but there is development as the book rolls on. Indeed, there is a sense of an ending from about three-quarters of the way through, which gives us one hundred or more pages of coming to a halt: everything moves so fast that it needs this much stopping distance. When Self appears to begin to settle down, he starts exercising, no longer drinks – well, no longer drinks all the time – but the balance of things always comes as a surprise, and only too late does he discover that when everything else starts to go right in his life, that money – oldest stalwart, truest friend – might start to go wrong. Even the language and imagery become more tender:
And in the morning, as I awoke, Christ (and don’t laugh – no, don’t laugh), I felt like a flower: a little parched, of course, a little gone in the neck, and with no real life to come, perhaps, only sham life, bowl life, easing its petals and lifting its head to start feeding on the day.
When I finished reading Money this time, I felt a little lost afterwards, having lived in such a rich world for such a long time. Who has more fun than we do? You could say, rightly, that Money speaks almost as much to the financial times of today as it did to the 1980s (“If we all downed tools and joined hands for ten minutes and stopped believing in money, then money will no longer exist”), but that’s because it’s so alive in language that it will outlive us all. And no idiot will ever claim that Amis, Money-man for thirty years now, is famous for the wrong book. He has long been fond of saying that the only measure of success a writer should worry about (“there’s only one value judgement in literature: time“) is whether they’re still being read in fifty years. Well, Martin, you’re three-fifths of the way there: more, if you count the earlier books. Cut yourself some slack. You’ve earned it.
March 25, 2013
To recap: Belfast-born Brian Moore (1921-1999) wrote twenty novels, and I am reading (and in some cases rereading) them in chronological order. You can see them all here. In fact to say he wrote twenty novels is not quite complete. He began by writing thrillers, initially in his own name and subsequently under two pseudonyms, first Bernard Mara and then Michael Bryan (were their books significantly different, I wonder?). He kept this up for a time after he began writing ‘serious’ novels, though unlike Graham Greene’s ‘entertainments’, Moore’s pseudonymous thrillers (Wreath for a Redhead, A Bullet for My Lady, Murder in Majorca…) are forgotten. His first six novels proper - The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, The Feast of Lupercal, The Luck of Ginger Coffey, An Answer from Limbo, The Emperor of Ice-Cream, and I am Mary Dunne – all deal with a character at a time of crisis in their life, and some are more successful than others. You could extend this description to his seventh novel, Fergus, though it is definitely less successful. Then we had the problematic ‘documentary novel’ The Revolution Script, which fictionalised Quebec’s October Crisis, and was subsequently disowned by Moore as “journalism”; along with the early thrillers, it remains out of print. Next was the novella Catholics, which Colm Tóibín considers to be one of Moore’s three “masterpieces” (along with Judith Hearne and the 1985 novel Black Robe). One interesting thing about Catholics is that Moore’s usual blunt realism is held within a science fiction frame. That may be putting it too far, but it’s set in the future, and the reason I raise it is that his next book, The Great Victorian Collection, makes a further break with tradition.
The Great Victorian Collection (1975) is Moore’s tenth novel: the halfway point of his output. Its premise can be summarised in its opening paragraph:
There is still some confusion as to when Anthony Maloney first saw the Great Victorian Collection. Can it be said that he first envisaged the Collection in his dream? Or did he create it in its entirety only when he woke up and climbed out of his bedroom window?
There you have it. Anthony Maloney, a 29-year-old university lecturer from Montreal, is visiting Carmel in California when he dreams of a sort of marketplace in the parking lot outside his hotel bedroom window, the central aisle “dominated by a glittering crystal fountain” and the whole display filled with Victorian artefacts, objets d’art and curiosa. When he wakes up, the collection is really there. He recognises many of the pieces, and others he has read about. “It was as though I had memorised a huge catalogue.” He finds, to his surprise and excitement, that others can see the collection too – it really is there – and he does what any modern man would: he alerts the media. Experts are called upon, who confirm, reluctantly at first, that the items in the hotel car park are not fakes, but exact indistinguishable duplicates of the real items, which persist elsewhere, in the places where Maloney saw or read about them.
Moore’s narrative skill – his form as a thriller writer – means that the story gets going straight away, and pretty soon the reader stops waiting for Maloney to wake up again and begins to treat the odd scenario as given. This brings to mind – I never thought I’d say this about one of Moore’s books – Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and indeed it was Moore’s intention to write “an impossible premise treated realistically.” The tone begins with a certain detachment, that of a report or investigation, but Moore soon seems to forget this and gets on with it in his usual efficient style. There are no flashbacks, no switches in voice, just relentless pursuit of the story. Many of the people Maloney meets do not believe him that he dreamed up the collection (or, as it’s referred to throughout, the Collection) – but the reader does. We have no choice. We are in the hands of an expert manipulator: submitting to the power of a story means overruling your scepticism, willing the suspension of disbelief even where the events are impossible within the frame of the invented setting. The basis of The Great Victorian Collection seems arbitrary, and many of the character developments for Maloney seem directionless, but throughout the book I was itching to know what was coming – and the ending, though it could have followed many different middles, is inevitable and apt.
What makes The Great Victorian Collection interesting is the interpretations it offers to the reader. The Collection is, by definition, a product of Maloney’s mind: complete with pornographic materials in hidden rooms. It is hailed as “the first wholly secular miracle in the history of mankind,” and many of Moore’s characters are defined in part by their quest for a substitute for God. Moreover, though, the book read to me like an exploration of what it means to be a writer. Maloney must dream the same dream night after night to keep the Collection intact (or so it seems); like a writer, he has created something from nothing, and is now faced with the attention this draws to him, including religious observers who placard the Collection with warnings that GOD ALONE CAN CREATE. The Collection seems like a physical manifestation of his inner turmoil (I was reminded of Martin Amis, whom I recall saying of The Information that it was not a book about a mid-life crisis: the book was the crisis). The looseness of the plot in the second half of the book, until the end, shows Maloney prepared to go wherever the Collection – wherever his imagination – takes him. He is ambivalent about the possible loss of his ‘real’ job. The Collection, like a book, exposes Maloney’s soul to the public. “Fellows like you must be in love with yourselves. Otherwise, why would you dream up things to make the world take notice of you?”
At one point we get an odd exchange:
“See the green Chevy coming up behind us?”
“‘S not green.”
It disrupts Moore’s usual flow because it is obviously forced. The second line can only be intended, surely, as a reference to the famous coinage in the opening pages of Ulysses: “the snotgreen sea, the scrotumtightening sea.” The prose of Joyce and Ulysses are about as far as you can get, stylistically, from Moore’s clear pane of glass. Although Moore wanted to write something quasi-experimental (that “impossible premise treated realistically”), he remained clear in his view that his taste was for story and not style:
I’ve discovered that the narrative forms – the thriller and the journey form – are tremendously powerful[.] They’re the gut of fiction, but they’re being left to second-rate writers because first-rate writers are bringing the author into the novel and all those nouveau-roman things.
Does Maloney’s turmoil, then, represent a conflict within Moore about his own work, or perhaps about its perceived value? One of Maloney’s confidantes turns on him near the end of the story. “What a joke! The Great Victorian Collection. Never mind whether you dreamed it up or not, have you listened to what serious people have to say about it? Why, they say it isn’t relevant, it’s completely out of date, it has nothing to do with our contemporary reality. That’s what they say and they are right.” Ouch. The Great Victorian Collection is not, in my view, one of Moore’s best books – though it won awards both in the UK and Canada – but it has his usual effortless pull, and shows him stretching himself and earning the “chameleon novelist” tag that his first biographer gave him.
March 18, 2013
Gerbrand Bakker’s The Detour (tr. David Colmer; US title: Ten White Geese) is a short, odd but captivating book which brings a European literary sensibility to rural Wales. While reading it I struggled to think of other novels I’ve read which are set in Wales: Kingsley Amis’s wildly overrated The Old Devils, perhaps, and part of Patrick McGrath’s brilliant Asylum. About the latter, one unhappy Amazon reviewer said “[McGrath] seems to suffer from an extreme form of xenophobia centered on the Welsh and they are described in this book variously as: lacking in warmth towards strangers, wheedly-voiced, suspicious, dour, sly, crotch rubbing, and animal-like in behaviour.” Bakker’s book is kinder: all crotch-rubbing is consensual.
The detour of the title is one made by a woman who calls herself Emilie, a lecturer in translation studies in Amsterdam who is also writing a thesis on Emily Dickinson. She flees her home after her husband discovers that, in the words of a notice posted around the university, she is a “heartless Bitch” who “screws around” with a first-year student. On her way to Ireland via Hull, she stops in north-west Wales, hires a cottage, and stays there. She has, however, another reason for her departure that her husband doesn’t know about.
To describe The Detour as a comedy would not be quite right: it’s too muted and mysterious for that. Yet there is a wryness, a twinkle, underlying the details throughout, such as the suspicious locals (“Are you German?” “No, not at all”), the unromantic landscape descriptions (“It was a grey day and Hull was hideous”) and the GP who smokes in his surgery and argues with the patient. This last is part of another element running through the book, of doubt being cast on what we are being told. Emilie, lying naked on the rocks outside her cottage, is bitten on the foot by a badger. She attends for medical treatment. “Impossible,” says the doctor: “Liar.” She tells others, such as her landlord, Rhys Jones. “Impossible,” he says. “Badgers are shy animals.” What are we to make of this? Do we believe the narrative, or its characters?
There are other mysteries. Why did Emilie come here at all? Why does she lie naked on the rocks? What is the significance of ”her beloved Emily Dickinson,” whose poems and portrait she has brought to Wales with her, but whose life she seems increasingly determined to divert from: “a bird of a woman who made herself small,” with a life of “withdrawing further and further, writing poetry as if her life depended on it, and dying”? Where Emily “would have sat inside coughing and sighing, writing about bright spring days and the first bee,” Emilie decides to get out and do it: making a home for the geese she has inherited as tenant of her cottage; pollarding trees. She has some help with all this from a young man, Bradwen, who stops by while walking, and stays. Unlike Rhys Jones, whom she finds creepy and intimidating, Emilie is drawn to Bradwen, and an erotic tingle runs through the pages where she observes him as they work together. At first it looks like a harking back to the affair with her student. But it may be that Emilie is drawn not to Bradwen’s beauty so much as his youth, his vitality, and his health. In addition, Bradwen, like Emilie, doesn’t seem to fit into a locality that is half League of Gentlemen, half All Quiet on the Orient Express.
Emilie underlines a passage in Dickinson’s biography: “since nothing is as real as ‘thought and passion’, our essential human truth is expressed by our fantasies, not our acts.” She walks a line between the two, and one of the most striking scenes in the book is her recollection of a fantastical act by her uncle. One day in November he “walked into the pond, the pond in the large front garden of the hotel he worked at. The water refused to come any higher than his hips.” He was “so far gone that he hardly realised that hip-deep water wasn’t enough to drown in. Incapable of simply toppling over.” When she first stops in Wales, at the end of her detour, she thinks of him because
she sensed how vulnerable people are when they have no idea what to do next, how to move forward or back. That a shallow hotel pond can feel like a standstill, like marking time with the bank – no start or end, a circle – as a past, present and unlimited future. And because of that, she also thought she understood him just standing there and not trying to get his head underwater. A standstill.
This comic, troubling image of stasis gives way, as the book progresses, to something like a hectic pace, as Emilie’s husband and parents in the Netherlands come to terms with her disappearance, and take steps to bring her back. This page-turning quality, the low-key eroticism and humour, and unexpected regular appearances from Tesco and Channel 4′s A Place in the Sun, all make this book quite a … variation on what you might expect.
March 7, 2013
How much of our experience of a book comes from expectations? High hopes can either offer artificial buoyancy – at least initially – or make disappointment all the more acute. The human desire for loyalty and continuity must be relevant also: if we liked the author’s other books, we will want to like this one; it streamlines and simplifies things for us. (By us, of course, I mean me.) So it is with J.M. Coetzee, he of the Booker double and the Nobel, a reliable source of reading pleasure if any living author is. His new book seems to plough a pretty familiar furrow, to begin with, and I wondered if I would have dismissed the story as derivative if not for my faith in this man.
The Childhood of Jesus appears to fit into that category of novels where a man arrives in a strange land and struggles to make himself understood. The lack of understanding may be literal and linguistic (Ferenc Karinthy’s Metropole) or emotional and allusive (Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled). Such a premise gives an author opportunities to highlight the human condition unshadowed by familiar geographical settings which might distract the reader: the great risk in setting a story in a known location is that it will seem to be about that location. Better to create a new one. The balancing risk in doing so is that the reader will spend most of the book trying to work out what and where the author is really talking about.
Certainly, the critical consensus so far on The Childhood of Jesus has been to place weight on the title and the numerous biblical analogies which appear in the book. A man and a boy arrive in a Spanish-speaking city called Novilla, having journeyed by boat “from the camp, from Belstar”. They have been assigned names and ages, based on their appearance – the man is Simón, the boy David – and have been “washed clean” of their memories of whatever went before. They are not related (“not my grandson, not my son”) but Simón has assumed responsibility for David, and his self-defined role shifts as the book proceeds: “guardian”, “sort of uncle”, even “godfather”. His main aim – his quest – is to locate the boy’s mother, but it soon becomes clear that this means finding a woman who can be placed in the role, rather than the one who previously held it. The boy asks him “Why are we here?”
‘You are here to find your mother. I am here to help you.’
‘But after we find her, what are we here for?’
‘I don’t know what to say. We are here for the same reason everyone else is. We have been given a chance to live and we have accepted that chance. It is a great thing, to live. It is the greatest thing of all.’
This tendency toward allusion, and to render the particular into the philosophical, is present throughout. Simón finds a job as a stevedore at the docks, unloading sacks of grain, and has debates with his colleagues on labour and progress. (“If you were to bring a crane, you could get the unloading done in a tenth of the time.” “You could, but what would be the point? What would be the point in getting things done in a tenth of the time? It is not as if there is an emergency, a food shortage, for example.”) He grows close to a woman, Elena, who challenges his presumption of mutual attraction between the sexes (“As a tribute to me – an offering, not an insult – you want to grip me tight and push a part of your body into me. As a tribute, you claim. I am baffled”), and to whom he protests about Novilla’s desire to curb “appetites” (“When we have annihilated our hunger, you say, we will have proved we can adapt, and we can then be happy for ever after. But I don’t want to starve the dog of hunger! I want to feed it!”). He argues even with the boy, in simultaneously logical and illogical ways, trying to impose his fading memories of how life used to work (others in Novilla consider memories to be things we “suffer from”), even directing the boy’s reading of Don Quixote to his own understanding. But his love for David, although oddly expressed, is honest and true, and is his only compass in this strange new place, which might be not just another country, but another world, another life. “What good is a new life if we are not transformed by it?”
Simón is something of a fool, pitiable in his inability to let go of the past and of his irrational beliefs, such as his conviction that a woman he sees playing tennis is the mother for David that he has been searching for. He follows through on his beliefs without regard to how they will affect others; or rather, in the belief that all will be for the best because he believes it so strongly. No need to look too hard for religious allegory here, nor as the book proceeds and David acquires what can only be described as Christ-like traits, and biblical references bubble across the pages. But the title, The Childhood of Jesus, can also speak of something about which we know nothing (or almost nothing: a dozen verses in the gospel of Luke). So Coetzee’s novel is also a deliberate empty space, cleared of context to enable the ideas and thoughts – the hopes we invest in children, and how much of ourselves we put in them, for example, just as we put our own ideas into Coetzee’s story - to be seen clearly. There are knotty concerns here on reading, on order and chaos, on political engagement, on almost anything you can think of. But, “you think too much,” Elena says to Simón. “This has nothing to do with thinking.”
Simón wishes for “some saviour” to “descend from the skies and wave a magic wand and say, Behold, read this book and all your questions will be answered.” What Coetzee has given us is a book not of answers but of questions. To use James Wood’s formulation (writing about Thomas Pynchon), it is an allegory which refuses to allegorise. Indeed, a distant resemblance for me was Magnus Mills’ Three to See the King, which, like The Childhood of Jesus, is rich in religious reference but resists reduction to one neat analogy. I was going to say “like Three to See the King without the jokes”, but that’s not really true. Coetzee is often seen as a gloomy, humourless writer (though those two words are not synonyms), probably helped by things like his reaction to Geoff Dyer telling a joke at a festival in 2010. But like many writers with a reputation for miserablism, Coetzee’s work does have comedy, most obviously seen here in Simón’s attempts to complete an application form for membership of a brothel (“Which is not to say that I am not a man, with a man’s needs”), and a dialogue with David and his ‘mother’ Ines, about a blocked toilet.
‘It’s my poo,’ he says. ‘I want to stay!’
‘It was your poo. But you evacuated it. You got rid of it. It’s not yours any more. You no longer have a right to it.’
Ines gives a snort and retires to the kitchen.
‘Once it gets into the sewer pipes it is no one’s poo,’ he goes on. ‘In the sewer it joins all the other people’s poo and becomes general poo.’
These are not the only straightforward pleasures in the book: Coetzee’s prose is clean and efficient, driving the reader on through the mazy stasis of life in Novilla. There is plenty of what, to avoid a cliche, we might call Kafkaish stuff. “He remembers asking Alvaró once why there was never any news on the radio. ‘News of what?’ inquired Alvaró. ‘News of what is going on in the world,’ he replied. ‘Oh,’ said Alvaró, ‘is something going on?’” This intellectual incuriosity provokes the opposite in the reader. The story itself is intriguing – bewildering, puzzling, frustrating, say others - though it’s disappointing that the blurb on my UK edition outlines the plot up to page 260. (The book has 277 pages.) These qualities, combined with the enjoyable and unaccustomed exercise of thinking about the book – wanting to think about it – all the way through, meant that in a strange sense, The Childhood of Jesus is the most fun I’ve had with a novel in ages.
February 25, 2013
My already limited rate of reviewing books here seems to have slumped almost to a stop. From labouring under the sense, a few years ago, that I had to write about everything I read – that my experience with a book was in some way not finished, not processed, otherwise – I am now coming to understand that reading and running (as Salinger put it) is a reliable pleasure in itself. Nonetheless, occasionally I read a new book which I want to share, and that urge is compounded when the book comes after a run of duds. The more I read, and the older I get, the fewer qualms I have in chucking aside a book which isn’t pleasing me, and in particular which isn’t special or different or new. There are risks in this, of course – occasionally comes along a “masterpiece” which even some of its supporters say doesn’t really get going until the second half – but more often, the answer to the question “Does it turn into Tolstoy at page 205?” is pretty clear. So, having begun and abandoned a chain of much-touted new releases – a serial literary love-rat – I settled on this innocuous-looking collection. It turned out to be that rarest of pleasures: a book I loved, and could recommend to almost anyone.
The Examined Life carries a manifesto in its title: if, as Socrates said, the unexamined life is not worth living, then examining a life must give it meaning – or return meaning to it. This examination, I presume, is how Grosz sees his profession as a psychoanalyst. I knew nothing about psychoanalysis before reading this book, and when I finished I bought Janet Malcolm’s Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, but The Examined Life is a pretty good jargon-free primer in itself. There is plenty of respect for Freud, father of the discipline, and clear support for the psychoanalytical belief that childhood events are the engine of our development.
It is not a self-help book, or not explicitly. It is closest in form to one of those books – David Eagleman’s Sum, Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, and above all Italo Calvino‘s Invisible Cities – which interrogates a subject (death, time, place) from different angles, producing a polyphonic song from the slenderest of individual notes. Here the subject is human life: its unhappinesses, blockages and limitations. Grosz has taken more than thirty cases from his decades of practice – this debut author is 60 years old – and condensed them to their psychoanalytical, and human, essence. Each story is a quest, a detective investigation, where the key to the success of the analysis (“the listening cure”), the answer to the question, comes less from the analyst’s words than from the patient’s*. “Our job,” says Grosz, “is to try to find a useful question.”
Grosz has the knack, which derives not from experience only but also literary skill, of boiling down a problem to its essence. Here is an extreme example:
Mrs C., who owned and operated a small restaurant with her husband … was a mother of three. She wanted help because she felt anxious and suffered panic attacks. In our first meeting she said that she found it ‘difficult to relate honestly’, but it was only after several months of therapy that she told me she was having an affair with her children’s nanny, a woman who had been working for the family for the past seven years, since shortly after the birth of their first child. Now – contrary to an agreement with her husband – Mrs C. was secretly trying to get pregnant because she could not bear the thought of losing her nanny.
The subtitle of The Examined Life is How We Lose and Find Ourselves. This suggests that for each problem reported, there will be a solution. In a sense this is true, but the solution is not a plan of action; it is simply the discovery, acknowledgement and understanding of the nature of the problem. With Grosz’s voice – patient, paternal, wise – this becomes a seductive pattern, and after each account I was torn between the urge to guzzle another or – following Mavis Gallant’s advice not to read more than one story per day by the same writer – allow it to settle and mature before moving on.
It is difficult to sum up the force and formal perfection of the pieces here without extracting one in full. Most contain something that felt to me like a punch in the gut, perhaps because so many link back to the patient’s childhood. One woman recalls a miserable time at boarding school, and payphone calls to her parents: “I was crying hysterically, ‘Please can I come home, please can I come home?’ and being told, ‘No, you can’t come home.’” A man who, as a boy, could not remember being alone with his busy mother, developed a bedwetting habit (“a private conversation – something only they shared”), and didn’t grow out of it until she died. Another as a child lived in fear of his father’s “sudden rages” and felt that “he couldn’t wait to get away from me.” All this was profoundly affecting to me, as someone to whom parenthood is still a novelty, and most definitely still a challenge: I feared seeing elements of myself, not in the children, but in the fathers. The feeling of discovering something momentous was enhanced when I read the chapter on ‘How praise can cause a loss of confidence,’ where Grosz argues convincingly that the easy praise we scatter over our children these days is more harmful than beneficial. “If we do it to avoid thinking about our child and her world, and about what our child feels, then praise, just like criticism, is ultimately expressing our indifference.” More than this, I thought of how easy it is to drift into semi-engagement when supervising my four-year-old son’s play. “Being present,” says Grosz, “builds a child’s confidence because it lets the child know that she is worth thinking about.”
Without this, a child might come to believe that her activity is just a means to gain praise, rather than an end in itself. How can we expect a child to be attentive, if we’ve not been attentive to her?
Being present, whether with children, with friends, or even with oneself, is always hard work. But isn’t this attentiveness – the feeling that someone is trying to think about us – something we want more than praise?
These explanations – how obvious they seem! – felt life-changing to me, and the pleasure I took in this book went far beyond the literary. It is full of revelations to the uninitiated, such as the many ways the human mind has of deceiving us. We learn about ‘splitting’ – the unconscious strategy that places aspects of ourselves that we find shameful into another person or group (think of an evangelical preacher found cottaging, or indeed Sir Hugo Coal in Patrick McGrath‘s novel The Grotesque) – and about paranoia coming from the deep-rooted fear that nobody cares about us. There is, after all, only one thing worse than being talked about.
There is a risk of Grosz coming over like Robbie Coltrane in Cracker, the superman who sees intuitively what nobody else does. But it is experience and interest in his subjects that gains him the key to each story – and not all the stories have a key – and they take time to find. Midway through one account, my eyebrows peaked at the line “One Monday, during her second year of psychoanalysis,” particularly as Grosz has already told us that many patients will be seen five days a week. Another, a man living with HIV, sleeps through most sessions for three years. This is a time-consuming – and presumably expensive – quest.
Not incidentally, one of the pleasures of The Examined Life is Grosz’s literary understanding: he brings relevant writing to bear on the subjects, from Beckett’s Endgame to Melville’s Bartleby. It’s fitting that Grosz’s agent said in his letter submitting the book to publishers, “Think Carver, Cheever, Calvino, not Freud, Lacan, Jung.” If it is not quite true to say that literature has a civilising influence, then at least we know it can provide signposts through the thickets, with a little help from one who knows.
* strictly, the term is analysand. Let’s stick with patient.
January 28, 2013
Here is my review in the Guardian of Chloe Hooper’s new novel, The Engagement. It is “a sleek and sly two-hander, a thriller almost, which sets everything out clearly for the reader and yet remains filled with uncertainty.”
December 30, 2012
In a year when I reviewed only 21 books (and one short story), you might think that I have a cheek in bothering to whittle them down to the dozen that I liked best. You might think I have even more cheek in still not managing to get it down to twelve. I suppose if it proves anything, it’s that when time is tight, it’s the chaff that gets discarded. I regret having no room for Evan S. Connell’s Mr Bridge. I excluded it only because it depends on its companion volume, Mrs Bridge, for full effect, and the latter has had plenty of attention this year since its reissue by Penguin (and was in my books of the year list in 2010). Mr Bridge will be reissued in February 2013: go get it.
This list is in alphabetical order by author’s surname.
Nicola Barker: The Yips
“That’s the thing about Barker: nothing can prepare you for her.” Well, sort of. Either this book is less demanding than Barker’s previous ‘big novel’ Darkmans, or I am more attuned to her style now. In either event, I loved this baggy, funny and discomfiting report on a certain thread of modern English life.
Greg Baxter: The Apartment
“A book with a careful – but welcome – distrust of significance.” I raved about Baxter’s previous book, a spiky and shouty series of essays masquerading as a memoir. The Apartment, his first novel, is quieter but no less accomplished. It also contains postmodern elements such as infodumps from websites, secreted within the narrator’s thoughts. Baxter says, “I didn’t want to write a book that was clever. I wanted to write a book that was intense.”
Maeve Brennan: The Springs of Affection
One of the best short story collections I’ve read, though to limit it by that description is wrong. It is in three sections, each section describing a family’s life in Dublin, and it is not a laugh riot. “They have the ring of truth, and they hurt.” Depressingly, if unsurprisingly, this book is currently out of print in the UK.
Simon Crump: My Elvis Blackout
Certainly the strangest book of the year, and one of the few on this list (see also Baxter and Ridgway) that I read twice to appreciate better. It has to be read backwards, in the sense that it is only when it is over that its depths and subtleties are absolutely clear. It is “a mirrorball made of highly polished razor blades.” It is sick, stupid, silly and very sad.
Helen DeWitt: Lightning Rods
This is, perhaps more than any other on the list, an entirely unforgettable book. Voice and subject – a sort of bizarre cliché-driven management-speak, and workplace sex, respectively – are so perfectly attuned that it is entirely sui generis. Like Barker and Crump’s books, it is extremely funny and also utterly serious. It is “sneaky, tendentious and deceptive” – in all the best ways.
A.M. Homes: May We Be Forgiven
This is a great – or almost great – American novel which doesn’t beat its own chest but just gets on with it. Riddled with bizarre and amusing details, and pretty straight beneath its colourful surface, it is “a twisted but loving portrait of a time and a country.”
Joseph Heller: Something Happened
I read this book for the fourth time this year to check if its status as one of my favourite books is still justified. It is. What a bold step to take – and to take a dozen years over – after the success of Catch-22. Something Happened is long, brutal, horribly funny (the humour only ever comes from sadness) and surely one of the most remarkable novels published in English in the second half of the twentieth century.
Bruno Jasienski: I Burn Paris
With its hypnotic cover design and obscure (to most of us) author, this screams cult classic. But it should have broader appeal: its tale of a man who poisons the Paris water system seems bang up to date with its satire on cultural division. It is “a mad, hyperbolic performance” and deserves your attention.
Keith Ridgway: Hawthorn & Child
I feel almost embarrassed to include this book. What more can I say about it that I haven’t already? Take the word, then, of the dozens of authors, bloggers and other bookish people who have listed it as one of the books of the year also. These include, intriguingly, Peter Stothard, who was chair of the Man Booker Prize this year (he also listed The Apartment). How close, I now wonder, did Ridgway get to the Booker longlist?
Zadie Smith: NW
Imagine my surprise when Smith’s new novel, problematic in places but enormously impressive, was not received with universal hosannas. This is a novel which “unfolds, like an origami water-lily, and contains multitudes.” I think it is Smith’s best novel by some distance, and it makes me excited to see what such a young writer (i.e. younger than me) does in future.
Enrique Vila-Matas: Dublinesque
A very bookish book, the sort of book I would expect to love, this novel met my expectations and more. As well as being a bran tub of literary inspiration (note to self: reread Ulysses, and finish it this time), it is a work of originality and imagination in its own right. “One of the most pleasurable and joyous novels of the year.”
Robert Walser: Selected Stories
The version of this book that I reviewed is out of print (I bought it years ago), but has been reissued by another publisher. Walser is charming, knowing, naive and mischievous. Everyone who reads him seems to love him. He is also very hard to describe accurately, so do try him for yourself. “The impression is of a writer with nothing to hide, guileless and at once hyperconscious and unaffected.”
Chris Ware: Building Stories
To include this book – this box – in an end-of-year list feels like a rote nod rather than a full-throated roar – who hasn’t? – but its ubiquity has good cause. It’s fantastically rich, seriously beautiful, and, if the books on this list seem to fall into ‘sad’, ‘funny’ and ‘both’, it’s firmly in the former category. “Its subject is, more or less, everything it means to be human.”
December 17, 2012
I’ve written about Simon Crump here before – even interviewed him – and I was keeping this, his ‘best known’ book, as a reliable treat. That went the way of all good intentions – of all good books, pushed ever further down the priority list by the clamour of later arrivals, which are more exciting and more urgent simply because of their newness. Fortunately, its reissue this month by Galley Beggar Press, as an ebook, has made it new all over again.
My Elvis Blackout was initially published in 2000 by Bloomsbury. It was Crump’s first book, and as a launchpad into the literary world it could hardly have been more dramatic. If you don’t know what to expect from a new author, it’s pretty safe that you don’t expect a book where Elvis Presley buries the mutilated body of Barbara Cartland on page two, and executes Chris de Burgh not long after, only to have the “reedy-voiced, ferret-faced little bastard” come back from the dead as a headless zombie. The problem with this book, then, is that its excesses come at the beginning, and that the silly stuff and the stupid stuff is likely to provoke in many readers the urge – never far off in me – to chuck it aside and move on to the next one.
I persisted with it, but nonetheless finished it up – not long after I started it, as it’s less than 25,000 words long – still uncertain. Still mystified, in fact. Was it funny? Was it serious? Was it any good? The only thing I didn’t doubt was that it was interesting. As a debut, it seemed less fully achieved than Neverland (Crump’s fourth book), and less modulated too: fifty shades of black to the later book’s subtle gradations of colour. I put it aside and pondered it. Then I went back to it, and re-read it, more slowly this time, not by design but for the usual reasons (work, children).
Second time around, it seemed absolutely right to me: or more firmly wrong. One enthusiastic Amazon review of My Elvis Blackout says that it is impossible to describe it without making it sound like one of the worst books in the world, but I am going to try. It is a series of very short stories, scenes, sketches and vignettes, most of which feature Elvis Presley, or a version of him. The Elvis here is disturbed, twisted and violent, driven mad by fame and the permeable membrane between real life and the public image. His story is made from sparks of flash fiction; it is a mirrorball made of highly polished razor blades, reflecting different aspects of the King.
The stories are told by Elvis himself and by people who know him, and they are full of sudden jerks and switchbacks, with comedy flipping into terror and then sentimentality in the space of a page or two, and anticipated punchlines turning to dust. One of the early stories has Angie Crumbaker recounting her fling as a high school girl with Elvis in 1959. “I had missed a lot of fun this year by being Elvis’s girl. Yet I certainly didn’t blame him. It wasn’t his fault that he had problems.” But even she can’t foresee the confession Elvis is soon to make to her:
‘For the last couple of months … well, I’ve been stealing wigs from Eveline’s House of Hair and Feminine Beauty, taking them back and shampooing them, I just can’t stop myself, it makes me feel so good.’
As with so many of the tales here, it soon turns to death, reported both flippantly and tenderly. “At that moment,” says Angie, “Elvis looked so handsome that my aching heart began to bleed.” Later, he is heading up the “Memphis mafia,” with echoes for his friends of Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. “Nobody dares laugh, as there’s no telling what Elvis might do.” Thereafter, he kills Chris de Burgh, twice. At times the strangeness seems unexplainable by design; elsewhere, you can see what Crump is up to: extrapolating fancies from slivers of known fact. For example, the story ‘Elvis: Fat, Fucked-Up Fool’ begins: “His greatest fear was of being poor and he dwelled upon it constantly.” True, no doubt, but Crump flings the idea around and turns it into a dark fantasy of underage sex, ice-cream and buried valuables. Jarringly juxtaposed with this is the next piece (‘Ex-Elvis’), a series of single lines laid out centrally on the page like inner sleeve lyrics, and which draw an austere and pitiable picture:
Way back home there’s a funeral.
All the police carry guns.
Something she said worries him.
Somebody stole his crown.
Sometimes he cries in his sleep.
All he has is a radio and a guitar.
There’s a pain in his chest and he throws up all the time.
The more you read it, and re-read it, the clearer it becomes that My Elvis Blackout is at its heart a tragedy: of internal conflict and turmoil, of a man unknowable to anyone including himself, of real life lost to the distorting mirror of fame. Indeed, it ends up seeming like the most eloquent (and violent) expression of the psychopathology of fame since the best of Gordon Burn. I was reminded when reading it of Burn’s observation that “almost everything I’ve written has been about celebrity, and how for most people celebrity is a kind of death.” Indeed, in My Elvis Blackout, Crump seems to merge the twin poles of Burn’s world: the seedy low-key fame of snooker players or Alma Cogan, and the psychopathy of the Wests or Peter Sutcliffe.
When Elvis himself speaks in the book, as in the four chapters of ‘An Amazing Talk With Elvis’, he sounds altogether sober and subdued, his reports of life and what brought him here having the tone of a formal witness statement or court report. Here and elsewhere the words read like found material from other sources. Elvis tells of his real history and of how he was remade for public consumption, so that the moral begins to look like Kurt Vonnegut’s in Mother Night: ‘we are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be’. There is a terrible confusion of identity, in the story ‘Loma Linda’, where the distinction is thoroughly blurred between reality and delusion (“He sincerely believed that he was a major rockstar”) – yet whichever is the truth, this particular Elvis is still tortured and unhappy. “He refused to eat anything except potatoes. ‘These are buried in the ground,’ he said, ‘and could not be poisoned by radiation.’”
As the book goes on, the tone becomes more muted, although death is still everywhere. (“Under the tangle of dead hairs on the pillow, a dark stain spread out from where her mouth had been.”) The narratives spread beyond Elvis to those known to him, such as his tailor Bernard Lansky, who gets a fictional life, from the plausible (fleeing Nazi Germany) to the fanciful (tried and hanged for witchcraft: “Elvis was present too and accompanied the hurried procession to the drop. Bernard Lansky almost ran towards it”). The witchcraft theme recurs, with a story (‘Jungle Room’) that springboards from the North Berwick Witch Trials. Here one of Crump’s signature moves appears: puncturing something interesting and disturbing with a joke, a technique which walks a line between uneasiness and laziness. Often enough, though, he pulls it back again just in time, and so the effect overall is of a unified vision rather than a limited range. Dissociation reaches its apex at the end of the book, when Elvis impersonators are conflated with the French royalty at the time of the revolution, persecuted by Marat and executed by guillotine. It is a strong and subtle finish, and reiterates the preoccupations of this book – the oddest I have read all year – and the fragile threshold that James Salter described in Light Years, which sums up one aspect of My Elvis Blackout beautifully:
There are really two kinds of life. There is the one people believe you are living, and there is the other. It is this other which causes the trouble, this other we long to see.
November 28, 2012
The act of writing about a book has, for me, several consequences. It helps me determine what I thought about it – until then I often know only what I felt about it (and sometimes not even that). The business of articulating the thoughts crystallises them. But the words, once settled, become permanent and blot out everything else. When I look back at books I read years ago, I can remember nothing outside what I’ve written. This may be an improvement – if I hadn’t written about the book at all, then maybe I’d remember nothing about it – but it frustrates me when I see what I wrote, for example, on A.M. Homes’ previous novel This Book Will Change Your Life. What I said seems evasive, and I can’t help wondering what I would think of the book now. Short of re-reading it – who has the time! – the best option is to try her next.
May We Be Forgiven is largely wonderful, largely satisfying: ‘largely’ because, at almost 500 pages of pretty tight type, it hefts its epic status at you before you’ve even begun. As a year in the utterly changed life of an American man, Thanksgiving to Thanksgiving, it could be terrible: heavy with significance and with no self-awareness. It sometimes veers close, but mostly it surprises and subverts and is entirely gripping, in that way that books heavy on dialogue and without chapter breaks can be.
Harry Silver, who hates his TV executive brother George, finds himself simultaneously at the centre of things – in charge, on the front pages – and pushed to the side of his own life, after a series of mind-spinning, page-turning events. ”Look at me. Look what has happened. Look what I have done. Take notice.” Harry is not entirely a bystander in these events, so when George is no longer able to look after his children Ashley and Nate, Harry steps in. George is so famous (“singularly responsible for shows such as Refrigerator Wars“), and the events that befall the family so grotesque, that Harry becomes public property: people have made their minds up about him, and what he actually does is barely relevant. This frees him to follow his instincts, to learn to become both a mother and a father to Ashley and Nate – and to the family dog.
This gives us one of the most refreshing elements of an engaging book: a book that piles incident on incident, relentless, unstoppable, and leaves the reader trampled but grateful, page-drunk. It’s that Homes spares us Harry’s past, so when we see the thread of his life unwinding and knitting something else, it is like witnessing the creation of a new person from nothing. Harry sees himself as being “in endless freefall, the plummeting slowed only by the interruption of being summoned to do something for someone else,” which sounds a lot like life as we all know it. But there’s also a dreamlike quality to that description – it reminded me of Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled – and sure enough, Harry has some literally nightmarish encounters such as being confused with his brother, and plenty of circular exchanges with officialdom which are not so much Kafkesque as Kafkaish.
I had better point out that one of the prime appeals of May We Be Forgiven is how funny it is. The stream of off-centre characters, bizarre conceits, absurd subplots, never stops. Comic highlight follows comic highlight, such as the scene when Harry (freed from society’s usual limitations) is receiving a blowjob from one of his many internet dates, and her son comes home. We get up-to-the-minute satire in a penal colony which combines outdoor pursuits with reality TV. And when Harry visits his mother in her residential home, he is greeted by another family telling him, “Do us all a favour – keep your hooker mother away from our father.” But there is also a fascinating ribbon woven through the story of political corruption and conspiracy in America, exemplified by Richard Nixon. Harry teaches Nixon studies to apathetic scholars, is “writing a book” about him, and during the course of his year of slow release, will get closer to Tricky Dicky than he ever thought possible. Harry’s interest in Nixon is
in his personality and the ways in which his actions and reactions were of a particular era and culture – the era that built and defined the American dream. [...] Without Kennedy’s assassination we wouldn’t have had Johnson, who paved the way for Nixon. Look at the Presidents all in a row and it makes sense: they are a psychological progression from one to another, all about the unspoken needs and desires and conflicts of the American people.
These are the strongest nods that here we have a form of great American novel: and so it is, but approached and executed in an entirely disarming way, a million miles from what Gilbert Adair called the “fat, virtuosically executed novel by one of that new breed of American wunderkinder who, I would be lying if I denied it, are positively bloated with talent but who are also just too fucking pleased with themselves.” With sly references to Cheever, cameo appearances by Don DeLillo, and a law firm named Herzog, Henderson & March, Homes wittily puts her flag on the lawn of the big American boys.
All through May We Be Forgiven, my thought was “where is this going?” It is a story of a man bobbing on a storm of events, and somehow thriving, of a life unplucked stitch by stitch until only the narrowest thread holds it, and then not even that. It is a twisted but loving portrait of a time and a country, and of the family unit (though as a contemporary novel, the absence of the economic crisis seems odd: the book was begun in 2005). There is so much going on that I had a tense time wondering whether Homes could keep her plates spinning, to what extent she was really in control, whether she could bring it to a successful conclusion – and, more and more, whether all those things really mattered. As his life flywheels further and further out from its origins, Harry finds himself ”craving the normal, the repetitious, the everyday, the banal.” And a book which keeps itself close to the details, which doesn’t shout or put out flags beyond its dramatic early scenes, might be expected to resist the unlifelike artifice of a climax.
In the last fifth of the book, or thereabouts, Homes does start to put her thumb more obviously on the scales, beginning with the section where Harry takes the children to South Africa for Nate’s bar mitzvah. To end a book with established characters in exotic places is not new, but this feels more like Auster’s Invisible than Waugh’s Handful of Dust. There is a little light and predictable mocking of American insularity – “Do they have electricity there? Is it the same alphabet?” – but what throws the book off-key is the jarring swell of sincerity once they touch down in Johannesburg. Throughout the book, Homes walks a tightrope between sweetness and cynicism, but here she falls into the safety net. Although Harry continues to suffer indignities, here, uniquely, the people surrounding him are exempted. It is, perhaps, impossible for a white western author to write ironically about Africa, but the wide-eyed wonder here risks turning a breath of fresh air into a spray of cheap cologne.
The key is whether or not this misstep can corrode what went before. It did make me wonder if the sentimentality in the Africa section was present all along. Perhaps my experience of the book as pleasingly balanced in its sharpness/softness, was determined by my expectations, my knowledge that Homes was an author not known for niceness, and whose most famous book for a time was about a paedophile’s plot to seduce a child. Perhaps the darkness I saw under the happiness was just my own shadow. But I don’t think that disappointment is inevitable in this situation. If the book had ended before the bar mitzvah, for example, my praise would have been unadulterated: despite, and very likely because of, the lack of a ‘real’ ending. A long book develops constantly and the finale the author chose needn’t conclude our own thoughts on it. (Tim Parks wrote recently about the needlessness of finishing books at all.) Endings are difficult, and shouldn’t corrupt or diminish the pleasures of the earlier parts of the book. I will continue to think of May We Be Forgiven in terms of its considerable successes, rather than its minor failings; as a book about a man whose buffetings somehow absorb the pain of others, and transform it without alchemy into fulfilment; as a story which reminds us, in the words of Alan Bennett, that “all families have a secret. They’re not like other families.”
November 12, 2012
Bizarrely, I am convinced that a writer incapable of talking about himself
is not a complete writer.
- Journals, Vol 1
There must be a good reason why I never read Witold Gombrowicz before now, but all I can think of are bad ones. It must be a decade since I first had people recommend his books to me, but I think I was frightened off. I’ve never been slow to pick up translated fiction, particularly European – in fact I sometimes wonder if I favour them – so why was this? A feeling, perhaps, of an otherness so foreign that I would never be able to make it make sense to me. Look at the names: first the author. Witold Gombrowicz: a name with no way in, no obvious anglicised equivalent (not like Franz, not like Patrik). Or look at the titles of his books: Ferdydurke. Bacacay. They are untranslatable and unknowable. But then I read Keith Ridgway’s praise of him: again and again. Right. Fine.
Bacacay was Gombrowicz’s first book, or almost. His first book contained seven of the twelve stories here, published as the eminently translatable Recollections of Adolescence in 1933. Only when Gombrowicz became famous as a novelist did he add more stories to the book and republish it, in 1957, as Bacacay, a title which comes from a street in Buenos Aires where Gombrowicz lived, and which gives no clue to the content of the book. Gombrowicz said that he chose the title “for the same reason that a person names his dogs – to distinguish them from others.” Yet it is the last of Gombrowicz’s fiction to be translated into English (in 2004, by Bill Johnston, who also provides an afterword). Does this make it the dregs of his work, vaguely ho-hum like the endless slim volumes that Calvino’s next of kin keep pulling out from the bottom of his desk drawer?
Bacacay is no apprentice work, no runt of the litter. The earliest story was written when Gombrowicz was 22 years old, but it is fiction fully formed. There is character, voice and vision: that unmistakable quality of words that could never have been put together in quite this way by anyone else. The variety of content makes it artificial to try to round up these stories, but they are unified mainly by the tone: deceptively light, funny too, but with more than a homeopathic hint of strangeness and fear. (Gombrowicz described his “vision of the world” as “sinister, erotico-sensual and frankly monstrous.”) The closest relation I can come up with is Robert Walser: Gombrowicz has the skittishness, the sense of not really taking it seriously, leaving the reader with the seductive impression that his effects are achieved almost by chance. As such, it flatters us into thinking that the force of the fiction, and the control and power which gives it that force, comes from our reading as much as from the author’s writing. In a sense that is true, as it’s true for any work by any author – a book is a dialogue, not a monologue – but rarely does the author’s intelligence efface itself so carefully.
Another way of looking at this is that the stories generally resist straightforward interpretation. This seems to be something that Gombrowicz encouraged: early editions of Recollections of Adolescence included a ‘Short Explanation’ where the author explained the stories. You can read them here, and they make interesting afterwords for the reader to bounce their own thoughts against. Later editions, however, contain no intervention: the reader is free to make of, and take from, the stories what they will. The most appealing stories, like the opening ‘Lawyer Kraykowski’s Dancer’, combine clear ideas with an unsettling sense of the uncanny. In this story, the narrator begins to direct his life according to the actions of a stranger – the lawyer of the title. He appears to be ceding control over his life to the other man, but as the choice to do so is all his own, the control may really be flowing in the other direction. It is all the more interesting because this reverses the expected order of power between the two: one the one hand a wealthy lawyer who moves in certain circles, on the other our man, who barely moves at all, for whom “sickness, epilepsy, was my only occupation … there were indications that my debilitated organism would not last long.” His attentions soon develop into interventions. “Imagine the lawyer coming out of a public lavatory, reaching for fifteen groszy, and being told that it has already been paid. What does he feel at such a moment?” What indeed?
The shorter stories in Bacacay are the strangest – and the most invigorating – ‘Lawyer Kraykowski’s Dancer’ among them. The oddest is the shortest of all, ‘Philibert’s Child Within’, and it’s worth reproducing its opening paragraph in full, to see the effects Gombrowicz can achieve – and to show that oddness needn’t mean impenetrability.
A peasant of Paris had a child toward the end of the eighteenth century; that child had a child in turn, that child in turn had another child, and again there was another child; and the last child, as tennis champion of the world, was playing a match on the centre court of the Parisian Racing-Club, in an atmosphere of nail-biting tension and with endless spontaneous rounds of thundering applause. And yet (how terribly perfidious life can be!) a certain colonel of the zouaves in the crowd sitting in the side stands suddenly grew envious of the faultless and captivating play by both champions and, wanting to show the six thousand spectators gathered there what he too was capable of (the more so because his fiancée was sitting at his side), all at once he fired his revolver at the ball in flight. The ball burst and fell to the ground, while the champions, unexpectedly deprived of their target, for a short time went on waving their racquets in a vacuum; but, seeing the absurdity of their movements without the ball, they leaped at each other’s throats. Thunderous applause rang out from the spectators.
That’s the way to do it. Throughout, Gombrowicz digs deep even as he entertains. “What a relief it is to be Polish,” says the narrator in ‘The Memoirs of Stefan Czarnicki’, “and it is no wonder everyone envies us and wants to wipe us from the face of the earth.” (Gombrowicz wrote in Polish but lived in Argentina for much of his life. Clive James, in his essay on Gombrowicz in Cultural Amnesia, writes: “It was Poland’s fate that its artists had no home, especially if they were still in Poland. Their best way of keeping their country alive was to leave it.”) Elsewhere, as a magistrate investigating a death in ‘A Premeditated Crime,’ echoes of Robert Walser’s narrators, those little men who don’t quite fit, ring loud: “What an intolerable situation! What a dilemma for a person as sensitive, and above all as irritable, as I am!”
The difficulty with writing that is constantly surprising is the risk of devolving into whimsy. This would only be a risk with Gombrowicz if you didn’t feel that he means every word of it, that he is, as the quote at the top suggests, talking about himself. Even when we expect a reverse, we don’t anticipate that it will have the teeth that the story ‘Virginity’ does, with its unusual awakening for Alice, a young girl being wooed by a suitor. Whatever you expect this exchange between them to be about – “It’s disgusting!” “It’s blind, strange, mysterious, shameful and lovely!” – I bet you’re wrong.
The story which feels the most claustrophobic and internal is at the centre of the book. ‘Adventures’ is a more open title for it than Gombrowicz’s original choice, ‘Five Minutes Before Sleep’, which marks down its origins as lying in the author’s pre-dream fears. In it, the narrator is perpetually pursued and tortured by another man into whose control he falls, a man who “thought for a long time how, with me as an intermediary, he could enjoy experiences he would never have dared to try on his own – just like the Englishwoman who placed a bug in a matchbox and threw it over Niagara Falls.” This is a supremely ironic description of the “domineering unboundedness” to which our man is subject: dropped to the bottom of the ocean in a sort of bathysphere (“a thoroughly unique fate”); thrown overboard to float forever in a glass bubble; escaping and returning to the thing he can never really escape from. It is a sort of counterpoint to the perverse illusion of control in ‘Lawyer Kraykowski’s Dancer’. These are the author’s dreams, the character’s nightmares, coming from within to terrorise him, and to delight us: if delight is the word. And it is all delivered in a scrupulously innocent, irresistible voice. As one character says to another in the second story here: “Oh, how awful you are. You have no idea how awful you are.”