June 29, 2007

Colm Tóibín: The Blackwater Lightship

Posted in Toibin Colm at 9:10 am by John Self

Colm Toibin’s (whose surname I am going to denude of its accents from here on, partly because I’m not sure how to do them on my Mac and partly to help search results: ruthless, aren’t I, Colm?) fourth novel, The Blackwater Lightship was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999.  I re-read it this week as part of a book group discussion, and was pleased to enjoy it even more than I did the first time around.

It’s set in contemporary, rural Ireland, and concerns three women – Helen, her mother Lily, and her grandmother Dora – who are brought together after years of cold separation.  Their common cause is looking after Helen’s brother (Lily’s son) Declan, who is dying of Aids.  His slow decline through the book is harrowing, and the story is gloomy enough elsewhere as it is.

It might have been better, she felt, if there had never been people, if this turning of the world, and the glistening sea, and the morning breeze happened without witnesses, without anyone feeling, or remembering, or dying, or trying to love.  She stood at the edge of the cliff until the sun came out from behind the black rainclouds.

Trying to love is one of the things that The Blackwater Lightship is about: the title refers to a lighthouse which Lily remembers as a child, and which she thought of as female standing against the other lighthouse, the ‘male’ Tuskar:

He was forceful and strong and she was weaker but more constant, and sometimes she began to shine her light before darkness had really fallen. And I thought they were calling to each other; it was very satisfying, him being strong and her being faithful.  …  And all that turned out not to be true.

Women are the principal players in a novel which is absolutely driven by its characters, and it is this achievement which makes it such a great and vivid book, despite its downcast aspect.  Not a false note is sounded in the dialogue or interactions between the characters – Helen’s coldness, Lily’s combative nature, Dora’s ambiguity, all seem perfectly right – and the whole of the book has a cleanliness and purity to the writing which is like clear running water and absolutely invigorating.  As well as women and men, Toibin does children brilliantly, and the portrayal of Declan and Helen as children (in a flashback which goes some way to explaining the family antipathies) is masterly.  There are numerous just-so details which sound and feel right as though from our own memories:

The house was gone now.  In her mind, she went through each room again, how each door closed – the door to her parents’ room almost noiseless, the door to Declan’s room more stubborn, impossible to open or close without alerting the whole house – or the light switches – the one outside the bathroom which Declan when he was tall enough loved turning off while someone was inside, the light switch inside her bedroom door, firm and hard, to be turned on and off decisively, unlike the light switch in her parents’ room, which could be switched on and off with a little flick.

In the middle of all this minimalism and understated description, there are rich and strong emotions at play, and even the secondary characters, like Declan’s friends Paul and Larry, are fully fleshed and utterly real and true.  There’s even some (welcome) light relief, from the nosy Kehoe sisters and Larry’s garrulous ways, some of which is rendered in an Irish speech pattern so well observed that it will seem incomprehensible to some (“God, it’s gas the names of the cats” – tr: the cats’ names are absolutely hilarious), and some from stories told within the story:

Didn’t I tell you what Kitty Walsh from the Ballagh did last year, and she’s so blind she can’t see in front of her nose, and that’s God’s truth.   Didn’t she go into the eye man the day before her appointment, and she just said she was looking at spectacle frames – her sister Winnie told me this – and didn’t she look closely at the letters when the door was open, you know, the letters you have to read.  She wrote them down and went home and learned them off.  So by the next day the eye man complimented her on her sight when she could hardly see the colour of the money she was paying him with.  And she driving a Mazda mad all over the country now.  Get into the ditch if you see her coming.  A red Mazda.

The cover of the paperback has a quote which says “We shall be living with and reading The Blackwater Lightship in twenty years.” Well, eight and counting.  No sweat, I’d say.

June 27, 2007

Salman Rushdie: Shalimar the Clown

Posted in Rushdie Salman at 10:01 am by John Self

Salman Rushdie, recently knighted for services to literature, attracts two types of critic. There are those who find his writing a rattlebag of pretentious showing off, the storytelling obscured by thickets of (grudgingly admitted) beautiful language. And there are those who call for him to be put to death for insulting their religion. To the latter I say nothing (what would be the point?), though personally I enjoyed The Satanic Verses enough to read it twice. To the former, I admit that Midnight’s Children was something of a struggle at times, and that I never did manage to finish Shame, The Moor’s Last Sigh or The Ground Beneath Her Feet. But I really did read The Satanic Verses twice, honest.

His 2005 novel Shalimar the Clown is a typically dense multicultural circus, written with verve and vivacity. The story is unpeeled in layers. The surface details the murder of Max Ophuls, the octogenarian former American ambassador to India, by his driver, a Kashmiri named Shalimar the Clown. “It all made the new, senseless kind of sense.” As soon as we see mention of Kashmir, the flashpoint borderland between India and Pakistan, we know the murder must be political. But it is personal, and in finding out why it happened, we travel back to Kashmir, to the generation before Shalimar (real name Noman), and to Max’s past as a Jew in wartime France too.

Shalimar the Clown himself, meanwhile, a man who “puts the past into the present tense,” doesn’t spring into life as a character until two-thirds through the book, which is when the book picks up in pace and becomes viscerally thrilling as well as intellectually. It contains devastating accounts of the things that men do in the name of faith or country: the Indian army general suppressing insurrection by any means necessary (“Bullets entered flesh like music, the pounding of clubs was the rhythm of life, and then there was the sexual dimension to consider, the demoralisation of the population through the violation of its women. In that dimension every colour was bright and tasted good”); the three brothers tutored in the ways of the Afghan Taliban (“‘I would order the execution of dentists, professors, sportsmen and whores. God spits on intellectualism and licentiousness and games”); and Shalimar the Clown, no longer the innocent youth he once was (“I have been asleep. … And now that I’ve woken up there is something important I need to do”). We see “the consequences of U.S. policy choices in South Asia, and their echoes in the labyrinthine chambers of the paranoiac jihadi mind.”

And all of this means of course that it is political after all, and the various conflicts between East and West, Muslim and Hindu, Nazi and Jew, other cultures and American freedom (“freedom to choose folly over greatness”), give Rushdie plenty of scope to address the big issue:

The cycle of violence had not been broken. Perhaps it was endemic to the human race, a manifestation of the life cycle. Perhaps violence showed us what we meant, or, at least, perhaps it was simply what we did. … Maybe tyranny, forced conversions, temple-smashing, iconoclasm, persecution and genocide were the norms and peaceful coexistence was an illusion. … The crimes of the fourteenth century needed to be avenged in the twentieth.

There is a great deal in the book that is brilliant (in both senses): dazzling paragraphs, shining sentences. At the same time, the power of Rushdie’s writing can be exhausting, and I felt that the most affecting scenes early in the book (such as Boonyi’s calamitous return to Kashmir, where “the air was full of frozen particles of itself”) would have been all the more striking with some breathing space beyond. Instead we launch into more brilliance, and are so busy concentrating on this that we forget about what we’ve just left. Rushdie’s tireless talent, like a gifted child, can be maddening at times.

This paradox runs through the first half of the book (and, if memory serves, through Rushdie’s oeuvre). On page 94, I was tearing my hair out when yet another new character was introduced (“Colonel Hammirdev Suryavans Kachhwaha of the Indian army had…”), just as I was getting the hang of the existing ones. But eight pages later I was almost tearful with gratitude for the almost miraculous display of character portrayal and satire I’d just delighted in. I’d simply needed to readjust my atrophied brain to this richer food. And Rushdie is as adept at getting under the skins of Kashmiris as he is French Jews, and the young in Los Angeles:

The beautiful came to this city in huge pathetic herds, to suffer, to be humiliated, to see the powerful currency of their beauty devalued like the Russian rouble or Argentine peso; to work as bellhops, as bar hostesses, as garbage collectors, as maids. The city was a cliff and they were its stampeding lemmings. At the foot of the cliff was the valley of the broken dolls.

Ultimately what Shalimar the Clown seems like is an eight-hundred-page book squeezed to half the size. It feels like what Martin Amis called “a transfusion from above,” and I was constantly aware that Rushdie’s erudition is so great that I must be missing half a dozen literary, historical or mythical allusions for every one that I picked up (I gave myself a pat on the back for spotting the closing lines of Joyce’s The Dead at the end of one scene). And yet it is never wilfully obscure, and there is plenty of wit, charm and beautifully pitched dialogue. The last hundred and fifty pages are breathlessly compelling. Not incidentally, it acts as a primer for those of us who have always felt under-informed on the troubled history of Kashmir, a place “like paradise … the flowers too numberless to name, ablaze with bright perfume,” yet which was depicted in my old school atlas as a jagged line between Pakistan and India, meaning blankly border conflict. Rushdie will not allow such simplifications to stand.

June 22, 2007

Alain-Fournier: The Lost Estate (Le Grand Meaulnes)

Posted in Alain-Fournier at 2:55 pm by John Self

For those French literature purists who are horrified that I have titled my post on Alain-Fournier’s only novel The Lost Estate, please be assured I’m only doing it because that’s the title the new Penguin Classics translation (by the late Robin Buss) gives it. So don’t write in. The title is normally left untranslated, as Le Grand Meaulnes, which is presumably why they’ve clumsily bracketed it. Such eccentric policies are pretty much in keeping with an eccentric book.

First published in 1913, Le Grand Meaulnes (which I am after all going to keep on calling it) is narrated by Francois Seurel, who remains a secondary character in favour of his friend Augustin Meaulnes, whose arrival at his school “was the start of a new life.”  Everyone at school loves le grand Meaulnes, and we are left to believe that he is a young man of irresistible charm, though we don’t see much direct evidence of this.

Certainly though the book is rich in sensory detail, which helps involve the reader in its seductive (and sometimes suffocating) world.  Every sense and scene is smothered in detail: a disused room contains “drying lime leaves and ripening apples;” people stand “in the magical light” of fireworks, watching “two sprays of red and white stars bursting;” a wheelwright’s workshop has “the bellows of the forge squeaking … in this murky, clanging place;” to give examples just from the first few pages.

Meaulnes disappears from school one day with a pony and trap, unaccounted for until his return a few days later.  He tells of his discovery of a mysterious estate where a wedding fete is about to take place.  He is “dazzled” by the sights:

He could hear doors opening and see two fifteen-year-old faces, pink with the cool of the evening and the heat of the chase, under their wide-brimmed bonnets with laces, all about to vanish in a sudden burst of light.  For an instant, they twirled around, playfully; their full, lighted skirts lifted and filled with air. He glimpsed the lace of their long, quaint knickers and then, both together, after this pirouette, they leapt into the room and shut the door behind them.

He is dazzled also by the sight of a beautiful young girl, and his discovery of her is to become the centre point of his life, to which everything before had been a prelude, and everything after an unwilling retreat.  Meaulnes’ obsessive search for the lost estate and the beautiful girl, and his sense of lifeless loss, pervade the remainder of the book.

Although Le Grand Meaulnes is not a long book, at times I could have wished for it to be shorter yet.  The end of the second part of the story is so complete in its own way that to continue seems unnecessary.  And the remainder of the book  moves away from the modern, ethereal, mysterious nature of the early chapters to a more concrete and clear, but unsatisfying, 19th century mix of hardened plotting and sudden developments.

But the most striking feature of all was that Le Grand Meaulnes seemed to me a clear precursor to The Great Gatsby.  (Now we see the importance of the original, untranslatable title.)   Both have an unassuming narrator – Seurel becomes Carraway – who has an almost worshipful fascination for the central character, an actor against the narrator’s observer.  He in turn leads us to further outposts of hedonism and irresponsibility – here the wealthy wedding guests, there the “careless” Tom and Daisy Buchanan.  And unless I am seeing things, the following passage from Le Grand Meaulnes looks to have striking similarities to the famous last paragraph of Gatsby:

One morning, instead of waking up in his room where his trousers and his coats were hanging, he found himself in a long green room with tapestries like forest greenery. The light flowing into this place was so sweet that you felt you could taste it. Beside the nearest window, a girl was sewing, with her back turned to him, as though waiting for him to wake up. He had not the strength to slip out of bed and walk through this enchanted mansion. He had gone back to sleep. But the next time, he swore that he would get up – tomorrow morning, perhaps!

The imagery of greenness, of light, of the girl, of expectations for tomorrow, all seem too much to be coincidental.  And after all, what better epigraph for Le Grand Meaulnes’ tale of the tragedy of irrecoverable nostalgia could there be than this?

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

June 17, 2007

Matthew Kneale: When We Were Romans

Posted in Kneale Matthew at 10:49 pm by John Self

Honestly, you wait years for another book in the When We Were… series to follow on from Milne’s Very Young and Ishiguro’s Orphans, and then two come along at once. Charlotte Mendelson’s When We Were Bad was a family comedy which I enjoyed very much, and while Matthew Kneale’s When We Were Romans is also about family, there any similarities end. (It also shares something vaguely in common with the Ishiguro, but as with so much of this book, to say more would spoil it.) I owe my discovery of it to dovegreyreader, who recently persuasively praised it while giving no spoilers whatsoever; an effect which I shall now attempt to recreate.

We are in the hands of Lawrence, a nine-year-old boy who at the beginning of the novel is living with his mother Hannah and younger sister Jemima.  Father is in the background, muttered about darkly, feared and avoided and – so far as we can tell – the perpetrator of some unspeakable outrage.  So much are the family in terror of him that they leave Britain and decamp for a time to Rome, where Hannah lived for a time in happier days.  When not recounting their adventures in Rome with old friends, Lawrence occupies himself with stories about Roman emperors from his Horrible Histories book, or imparting information about every boy’s favourite topic (after dinosaurs): outer space.

Lawrence’s story is told with childlike energy and simplicity, not to mention an authentically lax grammar and spelling (“I had seen mum when she got worreid but I never saw her like this, this was worse.  She just lay in bed looking up at the cieling with her eyes”).  The book is even set in a slightly blocky, crude typeface.  These are tools to be used sparingly, and fortunately Kneale never lets his creative use of language get in the way of the story.  Even so, at first I thought we had another identikit child narrator, an affectless voice like Christopher Boone from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke.

We were coming back from the supermarket, we went to a further away one where we never went before so it would be all right, and it was an adventure mum said, we must be really quick, we must be like birds diving down and getting some food and flying away with it in their mouths.

And then I began to find myself thinking about the characters when I wasn’t reading the book, and I realised that in its candid way, Lawrence’s narrative had wormed its way rather deeper than I thought.  And as I read on, and began to work out the truth of the story, his asides began to take on a deeper resonance.  The Roman emperors, like the celestial bodies in the Milky Way and beyond, depicted how so much of our lives – and children’s lives in particular – are dictated by forces outside our control.

Sientists have known for ages that something terrible will happen to the sun.  This is sad but there is nothing scientists can do, they can’t stop it with any invention, even something really clever from the future, because the sun is too big you see, it will just happen anyway.  …  But then scientists discovered a really good thing which is called gravitational lensing.  …  Perhaps the scientists will see another planet with their gravitational lensing, it will be lovely and green, it will be beautiful.  Then everybody will be all right after all.  They will build a huge space craft and escape there before the sun goes out.

The story also reminds us that there was one thing even the richest and most powerful Roman emperor could not protect himself against.  And the central revelation, while not entirely surprising, is plausible and gives the book a greater richness and depth.  It makes you root for Lawrence and his family in a quite emotional way, and want everything to be OK for them, which is a simple achievement that many longer and denser books would struggle to manage.

June 15, 2007

G.K. Chesterton: The Man Who Was Thursday

Posted in Chesterton G.K. at 3:10 pm by John Self

The Man Who Was Thursday, first published in 1908 and subtitled A Nightmare, is one of those books that I’ve always been meaning to read.  It’s a sign of my shallow nature that I only did so this week, when Penguin caught my magpie eye by reissuing it in a new cover, along with a clutch of ‘derring-do’ titles from the same period, such as The Lost World, She and The Prisoner of Zenda.  Which surprised me a bit, because I had always thought that (and wanted to read it because) The Man Who Was Thursday was a maddeningly clever philosophical tale, and not a ripping adventure yarn.  In fact it turns out to be both.

The best of the book is in the opening chapters, when two men do verbal battle. Lucian Gregory is an “anarchic poet” who contends that entropy is, so to speak, the way forward.

An anarchist is an artist.  The man who throws a bomb is an artist, because he prefers a great moment to everything. He sees how much more valuable is one blazing blast of light, one peal of perfect thunder, than the mere common bodies of a few shapeless policemen.  …  The poet delights in disorder only.

Against him stands Gabriel Syme, who speaks up for order and denounces chaos and Gregory’s notion that “the poet is always in revolt”:

You might as well say that it is poetical to be sea-sick.  Being sick is a revolt.  Both being sick and being rebellious may be the wholesome thing on certain desperate occasions; but I’m hanged if I can see why they are poetical.  Revolt in the abstract is – revolting.  It’s mere vomiting.

Gregory is stung by Syme’s accusations that his brand of anarchy is not “serious” and – with the faith in his own charms that distinguishes the true political extremist – invites Syme into the secret anarchists’ lair.  There they take part in a meeting of the seven-man anarchists’ council – each named after a day of the week – and an election takes place for the post of Thursday, which gives us probably the funniest scene in the book.

What’s odd is that, for a man who was well on his way to becoming an orthodox Christian at the time of writing, and who disliked Oscar Wilde’s “desolate philosophy,” he doesn’t half sound like him at times.  His stock in trade here is the very Wildean witty paradox - “Thieves respect property.  They merely wish the property to become their property that they may more perfectly respect it” - which is much in evidence at the council meeting and also at Syme’s account of his own secret past (I don’t know why I’m being so circumspect: the back cover tells us his true nature on the first line of the blurb).

The middle of the book, however, drops most of the cleverness and prods to contemplation and fills the space instead with action, chases and several revelations.  Unfortunately these turn out to be the same revelation over and over, and if you didn’t see it coming the first time, soon you’ll be joining in.

So for all this time as the characters flickered busily past, I idly wondered instead when Chesterton’s godly side would show.  In fact it already had: early on, Gregory declaims that the central anarchist aim is “to abolish God” which he equates with abolishing “vice and virtue … Right and Wrong.”  This outdated (surely even in 1908) notion of religion as the source of morality is not alone, however.  Toward the end of the book, religious references swarm up from the pages, and the majority of the story, it seems, has been an allegory for the inability of rational man alone to understand the world:

Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world?  It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind, and it looks brutal.  That is not a tree, but the back of a tree.  That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud.

The front, or interior, presumably requiring the assistance of something or someone to give us a leg up.  All of which makes sense when we think of Chesterton’s famous saying:

When a Man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.

In fact it turns out that this is a misquotation, or at least a conflation of two different lines.  You can read about it here, as an alternative to the disappointing second half of this otherwise enjoyable and clever book.  At least I didn’t wait another ten years before reading it.

June 11, 2007

Bill Bryson: The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

Posted in Bryson Bill at 4:25 pm by John Self

I’ve read most of Bill Bryson’s other titles – even the slightly dull ones on language – (in fact all but A Walk in the Woods and Notes from a Big Country, though the latter was a collection of newspaper columns rather than a ‘proper’ book) and felt he was outstaying his welcome to a degree with the travel stuff. So A Short History of Nearly Everything was very welcome and refreshing. Sadly his memoir The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid seemed to me a return to what he does … not best, but most.

It’s subtitled Travels Through My Childhood and flits between memories of Bryson as a boy and a whistle-stop account of American life in the 1950s. The latter sections I found far superior, with Bryson bringing his light and accessible – and probably simplistic, for all I know – touch to themes of racism, Commie fever and H-bomb madness. It’s been done before but Bryson does make it very readable.

Writers working on [TV] shows sponsored by Camel cigarettes were forbidden to show villains smoking cigarettes, to make any mention in any context of fires or arson or anything bad to do with smoke and flames, or to have anyone cough for any reason.  When a competitor on the game show Do You Trust Your Wife? replied that his wife’s astrological sign was Cancer … ‘the tobacco company sponsoring the show ordered it to be refilmed and the wife’s sign changed to Aries.’  Even more memorably, for a broadcast of Judgment at Nuremberg on a series called Playhouse 90, the sponsor, the American Gas Association, managed to have all references to gas ovens and the gassing of Jews removed from the script.

The autobiographical stuff, by comparison, I found it hard to warm to. On the one hand, there are odd continuity problems, like Bryson claiming on page 239 that “I didn’t like what was on TV very much” and then on page 254 listing twenty-one TV shows he particularly loved, “but really I would watch anything.”   There’s also the notion of who the book is written for: there are UK-only references such as being told to be “proud” that one baseball player came from Glasgow, but then there is a page where he goes into detail about well-remembered toys like Slinky, Mr Potatohead and hula hoops, while giving no explanation of American phenomena like mimeograph paper and rutabaga.

But I think mostly I’ve just tired a little of Bryson’s mock-wide-eyed, avuncular tone. Part of this is his tendency to conclude any anecdote he can’t end properly with “I just love that sort of thing” or “I think life is rather splendid like that.” His other way of jazzing up stories is to exaggerate wildly or pin an obvious bit of silly invention to the end of a tale, which tends to give the impression that he himself doesn’t quite trust the material to stand up on its own. To be fair, he does warn us twice: “What follows isn’t terribly eventful, I’m afraid” … “This is a book about not very much.” The exaggerations and inventions (one successful one, because unexpected, is the first appearance of the Thunderbolt Kid) sit oddly with the prim insistence on the copyright page of my edition that other than to “protect the privacy of others … the author has stated to the publishers that the content of this book is true.” Perhaps he doesn’t want to be accused of doing a James Frey.

(Speaking of James Frey, I was rather alarmed to see that Bryson presents a string of antics by his friend ‘Stephen Katz’ for our entertainment – I gather he also featured prominently in A Walk in the Woods – mostly involving how much alcohol he consumed as a under-age teenager. Only in the closing Where-Are-They-Now chapter does he reveal that this was the first stage in long-term adult alcoholism for Katz, who has only been dry for three years of his adult life. Hilarious!)

Having said all that, it did make me laugh out loud sometimes, and it’s an effortless read. One predictable bugbear was the ridiculous wide spacing of the type – 28 lines on a page – and the appending of the first chapter of one of Bryson’s other books, presumably so the paperback could wind up a fat 420 pages as opposed to the positively anorexic 320 pages of the hardback. The reason I hate this practice is because it makes books thicker and so you can’t get as many of them on your shelves. The upside is that as The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid isn’t a keeper, that doesn’t really matter anyway.

June 9, 2007

Peter Ho Davies: The Welsh Girl

Posted in Ho Davies Peter at 7:59 pm by John Self

When Peter Ho Davies (the name is explained by his mixed Chinese and Welsh parentage) was named in Granta Magazine in 2003 as one of the best young British novelists, he had published only two collections of stories. It’s just as well then, that now the novel finally has come along, it has all the qualities necessary, if there’s any justice*, to make it a sure fire modern classic. And I’m not just saying that because I was seduced by the beautiful cover (although: of course).

It manages this through a very leisurely telling – the plot doesn’t really get going until around page 200 – of a story with three complementary characters which allows for rich themes to texture the book, betraying its unaffected style. Those themes are primarily of honour (“Blokes! ” says one character. “Sensitive about their bloody honour as any girl about her virtue!”) and belonging (“…to escape all those debts and duties, the shackles of nationalism … it seemed such pure freedom to be without a country”).

And Ho Davies comes at them from every angle. The bulk of the book is set in a remote village in north Wales during the Second World War. Locals there, who need no encouragement to hate the English, are incensed that a camp for German Prisoners of War is opened in their midst. A young barmaid, Esther Evans, listens to them, and while “proud of her Welshness … yearns to be British.”

This corner of north Wales feels such a long way from the centre of life, from London or Liverpool or, heavens, America. But nationalism, she senses, is a way of putting it back in the centre, of saying that what’s here is important enough.

Meanwhile, one of the German prisoners, Karsten Simmering, is wracked with guilt – and despised by his comrades – for having surrendered his men on D-Day, trapped in a bunker when “the first bright spear of the flamethrower lanced through the firing slit, boiling across the ceiling.” He wonders how to write to his mother, whether how much her relief that he is safe will be diminished by the knowledge of his ‘cowardice,’ and he strikes up an uneasy friendship with an evacuee boy, Jim, who is staying in Esther Evans’ home.

The final thread is Rotheram’s, a German Jew who escaped before the war and now works for British Intelligence. He is sent to Wales to interrogate fleed Nazi Rudolf Hess, and has his own issues of belonging and identity (“I used to be a German but now I’m just a Jew”). Hess mocks the troubled English relationship with Wales:

“It seems a peculiarly apt place for my confinement. Isn’t Wales where the ancient Britons retreated to? When the Romans came, I mean. Wasn’t this their last redoubt? Aren’t these” – he waved an arm around, but the country was deserted apart from sheep and cattle – “their descendants? Your Mr Churchill, I gather, had plans to pull back here if we had invaded.” Hess smiled thinly. “We’d have made you all Welsh. Instead, it’s me who’s a little Welsh now.”

And so the scene is set for an exploration of the tensions between nations and people – English and Welsh, British and German, Jews and Nazis – and between individuals and their own expectations of themselves. It’s a measured and controlled performance – something akin to Ishiguro – and although the feelings and themes are placed lucidly and plainly on the page, Ho Davies’ elegant, delicate style and truthful submission to the reality of his characters means the ideas are never overbearing. Even when the pace is slow, it’s punctuated and lit up by superb set pieces – radio star Harry Hitch and his endless one-liners; Esther’s experience under the tarpaulin in a drained pool; Rudolf Hess’s encounter with a bull – and the writing is full of just-so phrases and whole pages of delight.

A single gutted house still stands at the end of one flattened terrace like an exclamation mark, and suddenly she sees the streets as sentences in a vast book, sentences that have had their nouns and verbs scored through, rubbed out, until they no longer make any sense. All those buildings, she thinks, I’ll never see. The boarding houses she’ll never sleep in, the cinemas she’ll never sit in, the cafes she’ll never eat in. And not just here, but in London, in Paris. She had so much wanted to see the world, and now, before she’s got any farther than Liverpool, she’s beginning to see how much of it is already gone.

The Welsh Girl is a traditional, unshowy novel which builds through a series of epiphanies in its busy last hundred pages into a slow burn triumph.

*there isn’t

June 6, 2007

Tim Dowling: The Giles Wareing Haters’ Club

Posted in Dowling Tim at 2:22 pm by John Self

Tim Dowling is one of the funniest journalists around, with each of his pieces in the Guardian guaranteed to produce at least one belly laugh and further scattered smiles of appreciation.  So much do one male friend and I enjoy his stuff, that our relationship has been reduced more or less to Sending to a Friend his articles as they appear, and subsequent exchanging of our favourite lines: and that’s how we like it.  So when his byline began to appear less and less often over the last year, our thirtysomething male bonding looked to be in jeopardy.  At least now I know what he was doing with his time.

In Dowling’s journalism, there has always been a welcome sublayer of middle-aged male angst, such as here (“I like to think that I have now passed through my midlife crisis and come out the other side (although this is not strictly accurate because I have discovered that there is no other side)”), so it was a relief, to me, to know that the subject of his debut novel The Giles Wareing Haters’ Club is a middle-aged humorous journalist – although this will be enough reason for others to slam the book closed before they’ve even opened it.

But as suburban, middle-class, comic novels go, this is everything we could hope for, a sort of Nigel Williams that doesn’t get boring halfway through.  Giles Wareing is a man who has begun to feel that he’s not really participating in his life.  He writes sycophantic puff-pieces about grotesque celebrities (“his novel covers several other themes, including gangsta rap, the post 9/11 zeitgeist and the redemptive power of fox-hunting”).  He mends household appliances (“The microwave beeped and went dark.  It was as if a little play about a rotating mug had come to the end of Act I”).  He develops gout and is unable to refuse going on talk shows to discuss it (“I had dreaded the notion of becoming Mr Gout, but now that the title had been conferred I felt oddly proud”).  He has erotic dreams about women who call at the door to try to get him to switch electricity suppliers.  He feels detached from his sons, whom he refers to as “the older one” and “the younger one.”  And of course, he worries about getting older:

“I’m forty,” I said quietly. This was not even strictly true; I was still thirty-nine, but with less than a month to go I had made a decision to meet inevitability halfway, to attack forty at a run. It was supposed to help me conquer the fear, but in truth I’d only given the fear a four-week head start. Every time I said, “I’m forty,” it was like pitching a stone into the pit of my soul just to hear the echo; incalculably distressing, but oddly habit-forming.

His main vice is vanity-googling (when he enters the letter G in his search engine box, it springs up all his previous searches: “Giles Wareing +funny,” “Giles Wareing +great,””Giles Wareing +moving,” “Giles Wareing + respected”), which leads him to a dark corner of an internet forum, where he discovers a talk thread calling itself The Giles Wareing Haters’ Club.  Here, various netheads attack Wareing and his work, egging one another on in their mockery of each article of his that appears in print.  Wareing, of course, cannot resist the corrosive effect of reading their splenetic rebuffs, occasionally joining in, and trying to find out who these haters really are…

All of this leads to a well-handled farcical plot involving clandestine dog-walking, murderous painter and decorators, addiction to prescription drugs (“Could it be that I had spent the last few months being insufficiently paranoid?”), stolen mobile phones, and an extreme right-wing pro-motoring lobby (which Dowling has satirised before):

“And now we’ve reached the point where we’re all meant to believe that every other person is homosexual,” said Robin, “when in fact the opposite is true.”

“What do you mean,” I said, “by the opposite?”

“Exactly what I said.”

“That every other person is a homosexual?”

The book also strains toward things more profound, about dislocation and priorities, about kindness and a sense of proportion, and it’s impossible not to wonder whether some of the angst does, for a journalist who has just produced his first novel, have its roots in truth:

I will aim to become a better writer, of longer and more serious things, with the ultimate goal of rendering all criticism of my work, be it Internet-based or otherwise, laughably wide of the mark.

Oh give over, Giles – I mean Tim.  Just keep us smiling and all will be well.

June 4, 2007

Brian Moore: The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne

Posted in Bloomsbury, Moore Brian at 9:38 pm by John Self

Having acquired, via the wonders of online marketplaces, copies of all of Brian Moore’s books recently – over half are out of print – I thought it was time to return to his 1955 debut, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. It remains his most famous book, even though the over-explanatory title was added only on release of the film version in 1989: for the first 34 years it was titled simply Judith Hearne. Now we’re told what to think about the title character before we meet her, which is a shame and, with Moore’s precise destruction of her character, needless.

Someone once suggested that Judith Hearne, among other Moore titles, offered reasons why Moore had left his native Belfast in the 1940s: the city and its society in the mid-20th century does not come out of the book well. We see it not only from Miss Hearne’s viewpoint, but also that of James Madden, who – like an embryonic Ginger Coffey in Moore’s third novel – left Northern Ireland for north America, and who failed too in a less comic way than Coffey. As a result Madden has nothing but contempt for the home (“an insult to senses attuned to immensity”) he has been forced to return to:

Walking alone, he remembered New York, remembered that at ten-thirty in the morning New York would be humming with the business of making millions, making reputations, making all the buildings, all the merchandise, all the shows, all the wisecracks possible. While he walked in a dull city where men made money the way charwomen wash floors, dully, alone, at a slow methodical pace. … In the city’s shops housewives counted pennies against purchase. In the city’s banks, no great IBM machines clattered. Instead, clerkly men wrote small sums in long black ledgers.

One of the refreshing features of the novel is Moore’s ability to slip from one character’s thoughts to another’s, without ever seeming clumsy or muddling the point of view. Madden was, for me, an interesting enough character in his own right, and there are frequent diversions for us to see the world through others’ eyes, but always in the end Moore returns faithfully to the object of their fascination, derision, and horror, his title character.

Miss Judith Hearne is a Belfast woman in her ‘early forties,’ and at the beginning all we know of her is that she has moved to a new lodging house, in what “used to be one of the best parts of the city,” and where she spends most of her evenings “waiting like a prisoner for the long night hours.” She suffers, as we know, from loneliness, cripplingly so, though it is not her only ailment. She shuttles between her church, unloved and unloving friends, and useless hopes built on a man she has just met. The depth of her desperation is made cruelly clear by Moore when he shows us her daydreams of married life:

He came into the room, late at night, tired after a day at work in his hotel. He took off his jacket and hung it up. He put his dressing gown on and sat down in his armchair and she went to him prettily, sat on his knee while he told her how things had gone that day. And he kissed her. Or, enraged about some silly thing she had done, he struck out with his great fist and sent her reeling, the brute. But, contrite afterwards, he sank to his knees and begged forgiveness.

Judy Hearne, she said, you’ve got to stop right this minute. Imagine romancing about every man that comes along.

What Moore gives us is a harrowing but vivid and gripping portrait of a woman chasing after the end of her tether as it disappears from view. There are some exceptionally powerful scenes involving both Miss Hearne and the other boarders in the house (a motley crew who sometimes recall the wartime misfits of Patrick Hamilton’s Slaves of Solitude), which it would be scandalous to reveal. Faith, in this mid-century Ulster where religion stifles all, is always an obligation and never a comfort. Moore has the cold eye and courage of Richard Yates, and rather more ability to mix a compelling plot with his devastating character portrayals. In fact it is the storyline which reveals the occasional weaknesses of the book, with a couple of forced developments along the way, and almost too much neatness by the end for such an otherwise beautifully messy tale.

June 3, 2007

Derren Brown: Tricks of the Mind

Posted in Brown Derren at 11:15 am by John Self

It’s worth saying at the outset that the last hundred pages of Derren Brown’s Tricks of the Mind contains a vigorous and highly readable critique of ‘bad thinking’ in many forms – from spiritualism through alternative medicine to religion. It’s a sort of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Fallacies. I say this because otherwise you could do as I did when the book came out last year and read the blurb and the first few pages and decide it’s not for you. In About the Author, we are told “Derren Brown was born in Croydon in 1971. It was a difficult birth – his mother was in Devon at the time.” Oh Derren, no! And if we excuse this as rich with self-aware irony, then nothing can forgive the excruciating embarrassing prose in the opening sections of the book, which one can only presume Brown proofread in a hypnotic state designed to suppress the cringeing instinct. His humorous technique – all very surprising from one who uses intelligent wit sparingly and effectively in his TV shows – is to rely on elaborately circuitous locutions and archaic synonyms. The effect is that of someone trying to sound like Stephen Fry but ending up like Russell Brand*.

Imagine if you will, or apprehend if you won’t, that you are out shopping one rainy Monday or Thursday afternoon, and you quite literally pop into your friendly local high-street out-of-town clothes-store in search of new duds and toggery with which to sheathe your fiddle-fit bodyshell. You see a dazzlingly fabulous cardigan for sale, of unquestionable quality and exquisite design. As you delight in all things floccose, its perfect pocket ribbing and flattering unisex diamond accents prove an irresistible combination and in a state of some discomposure you hunt for a price-tag. Reduced to a mere thirteen Great British pounds sterling and twenty-eight bright new penceroonies!

…etc. etc. for a very long time indeed. Fortunately, for a book which might as well have DON’T PANIC inscribed in large, friendly letters on its cover, after a while the style settles down a bit.

When it does, Brown is fascinating on the various approaches to how our mind can trick us, for good and bad. In the first substantial section, Magic, he teaches us a couple of simple tricks with coins and cards. But the key is not in the sleights of hand, but in the additions which Brown brings to them, layering details around the main moment of trickery to make one’s spectators more likely to miss the cheat, and even to encourage them to misremember a miraculous magic effect where none existed. In other words, as we might have known from his TV programmes and live shows, he is less interested in the mechanics of magic than in the psychology.

In Memory, he opens (after the obligatory toe-curling Brandisms) with an amusing account of the fraudulent side of memory training: a course on ‘photo-reading’ which he attended, and which “promised to give me powerful unconscious abilities to absorb the content of a book at immense speed.” This turned out to involve first reading the contents list, then flicking through the book forward and backward, and finally seeking the answer to a specific question within the book by skimming through it until it leapt out at you.

Everybody seemed happy with this process, and presumably with the idea of paying the £300 the trainer normally charged for this horseshit. I put up my hand and asked, “Erm, I don’t want to seem rude, and perhaps I’m missing something, but aren’t you just showing us how to look something up in a book?

Then Brown provides us with some real memory-training techniques. I rolled my eyes and thought we were in for the boring old ‘make a story out of unconnected words’ method, but was pleasantly surprised (and can still remember the lists of objects in his examples, several days later).

The next section of the book gives us a rigorous analysis of Hypnosis and Suggestibility. Brown is clearly not just well practised on the subject but also very well read, and details the different academic approaches without getting too dry, and then moves on – while making clear that this is not, horror of horrors, a self-help book – to offer some impressive systems for improving concentration and relaxation which a ‘hypnotherapist’ would charge several weekly fees for. One friend of mine already reports sleeping better as a result of the contents of this section, and even though this section did go on a little too long for my tastes, I didn’t mean it that way.

Throughout the book, Brown comes across as open and self-aware (“How many magicians can you honestly say wouldn’t benefit from a good smack?”), and not just interesting on the subjects he addresses, but as interested in them too as we are. He also talks about his past as a devout Christian, university cha-cha dancing champion, and all-round pub bore. It gives him a credibility which becomes a sort of paper version of the charisma any successful performer needs to display, and makes his arguments the more persuasive as a result.

The final section is the full hundred pages mentioned far above, of passionate denunciation of psychics, homeopathy, and other faith-based systems of belief, where Brown holds to Christopher Hitchens’ dictum that ‘what can be asserted without evidence, can also be dismissed without evidence.’ It’s in part a lighter-hearted (but no less sincere) God Delusion, although it comes with a decent analysis of the problems humans have with probability – including the first ever explanation of the infamous Monty Hall problem that I have really understood – suggesting that this is what lies at the heart of unreasoning belief. And Brown is not above giving us anecdotal examples of such things, designed more to amuse than to persuade, but who could resist a story like this?

A woman at a Christian house-group I once attended was telling us how she had dealt with getting a cold. She had sat on her bed and shouted, ‘No, Satan, I will not have this cold. In the name of Jesus I tell you to get out. Get out!’ Stern stuff. ‘And do you know,’ she continued, ‘after a few days it was gone.’

—–

*Note to future readers: early 21st century TV/radio personality of no importance

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