November 29, 2007

Bohumil Hrabal: Too Loud a Solitude

Posted in Hrabal Bohumil at 9:46 pm by John Self

I was inspired to revisit Bohumil Hrabal by his appearance in Adam Thirlwell’s Miss Herbert, described there as “a writer of hectic digression” with “a comic refusal to be polite, and to stop talking.” I’ve read two of his books before, the other one being the epitome of his comic refusal to stop talking, Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, which comprises one sentence that lasts for a hundred pages. I didn’t feel fit for that much hectic digression, so Too Loud a Solitude it was.

Too Loud a Solitude

By contrast, this hundred page novel is made up of, oh, at least a dozen sentences. Or at least some of them last a page or more. But it’s a readable and charming story, where the narrator, Haňťa, opens almost every chapter with a variation on a theme:

For thirty-five years now I’ve been in wastepaper, and it’s my love story…

For thirty-five years I’d compacted wastepaper in my hydraulic press, never dreaming it could be done any differently…

For thirty-five years now I’ve been compacting old paper, and if I had it all to do over I’d do just what I’ve done for the past thirty-five years…

Each opening allows him to spin off into, well, hectic digression, on his life in a police state, where for a living he pulps books deemed unsuitable by the authorities. Of course, the first lesson is that ideas cannot be flattened down into print and that “inquisitors burn books in vain. If a book has anything to say, it burns with a quiet laugh, because any book worth its salt points up and out of itself.” In other words, “How much more beautiful it must have been in the days when the only place a thought could make its mark was the human brain and anyone wanting to compact ideas had to squelch human heads, but even that wouldn’t have helped, because real thoughts come from outside and travel with us like the noodle soup we take to work.”

The squelching of human heads is an indicator of the comic grotesquerie that Hrabal delights in, and the book has a fine line in scatological slapstick; indeed the only thing I remember about Too Loud a Solitude from first time around is a lesson in the dangers of al fresco defecation while wearing skis.  I’m not proud.

Haňťa combines his earthy humour with great erudition, because for thirty-five years now, he has been rescuing books from his pulper and taking them home:

Lost in my dreams, I somehow cross at the traffic signals, never bumping into street lamps or people, yet moving onward, exuding fumes of beer and grime, yet smiling, because my briefcase is full of books and that very night I expect them to tell me things about myself I don’t know.

As such the tale is littered with literary references, spliced in with his memories and observations, and the whole is told in a spiralling narrative that returns to its themes over and over amid the apparently inconsequential diversions, “and so everything I see in this world, it all moves backward and forward at the same time, like a blacksmith’s bellows, like everything in my press, turning into its opposite at the command of red and green buttons, and that’s what makes the world go round.”  Which is not to say that the tale doesn’t have a direction, and an ending, which it does: as appropriate and devastating as one could wish for.

Hrabal’s achievement in Too Loud a Solitude is astonishing: to bring together elements of modern European history and aspects of humanity in a story which is simultaneously horrifying and absurdly funny.  My only regret was that I know I would have got so much more out of the book if I knew the slightest thing about Czech culture, literature and history.  Well, there’s one way to help that: read more Bohumil Hrabal.

November 26, 2007

Brian Moore: The Emperor of Ice-Cream

Posted in Moore Brian at 10:06 pm by John Self

Experiencing Brian Moore’s novels in order of publication has given me greater reading pleasure than almost anything else this year. From the stagnations (alcoholic and sexual, respectively) in Judith Hearne and The Feast of Lupercal, to the tragicomic portraits of ambition in Ginger Coffey and An Answer from Limbo, each of his first four novels has something (and usually a good deal) to recommend it. His fifth novel, The Emperor of Ice-Cream (1965), is the first where reading it has been a miserable experience. And why? Because for such a great novel – a masterpiece, it seems to me – to be out of print, when publishers should be fighting for the right to reissue it as a modern classic, is a tragedy.

Tragedy is more or less how Gavin Burke sees his life in Belfast as the second world war breaks out. As with Moore’s earlier novels, Belfast – “this dull, dead town” – is a place which crushes its people through stagnation, parochialism, and the ever-present dead hand of religion (“all would remain still in this land of his forefathers. Ireland free was Ireland dead. The terrible beauty was born aborted”). This is Moore’s most autobiographical work: not only does Gavin’s attitude reflect his own, which led to his fleeing the city forever in the 1940s, but he also has the same wartime job as Moore: working for the FAP (First Aid Party) of the ARP (Air Raid Precautions), a post which seems simultaneously not manly enough (“a paradise for parasites”) and a bridge too far for his parents, who want him to return to school. But Gavin, reading poetry by Yeats, Eliot and Wallace Stevens which he knows none of his family would understand (actually, for Stevens, include me there), has hopes:

How could you tell him that for you, the war was an event which had produced in you a shameful secret excitement, a vision of the grown-ups’ world in ruins? It would not matter in that ruined world if Gavin Burke had failed his Schools Leaving Certificate. The records would be buried in the rubble. War was freedom, freedom from futures. There was nothing in the world so imposing that a big bomb couldn’t blow it up.

Gavin is not the only one who sees the war as an opportunity. A middle-class Catholic lad, he is well aware of the nationalists in Belfast who reject British rule, like one of Gavin’s colleagues, ‘Your Man’ Gallagher:

What most of his Falls Road neighbours felt about this war could be summed up in the fact that they considered it a point of honour to leave a light shining in their upstairs windows at night in case any German bombers might come over the city. Your Man, a former member of the IRA, agreed with the slogan that England’s adversity was Ireland’s opportunity, but he no longer had any great hopes of the IRA as a force to overthrow the British. He put his money on Hitler.

Other FAP men also want the bombing to begin in earnest, “so that people will stop making fun of them. Heroes can’t be heroes without disasters.” (Even when it does, the old divisions remain: one old woman, being rescued by Gavin and his friend Freddy, cries, “Let go of me. Are youse Fenians?”) The FAP men are a motley crew indeed, “a thread of lonely people, willing to put up with any charade in order to spend their evening hours in the company of others.” What Moore does so well in The Emperor of Ice-Cream is invest them all with a full personality with apparent ease, not least the leader of Gavin’s group, Mr Craig, who exhibits the megalomaniac qualities of any man with limited power in one arena and none elsewhere in his life. This fine line in grotesques extends to minor characters like the boor Bobby:

Ah, but you didn’t hear about my little game last month in Portstewart. I got heaved out of a Methodist church. We were passing by, Sheila and I, and we heard these sweet young voices singing hymns. So we went in, went up to the church loft, and there were all these children. And a lovely little soprano, about fourteen, I think. When she started her solo, I slipped in beside her and put my hand up her skirt. She ended on a very high note indeed.

Moore’s triumph in this deft characterisation also is to make Gavin sympathetic to the reader, despite his delusions of grandeur and self-defeating behaviour. He maintains conversations with the demon on his shoulder, his ‘Black Angel':

The White Angel sat on his right shoulder and advised the decent thing. The Black Angel sat on his left shoulder and pleaded the devil’s cause. The White Angel was the official angel: everybody had one. It had all been explained to him in catechism class when he was a little boy. In catechism class the Black Angel was barely mentioned. The trouble was, the Black Angel seemed more intelligent; more his sort.

This enables Moore to present internal monologues with wit and life, particularly in Gavin’s conflict with his parents, who don’t accept his youthful desire to do things differently, and his flirtations with communism and rejection of religion. “Gavin wondered if his mother would ever speak to him again if she could spend just thirty seconds inside his mind. He doubted it.”  His father seems to Gavin to be a man who “read the newspaper as other men played cards, shuffling through a page of stories until he found one which confirmed him in his prejudice.”  Yet we see the wider picture too, not least through the development of Gavin’s character through the story, from youthful rebellion to one who realises, as the Black Angel side of him is silent in adversity, that “as always, the one who egged you into things had no words when retribution came.”

The Emperor of Ice-Cream is a novel which seems to me to have everything, not least a fresh perspective on the much-novelised subject of the second world war.  It is a coming-of-age story and a portrait of an era.  As the last of that triumphant run of Moore’s early novels to take mid-century Belfast as its setting, it is a high point in his output and could not be bettered, a perfect amalgam of multi-faceted subject and unfussy form, keeping numerous plates spinning at once.  It confirms Moore in my mind as one of my favourite novelists and elevates him, for me, into the twentieth century greats.  With five of his books in my chronological Mooreathon (TM) now read and another fifteen to go, it is with enthusiasm and confidence than I can say: Moore!  I must have Moore!

November 24, 2007

Arthur Schnitzler: Dying

Posted in Pushkin Press, Schnitzler Arthur at 3:35 pm by John Self

Where have I heard that name before? Ah yes: Arthur Schnitzler was the author of Traumnovelle (Dream Story), which was adapted into Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut, in 1999. I got a free copy of the book with the Guardian, and never bothered reading it. So I think we can safely say I’m approaching Dying without any unnecessary mental clutter such as, say, knowledge or understanding.

And here’s the thing: how do you counter the natural reaction to the idea of reading a 19th century German novella about the inevitability of death, which is something like Do you mind if I don’t? How to counter it is simple: bring it out in an irresistible little edition by Pushkin Press, the people who brought us Stefan Zweig. Their pocket size, elegant cover design and tactile paper make them, for me, literally unputdownable, even before we consider the content.

No worries there anyway. Dying (1895) has that sensibility – European, and of the period, I suppose – of emotional directness which is so refreshing to us stiff-lipped British. Felix has been diagnosed with a terminal illness and has been given a year to live. His lover, Marie, reacts with disarming – hysterical – loyalty: “I want to die with you.”

He smiled. “That’s childish. I’m not so small-minded as you think me. And I have no right at all to take you with me.”

“I can’t live without you.”

“But think how long you lived without me before! I was already doomed when I met you a year ago. I didn’t know it, but even then I had a presentiment.”

“You don’t know now.”

“Yes, I do. That’s why I want you to have your freedom, beginning today.” She clung all the closer. “Take it, take it,” he said. She did not reply, but looked up at him as if she didn’t understand.

She cried out, “I’ve lived with you, I’ll die with you.”

Of course, as Felix moves toward the inevitable, Marie finds herself rather more attached to life than she anticipated. The couple move from place to place for rest cures and convalescence, and when she leaves Felix’s side for an hour or two, she finds “unutterable contentment flow through her.” So she battles her instincts, just as Felix battles despair and, even worse, hope. He is sometimes insouciant, other times Larkinesque (“Being brave / Lets no-one off the grave. / Death is no different whined at than withstood”) in his approach to the matter:

I’ll tell you straight out, people falsify the psychology of dying, because all the great figures of world history of whose deaths we know anything felt duty-bound to put on an act for posterity. … I too feel in duty bound to pretend, whereas in reality I’m prey to a boundless, raging fear of a kind that healthy people can’t imagine. They’re all afraid, and that includes the heroes and the philosophers, only they make the best play-actors.

As such Dying presents us with a frank and bracing meditation on the subject. How often we hear, in the news or anecdotally, of someone “being given” (as though it were a gift) so many months to live, but rarely do we stop to consider the effect this has on them and their loved ones, and how it irrevocably alters those remaining months. Dying makes us wonder, and then gives us at least one answer. At 120 pages, it’s an invigorating palate cleanser between longer books, the introspective story as addictive as it is inevitable. Now where’s that copy of Dream Story?

November 22, 2007

Gilbert Adair: A Mysterious Affair of Style

Posted in Adair Gilbert at 9:27 am by John Self

Gilbert Adair has been quietly turning out delightfully idiosyncratic, and impressively slim, novels for almost 20 years now, but has never really struck a chord with the greater spotted British reader. Probably this is because his books tend to be what one might, in the spirit of one of Adair’s narrators, call “too clever-clever by half” – and I love them. They range from black comedies with a gay undertow (Love and Death on Long Island, filmed with John Hurt, and the superb Buenas Noches Buenos Aires) through Hitchcockian romps (The Key of the Tower) to tricksy conceits (A Closed Book, told entirely in dialogue). His best novel for me though is 1992’s The Death of the Author, a Nabokovian satire on culture and sexual politics.

In 2006 Adair took his smarts in an entertaining new direction with a pastiche of Agatha Christie-type mysteries, entitled – cleverly, of course – The Act of Roger Murgatroyd, which was not only a terrific play on one of Christie’s most famous titles, but also the only murder mystery I know of where the identity of whodunit is revealed in the title (and believe it or not, that’s not a spoiler). It introduced us to ‘the dowager duchess of crime,’ novelist Evadne Mount, who solved a perfect little country house Boxing Day murder in around 300 pages.

Now Adair, like Evadne, has done it again, and we have a sequel. To those of us surprised by this sudden attack of triplicate in his sixties (online bookstores are now listing these books as part of ‘The Evadne Mount Trilogy’), Adair offers a foreword which is both brazen and shamefaced:

I’ve always made it a point of honour never to repeat myself. Later, however, it occurred to me that I had never written a sequel before (to one of my own books, at least) and hence, applying what I acknowledge is a slightly warped species of logic, to write one now would represent another departure for me.

And so we have A Mysterious Affair of Style, another Christie-based pun of a title and another outing for Evadne Mount. It is ten years later, but like her co-star of the earlier book, Chief Inspector Trubshawe, Mount has not aged a bit, just like Christie’s own sleuths: “Why, I wager, if I were to run into you again in ten years’ time, you still wouldn’t have aged.”

This is one of a series of running jokes in the book, some good and others not so (such as the one about people never knowing the difference between the producer of a film and the director: really?). The text is also littered with literary references, like calling one of Mount’s novels Death: A User’s Manual, playing on Georges Perec’s postmodern novel of a very similar name. And if you still haven’t quite got the picture of just how far Adair will go in playing textual games, this is the man who translated from the French Perec’s novel La Disparition (as A Void), which was entirely devoid of the letter e. He also allows his characters to meditate on the sort of novel they are appearing in:

It’s my theory, you see, that the tension, the real tension, the real suspense, of a whodunit – more specifically, of the last few pages of a whodunit – has much less to do with, let’s say, the revelation of the murderer’s identity, or the untangling of his motive, or anything the novelist herself has contrived, than with the growing apprehension in the reader’s own mind that, after all the time and energy he has invested in the book, the ending might turn out to be, yet again, a letdown. In other words, what generates the tension is the reader’s fear not that the detective will fail – he knows that’s never going to happen – but that the author will fail.

The story, being film-based, gives Adair the opportunity to indulge his love of cinema (he was formerly the Independent’s film critic) and to recreate the ups and downs of the golden age of Hollywood: or at least Pinewood. A famous film director, based on Alfred Hitchcock, has died and on the set of his last film, now being completed by his assistant, one of the stars is poisoned. Fortunately Evadne Mount and ex-Chief Inspector Trubshawe are to hand…

It’s hard to say much more except that Adair handles the pace slightly less well than in The Act of Roger Murgatroyd – despite this book being a little shorter, there are more longueurs – though the characters are cleanly distinct and the whole is pervaded with a sense of playfulness. The solution to the central mystery did not seem all that surprising to me, which made me wonder if there is another, deeper, solution buried in the text. It would account, after all, for those repeated and obvious typos which I began to suspect were clues (take the missing letter from each…), and also for the title, which otherwise has no direct meaning for the plot. There’s only one thing for it. You’re going to have to read it too and help me out. The parody crime novel: together we can crack it.

November 19, 2007

Irène Némirovsky: Le Bal

Posted in Nemirovsky Irene at 3:00 pm by John Self

Since the success of the much-lauded Suite Francaise last year, Irène Némirovsky’s British publishers have been drip feeding us new translations of her other books.  After David Golder and Fire in the Blood, we now have Le Bal, containing two stories of 50 pages each.  (People sometimes ask me how I manage to read so many books.  Stick to the hundred-pagers and you can’t go far wrong.)

The title story is set in 1930s Paris, in the household of the Kampf family.  Madame Kampf, whose husband has risen in society, is a snob who enjoys denigrating other women for their doubtful pasts, though we suspect that it takes one to know one.  She is cruel to their daughter Antoinette, a habit which has lasted from the days before “they had suddenly become rich.”

‘Yes, that’s it, girl.  If you’re waiting for your father to make his fortune like he’s been promising to ever since we got married, you’ll be waiting a very long time, you’ll watch your whole life slip by … You’ll grow up, and you’ll still be here, like your poor mother, waiting…’  When she said the word ‘waiting’, a certain look came over her tense, sullen features, an expression so pathetic, so deeply pained, that Antoinette was often moved, in spite of herself, to lean forward and kiss her mother on the cheek.

Antoinette’s resentment of her mother leads her to act against her when she plans a ball to launch the family in Parisian society.  This, however, is less a “swift and exacting revenge” as the back cover describes it, than a momentary temper tantrum.  It has nonetheless far-reaching consequences, and there is a sliver of a sentence on the very last page of the story, which adds a particular cruel relish.  This expansion into something more far-reaching put me in mind of the great Stefan Zweig.

The second story, Snow in Autumn, is set in revolutionary Moscow, where a nanny watches one of the sons of the family called up to war.  Némirovsky draws on her own family experience of fleeing Russia for France, where the emigrants are described thus:

Back and forth, they went, between their four walls, silently, like flies in autumn, after the heat and light of summer had gone, barely able to fly, weary and angry, buzzing around the windows, trailing their broken wings behind them.

Strong dialogue and short chapters keep the pages turning.  And a jump in time, together with a couple of highly dramatic chapter endings, give the slender story an epic quality and a forcefulness which doesn’t detract from its subtlety.

November 14, 2007

Rudolph Delson: Maynard & Jennica

Posted in Delson Rudolph at 1:15 pm by John Self

Clearly covers in bold white, black and red are in fashion this season – and obviously they work on me, as this is third I’ve read in a month after Exit Ghost and Miss Herbert. Rudolph Delson’s debut novel Maynard & Jennica is as textually playful as either of those books, but more of an out-and-out entertainment.  And what entertainment!

One review compares this book to Annie Hall, and that’s valid enough in that it’s a intelligent Jewish-tinged romantic comedy set in New York – and more than that, a romantic comedy that might actually make you feel romantic, or like laughing.  But significantly the comparison seems a shrewd one because above all Maynard & Jennica reads like one of those American TV series that we’re always being told are so much better than British ones.

If we’re sticking to Woody Allen though, a better reference would be Husbands and Wives, as the book is written as an oral biography, with the various players ‘talking to camera’ about Maynard Gogarty and Jennica Green: the two themselves, their families, their friends and innocent bystanders.  Maynard Gogarty is a thirtysomething composer and filmmaker when the book opens, in late 2000, given to wearing boater hats and, of course, looking for love:

Love should not be the spoils of a deliberate campaign or the convenient alliance of a war of attrition.  Love should be an instant and supernatural uproar in the soul.  It should be the resounding of a bell.

The bell that signals Maynard’s discovery of love is the alarm in the subway, when he ends up trapped on a train with Jennica (“A shapely twist of a woman, dressed in black, with two beauty spots on her right cheek”).  The next few minutes are told over forty pages, from the points of view of Maynard, Jennica, and other passengers (on Maynard: “He look like he just step in something nasty.  … He got a face like something cold just touch his balls”).  It’s at this point we realise that Delson can make a funny and gripping narrative out of nothing happening in a static subway train.  Watch out.

Eventually “the train leaves the station like a dog on a leash – lingering behind to sniff the stains on the platform, then jolting ahead, down the tunnel, already smelling the urine of Grand Central.”  And Maynard and Jennica circle around one another and around New York (“the cosmic filth; the ceaseless noise, the heedless noise; the decades of bad coffee; the decades of bad plumbing; the appalling poor, wailing at you on the subway; the appalling wealthy, kneeing you in the shops”), and the narrative goes back and forward and from hand to hand, and dog similes change to expensive pedigree cat stories, and to a great set piece about the naming of a new pet.

Delson maintains distinct voices for Maynard and Jennica, though he sometimes relies too much on tics such as Maynard’s tendency to leave – pauses between words, or Jennica’s, like, scatterbrain syntax, which, I don’t know if you like that sort of thing or not.   Maynard is deliberately a touch irritating, and Jennica wants an “illustrious” life – “Jennica can’t live in California,” her brother tells us, “because she thinks only successful people live in New York.”  Jennica finds herself fretting about love, “but I don’t think my life is as sad as, like, Wuthering Heights, or Love in the Time of Cholera, or Dave Eggers, or whatever.”

As well as giving us a romance which is truly fun to read, Delson’s story also deals in family and cultural pressures, and surprises us in its second half by offering a new fictional take on September 11, 2001, where Maynard rails against the manipulation of sentiment by the media in the days that follow, with one newspaper publishing obituaries of every victim which it calls “Portraits of Grief”:

One hundred and fifty words, two hundred words, proclaiming in the most dire platitudes available the hallowed uniqueness of every one of these stockbrokers, stock traders, stock characters.  This one was unique because he was – a doting father!  We must never forget this – doting father! This one was unique because she – always made people laugh!  We must never forget this – funny, funny gal!  They’re all dead, and it’s so sad!  It’s so sad that – this man whose most unique and noteworthy characteristic was that he loved to have a good time and hang out with his buddies is now lost to Western civilisation.

Even now, this seems like a bold viewpoint to place even in the mouth of a fictional character.  The anger and humour keeps the book flowing, though it could plausibly have been a little shorter in the end, and what it lacks in superficial plot (though there’s enough of that, from hidden wives to Dickensian coincidences) it more than makes up for in liveliness and character.

I can imagine this book becoming a cult hit, and spawning in the years to come a flood of little Jennicas – though hopefully not too many Maynards.  And overall, I can’t imagine anyone not being charmed silly by Maynard & Jennica. But please don’t take that as a challenge.

November 11, 2007

Eileen Chang: Lust, Caution

Posted in Chang Eileen, Penguin Modern Classics at 10:33 pm by John Self

What better pedigree for a book than being a Penguin Modern Classic and the source for a new film by the reliable Ang Lee? I had never heard of Eileen Chang before, but either of those factors alone would have been enough to interest me in it. The zinger is that it’s also only 150 pages and sets a new high in movie tie-in covers. Come to daddy.

Lust, Caution is a collection of five stories, most published in the 1940s when Chang was in her 20s. The title story however was begun in the 1950s and not published until 1979; so what’s another thirty years to wait for this translation? It’s a remarkable tale, a masterpiece of compression, fitting so much into its 35 pages – with even an acceleration of action at the end – that it makes perfect sense for it to become a full-length feature film. It is a story of romance, politics and betrayal, introducing us to Jiazhi (“since the age of twelve or thirteen, she had been no stranger to the admiring male gaze”) who as a member of a revolutionary sect, has been tasked to seduce Mr Yi, a government employee, and lead him to his death.

She felt a kind of chilling premonition of failure, like a long snag in a silk stocking, silently creeping up her body. … She had, in a past life, been an actress; and here she was, still playing a part, but in a drama too secret to make her famous. … In truth, every time she was with Yi, she felt cleansed, as if by a scalding hot bath; for now everything she did was for the cause.

What gives the story its richness is the compact way Chang has of fitting in the characters’ background sometimes in just one sentence, leaving plenty of space for resonance and reader reflection. Mr Yi’s wife, for example, “had a dowager’s fondness for keeping young, pretty women clustered around her – like a galaxy of stars reflecting glory onto the moon around which they circulated.”

And this reminder that people are the same the world over is useful. As the title suggests, Lust, Caution, like the other stories in the collection, is about conflict between differences: temptation and loyalty, women and men, East and West. This is particularly well depicted in the story Great Felicity, about an approaching family wedding. On the one hand, some feel drawn to the ‘superiority’ of Western culture (“He put on his slippers and lay on the couch to rest while he flipped through an old Esquire magazine. The Americans really knew how to advertise their products. … Xiaobo had a degree from America, he was a real scholar”). At the same time, all the usual family conflicts and jealousies remind us of the universality of human nature. In addition, Chang, who lived in the USA from the 1950s until her death, cleverly anticipates Western readers’ expectations when she seems to give us details of authenticity:

In the grand hall, there were great red pillars entwined with green dragons. The walls were of black glass and a black glass altar held a little gold Buddha.

- before subverting it, as we nod comfortably, by adding: “This was the Orient as a little old foreign lady might imagine it.” Ouch.

Chang is especially good at capturing the essence of failure or a disappointed life, taking society not as it should be but as it is (or was), whether pointing out that a character “was still unmarried, and she was beginning to lose her self-confidence. Her little round soul had shattered, and had been repaired with white china,” or another young girl who “had a lot of siblings, so she wouldn’t get any pretty clothes until she had a likely match – but since she didn’t have anything pretty to wear, she couldn’t get a match. She was trapped in a vicious circle, doomed to spend her blooming years in wistful longing: no young woman, no matter how clever, could break her way out of a dress like that.”

This last is from In the Waiting Room, a merciless but somehow tender portrayal of the gossipy women in the waiting room of a massage clinic (which incidentally provides the only doubtful translation in the whole collection: could a child really have been wearing “split-crotch pants in a tiny floral pattern”? Each story, unusually, has a different translator). Like the other stories, it seems much more modern to our Western eyes than we would expect.

The best tribute I can pay the stories in Lust, Caution is that although Chang’s style took some getting used to, I found myself wanting more and more as there were fewer and fewer left. Thank goodness then that I already have stocked up her collection of novellas, Love in a Fallen City, which is being issued in Penguin Modern Classics along with this volume. Not least, these stories will provide a welcome dose of exoticism as the winter draws in. And who couldn’t use a little of that?

November 8, 2007

Zadie Smith (ed.): The Book of Other People

Posted in Smith Zadie, Thirlwell Adam, Toibin Colm at 9:48 pm by John Self

There’s nothing like a striking cover to get me interested in a book. And what better than this?

Well, one thing that would be better is if the pink bit across the middle was just a loose paper band which comes off and leaves the cover devoid of any words at all. Of course to show you that I’d have to stop just downloading cover pics off tesco.com and actually photograph my own copy. Oh all right then.

Very handsome: very McSweeney’s, in fact, and sure enough this is a production of Dave Eggers’ busy literary community, or rather from one of its offshoots, 826 New York, a non-profit organisation aimed at supporting students with creative writing. (I had to search around for the link to their site, as the one given in the book, somewhat embarrassingly, is wrong.) In this good cause, Zadie Smith has edited a collection of stories from, well, the usual McSweeney’s suspects plus a handful of others. What “Edited by” means is not quite clear. Would Smith really take the blue pencil to Colm Tóibín’s prose? Or were they simply relying on her big list of Facebook friends?

The concept of the collection is, in Smith’s words, for the writers to “make somebody up.” Thus each story is named after its main character, though the styles are varied. Some, such as the great George Saunders, use the task simply to write another story along their usual lines, and Saunders’s ‘Puppy’, while as funny as ever, risks seeming like just more of the same from him. Others have stretched themselves more: Andrew O’Hagan, whose novels I have never been able to get along with, turns a neat trick in his story ‘Gordon’ which immediately sent me back to the beginning to re-read it (no great task, as it was only four pages long).

The writers who have made their characters live most vividly seem to be those who have opted to create comic monsters. The most entertaining story in the collection, David Mitchell’s ‘Judith Castle’, is about a woman of a certain age, and particular aspects of Englishness. She discusses her search for love with us:

That Olly and I were intellectual equals was no surprise. Soulmate Solutions don’t let any old Tom, Dick or Harry sign up. But at our rendezvous in Bath, he couldn’t hide how utterly enchanté he was with little old moi on a carnal level. Once over fifty, most British women go to seed, leaving the rest of us to arise, like roses in a bombsite.

Hari Kunzru gives us something similar in ‘Magda Mandela’, and like Mitchell’s Castle, there is more than an air of sadness beneath the madness. And Jonathan Safran Foer makes good on his excellent novels by giving us a tiny but irresistible slice of ‘Rhoda’, a grandmother with all the prejudices of her time:

When we came over, in 1950, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a schwartze. Nobody told me. Nobody sat me down and said, By the way, there’s schwartzes.

Other stories, perhaps intended as comic, are less successful, such as Toby Litt’s ‘Monster’, which seemed to me predictably self-indulgent. A.L. Kennedy’s ‘Frank’ was, like the other books of hers I’ve read, technically impressive but not really enjoyable.

The collection introduced me to several writers I’d heard of but had never bothered to sample. Now I know I simply must read more ZZ Packer, whose ‘Gideon’ was confident and mesmerising, and Aleksandr Hemon, whose ‘The Liar’ was let down by its central revelation but otherwise beautifully done, set in another time and reminding me of Jim Crace (“The crowd had been looking at him all along, but now it tightens, as if each man were a blood vessel and the air has just become colder”). Similarly, Miranda July, whose debut collection of stories was recently published, gives a story both entertaining and Carveresquely touching in ‘Roy Spivey,’ about a woman who meets a Hollywood star on a plane.

Meanwhile, Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware break up the text with their comic strips: Clowes’s ‘Justin M. Damiano’ is a satirical look at internet geeks who think anyone cares what they post on their review blogs (hey…), and Ware is typically lacerating, and beautifully meticulous in his artwork, with the tale of ‘Jordan Wellington Lint’ up to the age of 13.

The two most established writers on the roster prove particularly interesting. Colm Tóibín’s ‘Donal Webster’ is a typically sober and sonorous work, probably one of the richest on show, but it looks oddly out of place among the generally more showy performances which surround it. Nick Hornby on the other hand is unexpectedly innovative, with his ‘J. Johnson’, which gives us a writer’s life told through a series of About the Author blurbs (illustrated by Posy Simmons), a teasing and clever portrait of frustration and revisionism. It’s a work of reinvention – and brevity – that some of these young whippersnappers could learn from.

November 5, 2007

Émile Zola: Thérèse Raquin

Posted in Zola Emile at 10:35 pm by John Self

Emile Zola was, frankly, not a writer I ever had the urge to read. I think I always confused him with Honoré de Balzac, whom I also never had the urge to read. I was reluctant to reveal to myself the level of my ignorance – or even worse, reduce it – by actually reading them. Until a trusted friend recommended Thérèse Raquin to me and it then became a book group read, and so you see I had really no choice.

Anyone – like me – approaching this book with a dreaded expectation of difficult 19th century literature in translation will be disappointed – and relieved. It is, for the first half anyway, a compelling and vivid tale of adultery and murder (the blurb goes this far, so I don’t think it counts as a spoiler) with a nicely mean line in narrative. We know what we’re in for from the start, which places the action mostly above a shop in an alleyway in Paris, under a “glass roof black with grime,” all “sticky flags” and “vile and murky darkness.”

Thérèse herself is a child at the beginning of the story, orphaned and left to live with her aunt Madame Raquin and her cousin Camille. Madame Raquin decides that Thérèse will be the perfect wife for her sickly son Camille, clearly never having taken on the Wuthering Heights warning of the dangers of relationships between people brought up together. Thérèse, inured to boredom already, does not complain but

living amidst the damp and gloom in an oppressive, dismal silence, saw life stretching out pointlessly ahead of her, with every evening bringing the same cold bed and every morning the same empty day ahead.

Cue Laurent, a “handsome, full blooded” regular visitor to the Raquin family home, whose “well developed, bulging muscles, and the firm, solid flesh of his body” make Thérèse feel that “she had never seen a real man before.” When Laurent looks upon her, his gaze makes her feel “almost unwell.” But not quite: she is well enough to get to know that Laurent has a taste for “brutish pleasures” which “had left him with compelling needs of the flesh,” all of which makes her husband Camille, “this weakling, whose soft and puny body had never once felt a tremor of desire” look like a right drip.

And so. You can guess the next step (clue: “When [Laurent] left her he was tottering like a drunkard”), but the tale goes deeper than that. Zola’s self-stated wish is to show his characters as ‘animals’ who are subject to their brutish urges. There follows a striking reenactment of elements of Macbeth, though oddly it is at this most intense and dramatic point where the story grinds down in speed and begins to disappoint, and ends up feeling much longer than its 200 pages.

For all Zola’s claims to “Naturalism” and “an exact and meticulous copying of real life,” there are implausibilities aplenty, not least in the course which Madame Raquin’s life takes toward the end of the book.  Although the central characters are considered by Zola ‘brutish’ and like animals, in fact there is a tiresome amount of introspection and angst between them, particularly after the central act-which-I-cannot-reveal.  It is true though that Zola treats his characters as less than human, with a positively misanthropic glee as miscarriages are induced and cats are tortured.  Often it seems that the characters, rather than real people, are precast types which Zola has picked off the shelf to suit his purpose.

Nonetheless Zola’s story has a gripping grittiness for the first half, and his depiction of frank sexuality was sufficiently ahead of its time to be the source of scandal on publication.  Zola provides a preface about this for the second edition, railing against the book’s “hostile and indignant reception” from those who lacked the “little intelligence” needed to appreciate his novel.  We’ll allow him this little Partridgean self-indulgence: after all, he was only 28.

November 3, 2007

Adam Thirlwell: Miss Herbert

Posted in Thirlwell Adam at 1:04 pm by John Self

Adam Thirlwell came to prominence in 2003 by being, at 25 years old, the most disgustingly youthful of the third batch of Granta Best of Young British Novelists (all I want from life is that nobody younger than me should ever achieve anything: is that so wrong?). At the time his first novel, Politics, had not even been published. When it was, later that year, it received mixed reviews, but I rather liked its Kundera-lite take on sexuality and relationships, and the precociously chummy voice Thirlwell adopted as narrator. So I was tremendously interested when his new project Miss Herbert turned out not to be a novel at all, but what he calls “an anti-novel, with novelists as characters.” A less chummy and youthful voice would call it a sort of literary criticism – a sort of 600 pages of literary criticism – but let’s not be too put off.

Thirlwell’s concern in Miss Herbert is literary style – “I had always believed that style was the most important thing in a novel” – and what precisely this is, and just as importantly, how this can be translated from one language to another.  He starts us off with Gustave Flaubert, whose commitment to style was such that “I would rather die like a dog than try to rush through even one sentence before it is perfectly ripe.”  (The Miss Herbert of the title was the governess to Flaubert’s niece, who helped create the first, lost, translation of Madame Bovary into English.)  But Thirlwell warns that style is not just “the way of constructing a sentence”:

In fact, it can become something which is finally not linguistic at all.  For the way in which a novelist represents a life depends on what a novelist thinks is there in a life to be represented.  A style is therefore as much a quirk of emotion, or of theological belief, as it is a quirk of language.

This seems uncontroversial, if we accept that the style and subject matter of a novel (or of a good novel anyway) are not separate parts tacked on to one another, but conjoined and interdependent elements of the whole.  Vladimir Nabokov agreed that subject matter on its own is irrelevant: “There can be no question that what makes a work of fiction safe from larvae and rust is not its social importance but its art, only its art.”

This in turn tells us that great fictional art cannot date, and sure enough Thirlwell’s choices for his examples are all those which were avant garde not only then but now – Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, James Joyce’s Ulysses – or which were scandalous when first published – such as Madame Bovary – and which in all cases are therefore as fresh today as they were one hundred or three hundred years ago.

As well as charting the progress of style and influences through time, Thirlwell takes us on a whirlwind tour around the world – describing his book as “an atlas” – and covers figures from the legendary to the I’m-sure-I’ve-heard-of-him.  He gives us Chekhov on Tolstoy:

When literature possesses a Tolstoy, it is easy and pleasant to be a writer; even when you know you have achieved nothing yourself and are still achieving nothing, this is not as terrible as it might otherwise be, because Tolstoy achieves for everyone.  What he does is serve to justify all the hopes and aspirations invested in literature.

This greatness talking to greatness, presented next to an extraordinary photograph of Chekhov and Tolstoy posing alongside one another like uncomfortable relatives, must be one of the most delightful things I have seen in a book in years.  Thirlwell even gives us a primer in War & Peace – I feel now as though I would be forearmed if I ever braved to take it up – and some thoughts on the lucid translations by Constance Garnett, who first brought Tolstoy into English (who herself said that Tolstoy “makes no attempt to write good Russian” and that her translation of Anna Karenina, which I read and enjoyed a couple of years ago, “is clearer and more free from glaring defects of style than the Russian original”).  Thirlwell suggests that Tolstoy’s “impure” form for War & Peace in fact reflects the theme of “the human capacity for misinterpretation, the ability to see a meaning in an event which is merely accidental.”

Thirlwell’s own style – the form of his sentences – can sometimes be too chummy (“I like this story,” “Sterne admired celebrity.  Sterne could stand a lot of celebrity,” or even “A cafe where everyone’s playing ping-pong: that’s my new definition of literary history.  Zany, yes, and competitive, but with espresso”), but these Bill Bryson moments are not too intrusive and mostly the approach is more like the informed accessibility of Alain de Botton.

Thirlwell is certainly informed – there’s a frisson in being talked down to by a 28-year-old – and Miss Herbert‘s luxurious expansiveness not only brings us back to writers we thought we knew, but also demands we revisit the tricky ones we’ve never been able to get along with, and finally introduces us to those who now, to me, seem urgently necessary.  We get generous stretches on Joyce and Tolstoy and Flaubert, on Andre Gide and Denis Diderot and Witold Gombrowicz, on Saul Bellow and Franz Kafka and Bohumil Hrabal.  I’ve read and liked a couple of these, read and struggled with others, and never bothered with the rest, but Thirlwell has fired me with enthusiasm; and not only that, he has given me a new way into these writers, even the Flauberts and Tolstoys whom I already thought I loved.

There are two additional pleasures in Miss Herbert, apart from the erudition and the welcoming inclusiveness.  The first is that the book is a deep bran tub of writers talking about their art, like Chekhov on Tolstoy above, or Nabokov’s entertaining assault on the notion (put forward by E.M. Forster among others) that when writing a novel, sometimes the characters take over:

What a preposterous experience!  Writers who have had it must be very minor or insane. … My knowledge of Mr Forster’s works is limited to one novel which I dislike; and anyway it was not he who fathered that trite little whimsy about characters getting out of hand; it is as old as the quills, although of course one sympathizes with his people if they try to wriggle out of that trip to India or wherever he takes them.  My characters are galley slaves.

Secondly, and not incidentally, Miss Herbert is the most beautifully produced book I have seen this year.  From its properly stitched pages, well-chosen photographs and sewn-in ribbon bookmark, to its multiple illustrated endpapers, reversible design and under-the-dustjacket delights, everything about it indicates attention to detail and a true labour of love.  If I hadn’t liked the book I would still have wanted to keep it on my shelves.  Fortunately though, the dilemma does not arise.

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