January 30, 2008

Hanif Kureishi: Something to Tell You

Posted in Kureishi Hanif at 4:56 pm by John Self

Hanif Kureishi has been on the literary scene for about twenty years, but I’ve never felt the urge to read one of his books.  Maybe it’s because no one loves a renaissance man: novels, plays, screenwriting, memoirs – make your mind up, will you?  But his new novel Something to Tell You has already had some good advance word in the papers – hype, you say? – so I couldn’t resist when the opportunity arose.

Something to Tell You

The cover shows a multitude of couples in various entwinements (but nothing troubling: and I did look), which pretty well sums up the book.  Kureishi courted controversy with his novella Intimacy, which some claimed was a self-serving account of his failed marriage; Something to Tell You makes its narrator, Jamal Khan, a psychotherapist (“an autobiographer’s assistant, midwife to my patients’ fantasies”), so the relationships, failed at worst and at best straining, fill the pages to bursting.  As to whether there is more author than character in observations like “The founding myth of heterosexuality: completion, the ultimate fulfilment,” I will not speculate (although in saying so, I kind of have).

Jamal – I find myself thinking of him in first name terms – was a youth in the sixties, and still acts that way, even though now the only sixties he’s proximate to are his own.  Even now, separated from his wife and on occasional terms with his son, he’s not averse to a little light prostitution:

Then she secured me to the bed with handcuffs.  In a corner of the room was a cross to which you could also be tied, but I preferred the bed.  I was keen to try most perversions, provided you could sit down for them.

Even then, his libido cannot quite subdue his inner analyst:

I felt as mystified as ever about the multiplicity and importance of human desire, and of how destructive and fulfilling it could be, with, often, the destructiveness sponsoring the achievement.

This is a central issue for the book, along with that of “[responsibility] for our selves.  But what are our selves?  Where do they begin and how far do they extend?”  Responsibility for themselves often seems to be the last thing on the minds of Jamal and his contemporaries, though destructive desire is pretty high up the agenda.  Many, indeed, will find their middle-class London-centric self-indulgence maddening, and Kureishi acknowledges this too:

Most nights his crowd went to drinks parties and then to dinner.  It was expensive: the clothes, food, drugs, drink, taxis.  Not that money was an issue for them.  ‘But it’s like an Evelyn Waugh novel!’ Lisa said, going to some trouble never to see any of them again.  ‘He’s one of my favourite writers,’ Henry replied.

Henry is one of the grandest characters in the book, a theatre director with a gourmand’s appetite for everything, who “carried his own atmosphere with him” and has a splendid line in self-involved speeches (“I don’t want to be loved.  I want to be desired.  Love is safety, but desire is foul.  ‘Give me excess of it…'”).  He is in love with Jamal’s sister, Miriam.  This is the least in a circuit of relationships past and present which haunt Jamal first- and second-hand.  He is still in love with his first girlfriend Ajita.  He can’t quite divorce his wife, and his son often hates him.  Oh, and did he tell you he was once involved in a murder?  Guilt gets a look-in too.  Therapist: heal thyself.

The murder story, and its long-term consequences, keeps the plot going at otherwise quiet moments – though there is little quiet in this teeming novel of lifelike messiness – and one of the incidental pleasures are the asides into the history and practice of psychotherapy.  As well as this, Something to Tell You acts as a scattergun social history of Britain in the last forty years, touching on race relations, celebrity culture (“That was how, until recently, we examined the Other, through the imagination and intelligence of an artist like Ibsen or Proust.  Now everyone revealed everything but no one understood anything”) and (as inevitably as American novels ‘dealing with’ September 11) the London Tube bombings of July 2005.

The structure of the book seems shapeless, but in fact is better described as roomy, giving space for Kureishi to try to fit everything in – even if some of the elements stick out obtrusively as a result, and there are sags and gaps here and there.  Any sufficiently messy performance has a charm of its own, particularly when so many of the players are so consumed with themselves.  Jamal identifies two of them as “madmen … their craziness not making an increase of life but, rather, consternation, despair, isolation.”  He should take a look at himself.

January 27, 2008

Andrew Crumey: Sputnik Caledonia

Posted in Crumey Andrew at 10:19 am by John Self

Andrew Crumey is one of those writers – it seems an endless family – whose books I’ve been boring everyone about ever since … ooh, his last one. Mobius Dick (2004) was a masterpiece, a dazzling contraption made of multiple worlds interlocking like clockwork. Furiously clever in both scientific and artistic realms, it was also wonderfully entertaining. Probably I was only so delighted by it because I had scratched my head a little over his previous novel, Mr Mee (2000), though I know I’ll love it next time around, and on reflection what’s not to like about a book which opens with the line It’s said of the Xanthic sect that they believed fire to be a form of life, since it has the ability to reproduce itself”?

More amazing still is that Crumey wrote these sparklers while holding down a job as literary editor of Scotland on Sunday. Then after Mobius Dick, he was awarded the Northern Rock Foundation writer’s award, which enabled him to give up the day job and concentrate full time on his next one. He said, “With all my other novels I would write bits and pieces and they would connect together and usually have several threads. With this one I wanted something which was a bit simpler but with more complex ideas going on.” More complex ideas! Is the man mad?

And here we have it, Sputnik Caledonia, and a whopper at 550 pages; he sure is giving Northern Rock value for money. And despite the length it is “a bit simpler:” I wouldn’t say linear exactly, but where the earlier books cycled regularly between different characters, centuries and worlds, this has three separate (but not quite discrete) sections. In the good-natured first part, Robbie Coyle is a twelve-year-old boy in the Scotland of the 1970s, brought up by a whimsical and uncomplaining mother, and an avidly socialist father (“Even if I’m wrong I never go back on my word”), who longs for the revolution:

His own experiences as a child, he told his offspring, had been enough to convince him that the Catholic Church in which he was raised was only another way of controlling people’s minds, along with capitalism, television and golf, the latter being one of Mr Coyle’s pet hates. … ‘At least he was a good socialist, I’ll say that for Jesus. It’s these people who want to bow down and worship him that I can’t abide.’

Robbie, fascinated by space flight but inculcated into hating America, decides to learn Russian and astrophysics and become a cosmonaut. All this, in case I have failed to get across the tone, is done with one eyebrow raised. He also falls in love, and it’s at a moment of consummation (“their lips touched and he was blasted into space”) that everything changes.

The central chunk of the book – 300 pages – sees Mr Coyle get his revolution (“The Coyles’ next door neighbours were the Dunbars, who had a telephone, a car, took package holidays in Spain, and would face summary execution come the uprising”). We are in the British Democratic Republic, the same alternate present which Crumey has used before in his first novel Music, in a Foreign Language, and in parts of Mobius Dick. Robbie – now called Robert – Coyle is a soldier at The Installation:

‘The Installation was created over thirty years ago, right at the end of the Patriotic War, when the invading Nazi scum who terrorized this land of ours for five dark years were defeated by the People’s Army. The Central Committee knew that if such horrors were to be prevented from ever happening again, then Britain needed to have its own nuclear deterrent alongside that of our Soviet allies.’

To go into more detail would definitely be spoilerish, but Crumey creates a world which at first appears to have occasional parallels with the first part, and gradually is shown to have threads of light peeking out and linking the worlds in a complex matrix of equivalence, and even characters who balance others in the alternate world (and yes, The Wizard of Oz is acknowledged, before you put your hand up). “Everything is deliberate. Nothing is accidental.” Crumey has fun with the language of ideology, such as when the Installation’s recruits are being lectured on a heavenly body:

‘In the capitalist world, such hypothetical objects are referred to as black holes. Of course we reject the term, with its colonialist implications, its unsavoury air of medieval clericalism, its sheer inaccuracy. … We follow the Soviet nomenclature and call it a frozen star. What to capitalists symbolizes a fate worse than death represents for us the highest form of astrophysical evolution. Our visitor is not a monster – it is a unique opportunity for socialist exploration.’

At the same time, a little mirroring goes a long way, and Crumey plots out the story in this central section in too painstaking detail. As a result the book appears less complex and rich than the much shorter Mobius Dick and Mr Mee. I missed too the literary intelligence of those books, which by reference and parallel lit up whole ranks of European authors from Hoffmann and Mann to Proust and Rousseau: here, we have just a little Goethe. The central notion – “Everything in the universe both determines and is determined by everything else” – is hammered out repeatedly. Did the freedom of writing full time soften Crumey’s sharp edge?

But it is foolish to feel disappointment that Sputnik Caledonia is not more like Crumey’s earlier books. We should not want such gifted writers to repeat themselves (though weakly, I often do). Fortunately then, the third part of the book gives a new dimension to Crumey’s writing: this master of making our heads spin has found out how to hit the heart. Again, little more can be said without ruining it, and the new voices he adopts take time to bed in, but it neatly undermines any, well, neatness in our assumptions of how Part 2 can be explained. It also provides a moving portrait of decline and loss, which is not bad going for a book which started out on a cleverly comic note.

Sputnik Caledonia is a long but approachable book; it takes time to read, but remarkably, it forces your brain to carry on finishing it even after the end. Must be some scientific trickery hidden in the pages. In Part 1 Robbie, while ‘training’ for space travel, reads textbooks which become “his Bible: sacred, encyclopaedically authoritative, open to infinite interpretation, and almost entirely unreadable.” A couple of these epithets, very definitely excluding the last, could be applied to the works of Andrew Crumey.

January 23, 2008

Charles Lambert: Little Monsters

Posted in Lambert Charles at 10:58 pm by John Self

Apologies to anyone who has spotted that some recent posts here have been about books not yet released. I’ve been lucky to pick up advance copies of a few titles, and if – surely we are agreed – a newly acquired book is much more enticing as a potential read than an old book, then a book which is so new it hasn’t even been published yet, must have double enticement, enticement squared. Anyway, I hope any frustration about not being able to buy these titles yet will be outweighed by the interest piqued in treats to come. I have only a couple left anyway, so normal service will be resumed. Plus, if I waited the month or so till publication before writing about them, I’d be scratching my head trying to remember what they were about again.

Little Monsters

Charles Lambert’s Little Monsters is a first novel which is more than just a ‘promising debut'; it breaks through promise and into solid achievement. Admittedly the author is not your traditional debutante, and when a new kid on the block is not a kick in the arse off Paul Torday’s late-starter age, we might expect good things. I was not disappointed. The book rings with an impressive assurance, and the aplomb with which Lambert handles his explicit themes put me in mind of Peter Ho Davies’s The Welsh Girl, one of my favourites of last year. It’s a traditional novel but knotty enough for modern sensibilities; and like Davies’s novel, it takes a girl as its central character and creates an affecting parable of belonging and escape.

Carol opens her story with an attention-grabbing line:

When I was thirteen, my father killed my mother.

and if that seems a touch showy, then be warned that Lambert does at times prefer to depict clearly what the reader might prefer to work out for themselves. Within these limitations, however, the characters are strongly drawn and smoothly defined. Carol goes to stay with her aunt Margot, who appears not to have felt any particular loss, to say the least, with the murder of her sister (“your mother was a whore”). She has a son, Nicholas, who is not much more welcoming than Margot is, and then there is Uncle Joey, who is not aunt Margot’s partner or lover but a Polish refugee called Jozef. They run a pub:

None of us had a home. We lived and ate and slept around the borders of a public space that influenced everything we did; our lives were peripheral to its needs, its hours. It always puzzles me to read about pubs or hotels with a family atmosphere. How do they manage it? What do they know what we didn’t? What we had was the opposite: a family with the atmosphere of a pub.

All this is being recalled in retrospect by Carol: now, fortysomething years later, she has made a life with Jozef, who is twenty years her senior. The frisson this knowledge gives us – what happened there exactly? – adds greatly to the atmosphere of darkness under the surface of the story. In the present day, Carol and Jozef are living in Italy and become involved with an Albanian refugee girl called Kakuna: her sullen violence seems to Carol a cry for help, she remembers her own difficulty in fitting in, and so the parallels between past and present are established.

This neatness and completeness is something which runs through Little Monsters: the title is echoed in several aspects, the themes of flight and family secrets, bullying and belonging, precisely set out on the page. Secondary characters like Carol’s schoolfriend Patricia are well drawn, and there are dramatic endings to both concurrent storylines. Only a last-page revelation by Jozef seemed to upset this, and to leave much more to be said. By then, however, I was satisfied, and looking forward to what Lambert does next. Just don’t wait another 54 years for us to find out, Mr L.

January 21, 2008

Sean O’Brien: The Drowned Book

Posted in O'Brien Sean at 5:08 pm by John Self

A change of pace for me, with – of all things! – a book of poetry.  I was going to say modern poetry, but that has fogeyish hints of modern art, doesn’t it, with an implication of chastisement for anyone daring to try to drive cultural achievement onward when everybody knows that nobody alive can write/paint/video-install as well as anyone dead.  Anyway, my extremely limited experience of m…- contemporary poetry tends toward the down-to-earth, the accessible, partly for want of schooling in the damn art, and partly for a woeful lack of ambition.  This means I do have experience of Sean O’Brien, mainly through his earlier collection Ghost Train, which ranged from subversive homage to MacNeice’s Autumn Journal in ‘Somebody Else,’ (“You live here on the city’s edge / Among back lanes and stable blocks / From which you glimpse the allegations / Of the gardening bourgeoisie that all is well”) to a sensitive, sharp portrayal of football (a subject in which I thought I had no interest) in ‘Autumn Begins at St James’s Park, Newcastle.’

Ghost Train won the Forward Poetry Prize in 1995 when it was published; his next collection, Downriver (2001) repeated the feat; and in a hat-trick the “Toon Army tsunami” would be proud of, his latest The Drowned Book (2007) took both the Forward Prize and, this week, the T.S. Eliot prize.  Pretty soon, when the presses crank up for a new O’Brien collection, all the other poets in the land will keep their powder dry till next year.

Sean O'Brien: The Drowned Book

The T.S. Eliot prize panel called The Drowned Book “fierce, funny and deeply melancholy,” and the Forward judges described it as “a sustained elegy for lost friends, landscapes and a decaying culture.”  Well, one of the people featured I am pretty sure O’Brien would not consider a lost friend.  In ‘Valedictory’, words like Orgreave and Belgrano might just ring a few bells; or if not, how about this?

Branch libraries and playing fields
Deliver rather lower yields
Than asset-stripping mountebanks
Can rake in flogging dope and tanks:
Great Britain!

Strange: no one nowadays admits
To voting in the gang of shits
Who staffed her army of the night:
Our history, it seems, is quite

And if digs at Margaret Thatcher seem twenty years late (and toward the end of the book, there’s a doubly painful account of Dupuytren’s contracture, the hand condition which O’Brien seems to share with Baroness T), the ‘fierce and witty’ destructive elements are balanced by a melancholy but defiant urge: as the legacy of the 1980s lives on, O’Brien ends the poem by declaring that “The task is always to rebuild / Our city.”

So this is political poetry, and the essences of what the country has lost since Thatcherism came to town is revisited in ‘Fantasia on a Theme of James Wright,’ which O’Brien takes the case of the coal miners and gives “an elegy for the pitmen, but also a celebration of their life and labour.”  (“The singing of the dead inside the earth / Is like the friction of great stones, or like the rush / Of water into newly opened darkness.”)  He also brings us up to date, with present government policy on terrorism laws, in ‘Song: Habeas Corpus':

Forget about due process,
The evidence, the court:
The evil I’ve committed
Is as secretive as thought.

Just think, if I’m not found in time,
Then I might perpetrate
An absolutely novel crime
Known only to the state -

An act more terrible because
It hasn’t happened yet -
For in our time the future tense
Will be the major threat.

Ditties like this may tread a line between simple and simplistic, but O’Brien is capable of more complex things.  The theme of water drives through the book, as rivers, drains and sewers illustrate the forgotten past and the unwelcome present, from police and politicians “whose only energy / Is fear” to lost friends (“The River Road”):

For afterlife, only beginning, beginning,
Wide, dark waters that grow in the telling,
Where the river road carries us now.

Toward the end, the moving waterways are brought overground and replaced by railways – a manmade development which O’Brien can endorse – and the feeling is carefully optimistic; allowing, of course, for the odd journey to hell.  This is done both with artful solemnity (“Arcadia”) and playfully, where “Timor Mortis” finds O’Brien at his funniest on the indivisibility of humankind when it comes to condemnation:

The wonks who work the cutting edge,
Immanuel Kant and Percy Sledge,
With Peter Pan, the Golden Horde,
All travellers not yet on board
Plus those who think it don’t apply,
Who witter, witter, “I’m, like, why?”
Join Zeno, Zog and Baudelaire
As conscripts of le grand nowhere
Some on ice and some on fire,
Some with slow piano wire,
Screaming, weeping, brave as fuck
And absolutely out of luck.

Chin up, Sean, even if you do join “Captain Nemo, Guildenstern / And suchlike planks booked in to burn,” at least you’ve cleaned up at the poetry awards.  And it’s not just through luck either.

January 18, 2008

Adam Mars-Jones: Pilcrow

Posted in Mars-Jones Adam at 2:14 pm by John Self

Adam Mars-Jones is such a tease. First he made us wait ten years after being named one of the best young British novelists before actually publishing his superb first novel, The Waters of Thirst, in 1993. Then his next book of fiction, twin novellas under the title Hypo Vanilla, has been coming and going from Faber’s catalogue since 1995, without ever actually appearing (Amazon presently has it listed as published in June 2007, but ‘currently unavailable’). So, Mr Mars-Jones, with this 500-page novel springing unexpectedly up after all this time, you are really spoiling us: at last.

Adam Mars-Jones: Pilcrow

A pilcrow is a punctuation symbol – ¶ – used to indicate a paragraph break. The hero of Pilcrow, John Cromer, identifies himself with it because

I’m not sure I can claim to have taken my place in the human alphabet… I’m more like an optional accent or specialised piece of punctuation, a cedilla, umlaut or pilcrow, hard to track down on the keyboard of computer or typewriter. Pilcrow is the prettiest of the bunch, assessed purely as a word. And at least it stands on its own. It doesn’t perch or dangle. Pilcrow it is.

In fact John Cromer doesn’t stand on his own; he doesn’t stand at all really, or sit very well either, due to a childhood disease which has left most of his bones fused. As a result he spends most of his childhood in bed, and Mars-Jones’s achievement is to make these opening hundred-odd pages of immobility among the most interesting the book. We spend all our time in John’s head, but his parents are generously painted, if not flatteringly: his mother carries down a hysterical caution (particularly with regard to John’s health) from her relationship with her own mother, and his father is a traditional type (“in the 1950s, men didn’t touch their children except to smack them, ruffle their hair or carry them from burning buildings”). Their relationship has ghosts of its own:

There were no bad marriages in those days, none so bad they couldn’t be endured. … Marriage was the rest-cure then, for relationships between men and women. Marriage was bed rest for couples. Lie down as man and wife and wait to feel better. If after a while it doesn’t seem to be working, then keep trying for another few years. As long as it takes, in fact.

Pilcrow is an odd book, an extraordinary one in many ways, because it eschews the pared-down, pixel-perfection of The Waters of Thirst and instead leaves nothing out for the period it covers: John’s childhood up to the age of about sixteen. The prose is less highly evolved, and at times I would have liked more Adam Mars-Jones in the narrative and not so much John Cromer. Yet there are peaks of brilliant wit, such as a tour de force scene where John’s mother explains the facts of life to him while he is still a young child, and using family euphemisms:

‘But that’s rude. Why do mummies and daddies have to be rude to make a baby?’

‘Well when they do it, it’s nice. So if it’s nice, it’s not rude.’

‘Nice? Nice? What’s nice about putting your taily in a hole between a lady’s legs? I bet it hurts!’

‘No, it doesn’t. The lady likes it.’

I DIDN’T MEAN THE LADY! I meant, I bet it hurts the man!’ My concern was all for him, in this desperate transaction. The poor man! ‘He must love the baby terribly to do that with his taily.’

‘Oh no, the man likes it!’

‘How do you know? You’re not a man!’

‘No, but I told you – Daddy says it’s nice.’

This was where her lying was blatant and I became incredulous with anger. ‘Daddy would never say it was nice to stick his taily in a hole between a lady’s legs.’

‘He says it’s nice.’

‘Bring him here. I have to hear him say it.’ I was almost in tears. ‘He won’t say it, he can’t say it because it’s not true. You’re fibbing.’

This raises the same objections of unrealistic precociousness in childhood dialogue that Edward St Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk did, but telling his own version of the truth is the prerogative of the first person narrator. There are other curious elements in Pilcrow which made me doubt the whole-truthness of John’s account. On the opening page he tells us that the first car he drove was a 1960s Mini, a curious choice for a young man whose hips are fused straight so he can’t even sit properly in a chair: how could he drive at all? Could John’s story, unremarkable in many elements even as it is, in fact be the fantasies of a completely immobile man, trapped in his own head? (“I was told not to move, and I was a good boy. I had to move something, and if it wasn’t my body then it would have to be my mind.”)

In time John goes to school – or almost. “I would be going to a hospital, and the school was tucked away somewhere inside it. The hospital would be there all the time. The school would put in an appearance now and then, as and when.” His two schools take up the last two-thirds of the book, which is most interesting in its convincing and heartfelt depiction of a disabled gay boy’s exploration of his sexuality: when all your physical activities are desperate fumbles, then sexual expression becomes particularly hazardous.

At the same time there are holes in John’s story: he makes references throughout his memoir of his spiritual explorations – Hinduism seems to be his path of choice – but we get nothing of this in the main story. Is this a pointer that the things which loom largest in our lives are those which we deal with subconsciously, and sweep under the surface? Or is it evidence of an unreliable narrator, along with little comments like “I’m not interested in family history, not really believing in either family or history,” or reminders of how, at school, John was especially gifted at “story-telling”?

The alternative is that Pilcrow is not a complete story at all: it stops rather than ends, and later volumes might fill us in on the elements hinted at but not detailed here (when so very many things are detailed here). Indeed, one website describes Pilcrow as “the first book in the John Cromer series.” That would explain a lot. Oh Mr Mars-Jones! I told you he was a tease.

January 15, 2008

Paul Torday: The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce

Posted in Torday Paul at 1:43 pm by John Self

If you were living under a rock last year, you might have missed the phenomenal success of Paul Torday’s debut novel Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.  It won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic writing; it was serialised on Radio 4; oh, and the small matter of featuring on the Richard & Judy list of summer reads didn’t hurt.  Torday, who was 60 when the book was published, hasn’t sat back and polished his gong, but instead next month gives us his second novel, The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce.  The whimsical title and jaunty cover promise more light comic satire: and any reader expecting that might be disappointed.  Me?  I was pleasantly surprised.

The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce

Wilberforce is a 37-year-old former software engineer, who has sold his business to pursue a life of, well, drinking.  Or as he sees it, to safeguard the inheritance of his great friend Francis Black, whose house and underground wine cellar (“the undercroft”) he bought for a million pounds.  Not bad for a hundred thousand bottles of priceless wine.

‘As he sees it’ is the key here.  We join the story in 2006 when Wilberforce is in full denial:

With, I admit, trembling hands I found the last bottle of Château Carbonnieux and opened it.  An alcoholic, which I am not and never have been, would not have sat and let it breathe for half an hour, and let it come up towards room temperature.  He would not have poured it lovingly into the large bowl of a tasting glass, to ensure the bouquet could develop properly.  Nor would he have checked the glass first for any mustiness.

No, Wilberforce is certainly not an alcoholic, it’s just that “I have made up for the woeful ignorance of the first thirty years of my life by the passion and intensity of my relationship with wine ever since.”  The scene is set for the eternal struggle:  the bottle v everything else, everything else v the bottle.  It’s such a tough one to call, isn’t it?

Torday has cleverly used the same structure as Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch, so the narrative presents periods of Wilberforce’s life in reverse order: first 2006, then 2004, 2003 and 2002.  We know the ending from one quarter of the way through the book, but the beauty is in what happens next – or before.  Things we thought we knew are subtly undermined, characters’ relationships are brought into focus (and smashed apart), and layer upon layer of cruel dramatic irony is applied.  Only one coincidence hinted strongly at toward the end was a step too far for me.

The success of The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce – and why it is a bold move as Torday’s follow-up to Salmon Fishing – is to make such a readable story out of pretty bleak ingredients, and from a hero who is, if not an out-and-out thoroughgoing bastard, certainly selfish for much of the time.  (Of course all these are excellent factors for any book to exhibit, in my view.)  There is some sympathy to be had though, as we see the reason for Wilberforce’s drive and position, as a boy and now a man who belongs nowhere, when “everyone else in the world was in on the secret and had a key to its iron door.”

Torday may not be a great stylist, and some of the research both on wine and the medical consequences of wine could have been a little more lightly worn, but I suspect few will care about such niceties when the pages practically turn themselves and the closing lines of the book, after such a heady brew, are so deliciously sobering.

January 12, 2008

Nell Leyshon: Black Dirt

Posted in Leyshon Nell at 9:23 pm by John Self

Nell Leyshon’s debut novel Black Dirt (2004) is a salutary indicator of just how many good books are published each year that completely pass us by. I’d never heard of it before book blogger extraordinaire dovegreyreader named it her favourite among all the novels she read last year (and that’s a lot of novels). This, I hope, is a validation of the purpose of all the frantic scribblers in the book blogging community, sharing our enthusiasm for titles we think others might have missed (what do you mean, you haven’t read The Waters of Thirst yet!).

Black Dirt

Black Dirt is one of those books which fits an awful lot into a very small space: 186 pages, mostly dialogue.  The story is divided into three frames: the first is the present day, where elderly Frank has been taken home from hospital to die, pumped full of morphine on demand (“Silver water in his veins”), and surrounded by his children, including the childlike, mentally restricted George.  As the morphine causes him to drift in and out of consciousness (and reality), Frank recalls his childhood where his sister Iris began to behave strangely: we feel sure no good can come of this.  He also remembers the stories his father told him, histories of England from Joseph of Arimathea’s burial of the Holy Grail, through Kings Arthur and Alfred to the dissolution of the monasteries.  These stories, some less well known to me than they should be, are given vivid life by Leyshon’s use of down-to-earth language and wit: oh, and talking birds:

The robin reached out and touched Joseph’s beard with its beak.  ‘That’d make nice nesting material.’

‘You’re not having it,’ Joseph said.

‘All right.  Keep your hair on.  I’m only saying.’

The setting, of Glastonbury and surrounding area, is central to the book.  The land is frequently flooded, and the waterlogged sensation gets into the reader’s skin and helps amplify the mythic feeling of the stories.  This is all the more remarkable given the limited conversations the characters have – well, they are family, after all – exchanges often so banal as to be (deliberately, I think) comic, and which put me in mind of Magnus Mills.  Leyshon, a playwright by day, has nothing to learn in the realm of dialogue.

The middle storyline, of Frank’s childhood and What Iris Did, builds to a suffocating climax, and the final revelation loses no power for being foreseeable.  The temptation with such an smoothly written and readable book must be to rush through it, though taking it slowly fits in better with the sultry pace of the characters’ lives, and is in the end more rewarding.

Black Dirt is a book I would never have heard of, let alone read, without the recommendation of dovegreyreader, and for that I salute her.  It’s a creepy but addictive tale, faithful to its particular setting, and benefiting greatly from that faith, but never excluding.  The symbolism of water is mesmerising, and comparisons to Graham Swift’s Waterland (such as one critic makes on the cover) are for me wide of the mark, as I’ve tried three times to read that damn book and never managed it yet.  No such fear with Black Dirt, which I had to hold myself back from rushing through too quickly.  Now, who’s next for the Black Dirt blog relay?

January 10, 2008

Stefan Zweig: Confusion

Posted in Pushkin Press, Zweig Stefan at 8:11 pm by John Self

For keen readers staying away from home overnight – indeed, for anyone with time to kill and a standard sized pocket – I recommend the Pushkin Press editions of the stories of Stefan Zweig. We’ve been here before, of course, twice in fact, but I always seem to have another of these handsome volumes squirreled away, and another trip where they make early waking in a strange bed a pleasure (don’t make up your own jokes).


Last weekend I read Confusion, first published in 1927, which at 140 pages is one of Zweig’s longer stories: perhaps even a novella. It lacks the framing device of some of his other tales – the narrator here is also the central character – but contains in full the qualities we expect of him: an urgency in the reader’s mind to read on, and a heightened emotional state more or less throughout.

This latter is odd: in other hands, in a modern story, it might seem parodic or over-the-top, but we never doubt the sincerity and angst of Zweig’s people. This one is a university professor looking back on his career, and in particular his dealings with another professor who inspired him as a young student. He is a vital youth, discovering his independence, “every cell in my being … crying out for sudden expansion” and finding the perfect vehicle for this in Berlin, “that heated giantess, that restless city radiating power.” He passes the time indulging himself:

I would take back to my lodgings now a flaxen-haired milky-skinned servant girl from Mecklenburg, heated by the dancing, before she went home from her day off, now a timid, nervous little Jewish girl from Posen who sold stockings in Tietz’s – most of them easy pickings, to be had for the taking and passed on quickly to my friends.

It doesn’t hurt that he’s “a strikingly good-looking young man. Tall, slim, the bronzed hue of the sea coast still fresh on my cheeks, my every movement athletically supple,” but soon he discovers passion not of the body but of the mind, when he attends a tutorial by a literature professor. It is a revelation to our hero as he listens to a discussion on Elizabethan England and its “true bold leap into infinity” as an age comes into its own through the crucible of art, Shakespeare being “merely the strongest manifestation, the psychic message of a whole generation, expressing, through the senses, a time turned passionately enthusiastic.”

I had never before known language as ecstasy, the passion of discourse as an elemental act, and the unexpected shock of it drew me closer.

It draws him closer in particular to the professor, and he ends up sharing accommodation with him and his wife. What follows cannot be detailed any further for risk of landing in a swamp of spoilers, though the fact that our narrator seems to be returning to his old ways when he acknowledges the “slender boyish figure” of the professor’s wife in her swimsuit, should be warning enough. Alternatively, if you read the gnomic and superfluous afterword to the story by Joel Rosenthal (who also provided the cover illustration) then the essence of the game will be given away instantly. Be warned.

What Confusion gives us is a remarkably sympathetic portrait for the times of a particular social heresy – filled with his reliably high-octane emotion and cataclysmic sense of despair. The subject matter, as a taboo, has so faded for us that it would hardly make the story worth writing today. But if Zweig was still alive and wanted to write it again, I’d probably let him away with it.

January 6, 2008

James Baldwin: Go Tell It on the Mountain

Posted in Baldwin James, Penguin Modern Classics at 8:52 pm by John Self

This is one of those books which has been in the to-be-read pile for some time. Often those titles end up flattened beneath strata of newer acquisitions, as for me the lure of a new new book is always stronger than that of an old new one. But I had read and enjoyed Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and Another Country some years ago, and with the imminent avalanche of new books for 2008 coming ever closer,
I plucked it bravely from the depths of the pile. It’s now or never.

Go Tell It on the Mountain

In truth, one of the reasons I hadn’t read Go Tell It on the Mountain before was because it was Baldwin’s debut novel, published in 1953 when he was 29, and I thought How good can it be? And the answer is … good enough, and far more assured than a first book has any right to be.

The key is in Baldwin’s full-blooded style, which immerses us from the beginning in a flood of biblical language. The setting is Harlem, where fourteen-year-old John Grimes is following in his father’s footsteps to become a preacher at the Temple of the Fire Baptized. The only problem is that John hates his father Gabriel (who is anyway not really his father) and as a consequence everything he stands for. “His father could never be entirely the victor, for John cherished something that his father could not reach. It was his hatred and his intelligence that he cherished, the one feeding the other.” He half-envies his brother Roy, whose reputation as a black sheep and a lost cause at least affords him freedom:

Roy never knew his Sunday school lesson either, but it was different with Roy – no one really expected of Roy what was expected of John. Everyone was always praying that the Lord would change Roy’s heart, but it was John who was expected to be good, and to be a good example.

John, meanwhile, must look down on the “sinners” that the family passes on the way to church, and not think too hard about whether a little sin might have something to recommend it. In rejection of his father, John instead clings to his mother, whom he fears losing as he goes from being her only son to just one among a family of children:

He remembered only enough to be afraid each time her belly began to swell, knowing that each time the swelling began it would not end until she was taken from him, to come back with a stranger. Each time this happened she became a little more of a stranger herself.

Baldwin excels in moments like this, where the feelings of a child are rendered into elegant adult observations without stripping them of their raw truth. He also gives us a classic monstrous father in Gabriel, who of course turns out to be the most interesting character in the book, and not without a little sin of his own. In the central sections Baldwin takes Gabriel, his wife and his sister and opens up their pasts to the reader. The resulting effect, of wanting to forgive what we know, is not original but nonetheless highly effective. Forgiveness in fact is one Christian trait which Gabriel notably lacks (“Your Daddy beats you because he loves you”), and in his own past we see that his inflexible anger is really directed against himself – “he saw his guilt in everybody’s eyes” – and that his rejection of John’s independence of mind comes from a knowledge of what he himself might have had. John too knows that despite his father’s nominal position as “head deacon” in the Temple of the Fire Baptized, he’s really little more than “a holy handyman.”

With the central flashbacks, Go Tell It on the Mountain goes into wider society, and touches on less obvious issues like self-limiting behaviour by disadvantaged minorities. Florence, Gabriel’s sister and the only one who will stand up to him, remembers her husband:

‘But there’s lots of good in Frank. I just got to be patient and he’ll come along all right.’ To ‘come along’ meant he would change his ways and consent to be the husband she had travelled so far to find. It was he who, unforgivably, taught her that there are people in the world for whom ‘coming along’ is a perpetual process, people who are destined never to arrive. For ten years he came along, but when he left her he was the same man she had married. He had not changed at all.

The word “fire” recurs throughout the book, and sure enough the pages burn through with Baldwin’s anger at racism, religion, and broken communities. He also is brave enough to give the book not much direct plot – John’s struggle with his family and ‘his’ faith and how we got here, about sums it up – and an ending which chillingly recalls Nineteen Eighty-Four. At one point in the story John reflects upon a course of action, fearing that he might be going too far: “I can climb back up. If it’s wrong, I can always climb back up.” Later, in his aunt Florence’s past, we see her do the same as she buys a ticket to leave her home town: “she held like a talisman at the back of her mind the thought, ‘I can give it back, I can sell it. This don’t mean I got to go.'” This understanding, not only of the way we hold ourselves back as much as others do, but also of how one generation’s weaknesses trickle down to inhibit the next, is immensely powerful and sums up the essence of the book beautifully.

January 3, 2008

Adam Mars-Jones: The Waters of Thirst

Posted in Mars-Jones Adam at 9:11 pm by John Self

Adam Mars-Jones is best known these days as a critic, and a sometimes waspish one at that, reviewing fiction for the Observer (“There is more depth in Calvin Klein’s Obsession than in Paulo Coelho’s Zahir,” or how about his dismissal of Adam Thirlwell’s Miss Herbert as “a monumentally annoying book”?). But he writes fiction too, and was in the odd position in 1983 of being crowned one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists without having published a novel. He repeated the feat in 1993, but clearly shamed by his status, later the same year his debut novel The Waters of Thirst came out. I loved it, and in anticipation of his second novel Pilcrow, due in April, I thought I would revisit it and see how it stands up.

Adam Mars-Jones: The Waters of Thirst

Perfection in a novel is elusive, if not impossible, and if each new word is a potential blunder, then the best way to get close to completeness is to keep the numbers down. Mars-Jones did this, and at 182 pages of breathably-spaced text, The Waters of Thirst still seems to me to be a small masterpiece, as word perfect as one could wish for.

What I love about it is its ability to maintain wit, interest and even compassion in what is ostensibly a long monologue of largely domestic affairs. William’s narrative is uninterrupted even by scene breaks; it is, as the old punchline goes, all in one bit. Where this could be frustrating – we all like a place to pause reading so we know where to pick up again – it turns out to make it all the more compulsive, and the urge to read just one more page led me to finish the last hundred in a sitting.

William is a snobbish gay man, reflecting on the end of his relationship with his partner Terry. He watches Terry at the supermarket

unloading from his basket the convenience foods of self-pity, giving a tin of pears a maudlin caress. I see him placing the food in single file on the moving belt, advertising his solitude with a funeral procession of groceries

and sees him “thinking about me and about his life, and how they knitted together so well right up to the moment of unravelling.” Finding how the unravelling came about of course is the pleasure of the journey. The extract above is from the first paragraph, and in truth I could very easily continue quoting more or less to the end of the book with no dilution of effect (but some copyright issues). At the same time this makes The Waters of Thirst a difficult book to lift excerpts from, as each neatly quotable line fits so smoothly into what goes before and after.

This neatness and the smuggling of larger themes of love, relations between individuals and groups, and acceptance into a small scale work, reminded me of other short novels with a gay theme like J.R. Ackerley’s We Think the World of You, and Gilbert Adair’s Buenas Noches Buenos Aires. Even in surface subject matter it’s wide-ranging, covering social hospitality, kidney disease, frank references to gay pornography (don’t say you weren’t warned), and William’s profession of acting:

When it comes right down to it most of what passes for acting is no more than text-based wheedling. … ‘Please believe in me,’ you’re saying. ‘See, I’ve even put on a little bit of an accent for you. What more could you want, really? Come on, start believing. You know you won’t enjoy yourself until you do. Why waste the price of your ticket? Shocking what they ask these days, isn’t it? And all down the drain unless you believe in me – please? – with my costume and my moves and my lines and my little bit of an accent.’

This being a novel from the early 90s featuring gay men, of course Aids has a guest role too:

Terry and I chose each other when there were only breezes blowing men like us together, or apart. After a few years there were high winds blowing every which way. Winds rattled every door, winds blew down every chimney and tested every window, and people were blown together and blown apart, blown away, without warning.

But rather than make it a central plank of the story, Mars-Jones uses Aids as an extension of the existing concerns in the book about fragility of health, of relationships, and of lives: “nothing affects one person only”. For a cool and clever book of witty prose, it doesn’t half get moving at times. Only occasionally does his sense of the mot juste let him down, or rather go too far, and bring out something like Victoria Wood or Alan Bennett on an off day (“Kids these days, with their Gore-Tex grafts and their high-flux machines. Two hours for dialysis! That’s not kidney failure. That’s a holiday”).

William, who needs a kidney transplant, is open with the reader about his baser instincts, amusing us even as he vents his frustrations:

I mean, every vehicle is a potential accident, I realise that, but motor cyclists really are organ donors-in-waiting. A dab of grease or a handful of gravel, and a motor bike just wants a good lie down. … As time went by, I found my eyes were drawn to the rear contours of bikers’ leather jackets. The handbook recommended wearing a jacket with an extra panel of padding at waist level. It was for kidney protection. My immediate reaction was, oh yes, protect those kidneys. We don’t want anything to happen to them.

The book even has an ending which, if not actually surprising, is nonetheless novel, and thus it has pretty much everything I could ask for. William’s thoughts on monogamy may not be entirely positive (“then finally you’ve worn a track through the days like a track on lino, and you’re continuously aware of each other without ever needing to think about it”), but this is a book I would happily pledge my exclusive allegiance to. Though I’ll reserve the right to keep shopping around for the next one.

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