February 27, 2008

Robert Walser: The Assistant

Posted in Penguin Modern Classics, Walser Robert at 2:03 pm by John Self

I was wondering recently about the difficulty publishers have in getting their books noticed. This must be a particular problem for those who are reissuing old titles. Certainly there are people like me for whom the badge of (say) Penguin Modern Classics or Pushkin Press is recommendation enough; but how do these books get wider attention when they’re rarely reviewed, don’t trouble the 3-for-2 tables, and aren’t written by thrusting young lovelies (or not ones that are still alive anyway)? Penguin have pushed the boat out a little with Robert Walser’s The Assistant (1908), newly issued in the Modern Classics range. The cover is one of the most stylish yet of their new look:

The Assistant

But watch out, because when you see it in real life it will be swagged with a vivid removable sleeve, like so:

The Assistant (and sleeve)

Well, it’s a start. But, a modern masterpiece, you say? The obvious response is that if it really is a masterpiece, then someone might have seen fit to treat us to a translation some time in the hundred years since it was written.

I hadn’t heard of Walser until I read Adam Thirlwell’s Miss Herbert a few months ago. He earns a couple of pages (and a photo) there, Thirlwell considering him the progenitor of a particular type of plotless, flâneur-based story, an influence on Kafka, an underrated modernist and “one of the first people to develop the story as a place for linguistic delicacy and experiment.” However that assessment came from Walser’s later stories of the 1920s, and doesn’t seem strongly applicable to The Assistant. In fact Walser wrote three novels in quick succession – the last and best-known being Jakob von Gunten (1909) – and his career as a novelist was over at the age of 31. He would live another 47 years, but first restricted himself to short stories, then to no writing at all.

This is worth expanding on. Walser had mental illness all around in his family, and the About the Author blurb in this book is a mini-novel in itself:

After a suicide attempt in 1929, Walser’s depression was misdiagnosed as schizophrenia and in 1933 he entered an asylum in Herisau, where he remained for the rest of his life. There he occupied his time with chores like gluing paper and sorting beans. He remained in full possession of his faculties but, after 1932, he did not write. ‘I’m not here to write, I’m here to be mad,’ he told a visitor. Robert Walser died of a heart attack on Christmas Day, 1956. He had been walking in the snow not far from the asylum where he had been living for 23 years.

After that, The Assistant has a lot to live up to. It’s a semi-autobiographical novel, largely free of the modernist effects we might expect. Its protagonist, Joseph Marti, is a young man who goes to work for, and live with, the inventor Carl Tobler and his family. Tobler’s inventions are simultaneously banal and bizarre: the Advertising Clock – a railway station type clock with wings out the sides to carry ads – or the Marksman’s Vending Machine – a six foot tall vending machine which dispenses small packs of bullets. As one might imagine, the business is not destined to blossom, and the progress of the story lies mostly in the tragicomic despair of Tobler to come to terms with his complete lack of the qualities needed in either an inventor or a businessman.

Marti meanwhile has his own trials, mainly in dealing with the predecessor to his job whom he usurped: Wirsich, a young man who had been sacked and reinstated many times by the Toblers, mainly because he was “an extremely precise individual, but only in a state of sobriety.” Marti also wonders how he can bring himself to ask Tobler to pay him his wages at some point… There is some interesting analsyis of power and the master-servant relationship:

People do, by the way, tend to cherish those upon whom they have been able to impose their power and influence. Wealth and bourgeois prosperity like to dispense humiliations, or no, that’s going too far, but they do have a fondness for gazing down on the humiliated, a sentiment in which we must acknowledge the presence of a certain benevolence, and of a certain brutality as well.

The spiralling difficulties of the Toblers are sometimes touching and often dramatic, particularly when Herr or Frau Tobler put pen to paper and write to one of their many creditors: or would-be creditors (“Dear Mother! I am sitting here in my house like a bird trapped by the piercing gaze of the snake – already being killed in advance…”).

Adam Thirlwell believes “Walser was fascinated by the decrepitude of language … the writing frames clichés – which are trying to cope with impossible or unmentionable realities.” Walser claims to have written The Assistant in six weeks, which doesn’t seem implausible. It meanders in a fluid and leisurely way to its conclusion, and must be of importance as a precursor to his later, apparently more radical work, as much as for itself. So bring on the stories, Penguin: red sleeve optional.

February 24, 2008

Penelope Fitzgerald: The Bookshop

Posted in Fitzgerald Penelope at 10:48 pm by John Self

I’d heard such frequent and lavish praise for Penelope Fitzgerald – and her books were so, well, beautifully slim – that I’d been meaning to read her for ages. Now I think back on it, probably some of that praise was about other Penelopes (Lively, Mortimer) and I confused them in my mind. But for whatever reason, I finally picked up one of her novels, The Bookshop, spurred by the quote on the cover from Philip Hensher: “Of all the novelists in English of the last century, she has the most unarguable claim on greatness.” Ooh. And indeed wow. Greater than Greene then, than Nabokov, than Woolf, than Bellow … than Joyce? Let me at it!

The Bookshop

The Bookshop (1978) was Fitzgerald’s second novel; her first, The Golden Child, having been published a year earlier at the ripe age of 61. And not hurrying certainly gave her some source material from her life to write about: four of her first five novels were based on her own experiences, in a drama school, a houseboat community, and working at the BBC. The Bookshop, also inspired by Fitzgerald’s own life, is about a woman, Florence, who opens a bookshop in the fictional town of Hardborough, and it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize (Fitzgerald would win the following year with Offshore).

It’s a short, pleasing read, with a witty approach to the frustrations and hostilities inherent in trying to make changes in a parochial environment. Florence knows that “to leave a mark of any kind was exhilarating,” but is up against it on all sides. “She’s got a shop full of books for people to read,” says one villager to another. “What for?” comes the reply. When she does get the store open, she is forced to diversify into greetings cards (“‘They really ought to be divided into Romantic and Humorous,’ said Florence. These, indeed, were the only two attitudes to the stages of life’s journey envisaged by the manufacturers of the cards”) and a lending library, for those who wish to borrow rather than buy. She is forced to become not just a purveyor of literature but a businesswoman:

Now vans and estate cars began to appear in increased numbers over the brilliant horizon of the marshes, sometimes getting bogged down at the crossings and always if they tried to turn round on the foreshore, bringing the publishers’ salesmen. Even in summer, it was a hard journey. Those who made it were somewhat unwilling to part with their Fragrant Moments and engagement books, which were what Florence really wanted, unless she would also take the pile of novels which had the air, in their slightly worn jackets, of women on whom no one had ever made any demand.

No doubt this, and the other amusing dealings in the book, was a catharsis for Fitzgerald. The real test for the shop comes – the book is set in 1959 – when Florence decides to stock Lolita. This cause for concern could go either way (“‘I mustn’t let myself worry,’ she said. ‘While there’s life, there’s hope.’ ‘What a terrifying thought that is,’ muttered Mr Brundish”), and adds a frankly needed touch of structure and drama to the last third of the book’s 150 pages.

There is much in The Bookshop to like, and it put me in mind of a gentler Muriel Spark in its style and approach. But if there is century’s-best greatness here, it wasn’t shouting loudly enough for me to hear. I suspect that Fitzgerald has written better, meatier stuff, and if anyone can guide me in the right direction, I’d welcome it. I was, in the end, inspired to look out the extraordinary quote by Philip Hensher – he’s normally so hard to please – to see where he originally said it. It was a review in The Spectator of posthumously published stories, and it went like this (my emphasis):

It is really not inconceivable that there is a last novel, or that more short stories will surface. A tenth novel would have the value, in English literature, of an unknown work by Lawrence, Conrad or Waugh. That is not to overstate the case. Of all the novelists in English of the last quarter century, she has the most unarguable claim on greatness.

Still high praise, but not quite what the cover quote suggests. The ‘quarter’ must have accidentally fallen off when they were setting it. Ah well!

February 21, 2008

Gerard Donovan: Julius Winsome

Posted in Donovan Gerard at 12:55 pm by John Self

Gerard Donovan is one of those writers who’s been on my secondary radar since his debut novel Schopenhauer’s Telescope was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2003.  As mental tags go, one could do worse; and it probably has done no harm either that I keep conflating him in my mind with the wonderful Gerard Woodward.  Anyway, he has published two novels since then (though his second, Doctor Salt, he has rewritten for American publication as Sunless, saying “the sense I was after just wasn’t in the novel” first time around), and the newest, Julius Winsome, has just been published in paperback here in the UK.

Julius Winsome

A word about the title.  If you’re going to name the novel after your main character, you’d better get it right, and for me Julius Winsome – the name, not the book – is only half-right.  Julius yes, for a solemn reflective man brought up by his father on Shakespeare; but Winsome, meaning attractive or appealing in appearance or character, and with its echoes of whimsical?  Well, I’m not so sure.  Yes and no.  He sounds more like a character from children’s fiction to me. Win some, lose some.

But nomenclature notwithstanding, Julius Winsome is precisely the sort of character who can head up a novel all on his own.  Donovan has steeped himself in off-the-shelf atmospherics: the cold Maine winters, the isolated log cabin, the lonely man and his dog; but he doesn’t milk it.  Where others given this setting (and it might be that Donovan, as an Irish emigrant to the US, is more detached from the landscape) could make a dense mess of language that the characters – and reader – can’t escape from, Donovan keeps it low-key, unfussy, and the tone becomes gradually devastating without him ever needing to turn up the volume.

If I were to write my life in one sentence up till now, I would say that at one point I lived in a cabin for fifty-one years.

Anyway the dog doesn’t last long; indeed he dies offstage as chapter one opens with a line that would have delighted Kingsley Amis, who claimed toward the end of his life that he could only read books now that began, “A shot rang out.”  Here we have, “I think I heard the shot.”  Close enough.

Julius, “surrounded by 3,282 books” (sounds like heaven) is about to have his uneventful existence shattered.  It’s been shattered once before, when a woman, Claire, found him and moved in for a time, and he tells us of their meeting from several different angles.  We also get multiple tellings of the story of how Claire helped him find another companion – preparing Julius for her departure, perhaps – in his beloved terrier Hobbes.  For Julius, bereavement is becoming a regular occurrence, but this time when he is left alone, there is no one or nothing there to help him cope, and he determines to exact revenge on whoever shot his dog.

Julius Winsome then becomes a tale of the dangers of isolation, and how far we can go when we have no one at our side to temper our responses.  “To look for evidence meant sharpening the details of what was already known,” which really means reshaping the facts to fit your fears.

What the book does so well is reflect the stasis of Julius’s life – “I waited for nothing.  And nothing came” – without becoming dull itself.  In Julius’s remote landscape, “distances collapse, time is thrown out,” and the book achieves a similar trickery by being both spare and immersive, short but engrossing right up to the breathless closing chapters.

Julius experiences life in the perpetual present, with nothing ahead and so little behind him that his days are occupied memorising lists of Shakespeare’s neologisms which his father taught him in the cabin as a child.

I feared suddenly that I had reached a time where life had taught me all it was going to or wanted to.  From this point on it would be a circle for me, always the same again, and harder to bear at each turn of the wheel when it came round.

It is a call to action, and reflection about our own lives, and deals with the biggest ideas in asking us to consider how best to live.  …Which I shall do right away, immediately, just as soon as I finish another book.

February 17, 2008

J.G. Ballard: High-Rise

Posted in Ballard J.G. at 7:41 pm by John Self

I was horrified to read in a press release for J.G. Ballard’s recently published memoir Miracles of Life that “this book will be his final work.” A stark announcement, directed by Ballard’s diagnosis in 2006 of advanced prostate cancer which had spread out through his body. It made me consider how simultaneously renowned yet overlooked he is, as much a household name as uncommercial novelists get to be, yet never troubling the prize lists or news pages. I also knew that his most famous book, Empire of the Sun, was his least representative. Time for a long overdue revisit then.


I’ve read a few of his novels before. The best of these was The Unlimited Dream Company, a barking mad but enormously impressive fantasy of a man who becomes a pagan god and flies through Shepperton, enfolding the populace into his body and causing vines to burst through the pavements everywhere he spills his seed. But received wisdom has it that Ballard has hit an off-patch of late, with his last four books – Cocaine Nights, Super-Cannes, Millennium People and Kingdom Come – telling the same story over and over: of the violence, sex and depravity which underpins human psychology in the most ‘civilised’ places, and breaks through the surface at the least opportunity.

So I went instead for High-Rise (1975), one of his most acclaimed works, and which turns out to be … about the violence, sex and depravity which underpins etc. etc. Of course many authors write about the same things through their career – Martin Amis said of Graham Greene: “the perspective is like a shadow moving across a lawn” – but rarely so interchangeably. On investigating more of Ballard’s later books, I found that Running Wild and Rushing to Paradise also have a similar theme, though not quite so identically executed. The website Contemporary Writers calls him “one of Britain’s most original writers.” Well yes: … and yet.

But let’s try to judge High-Rise as the feat of true originality it was at the time, rather than as the model for six of his next eleven novels. The setting is a tower block of the type which had become fashionable in Britain in the preceding decade: “streets in the sky.” While in reality many of these were so cheaply built as to be hazardous to the health of the council tenants who were trapped in them (see Our Friends in the North for a superb dramatisation of this), in Ballard’s world the high-rise is efficient, elegant and crammed with wealthy professionals: it “challenges the sun itself” and “plunges the streets behind into darkness.” This affluent paradise, however, is no more healthy than the council slum flats of the 1960s:

By its very efficiency, the high-rise took over the task of maintaining the social structure that supported them all. For the first time it removed the need to repress every kind of anti-social behaviour, and left them free to explore any deviant or wayward impulses. It was precisely in these areas that the most important and most interesting aspects of their lives would take place. Secure within the shell of the high-rise like passengers on board an automatically piloted airliner, they were free to behave in any way they wished, explore the darkest corners they could find. In many ways, the high-rise was a model of all that technology had done to make possible the expression of a truly ‘free’ psychopathology.

Now Ballard clearly wants us to believe the second sentence follows from the first, but I don’t buy it at all. We know his experiences as a child in an internment camp in wartime Shanghai left him acutely aware of how easily the veneer of civilization can slip away, but where’s the evidence that this can – not just equally but more deeply, as he seems to suggest in so many of his novels – apply to particularly comfortable peacetime societies? The residents of the high-rise divide into factions, the upper, middle and lower levels of the building representing the class divisions in British society. There is violence, with animals killed, vehicles vandalized and intimidation and assault in every stairwell (the lifts having become practically unusable). Is it because “this was an environment built, not for man, but for man’s absence”? Is Ballard deliberately reversing what we really know to be true, as when one character observes that “a low crime rate is a sure sign of social deprivation”? Is he digging the reader in the ribs by giving the three main characters transparent names like Royal and Wilder?

It is often beautifully written, and there is a peculiar poetry in Ballard’s dedication to detailed descriptions of “the massive scale of the glass and concrete architecture” and of the destruction and psychosis which follows. Nonetheless there is no getting away from the fact that for the bulk of the book, it is very boring to read, which you might think quite a feat when such outlandish activities are being portrayed. Part of the problem is that once the central idea is established (the extract above, which distills it, comes from page 36) then most of the scenes that follow could be read in any order – or not at all – with no loss of effect, before we come to the closing chapters, where things do pick up again quite impressively.

All of this doesn’t make High-Rise a complete failure, because it’s necessarily interesting to see where the idea first came from which would so obsess this fascinating writer for much of the rest of his career. Its attention-seeking opening line (“Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog…”) is justly famous. And the story is open to multiple interpretations of the analogies it supports, and it makes for pleasant mental exercise simply to establish the links of causation which Ballard omits (because the ones he provides sure don’t stand up to examination). One review of High-Rise quoted on the cover says, “Everything seems to demand attention and analysis,” and this is true – and it’s perhaps the book’s greatest achievement, when reading it for the story (which we know the outcome of at the start) doesn’t do much to drive the reader on. Another review calls it “an eerie glimpse into the future.” This is true also: one day all Ballard novels would be like this.

February 14, 2008

W.F. Hermans: Beyond Sleep

Posted in Hermans W.F. at 12:21 pm by John Self

For the second time in a row I must thank Lizzy Siddal: it was her review of The Darkroom of Damocles last year which made me want to read something by Dutch author W.F. Hermans. For an author who the blurb tells us is “considered one of the greatest post-war European writers,” they haven’t exactly been rushing his stuff into English. The Darkroom of Damocles was published in 2007, but in the end I plumped for Beyond Sleep (1966), translated in 2006. No sign of either one appearing in paperback anytime soon, so it’s a hefty hardback risk.

W.F. Hermans: Beyond Sleep

Then again, on the upside, this is a Harvill Secker hardback, so well produced and squarely bound that it can stand on its spine without falling over:

(Don’t try this at home.)  What of the insides though?  A quote on the cover from J.M. Coetzee calls Beyond Sleep “hilarious,” which is a bit odd, as I’ve never found much evidence in Coetzee’s books that he likes a good laugh.  In a curious way, though, this is the perfect choice: the book is both funny and deeply serious: it has that odd combination of weighty themes and borderline slapstick humour that we (or I) only see in fiction in translation.

This combination is well indicated in the opening sequences, where the narrator, geologist Alfred Issendorf, sets out to obtain aerial photographs to assist his expedition in Norway.  He meets one person after another, to be sent hither and thither in fruitless pursuit of the photos, and all this has a Kafkaesque quality to it, of comic frustration as well as illustrating man’s impotence in the face of greater powers: authority, fate, chance.

This sense of futility arises throughout the story.  A professor tells Alfred, dispiritingly, “I have seen a great deal of scientific work done to no avail.  Warehouses filled with collections no-one takes any notice of, until the day they are thrown out for lack of space.”  Or: “To think: yes I have this talent, but everything I could have done with it has already been done.”  This doesn’t bode well for Alfred’s own investigations, which hope to prove that ‘ice-holes’ in the Norwegian wilds are in fact craters from meteorites, and by the time the expedition comes around, Alfred feels “stuck fast, like a warped axle in a damaged hub.  In a fix I can’t squirm out of.”  Heading into no-man’s-land, he is reminded of the fate of Scott of the Antarctic:

Battling to reach the South Pole in his frozen thermal underwear, his toes frostbitten, but his heart pounding in his throat at the idea of treading on ground that had never been trodden on by man … Ground?  Snow then.  And treading on snow heretofore untrodden by man is something anyone with a back garden can do in winter.

As well as this repeated theme of the dual nature of the pioneer – possible hero, potential failure (“ninety-nine out of a hundred discoveries are seen as foregone conclusions”) – the book balances its cynicism by also considering the individual as part of a greater body of mankind.  Alfred considers ancient megaliths and the work involved by nameless generations:

How they managed without horses, winches, wheels is a mystery.  But it may have taken several generations to assemble twenty or thirty boulders in one place.  Building cathedrals was to the Middle Ages what shunting megaliths was to the Stone Age.  Levering them forward with the aid of tree trunks, half a metre a day.  Which is one hundred and fifty metres a year.  One point five kilometres in a decade.  Anything is feasible, provided people aren’t in a hurry, provided they have faith in their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren and don’t doubt the necessity of the task in hand  – such as building barrows for the dead.

Cathedrals took even longer to build, and they were just as useless.  Barrows are the Stone Age version of cathedrals.  What is my cathedral?  I am building a cathedral of unknown proportions, and by the time it is finished I will be long dead and no-one will ever know of my contribution.

Once in the highlands of Norway, the story returns to its comic beginning, as Alfred and his colleagues struggle in tents with the persistent rain and mosquitos, and the usual difficulties of non-comfort living (“We take turns going outside armed with six sheets of toilet paper and the folding spade.  It’s the only way”).

Beyond Sleep is a rich and strange book, becoming almost surreal in the later sections so that we wonder if all this is really happening – could “beyond sleep” mean dreams as well as death? – and I was reminded at times of Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, with its similar fluid structure and themes of purpose, stress and finding a role in life.

The Aztecs performed human sacrifices on a nightly basis, to ensure the sun would rise in the morning.  They had done so since time immemorial, the way we wind up our clocks before going to bed.  Not a murmur from anyone, not a soul who dared to suggest it might be worth finding out what would happen if they skipped the ceremony for once.

Was there ever an Aztec who raised his voice to protest: “What we’re doing is insane!”

In a world where so many sacrifices have already been made without any effect at all, how can anyone believe there are still sacrifices worth making?

Hilarious?  “Well, more pithy, I suppose,” as Basil Fawlty put it, but it’s a book of curious glory amid the brittle strangeness.  The best joke (apart from the one the publishers are playing on us, by not issuing a paperback) Hermans reserves for his afterword, which tells us that this translation is not of the first edition, but of the fifteenth printing, which has some 250 changes to the text – almost one per page.  “But the book is still the same: that is to say, what it should have been when it first came out.”

February 11, 2008

James Joyce: The Dead

Posted in Joyce James, Melville House at 9:18 pm by John Self

As someone who has failed over and over with Ulysses – but who hasn’t? – I couldn’t resist returning at the weekend to Joyce’s most famous story, which is that rarest combination of qualities: the work of a genius that you can get through in one sitting. I can’t resist a handsome volume, and ‘The Dead’ is published in a standalone edition by Melville House Publishing, in their series The Art of the Novella. (I hereby salute my fellow book blogger Lizzy Siddal for introducing me to them.) Is it really a novella, at 64 pages? More cost-effective anyway to pick it up as part of his collection Dubliners, or indeed there is no shortage of places where you can read it online for free. Anyway, this is the edition I read: plain and handsome, and irresistible with a matching design bar of chocolate. Both items now consumed.

It was years since I’d read ‘The Dead’ and I remembered almost nothing about it, apart from those extraordinary closing lines. And I don’t plan to say much more about it now, other than: read it. Despite its formal simplicity and beauty, I had to start it twice, just to get a handle on the flurry – one might say blizzard – of character Joyce refers to and introduces in the opening pages.

The setting, to try to whet the appetite without spoiling it, is a house party held by two elderly Dublin women, referred to as Miss Kate and Miss Julia, and their niece Mary Jane. Visitors are plentiful, including Freddy Malins (“they were dreadfully afraid [he] might turn up screwed”) and the hostesses’ nephew, Gabriel Conroy and his wife Gretta.

Where Joyce succeeds in ‘The Dead’ is in bring together so many elements almost in a showcase of virtuoso story writing. There is politics (this is Ireland, after all) in Gabriel’s confrontation with Miss Ivors, an Irish nationalist. There is psychological insight as Gabriel, who will be making a speech at the party, turns himself inside out with the fear that the erudite references he has planned will seem like snobbery, and alienate the other guests, drilling a perverse inferiority complex into himself as a result. There is brilliant rhythm in the prose:

Gabriel could not listen while Mary Jane was playing her Academy piece, full of runs and difficult passages, to the hushed drawing-room. He liked music, but the piece she was playing had no melody for him and he doubted whether it had any melody for the other listeners, though they had begged Mary Jane to play something. Four young men, who had come from the refreshment-room to stand in the doorway at the sound of the piano, had gone away quietly in couples after a few minutes. The only persons who seemed to follow the music were Mary Jane herself, her hands racing along the keyboard or lifted from it at the pauses like those of a priestess in momentary imprecation, and Aunt Kate standing at her elbow to turn the page.

And wit too: when the music ends, “the most vigorous clapping came from the four young men in the doorway who had gone away to the refreshment room at the beginning of the piece but had come back when the piano had stopped.”

As well as this, Joyce nods toward his future flirtations with textual playfulness, when he has Gabriel reflect on seeing his wife, and “asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of.” The story, at the risk of demeaning it, could almost be written with study in mind, so plentiful are the interpretations of the snow, the guests, Gabriel’s intentions and motivations, and the subject of the title: the dead. This brings us to those famous closing words, and I hope it will count as an enticement rather than ruining the effect if I take the opportunity to quote them here. There is, after all, a great pleasure to be had in typing out words that you know you would never be able to come near in perfection of phrasing. Is it a novella or just a story? In truth, it contains more than many multi-volume novels. This, and all that above, among other things, is the beauty of ‘The Dead.’

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted upon the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly though the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

February 9, 2008

Irmgard Keun: Child of All Nations

Posted in Hofmann Michael, Keun Irmgard, Penguin Modern Classics at 1:51 pm by John Self

When the reliable Penguin Classics imprint thinks a new translation of a 1938 German novel has enough potential to be issued in hardback, I have to pay attention. When the translation is by the equally reliable Michael Hofmann (a poet in his own right), then my wallet sighs open with pleasure. A bibliophile and his money are soon parted.

Irmgard Keun was the partner of novelist Joseph Roth for the last few years of his life: I’ve only dabbled in Roth with his novella The Legend of the Holy Drinker, but the testimonies of Susan Hill and dovegreyreader promise much more pleasure to be had from him yet (and dgr has already mentioned Irmgard Keun on this very site). Of course, a romantic connection with a fine writer doesn’t mean that Keun’s book will be good too: it must be just a coincidence, then.

Child of All Nations

Child of All Nations [1938] on the face of it sounds like pretty uninspiring stuff: a family flee Nazi Germany and seek peace elsewhere in Europe. Heard it all before. But what sets Keun’s novel apart is the uniquely charming voice of Kully, the nine-year-old narrator.

The danger of a child narrator is that the author can make it too cute, too disingenuous, or two-dimensional. Fortunately Kully is none of these things, but gets her point across:

When I was in Germany, before, I did go to school, and that’s where I learned to read and write. Then my father didn’t want to be in Germany any more, because the government had locked up friends of his, and because he couldn’t write or say the things he wanted to write and say. I wonder what the point is of children in Germany still having to learn to read and write?

Now her father is away raising money to enable them to continue their journey, and Kully and her mother are in Amsterdam, trying to stave off the day when they have to pay their hotel bills (“I get funny looks from hotel managers, but that’s not because I’m naughty; it’s the fault of my father … the waiters no longer brandish their napkins in that jolly way; instead they flick them at our table. Mama says they do it to clear the crumbs away, but it looks to me more like what you do to keep away pesky cats that have their eyes on the roast”).

Kully recounts their journeys across Germany, the Netherlands and France, with Keun meanwhile probing gently at the major issues surrounding the story. Reading it in the comfortably informed 21st century, it’s easy to forget that Child of All Nations was written when the worst of the Nazi terror was yet to come: this makes it seem both prescient and retrospectively wise. There is a postmodern sort of dramatic irony in operation: not only does the reader know more than the narrator, the reader knows more than the author. On the subject of contemporary politics Kully’s father has this to say:

‘As for fear of God? Why? Why not trust in God? I’d rather my little girl worshipped matchboxes or liqueur glasses than that she be afraid of God. Everything that’s wrong in the world begins with fear. All that mess in Germany could only result because the people there have lived in fear for ever. … First a father demands that his child be afraid of him. Then there’s school and fear of the teacher, fear of God at church, fear of military or other superiors, fear of the police, fear of life, fear of death. Finally, the people are so crippled and warped by fear that they elect a government that they can serve in fear. Not content with that, when they see other people who are not set on living in fear, the get angry, and try in their turn to make them afraid. First of all they make God into a kind of dictator, and now they don’t need Him any more, because they’ve come up with a better dictator themselves.’

Child of All Nations is very funny too, from the authorial distance from her child narrator which enables Keun to invoke some witty irony, to Kully’s father’s bold way of trying to persuade people, and in particular women (all of whom, he feels, are susceptible to his charms). Here I saw reflections of Roth’s Holy Drinker Andreas, and his doomed attempts to stave off the loss of his money.

The one disappointment is the ending, or more accurately the last leg of the family’s journey. It damages the scale of the drama, and (as Hofmann acknowledges in his afterword) “breaks the claustrophobia of the book.” But this doesn’t matter too much – Child of All Nations is all about the journey, not the destination, and that is a very fine experience indeed.

February 6, 2008

David Park: The Truth Commissioner

Posted in Bloomsbury, Park David at 2:59 pm by John Self

Who’d be a publisher? Having to shout equally loud about all the books you publish, it becomes impossible for browsers to tell the good from the bad. Maybe there should be a key – a winking eye on the spine, say – to tell us what’s not really worth bothering with. The thought occurred as I was reading David Park’s new novel The Truth Commissioner, a book worthy of the highest praise; and yet I know I would never have heard of it, let alone bought it, if I hadn’t noticed that the book launch was taking place in my home city of Belfast, Park being a fellow Northern Irishman – and that in optimistic preparation, my local Waterstone’s had a couple of hundred copies stacked high everywhere I looked. I don’t know whether this is cheering, because I did discover it, or depressing, because of all the others I haven’t.

The Truth Commissioner

I don’t know whether The Truth Commissioner is cheering or depressing either: it’s solemn of outlook all right, but such a rare pleasure to read that it sent shivers of delight right up through me from the pages. It takes a situation ripe with emotional possibilities and does it every justice.

The setting is Northern Ireland, home of long memories and extended news bulletins, where at present there is momentum for a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to help draw a line under decades of conflict. Where other writers might feel that the move from violence to politics robs the subject of power, Park’s stroke of brilliance is to recognise that it is these moments of change – where attention has moved on but the story is not yet over – which offer the most dramatic potential, and in the book the Commission has been established. Some people want to forgive and forget, perhaps because their status now is one they don’t want to lose; others want to remember and still demand justice. Overlooking them all are the British and Irish politicians who most of all want to feel the hand of history on their shoulder, and will permit principles to erode in order to keep the process on track.

The first two-thirds of the book moves unhurriedly, with 60-page portraits of four men: Henry Stanfield, the Truth Commissioner; Francis Gilroy, former IRA man and now Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly; James Fenton, retired detective who will be able to provide some unwelcome facts to the Commission; and Danny, a young Irishman in America who is about to make a commitment to his girlfriend. Where these scenes excel is in filling in the truth of the men: Stanfield’s adulterous past, estranged daughter and weakness for younger women; Gilroy’s embarrassment at his lack of cultural knowledge which leads him to surreptitiously read Philip Larkin poems, and his new understanding of the fear of sudden murder which he himself once instilled in others; Fenton’s need to drive across Europe “where he’s unknown and no more visible than a grain of sand on the world’s shore” to atone for his past; Danny’s mistaken belief that his only worries are for the future. Stanfield in particular is a fascinating character, a perfect example of the type of person who comes to hate their old homeland after being away – Belfast is a place of “self-consoling mythology” – and who has some unwelcome observations to make about the political process:

Now the world doesn’t care any more because there are bigger wars and better terrors and all that remains is this final tidying up … He has even met a few individuals already who clearly have become emotionally dependent on their grief, who have jerry-built a kind of lop-sided, self-pitying life out of it and are unwilling to risk having even that taken from them, in exchange for their day in the sun.

These sections are written with beautiful poise and elegance, and although the sinuous style seemed a little similar from character to character, it can only be to Park’s credit that I found myself each time unwilling to leave the man whose life had been laid out before me, and keen to hear more of his story. The characters are fully fleshed, struggling to maintain their sense of self even as they understand that their place is ultimately in someone else’s story, with their “inability to resist or stop the flow.”

Although urgently political in background, the stories at the heart of The Truth Commissioner are human ones, stories of exertion of and submission to power, and of “the curse of memory.” In the last third the pace picks up and the story becomes almost a thriller – well, I was pretty thrilled anyway – without sacrificing its grounded sincerity. All this is surrounded by a linked introduction and coda which opens the book on a note of high drama and ends it with something approaching serenity.

Truth is a relative concept, and personal, and perhaps I am swayed by my knowledge of the places and processes described in the book, like an excited local pointing out his street on a TV drama. For me, nonetheless, the truth is that David Park has written what looks like the first essential novel of 2008.

February 4, 2008

Patrick McGrath: Trauma

Posted in Bloomsbury, McGrath Patrick at 9:21 am by John Self

To say this is my most long-awaited book of the year would be an exaggeration – that’ll be Adam Mars-Jones’s Pilcrow, 15 years in the coming – but it’s certainly my most eagerly awaited. I’ve been reading and relishing Patrick McGrath’s novels since 1993’s Dr Haggard’s Disease, and each new book since then has been a source of untrammelled delight (the disappointing Martha Peake [2000] being the exception that etc). So it was inevitable that I wouldn’t wait for publication (April in the US, July in the UK) if I could possibly help it.

Trauma (US)

Admirers of McGrath’s work know what to expect from Trauma: an unreliable first person narrative with aspects of mental illness and sexual obsession. In this he delivers, and indeed some elements of the book are so familiar – the art world from Port Mungo (2004), psychiatrists from Asylum (1996) and the story ‘Ground Zero’ from Ghost Town (2005) – that on a reading of the blurb it might seem that McGrath is simply going through his hoops; or at least mopping up unused research. Also there is an inherent danger in having a trademark style where there is, if not a twist or revelation near the end, then a reversal in understanding by the reader: when this is anticipated, how does the author stay one step ahead?

McGrath has no hesitation in doling out juicy titbits literally from the beginning. Trauma begins:

My mother’s first depressive illness occurred when I was seven years old, and I felt it was my fault.

This is the voice of Charlie Weir, psychiatrist based in New York City. (McGrath’s first four novels were set in England; with his next two he combined Britain with his adopted home of the USA; with Trauma he has crossed the Atlantic completely.) McGrath knows the attuned reader will be awaiting ‘clues’ to the truth of Charlie’s world, and offers them up freely:

In those days we lived in shabby discomfort in a large apartment on West Eighty-Seventh Street, where my brother lives with his family today. I never contested Walt’s right to have it after Mom died, and have come to terms with the fact that she left me nothing. Indeed, it amuses me that she would throw this one last insult in my face from beyond the grave. It was more appropriate that Walt should have the apartment, given the size of his family, and me living alone, although Walt didn’t actually need the apartment. Walt was a wealthy man – Walter Weir, the painter? But I don’t resent this, although having said that, or rather, had I heard one of my patients say it, I would at once detect the anger behind the words. With consummate skill I would then extricate the truth, bring it up to the surface where we could both face it square: You hated your mother! You hate her still!

But Charlie loves his mother, he assures us, and looks after her when she’s alone (“Ah, Charlie. Always trying to help people who don’t want it”); it’s his father he can’t stand (referring to him as ‘Fred’ while mom remains ‘Mom’). Fred walked out on the family, Mom became a depressive, a drinker, and worst of all a novelist.

I was comforted by the sound of the typewriter. If she was typing then she wasn’t crying, although later she was able to do both at once.

This is a book of contradictions. We feel we know what Charlie thinks – he thinks he knows what he feels – yet we can’t resist hunting down meaning in every aside (“Mine is a profession that might appear on the surface to suit the passive personality. But don’t be too quick to assume we’re uninterested in power”). It has a complex time scheme and multiple well-detailed characters, but has the unity and force of a short story.

Trauma (UK)

The subject matter is families, and McGrath concentrates on “irregular” relationships within the home and how they reach out into our lives to create a spiderweb of dysfunction. Charlie broke up with his wife, Agnes, after her brother died; they got back together when his mother died. Like many of McGrath’s protagonists, he has an unhealthy interest in detailing the rise and fall of his, well, you know (“With stiffening penis I rose to greet her…”). All the decisions that Charlie makes, even when they’re hardly decisions at all, seem to make perfect sense, showing how well McGrath weaves us into his doubtful reasoning. All through there are suggestions that we might not be seeing the whole truth:

This falsification of memory – the adjustment, abbreviation, invention, even omission of experience – is common to us all, it is the business of psychic life, and I was never seriously upset about it. I know how very fickle the human mind is, and how malleable, when it has to accommodate belief, or deny the intolerable.

The story does lead to a dramatic conclusion – perhaps more obviously (dare one say cinematically?) dramatic than any of McGrath’s earlier novels – which at first seems too clear cut and suddenly obvious. On further reflection, the reader realises that there are layers to unpeel yet – does the book have more in common with Port Mungo than just the painterly details? – and an early revisit to this expertly told tale will not go amiss. So that’s why they’re publishing it at two different times.

February 1, 2008

Martin Amis: The Second Plane

Posted in Amis Martin at 10:27 am by John Self

Whatever happened to Martin Amis? You know: the comic novelist who could turn a phrase on a sixpence and make us laugh instantly (or better, smile for a long time) at things we shouldn’t be laughing or smiling at.  By us I mean me, for if I wasn’t already an admirer of Amis’s work (the name I use here is a bit of a giveaway), why would I have bought this book which has been roundly trashed in the press?  “Strong whiff of racial prejudice” … “disturbingly bigoted” … “wilfully ignorant” – and that’s just The Sunday Times.

The Second Plane

This current wave of Martiphobia comes from allegations of racism for comments Amis made in an interview in 2006, apropos Islamist terrorism: “There’s a definite urge – don’t you have it? – to say, ‘The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.’ What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation – further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan…”  An eyebrow-raiser, for sure, to those of us weaned on the teat of the liberal press, but Amis – always committed as a novelist to acknowledging that we sometimes think the sort of things we know we shouldn’t think – insists they were no more than this, and that the “urge evaporated in a few hours.”  Instead, he suggests that what a writer says should never be their last word on a subject, but what they write should be.  We should judge him, then, by The Second Plane.  Let’s go.

The first question is whether Amis’s style and wit, his linguistic charm, has deserted him.  What else do we read Amis for, after all?  “Someone once said of my work, and I didn’t mind at all, that I deal in banalities delivered with tremendous force.  That’s fine by me.”  The chronological arrangement of the pieces in The Second Plane is key here.  We see Amis on a journey, which begins – after the initial shock and awe of his response to the September 11 attacks – with business more or less as usual.  The phrasemaking is there – “the television, when you dared to turn it on, showed Americans queueing for anthrax hosedowns, or the writhing moustaches of Pakistan, prophesying civil war” – as is the air of insouciant omniscience, as when he derides George Bush’s lassoing of North Korea into his ‘axis of evil': “the zombie nation of North Korea is, in truth, so mortally ashamed of itself that it can hardly bear to show its face, and is not a part of anything.”  He also misses no opportunity to have a wisecrack at Bush:

Bush is more religious than Saddam: of the two presidents he is, in this respect, the more psychologically primitive.  We hear about the successful ‘Texanisation’ of the Republican Party.  And doesn’t Texas sometimes seem to resemble a country like Saudi Arabia, with its great heat, its oil wealth, its brimming houses of worship, and its weekly executions?

We even see familiar traits in the first of the two stories in the book, ‘In the Palace of the End,’ where Amis imagines life for a double (twins and pairings being familiar tropes in Amis’s fiction) of the son of a Saddam-like dictator in a torture house.  Here we have recognisably Amisian rhetorical reverses, a la Time’s Arrow:

I am wondering, as I always do at this time of day, why the body’s genius for pain so easily outsoars its fitful talent for pleasure; wondering why the pretty trillings of the bedroom are so easily silenced by the impossible vociferation of the Interrogation Wing; and wondering why the spasms and archings of orgasm are so easily rendered inert and insensible by the climactic epilepsy of torture.  You don’t need to dim the lights for torture, or play soft music.  People will respond.  You don’t need to get them in the mood.  Everyone’s always in the mood.

All these pieces date from 2004 or earlier: WTC attacks, Afghanistan; early Iraq.  The bulk of the book, including the longest piece ‘Terror and Boredom: The Dependent Mind’ (originally published in the Observer as ‘The Age of Horrorism’), comes from 2006 and later: after, that is, the suicide bombings in London in July 2005.

Is it this, the proximity of violence, which shakes Amis and his words?  Was the subject, before 2005, another interesting intellectual exercise but not a matter of personal experience?  This has happened before.  In the mid-1980s, for a time suddenly everything Amis wrote was about nuclear weapons, and imminent Armageddon.  I was too young at the time to judge – I mean, OK, we all thought Threads was pretty scary – but now that stuff, including the stories collected in Einstein’s Monsters, looks pretty hysterical, almost embarrassing.

Certainly there is a steeliness, an (oxymoronic) humourless irony in some of the later pieces.  Here is the key:

Religion is sensitive ground, as well it might be.  Here we walk on eggshells.  Because religion is itself an eggshell.  Today, in the West, there are no good excuses for religious belief – unless we think that ignorance, reaction, and sentimentality are good excuses.

Ultimately, Amis’s curled-lip contempt for Islamism comes from a derision of religion.   In this long piece he professes admiration for Islam itself (though in the preface, he regrets that it is “rather heavy on ‘respect’ for Islam”) but clearly this is a half-hearted position.  His disgust at religious belief – “we are not dealing in reason” – bleeds through everything.  Is this the source of attacks on Amis: the notion that he must respect other religious cultures, or cultural religions, when he clearly looks down on them?

Here is a piece from September 15, 2001:

I am trying to call attention to the elephant in the room that everybody is too polite – or too devout – to notice: religion, and specifically the devaluing effect that religion has on human life. … Religion teaches the dangerous nonsense that death is not the end. …  To fill a world with religion, or religions of the Abrahamic kind, is like littering the streets with loaded guns. Do not be surprised if they are used.

Not by Amis, but by Richard Dawkins, writing in the Guardian.  Dawkins’s message, right out of the trap, was the same as the one which Amis took some time to get to: religion is the problem here, religion gave us September 11.  Like Amis, he has nothing but contempt for religious belief and, mostly, religious believers.  Yet Dawkins has not suffered the same auto-da-fé that Amis has: indeed, the higher his anti-religious rhetoric soars, the more books he sells.  Amis’s mistake then is in going off-message, in acknowledging the ‘unworthy’ thoughts that Islamists – fundamentalist Muslims – are often identifiable by appearance, or at least identifiable by how they don’t appear.  He makes reference to this once in the book, again in the context of an impulsive, reactionary thought, but it’s one which looks as though it will haunt him for some time to come.

In any event, the book gradually returns to something like business as usual for Amis.  There is a piece near the end, following Tony Blair in his last days as Prime Minister, which is positively jaunty.  Others, mainly book reviews, are filled with Amis’s authoritative tone on the history and practice of Islamism which have been called into question by others (one accusation which Amis and Dawkins share is that they concentrate on the most extreme forms of religious belief in order to attack all branches), better informed than I am.  But the overwhelming experience, when coming to The Second Plane and looking for all that racism, bigotry and intolerance, is: is this it?  This tends to be the result when reading or seeing anything that one has been shrilly warned against: it’s not half as bad as they make out.  In fact, it’s very good.  Maybe I am too much of an old Amis-head to make a worthwhile assessment but I got as much pleasure out of this book as I think could have been intended.  What can I say?  I like his style.


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