April 30, 2008

Muriel Spark: Loitering with Intent

Posted in Spark Muriel at 7:57 am by John Self

When Muriel Spark was mentioned in recent comments on this blog, I realised how long it is since I read anything by her. A few years ago, I worked my way through most of her novels, and probably overdosed. I found her brilliant but frustrating, her fiction paradoxically crystal clear but at times as hard to grasp as fog. She has a coolness toward her characters – and the reader – which wouldn’t appeal to everyone. But there were so many great things – the bold opening move of having a character in her debut, The Comforters, know that she was in a novel; the prescient portrayal of a celebrity age in The Public Image; the sharp-edged and brutal novella The Driver’s Seat; and that’s not to mention her justly famous titles such as Memento Mori or The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – that it was impossible not to keep coming back for more.

Loitering with Intent

So I fished out Loitering with Intent from my shelves, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1981 and reissued last year as a Virago Modern Classic, with a jaunty cover illustration and paper so cheap and thin that the book weighs no more than an airmail letter.

In common with most of Spark’s later books, Loitering with Intent is – comparatively – gentler and warmer than her earlier titles, but retains their cleverness. In its knowing play with notions of the role of the author and the sources of fiction, it’s much more modern than its quaint setting suggests. It’s set, in fact, in 1950 – “one day in the middle of the twentieth century” – the year in which Spark was first published, in a short story competition in The Observer. It’s personalised by having, unusually for Spark, a first person narrator who is working on her first novel; and so the encouragement to associate character with author is all the stronger.

The narrator is Fleur Talbot, her novel is Warrender Chase, and to support herself as she writes she takes a job as secretary to the Autobiographical Association.

‘You could write your autobiography,’ I said. ‘You could join the Autobiographical Association where the members write their true life stories and have them put away for seventy years so that no living person will be offended.’

The Association is run by Sir Quentin Oliver, and Fleur quickly comes to suspect him of foul play against his vulnerable members. Furthemore, she is alarmed to discover that her novel seems to be coming to life.

In my febrile state of creativity I saw before my eyes how Sir Quentin was revealing himself chapter by chapter to be a type and consummation of Warrender Chase, my character. I could see that the members of the Autobiographical Association were about to become his victims, psychological Jack the Ripper as he was.

The scene is set for a farcical tale of detection, betrayal and missing manuscripts. Readers like me, who are almost as interested in the process of how a book comes to be as they are in books themselves, will be delighted by the scenes dealing with the writing process, publishing contracts and the dismal lot that is an author’s. Spark, in Fleur’s voice, also gives us some insight into what she knows to be criticisms – and strengths – of her own fiction:

I knew I wasn’t helping the reader to know whose side they were supposed to be on. I simply felt compelled to go on with my story without indicating what the reader should think. … I never described, in my book, what Warrender’s motives were. I simply showed the effect of his words, his hints. … When I first started writing people used to say my novels were exaggerated. They never were exaggerated, merely aspects of realism.

It is these ‘aspects of realism’ which can be so foxing in Spark’s spiky fiction. The space left where other authors would indicate motive or tell the reader what to think, gives the book, like her others, a clearness and breathability which enables it to respond quite differently to each reader’s approach. “Complete frankness,” Fleur observes, “is not a quality that favours art.”

April 27, 2008

Kurt Vonnegut: Cat’s Cradle

Posted in Penguin Modern Classics, Vonnegut Kurt at 10:17 am by John Self

Cat’s Cradle was the first Kurt Vonnegut book I read, probably 15 or more years ago. It inspired me to read everything else he wrote, and as I worked my way through his output, I omnivorously ignored advice that his later work wasn’t really worth the bother. It turns out that advice was wise (though I’m still glad I found out for myself). So if you’re a Vonnegut virgin, and more susceptible to advice than I was, my tip would be to read all his books from the 1950s and 60s (particularly the likes of Player Piano, The Sirens of Titan and Mother Night), approach the 1970s books with caution, and forget the stuff from the 80s and beyond. There are a few anomalies: Galápagos (1985) is interesting; I think of his last novel, 1997’s Timequake, as a bit of a return to form; and I am possibly the only Vonnegut fan who has never been able to get on with his most famous and acclaimed book, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969).

Cat's Cradle

I reread Cat’s Cradle this week as it’s just been reissued as a Penguin Modern Classic – and not before time – with an incomprehensible but rather beautiful cover, an introduction by Benjamin Kunkel, and a terrific author photo I hadn’t seen before which for once doesn’t make Vonnegut look like a bag lady. It was published in 1963, which places it squarely in Vonnegut’s great period. On rereading it, I was relieved to find the theory holds: it’s a masterpiece of Vonnegut’s seductive, clear-eyed whimsy, and possibly his best book.

‘All right,’ said Dr Breed. ‘Listen carefully. Here we go.’

There’s a lot going on in Cat’s Cradle – easily too much for its skimpy length and truncated chapters (127 of them in 200 pages). Characters teem through the thing, ideas come and go, and the world ends: it’s a pocket epic, as indicated by the opening line, delivered with a wink: “Call me Jonah.” The narrator, whose name in fact is John, is a journalist who begins his journey by wanting to write a book about the day the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and ends it in a quite unexpected and worthless position of power.

There’s a lot going on, but it ultimately comes down to science and religion. Vonnegut was president of the American Humanist Association, who nonetheless felt that faith was too “important and honourable” to lose. In Cat’s Cradle it may seem unexpected, coming from a non-believer, that science is a source of destruction and religion one of consolation, but this is Vonnegut’s traditional portrayal of people as beings who will mess everything up given the chance. “My god – life! Who can understand even one little minute of it?”

John becomes interested in Franklin Hoenikker, one of the fathers of the atom bomb, and follows Hoenikker’s children to the island of San Lorenzo. He becomes a Bokononist, the religion founded by Bokonon (real name Lionel Boyd Johnson) on San Lorenzo as a response to the awful reality of life there:

When it became clear that no governmental or economic reform was going to make the people much less miserable, the religion became the one real instrument of hope. Truth was the enemy of the people, because the truth was so terrible, so Bokonon made it his business to provide the people with better and better lies.

Bokononism is unique among religions in that it knows it’s false, but the curious thing is that its rituals work, and its precepts often make sense. It is ubiquitous on the island, yet outlawed, punishable by death through impalement on a large hook (“‘If I am ever put to death on the hook,’ Bokonon warns us, ‘expect a very human performance'”). Vonnegut’s humanism crosses barriers of rationalism and irrationalism. “Science is magic that works,” says the dying president of San Lorenzo, urging his successor to pursue and kill Bokonon. But one page later he is accepting the last rites of Bokononism, delivered by a man who calls himself “a very bad scientist. I will do anything to make a human being feel better, even if it’s unscientific. No scientist worthy of the name could say such a thing.”

Throughout the book people exhibit the human need to belong, whether to a religion, geographical origins, or what Bokonon calls a karass, an association of two or more people whose fates will be flung together for reasons unclear to them. It’s a routine theme of Vonnegut’s, and is dealt with less sentimentally here than in later work like Slapstick. Vonnegut’s deep pessimism about humanity (“She hated people who thought too much. At that moment, she struck me as an appropriate representative for all mankind”) is tempered – or in some ways enhanced – by his absurdist wit.

‘The trouble with the world was,’ she continued hesitatingly, ‘that people were still superstitious instead of scientific. He said if everybody would study science more, there wouldn’t be all the trouble there was.’

‘He said science was going to discover the basic secret of life some day,’ the bartender put in. He scratched his head and frowned. ‘Didn’t I read in the paper the other day where they’d finally found out what it was?’

‘I missed that,’ I murmured.

‘I saw that,’ said Sandra. ‘About two days ago.’

‘That’s right,’ said the bartender.

‘What is the secret of life?’ I asked.

‘I forget,’ said Sandra.

‘Protein,’ the bartender declared. ‘They found out something about protein.’

‘Yeah,’ said Sandra. ‘That’s it.’

Cat’s Cradle is full of lively and deathly humour, and even the author himself is not above having fun poked at his vocation, as when characters discuss the possibility of a writer’s strike.

‘I don’t think my conscience would let me support a strike like that. When a man becomes a writer, I think he takes on a sacred obligation to produce beauty and enlightenment and comfort at top speed.’

‘I just can’t help thinking what a real shaking up it would give people if, all of a sudden, there were no new books, new plays, new histories, new poems…’

‘And how proud would you be when people started dying like flies?’ I demanded.

There are also some evergreen words on the US (“The highest possible form of treason is to say that Americans aren’t loved wherever they go, whatever they do. …American foreign policy should recognise hate rather than imagine love. Americans are hated a lot of places. People are hated a lot of places. Americans, in being hated, are simply paying the normal penalty for being people, and they are foolish to think that they should somehow be exempted from that penalty”).

I said there was a lot going on in Cat’s Cradle, and I see I have written quite a lot and haven’t even mentioned ice-nine, the deadly substance which is central to the book, or the meaning of the title (“See the cat? See the cradle?”), or granfalloons, or the epigraph from the Books of Bokonon (“Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy”), or the Hundred Martyrs to Democracy, or the slaves who were executed in public “for sub-standard zeal”. Busy, busy, busy. So in 1963 at least, we can be grateful that Vonnegut, unlike Bokonon, listened to his own advice, as expressed by the man who was horrified by the idea of the writers’ strike:

For the love of God, both of you, please keep writing!

April 24, 2008

Stefan Zweig: Fantastic Night and other stories

Posted in Pushkin Press, Zweig Stefan at 7:22 am by John Self

When usually the prospect of reading a complete book of stories by the same author fills me with apathy, I’m not sure why I continue to be attracted to the collections of Stefan Zweig, published in the UK by Pushkin Press. This volume includes two stories I’ve already read, ‘The Invisible Collection’ and ‘Buchmendel’: frankly, to have already got two-fifths of a book under my belt before I’d even begun must have been a factor.

Fantastic Night and other stories

An image like the one on the cover appears in the third story, ‘The Fowler Snared’.

From time to time came a meteor, like one of these stars loosened from the firmament and plunging athwart the night sky; downwards into the dark, into the valleys, on to the hills, or into the distant water, driven by a blind force as our lives are driven into the abysses of unknown destinies.

‘Lives … driven into the abysses of unknown destinies’ are a feature of many of Zweig’s stories, though really it’s not so much the destiny which interests him – often the tale will end just as the life is opening up to new possibilities, and the reader must imagine those for himself – as the ‘blind force’ which drives them. But if this suggests a fatalism in his characters, that would not be quite true.

In the title story ‘Fantastic Night’ (1922) – the longest in the collection at 54 pages – the central character, typically for Zweig, is at one remove from us, his story told through the framing device of the narrator being given a bundle of papers which contain the text. Again typically for Zweig, we are then given a detailed and emotive account of the man’s spiritual awakening, which “has become the pivot on which my whole existence turns.” Before this ‘fantastic night’ he was a successful but empty man of 36 with independent income and no real concerns.

I did not lack for success with women, and here too, with the secret collector’s urge which in a way indicates a lack of real involvement, I chalked up many memorable and precious hours of varied experience. In this field I gradually moved from being a mere sensualist to the status of a knowledgeable connoisseur. … But nothing stirred, I felt as if I were made of glass, with the world outside shining through me and never lingering within…

What changes his life is a day at the races, where a minor lapse of morality gives vent to such feelings of vigour and life when he cheats to win that “I felt myself, desiccated as I was, suddenly flowering again.” This leads to “the pull of criminality” and later to “the frenzied enchantment of gambling for the second time in twelve hours, but this time for the highest of stakes, for my whole comfortable existence, even my life.” Zweig takes his time over this development, and it’s tempting to yell Get on with it! as he gives us a moment-by-moment account of our man’s growth. Yet his triumph in ‘Fantastic Night’ is twofold. First, to reach one of his usual fine epiphanies at the end of the story and make us realise it could not have been told any more briefly without losing its cumulative power; and second, to seemingly leave the story open-ended until we return to the framing introduction and discover we already know the character’s fate from the outset as surely and as subtly as we do with Mrs Richard F Schiller’s in Lolita, and that the end loops back to the beginning in a highly satisfying way.

Elsewhere I read that the second story in this volume, ‘Letter from an Unknown Woman’ (1922), was one of Zweig’s finest moments. I don’t know about that, but it does have one remarkable quality in a story – yet again – of constantly heightened emotion and passionate expression, which is to make the most interesting character the one who never speaks, to whom the story is addressed. This is a writer of Zweig’s age and nationality, who receives a letter from a woman who turns out to have adored him all her life.

Nothing can equal the unnoticed love of a child. It is hopeless and subservient; it is patient and passionate; it is something which the covetous love of a grown woman, the love that is unconsciously exacting, can never be.

There are dramatic developments, but all along the most interesting question from the reader’s point of view is: how is the writer – who has chosen to share this letter with us – feeling about it? Wondering whether we will ever find out is the greatest pleasure of all.

This volume is essential for any Zweig fan, or indeed any admirer of strongly driven stories of unrequited love and metaphysical frenzy – which almost goes without saying as I had already recommended the last two stories here (‘The Invisible Collection’ and ‘Buchmendel’) in their stand-alone edition. The final story here that was new to me is the ten-page short ‘The Fowler Snared,’ where Zweig plays with the notion of fiction and the responsibility of the author to his characters. One character has no interest in such things:

The fancies of fiction… do they not fade after a time, do they not perish in twenty, fifty or a hundred years?

Yes they do, but this one – first published in 1906 – looks like surviving a little longer yet.

April 21, 2008

James Salter: Burning the Days

Posted in Salter James at 8:19 am by John Self

When I belatedly discovered James Salter last year, I adored his novel Light Years so much that I knew not only that I would have to read everything he’s written, but that I had to take my time doing so. His output, in 82 years and counting, comprises just five novels, two collections of stories and a memoir. Fortunately in the UK most of these books were reissued last year, with his most recent (if that’s the term: it was published in 1979) novel Solo Faces to be reissued as a Penguin Modern Classic later this year. Just his second novel Cassada and his first story collection Dusk are out of print. Anyway, I’ve restrained myself for almost a year now, so time to indulge with his memoir, Burning the Days (1997), shown here in the typically uninspiring cover of the 2007 Picador reissue. (I much prefer the more colourful US cover.)

Burning the Days (UK) Burning the Days (US)

My original intention was to read all Salter’s fiction before Burning the Days, as I knew he would have a lot to say about his work within these pages. I was wrong: of the six books he had published when this was written, only A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years are referred to more than once. A couple aren’t mentioned by name at all, including his fine debut The Hunters. So in the end I am pleased I read this book now: it avoids building up yet further expectation in my mind, and therefore being even more disappointed by it than I was.

The problem is that despite Salter having had an interesting life by anyone’s standards – privileged upbringing, fighter pilot, screenwriter, ‘interesting’ relationships – the book to me was for the majority frankly dull. Most of the first half, outside his childhood, is taken up with his time as a pilot, which for my money is far more interestingly covered in his autobiographical novel The Hunters. But this is a book of recall – its subtitle is Recollection – and Salter says that Light Years was inspired by Jean Renoir’s “The only things that are important in life are those you remember.” So he writes well about the cruel selectiveness of memory.

Families of no importance – so much is lost, entire histories, there is no room for it all. There are only the generations surging forward like the tide, the years filled with sound and froth, then being washed over by the rest. That is the legacy of the cities.

Or here, when meeting his old teacher. There’s no suggestion in the book that Salter has lost his way with language:

I meant him to see that his faith in me had been confirmed, but I am not sure what he saw – his smile was one of not quite remembering. His children had replaced me and life now crowded in. As if the school years had been a vine and something cut them and they fell.

In the second half, after too much flightiness, we’re back to earth, with some memories of writers such as Irwin Shaw (er, which one was he again?) and Hemingway. Nonetheless I keep wanting him to get to his own books: is it unnatural for me to want a writer’s memoir to be more or less a director’s commentary on each of his works? But they come only in a fifty-page burst at the end which almost justifies – or at least is cause for forgiveness of – everything that went before. Perhaps Salter sees his novels as only a small aspect of his life (he certainly hasn’t spent the majority of his time writing them). But at the same time he’s primarily known for being a novelist, isn’t he? And “there is your life as you know it and also as others know it, perhaps incorrectly, but to which some importance must be attached. It is difficult to realize that you are observed from a number of points and the sum of them has validity.”

Another area where Salter hasn’t lost his touch, or at least his habit, is in his love of female sexuality, which he tempered to mostly successful ends in A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years. The matched sensations of physical arousal and existential yearning were well evoked in those books (particularly in Viri’s affair with Kaya Doutreau in Light Years), and here he gives us, for example, a portrait of John Huston’s mistress which you can practically taste.

Ilena may have been her name or it may have been the name she simply wore like a silk dressing gown one longed to peel back. Warmth came off her in waves. She was twenty-three years old and weighed sixty-two kilos, the absence of any part of which would have been a grave loss. … It was lovely to watch her. Her legs, the silk of her print dress, the smoothness of her cheeks, all of it shone like constellations, the sort that rule one’s fate.

Salter’s – one thing I learned is that that’s not his real name: he’s Horowitz – great subject is success; other writers prefer failure. He says, “Sometimes you are aware when your great moments are happening, and sometimes they rise from the past.” The horrible conclusion for me from Burning the Days – published in 1997 when he was 72 – so far is that as a writer, Salter’s great moments may be behind him. Which is not to make those moments any less great.

What more is there to wish than to be remembered? To go on living in the narrative of others?

April 18, 2008

Nigel Balchin: Darkness Falls from the Air

Posted in Balchin Nigel at 11:59 am by John Self

Anyone who reads this blog regularly may recognise this book; it was recommended by Patrick McGrath in the interview I posted with him recently. I had (just about) heard of Nigel Balchin before this: there’s a battered copy of his novel A Way Through the Woods in my local Waterstone’s, under its film-tie-in title of Separate Lies. It’s been there so long it feels like an old friend. A little further investigation shows Balchin was the author also of The Small Back Room, made into a 1949 film by the great Powell & Pressburger (though one of their lesser works).  Hazel, who commented on this blog, showed that it was an older generation who were most familiar with Balchin, and a thorough piece by Clive James in 1974 – a few years after Balchin’s death – found his best known books then ‘still selling well’.  Sadly, thirty-odd years later, his best known contribution to our current culture is probably that, as an employee of confectioners Rowntree, he is credited with inventing the bubbles in the Aero bar, and the Kit-Kat.

Darkness Falls from the Air

In reading Darkness Falls from the Air (1942), an immediate problem of expectations arises. The book comes strongly recommended by a favourite author – and haven’t I been let down in that regard before? (Martin Amis, I can never love Nabokov or Bellow as much as you do.  But then, who can?) In particular, McGrath describes the book as having “the most perfect ending of any story I’ve ever read.” Well, apart from the fact that I would apply that particular epithet to McGrath’s own Dr Haggard’s Disease, this is practically a disappointment waiting to happen.

Our narrator is Bill Sarratt, a civil servant with an unfaithful wife and a extraordinary degree of coolness toward the bombing of London during the Blitz (“They seemed to be dropping a hell of a lot of stuff – far more than earlier in the evening.  I heard several sticks of three land, and once two fell close enough to leave me waiting for the third with a lot of interest”).  His wife’s lover, Stephen, tries to match him for cynicism.

Marcia and Stephen turned up about five minutes after I got there.  I thought they made a pretty pair, and didn’t much like it.  Marcia was all smoothed out and sparkling like women are after that sort of thing, and Stephen was looking big and handsome and haunted and so like a creative artist that you wouldn’t have thought he’d have the nerve to go around looking like that.  They were very much together, and I felt like a stockbroker uncle taking the engaged couple out.

I said, ‘I’ve ordered you some smoked salmon honey, right?’

‘Lovely,’ said Marcia.  ‘Bloody day?’

‘Average,’ I said.  ‘I think I may commit suicide soon.’

‘You can’t do that,’ said Stephen.  ‘I thought of it first.  Besides, why worry?  If you wait a week or two you’ll probably be killed anyhow.’  He drank some sherry and looked haunted.

The sense of ironic detachment even extends to Sarratt’s apparent acceptance of Marcia’s lover.  The chaos of wartime seems to be reflected in his psychology: all bets are off, normal rules of engagement are suspended.  The wit comes so thick and fast (“I tell you about my bomb?” says the proprietor of the local Italian restaurant.  “No.  And you aren’t going to now,” replies Sarratt.  “Otherwise I shall show you my operation”) that we know it must be covering over something else.  “I do loathe this facetiousness of yours,” Stephen tells Sarratt at one point.  “Why do you do it?  It’s horrible.  It’s macabre.”  But the trace of something that lies beneath shows when Marcia and Sarratt do have an argument – about Stephen – and they still “hung on to each other” while there were “occasional bumps going on outside.”  The word ‘outside’ – making a unit out of Sarratt and Marcia, pitting them against the world instead of against one another – is the first sign of a chink in his armour.

When he’s not pretending not to care about his wife and her lover, Sarratt is faced with a working day as tangled as his personal life.  At his job in the Civil Service, his time is taken up working on nebulous projects which never come to fruition, while bureaucratic doubletalk and pointless personnel shifts bring to mind the satire of Yes Minister.  And the mess of ineffectual government recalls the line in Fawlty Towers: “How did they ever win the war?”  It’s easy to forget on reading it now that at the time of publication, nobody knew how the war was going to end, which makes Balchin’s willingness to give his character such an insouciant attitude to the German bombings all the more bold.

Fred Giles came in and said one of the messengers had been killed in last night’s raid, plus wife, plus son, plus daughter, plus son-in-law.  They were in an Anderson.  It was a direct hit.  Fred said, ‘Somebody was going to start a fund for the family and then they found there wasn’t any family.’

This knowing take on the British stiff upper lip and muddling through, studded almost sickeningly with ice cold bons mots, can only go so far without becoming tiresome, and at 200 pages Darkness Falls from the Air doesn’t outstay its welcome.  By the now-legendary ending (“It seemed to me that the thing wasn’t as over as it ought to have been”), we have seen another side not only of Sarratt but of Balchin: the tension in the closing scenes was recognisably from the same hand as the nerve-shattering bomb-disposal sequence in the film of The Small Back Room.

There’s even room for optimism of a sort, though it’s typical of this tricky and intricate novel that you have to fight your way through a lot of cool wit and understated tragedy to find it.

If it came to that I was in a better temper myself.  The sun was shining and altogether it looked like being one of the better days.  I felt that one of the better days was due anyhow.


Postscript: If the above hasn’t persuaded you to try this fine novel, then let Patrick McGrath himself have a goBe warned though that he loves that ending so much, he can’t resist giving it away.

April 16, 2008

John O’Hara: Appointment in Samarra

Posted in O'Hara John at 8:07 am by John Self

I’m a real sucker for reissues of old books, particularly when they have lovely covers. Vintage Classics in the UK were just such an example: I’d never have discovered Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow or Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt if it hadn’t been for their striking, elegant, timeless – Classic! – design. Then someone at Vintage suffered a head injury and decided to ditch that design after just three years. The new look has a vivid red spine, more flexibility in the cover design, and the colossally boneheaded policy of replacing the author’s forename with the word VINTAGE on every cover. VINTAGE AUSTEN. VINTAGE McEWAN. Geddit? Except as well as being gimmicky, it’s frustrating when the author is less well-known. The Aerodrome by VINTAGE WARNER, anyone? (Rex, it turns out.) Or how about this: Appointment in Samarra by VINTAGE O’HARA: that’s John to you and me.

Appointment in Samarra

I was sure I’d heard of John O’Hara before anyway. Wasn’t he one of those New York poets? Actually no: I was conflating John Berryman and Frank O’Hara. My boycott of the new Vintage Classics (and just when Random House were beginning to feel the pinch too!) had to end when I saw this title being reissued earlier this month: I’d read somewhere recently, as an aside in an article about Brian Moore I think, that Appointment in Samarra (1934) was one of the ‘great short novels’ of the 20th century. Sold.

The title comes from an Arabic fable, retold by Somerset Maugham in his 1933 play Sheppey (either O’Hara already knew it, or he was a fast worker). It’s worth quoting here in full, as it forms the epigraph to the novel – and frankly it has a laconic quality that the book fairly lacks.

Death Speaks:

There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threating gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

So by extrapolation an ‘appointment in Samarra’ is a date with death, and it comes as little surprise when the blurb tells us that O’Hara’s novel charts “the rapid decline and fall of Julian English.” In fact the decline is and is not rapid: O’Hara spends so much time detailing the lives of others that the sense of progress in Julian’s demise is choppy, and so when it does come it seems too sudden.

At the same time this digression into the history and sensibilities of every passing character is virtuosity of a sort, and there’s a Yatesian quality to O’Hara’s unflinching – some might say cruel – eye:

Constance Walker, the little fool, was not wearing her glasses again, as if everyone in the club didn’t know she couldn’t see across the table without them. She was known on the stag line as a girl who would give you a dance; she was at Smith, and was a good student. She had a lovely figure, especially her breasts, and she was a passionate little thing who wasn’t homely but was plain and, if she only knew it, didn’t look well without her glasses. She was so eager to please that when a young man would cut in on her, he got the full benefit of her breasts and the rest of her body. The young men were fond of saying, before leaving to cut in on Constance, “Guess I’ll go get a work-out.” The curious thing about her was that four of the young men had had work-outs with her off the dance floor, and as a result Constance was not a virgin; yet the young men felt so ashamed of themselves for yielding to a lure that they could not understand, in a girl who was accepted as not attractive, that they never exchanged information as to Constance Walker’s sex life, and she was reputed to be chaste.

This sort of solipsistic (“We begin our story in the head of…”) character demolition runs through the book: author and characters seem to share the same misanthropy. Which takes us back to the loose centre of the book, Julian English, a successful young man in the prosperous town of Gibbsville, who is slowly filling with rancour and bitterness. He comes to realise that he is surrounded by

terrible people, who didn’t have to do anything to make them terrible, but were just terrible people. Of course, they usually did do something, but they didn’t have to.

We can’t quite work out what Julian’s employer Harry Reilly has done to make him so terrible in his eyes, but whatever it was, it earns Harry the insult of a drink thrown in his face, a rash and meaningless act which Julian will spend the rest of the book trying to recover from. Julian becomes aware of Harry’s power in the small community, and the only perverse good that comes out of the situation is that now Julian, like Bernard MacLaverty’s Cal, has something to feel guilty about:

Julian … felt the tremendous excitement, the great thrilling lump in the chest and abdomen that comes before the administering of an unknown, well-deserved punishment. He knew he was in for it.

However as mentioned before, the process of his decline is uneven, and punctuated too heavily with other character portraits. O’Hara’s characters occupy the same country – and years – as Fitzgerald’s, but are a few rungs further down the social ladder, with an associated edginess and lack of certainty in their lives. The dialogue that spits between mismatched couples and fairweather friends is well done, and there’s something admirable in O’Hara’s attempt to keep so many plates spinning. It’s this quality which breaks the flow of the story, and makes it seem much longer than its 250 pages. It seems terrible to say it of such a well written book, but as ‘great short novels’ of the 20th century go, it doesn’t half seem to drag at times.

April 13, 2008

Gordon Burn: Born Yesterday

Posted in Burn Gordon at 9:27 am by John Self

The cover of Born Yesterday quotes novelist David Peace calling Burn “the best British writer there is.” Peace and Burn have a certain sensibility in common so we might expect some bias, but even so, at times I would agree with him. Burn’s relentless pursuit of the centre of “the psychopathology of fame” over the last couple of decades has given us some wonderful, overlooked books. His debut novel Alma Cogan (1991) took a subtle look at the tabloid iconography of Myra Hindley while Rupert Thomson was still in short trousers. His last book Best and Edwards was my favourite read of 2006, bringing an exceptional literary intelligence to twin tragic tales of the other end of celebrity: a book about football which even a soccerphobe like me could love. So when I heard that he was going to be taking the major news events of 2007 and making a novel out of them, I was hyperventilating with anticipation. My usual trawls of eBay, publisher’s publicists and elsewhere at the start of the year for an advance copy proved fruitless; no wonder, as it turns out Burn only started writing it at Christmas, and finished just six weeks before publication, in mid-February. A novel in six weeks? Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Iain Banks. Oh dear.

Born Yesterday

Here’s the news: it’s not a novel. There is no overall storyline, and no invention at all so far as I could tell (even the joining character, ‘he’, turns out to be Burn himself, researching the book). Stylistically it’s indistinguishable from Best and Edwards, which means it has a ruminative air, circling its subject matter with facts and implications, and always returning to Burn’s bête noire: the public appetite for pointless fame, the media happy to feed it, and the effect it has on consumer and consumed.

Also like Best and Edwards, Born Yesterday is not ashamed to admit when someone else has said something better than Burn could – or before he could – and the book is rich with aphorisms from reliable sources:

There are really two kinds of life, notes the American writer James Salter. There is the one people believe you are living, and there is the other. It is this other which causes the trouble, this other we long to see.

Salter joins J.G. Ballard, Philip Larkin, George Steiner, John McGahern, and names new to me, all with something to say on this psychopathology which so fascinates Burn (and me, otherwise why would I be writing this?). Howard Singerman: “The collective memory of any recent generation has now become the individual memory of each of its members, for the things that carry the memory are marked not by the privacy, the specificity and insignificance of Proust’s madeleine, but precisely by their publicness and their claim to significance.”

But where does this leave the meat of Burn’s book, the news stories and people we think we know from the current affairs of the past summer, as we wait patiently for him to transform their base stuff into art? It doesn’t happen, quite. The main players are Tony Blair as he hands over his premiership to Gordon Brown (with his “folded Shar Pei features”), the bombers of Glasgow airport and instantaneous media hero John Smeaton, and Kate and Gerry McCann, parents of Madeleine McCann “who vanished into folklore and common fame” on holiday in Portugal.

Burn treads carefully with the last, justifying their inclusion in the book on the basis that their media story is one of manipulation at both ends – and I bet he wishes he’d held the deadline back a few weeks to cover the McCanns’ libel victory against Express newspapers – for reasons fair and foul. It’s also clear he couldn’t resist it because of the parallels of the McCann story to some of the content of his 1995 novel Fullalove, which he explicitly reminds us of (to be fair, most of us probably needed reminding), as well as some inconsequential connections with other elements of the book (Proust/madeleine, defective eye/Gordon Brown).

There’s the odd bit of flashy prose which is even more reminiscent of Fullalove, when Burn engages with the garish elements of urban modernity (“…on the top of the number 19, gazing out of the tagged, hazed window, catching the effervescent blue of the digitised sign on the side of the bus occasionally bubbling up against shop window displays and stretches of marble curtain-walling…”), and the fiction comes really only when he extrapolates into the lives of people he sees, such as the woman in the supermarket buying “a slippery stack of New!, Now, Star and other junk magazines” and an addict’s supply of chocolate bars:

this innocent but potentially sordid transaction – the basement living room, the gorging, the trips to the bathroom, back to New! and EastEnders; a woman scoring her drug of choice at the local Tesco.

Again the most succinct summing up of the problem with the sort of fame we are now exposed to, comes from another writer, this time Thomas de Zengotita. It could equally apply to the benighted state of our bookstores, where actress-slash-model-turned-author gets more shelf space and print coverage than fine writers like Burn.

Real heroes today must become stars if they are to exist in public culture at all. That is, they must perform. But as soon as they do that, they can’t compete with real stars – who are performers.

April 10, 2008

Philip Roth: The Prague Orgy

Posted in Roth Philip at 8:05 am by John Self

Here we are then with The Prague Orgy (1985), the fourth part of what Vintage clumsily calls “the trilogy and epilogue” Zuckerman Bound.  (You can read my thoughts on the others here, here, here and here.) How will they refer to it when Exit Ghost, the last instalment, is published in their paperback edition? “The trilogy, epilogue and appendix” perhaps? It is beginning to sound like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: a Trilogy in Five Parts.

The Prague Orgy

I don’t want to stretch a point but perhaps Zuckerman books have more in common with Douglas Adams than they appear to. Philip Roth, in a 1986 interview reprinted in Reading Myself and Others, cites a stage direction in The Prague Orgy: “Enter Zuckerman, a serious person.” This, Roth says, “could have been the trilogy’s title. … what’s laughable in Zuckerman Bound is his insatiable desire to be taken seriously by all the serious men…” OK, so not quite Arthur Dent, but it’s refreshing to be reminded, among all the hushed respect for Roth as the Great American Novelist (a view I’m more and more coming to agree with), that comedy – “the soul sinking into ridiculousness even as it strives to be saved” – is at the heart of these books.

It would be easy to overlook The Prague Orgy in favour of other Roths, not least on value for money grounds (84 pages for a standard paperback price?), but it turns out to be a scintillating distillation of everything I have (gradually and then suddenly) come to love about Roth. His mastery of his fiction is apparent on every page. Right at the start he’s showing us how he could be a ‘normal’ fine writer, with Zuckerman’s impressions of two people he’s just met:

A woman of about forty, pale eyes, broad cheekbones, dark, severely parted hair – a distraught, arresting face. One blue vein bulges dangerously in her temple as she perches at the edge of my sofa, quite still. In black, like Prince Hamlet. Signs of serious wear at the seat of the black velvet skirt of her funereal suit. Her fragrance is strong, her stockings laddered, her nerves shot.

He is younger, perhaps by ten years: thick-bodied, small, sturdy, with a broad, small-nosed face that has the ominous potency of a gloved fist. I see him lowering the brow and breaking doors down with it.

Many writers would kill to have that compact descriptive gift and nothing else. The two Zuckerman has just met, Eva and Sisovsky, are Czech emigrants who want Zuckerman – in his position as “the American authority on Jewish demons” – to go to Prague and bring back Yiddish stories written by Sisovsky’s father. Sisovsky, a writer himself, curries favour with Zuckerman:

“I don’t wish to compare our two books. Yours is a work of genius, and mine is nothing. When I studied Kafka, his fate in the hands of the Kafkologists seemed to me to be more grotesque than the fate of Josef K. I feel this is true also with you.”

This is the first inkling in the book of that long-running obsession of Roth’s, of the relationship between “the written and the unwritten world.” The Prague Orgy is full of it. Once in Prague, then still under Soviet occupation, Zuckerman discovers that writers there are treated even more disrespectfully than they are back home:

The workmen at their beer remind me of Bolotka, a janitor in a museum now that he no longer runs his theatre. “This,” Bolotka explains, “is the way we arrange things now. The menial work is done by the writers and the teachers and the construction engineers, and the construction is run by the drunks and the crooks. They get along better with the Russians.” I imagine Styron washing glasses in a Penn Station barroom, Susan Sontag wrapping buns at a Broadway bakery, Gore Vidal bicycling salamis to school lunchrooms in Queens – I look at the filthy floor and see myself sweeping it.

Sweeping his own floor for dirt – and making money out of it between hard covers – is what Zuckerman has been accused of back home by his Jewish family and critics, so maybe this doesn’t seem such a bad deal. Is it worse to be misread, as Zuckerman (and Roth) so often feels he is, or not to be read at all because the censor won’t allow it out? “The police are like literary critics: of what little they see, they get most wrong anyway.” And he is reminded too of Eva’s fate, an actress whose role as Anne Frank was used by the authorities as ‘proof’ that she was a Jewish subversive:

They have used Anne Frank as a whip to drive her from the stage … the ghost of the Jewish saint has returned as a demon. Anne Frank as a curse and a stigma! No, there’s nothing that can’t be done to a book, no cause in which even the most innocent of books cannot be enlisted, not only by them, but by you and me.

The story proceeds by comedy and character, as Zuckerman is subjected to the temptations of Olga, the widow of the author and guardian of the stories Zuckerman wants to smuggle back home; her dialogue has the livid life of Roth at his best. Zuckerman is also under surveillance, and is led to believe that he is about to be jailed unless he leaves the country immediately. But what can he do but keep telling his story?

One’s story isn’t a skin to be shed – it’s inescapable, one’s body and blood. You go on pumping it out till you die, the story veined with the themes of your life, the ever-recurring story that’s at once your invention and the invention of you.

In the same 1986 interview mentioned above, Roth says, “I’ve had two audiences, a general audience and a Jewish audience. I have virtually no sense of my impact upon the general audience, nor do I really know who these people are.” Well, here’s one right here. And the impact is enormous.

April 7, 2008

Barbara Pym: Quartet in Autumn

Posted in Pym Barbara at 7:23 am by John Self

I felt there was something forced about this new edition of Barbara Pym’s 1977 novel Quartet in Autumn. I’m a sucker for reissued ‘modern classics’, but there seemed something a touch in-your-face about writing the words PAN CLASSICS FOR A NEW GENERATION across the middle of the front cover. A quote from Jilly Cooper promising “gentle pleasure” was not quite an added incentive. But it had been recommended by people I trust, so I snapped it up anyway.

Quartet in Autumn

Pym’s own story is worth going into briefly. Her books lost popularity in the early 1960s, and although she continued to write, she couldn’t get published. But when the Times Literary Supplement, in the mid-1970s, canvassed the great and the good on the most underrated authors of the past 75 years, Pym’s was the only name which came up twice. Her literary rehabilitation had begun, and culminated in the publication of this, her ‘comeback’ novel, in 1977. On reflection, that the two who nominated her in the TLS were Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil, might have warned me that this could be a dated and twee read.

It sort of is. There’s nothing dramatically bold about Quartet in Autumn, no notable style, and although it’s set in 1970s London it has the air of an earlier age. Yet there is a steeliness to its satire, and teeth behind the smiles. The quartet in question are Norman, Edwin, Letty and Marcia, colleagues who are nearing retirement and wondering how they might fill the voids in their lives that work will leave. When Letty and Marcia’s farewell lunch comes (“their status as ageing unskilled women did not entitle them to an evening party”), the acting assistant deputy director manages to conceal in the valedictory speech the fact that nobody really knew what work they did, and that nobody had been needed to take their places:

‘The point about Miss Crowe and Miss Ivory, whom we are met together to honour today, is that nobody knows exactly, or has ever known exactly, what it is that they do. They have been – they are – the kind of people who work quietly and secretly, doing good by stealth, as it were. … We shall miss them very much, so much so that nobody has been found to replace them…’

But it’s this gentle wit that gives the book its appeal: quietness is its quality. Which is not to say that it’s without edge. The theme of people, who did jobs that were never terribly stimulating in the first place, left dangling with nothing to fill their days with “eternity stretching before” them, is disturbing and at times quite terrifying. Pym has sympathy with her characters, but is not above swiping at their vanities and lack of self-awareness, and the idea that it is never too late to seize the day comes through loud and clear as Marcia in particular allows retirement to dissolve her.

What Quartet in Autumn reminded me of most was Penelope Fitzgerald, who (in my limited experience) has a similar softly-softly approach disguising a significant literary intelligence. Or it might just be that the covers are so alike.

April 4, 2008

Patrick McGrath Interview

Posted in Interviews, McGrath Patrick at 7:58 am by John Self

It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that I regard the novels of Patrick McGrath as probably my favourite body of work by any living writer. In 1995 I read his third novel Dr Haggard’s Disease, which made me do what reviewers often claim but rarely do: go back to the start and read it again almost immediately. McGrath writes tales of psychological maps distorted and shredded, of between-the-wars England and 1970s America, of doctors and patients and artists and lovers, where the greatest tension is between the story and the way it is being told. His new novel Trauma is out now in the US and will be published in July in the UK: you can read my thoughts on it here. Unusually for an English-language writer, the book was published first in Italy, where McGrath has the sort of popularity Ian McEwan enjoys here. He was born in England, and lives in New York.

Patrick McGrath by Marion Ettlinger

You’ve spoken before about how the initial impulse for your books often involves a reversal: in The Grotesque, “I love him” became “I hate him” became “he hates me”, and in Port Mungo, the sexes of Jack and Vera were swapped. Can you tell us something of where Trauma came from?

Reversals? Yes, in a way, with Trauma. I began with the idea of a New York woman badly traumatized by the events of 9/11 who flees to the Caribbean and moves into a seedy resort. A bit later her shrink comes down to see her. Then her shrink turned into her dad. So I had a NY trauma therapist who saves his daughter’s sanity after 9/11, after being estranged from her for many years. I became interested in this guy. As a young man he treated returning Vietnam vets, that’s where he learned about PTSD. Somehow, in the end, as you know, his story didn’t get as far as 9/11, nor did he get to the Caribbean.

Charlie Weir in Trauma has greater insight than many of your narrators: he knows there’s something wrong with him but he doesn’t know what. At the same time you have turned your attention to the family in this book as never before. Are these elements you were keen to explore from the outset, or did they arise as the story developed?

The family elements arose as the book developed. Key to this process was me being told by a NY shrink that most shrinks he knew were in the profession as a result of failing their mothers. That gave me a way into Charlie’s psyche, and I was able to create his family background, relationships with his parents, brother, etc. What he doesn’t know, of course, is what happened in the old Western Hotel when he was a small boy…

Trauma feels like a story which has been pared down to essentials from a larger mass of material, but remains rich in psychological detail and character. Can you tell us a little about the writing and editing process for the book?

Well, see question 1 for what got thrown away–a lot of stuff set in New York round 9/11, then in the Caribbean, plus a lot of stuff I wrote trying to find the ending of the story.

Your early novels were set entirely in Britain (mostly England), and then Martha Peake and Port Mungo straddled the Atlantic. Now with Trauma you have set a novel entirely in America for the first time. Does this reflect your own journey, and is it a conscious progression?

Yes, a conscious decision to move my stories to my country of adoption (some 30 years ago I got to the US–I began to write in NY), and then more specifically to set my work in New York. This was difficult, as I felt far more comfortable writing about England, despite having been away so long. But Trauma feels like a New York novel, at least to me.

You’re known for unreliable narrators, a strategy you have called “irresistible.” Do you agree with W.G. Sebald, who said that he found fiction “which does not acknowledge the uncertainty of the narrator … a form of imposture which I find very, very difficult to take”? In other words, is there something dishonest about an honest narrator? And does it become harder with each new book to remain one step ahead of the reader, when they are anticipating that the narrator is not telling them the whole truth?

Agree absolutely with Sebald on this. How could anyone’s account of a complicated set of circumstances and events be anything but partial, partisan, subjective, and to some degree informed by his or her own needs and biases? As regards expectations, I don’t think too much about them. It’s tough enough getting a novel to come out right to be worrying about its reception. That comes later, i.e. right about now, just pre-publication.

The label ‘Gothic’ seems to follow you around. At this stage does that feel like something that naturally arises from your writing style; does it feel like a tramline you are fixed on; or is a restriction you try to break free from?

More a restriction than anything, in that once the label starts getting bandied about people feel they don’t have to read you. They think they know what your stuff must be like. Only a couple of my books have been deliberately gothic, The Grotesque and Martha Peake. Others may have used gothic elements but had quite other objectives than to arouse dread and horror primarily. Old Main, for example, as a Victorian asylum does have a gothic tone to it, but I’d hate to see Trauma therefore classed as a gothic novel.

You’ve provided introductions to works with famous ‘monsters’ such as Frankenstein and Moby-Dick. Yet your only novel with a larger-than-life monster, Martha Peake, seems the least representative of your works. Would you like to return to more outlandish wilds in the future?

Good question. Not the sort of thing you can know in advance. If a story seemed to demand a monster then I’d do a monster. There’s usually a moral monster subtly skulking about in my books, but I’m not averse to something more on the nose.

Finally, the “if you ruled the world” question. If you could hand out to passers-by copies of one book you consider unjustly neglected, which would it be?

Darkness Falls from the Air, by Nigel Balchin. Probably out of print. Haunting story of a pair of extremely sophisticated Londoners during the Blitz, and the most perfect ending of any story I’ve ever read. Suggest a campaign to bring it back into print, spearheaded by you in your blog.

[Darkness Falls from the Air is indeed out of print, but was reissued a few years ago and is readily available on Amazon Marketplace. Click the image above for more information]

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