May 29, 2008

Bernard MacLaverty: Matters of Life and Death

Posted in MacLaverty Bernard at 7:50 am by John Self

I’ve been trying to pace my reading of Bernard MacLaverty’s books since rediscovering his brilliance last year with Cal. His output comprises a handful each of novels and story collections: this is his latest, Matters of Life and Death, published in 2006. According to his excellent website where he interacts with readers in the guestbook, there’s nothing further in the pipeline yet. So let’s savour it.

Matters of Life and Death

Matters of Life and Death shows MacLaverty stretching himself within his social realist perspective. The stories range from four pages to almost sixty, but most settle at twenty or so pages, the sort of length that is easily consumable in one sitting without the reader feeling short-changed.

Assembling a collection of stories must be a little like putting the songs in order for an album tracklisting. MacLaverty opens with ‘On the Roundabout’, a punchy – this is the four-pager – overture of two recurring motifs in the book: violence and Ireland, those happy bedfellows. Then there’s ‘The Trojan Sofa’, where a furniture dealer delivers sofas to affluent customers with his small son concealed in the frame, to enable burglary when the purchaser has gone to work.

Before we did it for the first time my Da said to me, ‘It’s up to yourself. You can say yea or nay. I’d never force anybody to do something like this – never mind one of my own. But I must say it is for Ireland.’

The comic high concept doesn’t interfere with the pace of the drama or the underlying angle of real history. If the book was an album, this would be the catchy single.

As the title suggests, death and the awareness of death is everywhere in these stories (I’d call it a concept album, if that metaphor hadn’t already been stretched too far), from a woman who exacts the death penalty for a rape, to the gentler account of two boys whose parents have died, taken in by a childless couple. It is this story, ‘Learning to Dance’, which shows MacLaverty at his subtle best: beginning with apparently unexceptional characters, by the end a simple scene of a couple dancing becomes strikingly moving:

They moved as one person, their legs scissoring together to the music. They had variations – sometimes dancing side by side – sometimes swinging out away from each other and slingshotting back together again. She threw back her head and her red hair fell and swayed. The doctor’s back was straight, his chin elegantly proud. The boy felt as if he was watching his parents. If they didn’t dance like this – and he had never seen them dance at home because they had rugs on the floor and the room was too small – it is how they would have wanted to dance.

The collection is a quietly ostentatious display of different modes of writing. MacLaverty’s facility for comedy – rarely enough seen in his novels – makes welcome appearances, even in the grim and death-aware surroundings of a hospital waiting room (‘The Clinic’):

Inside the men’s lavatory was a poster about ‘impotence’. A man sitting on a park bench with his head in his hands. How did he discover his condition in a public park?

There is political drama in ‘A Trusted Neighbour’, and a remarkably successful historical narrative in ‘The Wedding Ring’. All in all Matters of Life and Death has that rare quality in a collection of stories: not only is it not a chore to finish it, but it’s a struggle not to carry on reading it through, like a novel, and there are few weak links. It closes with a coda set in a blizzard in Iowa, and the penultimate story ‘Visiting Takabuti’ (Belfast schoolchildren of recent decades will recognise the Egyptian mummy in the Ulster Museum, who makes a guest appearance) again makes a narrative of beautiful serenity from unpromising beginnings. The central character seems a by-numbers old maidish character, unmarried and full of regrets, William Trevor on an off-day, but the story in the end gives us one of the most elegant and affecting treatments of death in the whole collection. MacLaverty, MacLaverty, there’s no one like MacLaverty. Who else can bring the lightest touch to such impressive gravity?

And Nora imagines it happening at her own death. She sees it like cinema. The soul, in her own image, leans over and with tenderness kisses the empty body. Adieu. And each time the soul makes the journey to the doorway reluctance takes hold and it returns to kiss the body with its shrunken frame and its frail bones of honeycomb. Adieu. Three times in all. From one vital part of herself to another. Adieu.

May 26, 2008

J.G. Farrell: The Siege of Krishnapur

Posted in Farrell J.G. at 10:25 am by John Self

I read J.G. Farrell’s novel Troubles last year and enjoyed it with reservations: or it might be more accurate to say that I enjoyed each of the pages individually, but just not so many of them one after another. Of course, as is my usual habit, I didn’t wait to read Troubles before picking up more of his stuff (well, those new covers were very seductive): namely his most famous novel, The Siege of Krishnapur. So I had it on my shelves already when it was named recently as one of the six Best of the Booker titles, and my piqued interest could be sated easily.

The Siege of Krishnapur

The Siege of Krishnapur won the Booker Prize in 1973. Maybe it’s because the 1970s seem neither recent nor long ago – or maybe it’s because 1973 was the year of my birth – but as a decade, I can’t think of many titles that spring to mind as classics or even favourites. (As always, I’m happy to be enlightened or reminded.) Maybe that’s why Farrell has fallen out of fashion. There’s nothing in the writing which explains it: if Louis de Bernieres can sell shedloads from a blend of historical fiction, black humour and crushing detail, then why not Farrell? But then de Bernieres has the inestimable advantage of being alive. While Gore Vidal described Truman Capote’s death as a “great career move,” more often once an author stops producing regular work, he is quickly forgotten. Farrell stopped more suddenly than most, dying in a boating accident at the age of 44.

The first sign of trouble at Krishnapur came with a mysterious distribution of chapatis, made of coarse flour and about the size and thickness of a biscuit; towards the end of February 1857, they swept the countryside like an epidemic.

The Siege of Krishnapur definitely seemed to me a more accomplished work than Troubles, and not just because, at 300 pages, it’s one third shorter. It has a more unified feel and greater direction, though the plot overall is similar and could be summed up as ‘motley bunch of Brits holed up in symbolically crumbling edifice while the natives get rebellious around them’.

These characters make The Siege of Krishnapur special. They may not get far beyond two dimensions, but their comic qualities are well defined. There’s the Magistrate (“Not everyone is improved by the job he does in life; some people are visibly disimproved”), who chairs a regular poetry group where he excoriates the local wives’ artistic efforts. There’s Dr McNab, “who was known to be in favour of some of the most alarmingly direct methods known to civilized medicine.” There is the Padre, an early proponent of Intelligent Design who pops up like Leonard Zelig at inopportune moments at the side of combatants in the siege (“Think how apt fins are to water, wings to air, how well the earth suits its inhabitants!”); and sundry racist, wastrel British officers:

When the bearer returned with a glass of champagne for Fleury, Rayne said loudly: ‘We call this lad “Ram”. That’s not his real name. His real name is Akbar or Mohammed or something like that. We call him Ram because he looks like one. And this is Monkey,’ he added as another bearer came in carrying a plate of biscuits. [...]

Presently another servant came in bearing a box of cheroots; he was elderly and dignified, but exceedingly small, almost a midget.

‘What d’you call this blighter?’ asked Burlton.

‘Ant,’ said Rayne.

Burlton slapped his knee and abandoned himself to laughter.

The thematic focus of the book is the battle of ideas between two central characters: the Collector, who discovers the first wave of sinister chapatis and is (rightly) paranoid that they foretell bad tidings; and George Fleury, a young man as ineffectual as his name. The Collector is a rationalist (“The foundations on which the new men will build their lives are Faith, Science, Respectability, Geology, Mechanical Invention, Ventilation and Rotation of Crops!”) and Fleury a relativist (“The only real progress would be to make a man’s heart sensitive to love, to Nature, to his fellow man, to the spiritual world”). Farrell’s wit and irony are consistently in evidence, and every page seems to contain something worth stopping for.

As the old pensioner listened to the song, which was now accompanied by the ringing of bells, Fleury saw an expression of tender devotion come over his lined face, and he, too, thought, as the Collector had thought some weeks earlier in the tiger house, what a lot of Indian life was unavailable to the Englishman who came equipped with his own religion and habits. But of course, this was no time to start worrying about that sort of thing.

So with all these qualities, why didn’t I love The Siege of Krishnapur? I think it was, perhaps perversely, too much of a good thing. As with Troubles, the density is relentless, and largely delivered in the style almost of a summary. Normally I have little time for the creative writing class rule that writers should show not tell – if the writing’s good, who cares? – but that was a feeling I had throughout the book. There was too much detail and not enough immersion; and, because the tone was the same throughout – of an overview rather than a living, breathing story – the whole thing as a result felt like all build-up and not enough consummation. At times the book felt longer than the siege itself.

On the basis of Troubles and The Siege of Krishnapur, I can only say that Farrell is a maddening writer who delights me and frustrates me in equal measure; others no doubt will find a different balance, not least the Best of Booker judges who consider it one of the finest books to win the award. The other thing I can say is that it’ll be some time before I try the third in Farrell’s Empire Trilogy, The Singapore Grip; all 600 pages of it. Troubles are one thing; bringing them on yourself is quite another.

May 22, 2008

Sam Savage: Firmin

Posted in Savage Sam at 7:00 am by John Self

I first heard of this book when a trusted source – I must get a new euphemism for ‘person I know but only online and think has pretty reliable tastes’ – read it in the original American edition last year. I was delighted then to see that it’s being published in the UK by Weidenfeld & Nicolson soon, and wasted no time in acquiring a copy. Cuteness alert: Firmin, a book about a rat, is published with corners pre-chewed. You might find this charming: at first.

Firmin

(At least that’s the way it looks on my proof copy: I’m guessing the finished version will be the same.)

Fortunately, even if the production is gimmicky, the book turns out not to be – and I never thought I’d say that for a book about a rat that can read. (I was going to add ‘Ratatouille it isn’t’ – but actually I thought Ratatouille was pretty good.) And while the charm of the chewed corners might wear off, the book itself only increases in charm – a quality difficult to fake – as the story goes on. It has that rare quality of by the end seeming like an archetype for a story that’s been around all along, which just needed to be uncovered.

Firmin – the pun is both on vermin and ‘fur-man’ which is how our hero sees himself – was the runt of a litter of rats. Left to look after himself, he finds himself in a bookshop where there’s nothing to fend off hunger but printed pages. He discovers not only that when he eats a book, he absorbs its content, but also that there was

a remarkable relation, a kind of preestablished harmony, between the taste and the literary quality of a book. To know if something was worth reading, I had only to nibble a portion of the printed area. I learned to use the title page for this, leaving the text intact. ‘Good to eat is good to read’ became my motto.

Of course, a rat of such intelligence can’t do without intellectual companionship, and he tries to make friends with the bookstore owner, and various customers and bystanders, by learning sign language – except the only words he can say are “goodbye” and “zipper”.

It wasn’t Shakespeare, but it was the best I could manage. I was able to say this by standing on my hind legs and waving a forepaw – waving goodbye – followed by a zipping motion up the chest with the same paw. I practiced in front of the mirror, wave-zip, wave-zip, until I had it down pat.

It’s a testament to Savage’s ability that in context this seems not whimsical or silly but surprisingly affecting, and when Firmin ventures out in the street to try to ‘talk’ with others like this, the scenes are filled with the pathos of any lost and lonely person’s failure to communicate with the rest of the world.

The story plays out in a shameless but appropriate way, unafraid of going for the heartstrings. Firmin also has a keen literary awareness, referencing everything bookish from famous authorial deaths to great first lines. Firmin himself feels frustration that he will never match Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier for the opening punch. “This is the saddest story I have ever heard,” he reflects. Well, maybe not, but it’s a great deal of fun.

May 19, 2008

Richard Hughes: A High Wind in Jamaica

Posted in Hughes Richard, NYRB Classics at 8:06 am by John Self

When a trusted source recently named Richard Hughes’ novel A High Wind in Jamaica as a book that “just flat out blind-sided me with [its] perfection,” I knew I had to have it. It was one of those synchronicity things: I remember, a decade back or more, seeing it forever languishing on the tables in my local Waterstone’s in a handsome Harvill edition, which was to me the only thing notable about it (even then I was a publishing-house geek). It stuck in my head but I never bought it. Then I remember reading in Martin Amis’s memoir Experience about his involvement in the film adaptation – Little Mart, the child star! The third encounter recently was all I needed.

A High Wind in Jamaica

A High Wind in Jamaica – pictured above in the US edition by NYRB Classics, below in the UK edition by Vintage Classics (no prizes for guessing which one I bought) – was published in 1929, the first of only three novels that Hughes published in his lifetime. It engages with the contrasts and connections between childhood and adulthood in a way I’ve never quite seen before, and does so in an elliptical, almost evasive manner. This is my way of admitting that although I got a lot from this book, I didn’t feel I quite grasped it completely.

It opens in a dreamy style, in late 19th century Jamaica, where an English family, the Bas-Thorntons, live. “It was a kind of paradise for English children to come to, whatever it might be for their parents: especially at that time, when no one lived in at all a wild way at home. Here one had to be a little ahead of the times: or decadent, whichever you like to call it.” In these scenes Hughes evokes the novelty of the flora and fauna through the Bas-Thornton children’s viewpoint, and displays both a vivid eye and a sense of playfulness:

John had to take a sporting gun, which he bulleted with spoonfuls of water to shoot humming-birds on the wing, too tiny frail quarry for any solider projectile. For, only a few yards up, there was a Frangipani tree: a mass of brilliant blossom and no leaves, which was almost hidden in a cloud of humming-birds so vivid as much to outshine the flowers. Writers have often lost their way trying to explain how brilliant a jewel the humming-bird is: it cannot be done.

That wonderful phrase about the gun being “bulleted with spoonfuls of water” feels like one that will stick in my head for a long time.

A High Wind in Jamaica

When the “high wind” of a hurricane hits the island (though their daughter Emily mistakes it for an earthquake), the Bas-Thorntons decide to send the children back to England ahead of their own return. Hughes reminds us that this was an era when parenthood, at least for the well-off, was not as child-immersive an experience as it is now. Because of this, “it would have surprised Mrs Thornton very much to be told that she meant practically nothing to her children.” The parents, fearful for the children’s physical and mental wellbeing – though during the hurricane “they were so brave, so English” – persuade them to return alone:

“Think what an adventure it will be!”said Mrs Thornton bravely.

“But I don’t want any more adventures!” sobbed Emily: “I’ve got an Earthquake!”

Just how much of an adventure is to be revealed, when the ship on which the children are travelling, the Clorinda, is hijacked by pirates. “Piracy had long since ceased to pay, and should have been scrapped years ago: but a vocational tradition will last on a long time after it has ceased to be economic, in a decadent form.” This is the point at which the sensible blogger must draw a veil over any further discussion of the plot, as there are some surprising and disturbing revelations to be had.

What A High Wind in Jamaica gives us is a highly original approach to the relationship of power between adults and children, and some of the most disquieting scenes of the book are where the children discover and explore their new awareness of power, whether violent or sexual. Also unusual is Hughes’ involvement in the text, appearing from time to time as an “I” in an otherwise omniscient narrative. This is a tool I immediately warm to – James Salter used the same technique in Light Years – but it can interfere with the book’s strength in presenting everything from the point of view of the children, so the reader is left to interpret reality for himself. In one passage Hughes offers, with some irony, the following:

Being nearly four years old, [Laura] was certainly a child: and children are human (if one allows the term “human” a wide sense): but she had not altogether ceased to be a baby: and babies of course are not human – they are animals, and have a very ancient and ramified culture, as cats have, and fishes, and even snakes: the same in kind as these, but much more complicated and vivid, since babies are, after all, one of the most developed species of the lower vertebrates.

[...] It is true they look human – but not so human, to be quite fair, as many monkeys.

Subconsciously, too, everyone recognises they are animals – why else do people always laugh when a baby does some action resembling the human, as they would at a praying mantis? If the baby was only a less-developed man, there would be nothing funny in it, surely.

The flurry of commas, dashes and colons that punctuate the first paragraph above are an indication of the eccentric nature of the book generally. Hughes’ characters at times seem little more than toys at his beckoning – which of course, as fictional constructs, they are, and his invasions of the narrative anyway remind us that we’re reading an invention. A High Wind in Jamaica is a book which I can imagine frustrating as many people as it delights. In the end I came down in favour, through presuming that any weaknesses were in my own reading and not in the writing – which is so assured, so often – and anyway, even when we don’t absolutely love a new book, it’s impossible to regret reading something so strange and intriguing, as foreign to me as faraway England was to the children and the pirates.

May 16, 2008

Joseph Roth: The String of Pearls

Posted in Hofmann Michael, Roth Joseph at 8:49 am by John Self

I feel that Joseph Roth has had a sort of invisible presence on this blog – through his lover Irmgard Keun and his devoted translator Michael Hofmann – so it’s about time I wrote about one of his books. A couple of years ago I read and enjoyed The Legend of the Holy Drinker, which apparently was the last book Roth wrote and was published posthumously. The daunting question when delving into any new author then is: where next? My semi-logical solution: get the next last book, and stick to translations by the reliable Michael Hofmann. Granta Books seem to have cottoned onto the latter as a selling point: Hofmann, unusually, is named on the cover, and the By the Same Author page also includes a list of books By the Same Translator. Michael: you’ve made it.

The String of Pearls

I hope it hasn’t gone to his head: Hofmann has boldly changed the title of The String of Pearls (1939, the last book published in Roth’s lifetime). Its original name was The Tale of the 1002nd Night. Changing a title so comprehensively is not something to be undertaken lightly, but here I think it works. The difficulty with Roth’s original title, full of Eastern promise, was that it pins down the story onto the opening chapters, which end up seeming little more than a prelude.

Which is to damn it with faint praise, as those opening chapters are among the most engaging in the book. They take us back to the 19th century, and tell us of the Shah of Persia, who experiences an unaccustomed “sense of malaise” which he decides to alleviate by taking a trip to Europe. “You know I haven’t touched a woman for weeks,” he tells his eunuch, Patominos, who responds by informing the Shah that he feels sorry for him:

For many reasons, but especially because men are driven to the pursuit of variety. And that is a treacherous objective, because there is no such thing as variety.

Nonetheless the Shah takes his trip, to the Dual Monarchy of Austria and Hungary, and the wit Roth brings to every detail is magnificent, from the ship’s captain who invents a storm to explain to the Shah why the ship is sailing in circles (in fact they are awaiting word from the Persian Amabassador before docking), or the niceties of political and media spin when the Shah arrives in Austria:

Carriages were boarded and driven away. Behind a blue wall of soldiery, the populace cried out their huzzahs. The horses of the mounted policemen became jumpy and, much against the wishes of their riders, kicked out. There were twenty-two injuries. The police report in the Fremdenblatt merely noted three instances of people ‘fainting’ from ‘emotion’.

Once in Vienna, the Shah is delighted to discover that his hoped-for variety is present – “How was it that the women in his harem at home were a thing of indifference, even irritation to him, while these women here, in Vienna, seemed to belong to a different race, an unknown people that were as yet undiscovered?” – and finds one who dazzles him, Countess W., at a ball held in his honour. “One looked for a moment and felt so richly rewarded one felt like saying thank you.” The Shah makes known his desire for her. The Countess of course is not available on such terms, but an Austrian officer, Baron Taittinger, happens to know a prostitute who closely resembles her…

This sounds like the plot of a crude farce – and it is – but it’s merely the set-up for the meat of the story. When the Shah rewards Countess W’s lookalike, Mizzi Schinagl, with a string of pearls, the valuable gift becomes the MacGuffin from which the rest of the book develops. However at this point Roth both accelerates his pace and widens his concerns, so that from here the book feels crammed, overstuffed with too many characters and developments even for an author as skilful as Roth to give full justice to. It seems to have the ambition and aims of a 600-page epic, a Dickensian doorstop, but without each element given space to breathe. As a consequence he is forced too often to distance the reader by telling us what has happened to various characters rather than showing.

This is not to deny the continued beauty of Roth’s observations, particularly his loving – though not indulgent – portrayal of Vienna and Austria, and his sympathetic but ironic portrayal of characters like poor (and then, through the gift of pearls, rich) Mizzi:

As far as men were concerned, the only reason Mizzi bothered with them was because she was quite convinced that life without them was no more possible than life without oxygen. When she had been poor and working and had not known what to do, she had accepted money. Now she could offer them love for nothing. It was good for her, to offer love for nothing. Sometimes it was she who paid men. Some were pleased to borrow from her for their ‘business’. She didn’t care for any of them. Men had been her daily, her nightly bread. She was like a poor quarry seeking its own hunters.

Among the themes seems to be the one Roth would visit again in The Legend of the Holy Drinker: that money will bring only temporary happiness, and lasting sadness; or rather that those typically without money will never retain it for long. There is social awareness which seems as recognisable to us as to the particular historic setting – a declining empire – which the book evokes. I had mixed feelings about The String of Pearls: a faint dissatisfaction that the whole of the book did not retain the poise and pace of the opening scenes, and yet the distinct awareness that my reading of it did not do justice to the brilliance of so many elements brought together. (As a result I’m itching for recommendations of where to go next with Roth.) Roth’s characters are real but distinct and often larger than life, so we can see a trace of the author when a waxwork manufacturer, at the end of the book, says:

I might be capable of making figures that have heart, conscience, passion, emotion and decency. But there’s no call for that at all in the world. People are only interested in monsters and freaks, so I give them their monsters. Monsters are what they want!

May 13, 2008

Alain Elkann: Envy

Posted in Elkann Alain at 7:47 am by John Self

We all know about Pushkin Press’s sterling work in recovering lost classics of European literature, but they also publish contemporary European fiction. The slightly creepy cover of Alain Elkann’s Envy (despite the French forename, he’s Italian) drew my attention – though it’s only when you turn to the back and see long curling hair growing from the wooden head that it really makes you shudder. (The image is of La Poupee by Hans Bellmer.) Does the book catch the brain as easily as it catches the eye?

Envy

Envy succeeds through clarity, brevity and a sort of disarming openness which makes it almost impossible not to read in one sitting. At 115 pages of large type, plenty of blank space, and an addictive just-one-more-chapter quality, this is no great task.

The narrator is a writer who, on his social and professional travels through Europe, finds a synchronicity in repeated references to the English artist Julian Sax. Everyone else seems to know Sax, and to know of his habit of acquiring women for just long enough to paint their portrait. Through these connections our writer feels both a sense of entitlement himself toward Sax, and a frustration at Sax’s distance. He determines to interview him and to propose a exhibition of the artist’s work in Venice. Naturally, the source of his obsession with Sax lies less in Sax’s qualities than in his assessment of his own:

Maybe because I’m always on the move and he’s always in the same place. Maybe because I fritter away my time and he’s focussed. Maybe because everything he does is over the top and I’m too cautious. … Maybe I envy him because I would have liked to have his destiny.

What’s more, his envy extends not only to Sax but to those who seem to have some influence with him. When Sidney Wallace, owner of a gallery which has exhibited Sax’s work, mentions in conversation that “he trusts me,” the narrator concludes: “In saying ‘he trusts me’ he revealed the pride of a man who had won the great privilege of deciding what should be done with the work of this extraordinary artist. His was the responsibility.”

Most of all he envies Sax “the security of a talent confirmed by critics, collectors and market prices all over the world.” When someone criticizes Sax – “he is a perverse man, an egotist” – his only response is “But he is a great artist.” What follows is an addictive spiral into obsession, which doesn’t stoop to tricksy narrative games: what’s refreshing is that the narrator is always aware of his own weaknesses, and the risks of what he is doing, but the story is no less gripping as a result. The conclusion, veering into metafictional territory, is deft and surprising.

Not incidentally, the book contains portraits of the people whose lives are affected by Sax, by the narrator, and by their remote interaction. There is an awareness of the modern curse of celebrity, and its effect on the ability of the celebrated to lead a normal life. When the narrator describes his marriage, we know that to risk this – either by his own actions or Sax’s – he must be truly in the grip of an obsession outside his control:

The delightful thing about marriage is that there’s no need to hurry. There is none of the stress of having to take leave of one another, of not knowing when you will see each other again. There is a tenderness, recreated every day, every night in bed and that is the basis of marriage. … Marriage is not about novelty, and even the most curious people don’t want novelty all the time. We grow fond of things that have been used, mended, resoled, repaired, because they have become truly ours.

May 9, 2008

Philip K Dick: Confessions of a Crap Artist

Posted in Dick Philip K at 8:11 am by John Self

I’ve read a handful of books by Philip K Dick, the author with the name most likely to make schoolboys snigger*. He’s terrific, but I know he wrote so much that the quality must be variable; and any time I look out more, reliable sources always seem to recommend the ones I already know. The Man in the High Castle; The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch; Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said; Ubik. What I definitely thought I knew was that his non-science fiction wasn’t worth bothering with. Then that young turk Scott Pack came along and recommended this book, boldly suggesting that “anyone who has read and enjoyed the novels of Richard Yates would love Confessions Of A Crap Artist.” Challenge accepted.

Confessions of a Crap Artist

Confessions of a Crap Artist was written in 1959 but not published until 1975, when Dick had made his name: he wrote a number of non-SF novels, and this was the only one published in his lifetime. It nonetheless retains the recurring theme of his better known books, questioning the nature of reality. The whole book purports to be the work of its main character, so the title page in my 2005 Gollancz edition looks like this:

Philip K. Dick

CONFESSIONS OF A CRAP ARTIST

- Jack Isidore
(of Seville, Calif.)

A Chronicle of Verified Scientific Fact
1945-1959

This may be important, for reasons which will become clear. The story is narrated initially by Jack Isidore, the ‘crap artist’ whose grip on reality is tenuous: he believes in civilizations living inside the Earth, that sunlight has weight, that World War 2 began in 1941 when America joined, and seems unsure whether he lives in the 1950s or on the brink of the fourth millennium. Dick uses some lazy novelist’s shorthand to denote Isidore’s cookie-cutter dorkishness and distance from ‘decent’ society: porn; dandruff; BO; comics (I know, I know; don’t write in). His mundane job as a tyre regroover seems to exemplify his sociopathic values:

When I get done regrooving a tire, it doesn’t look hand-done by any means. It looks exactly the way it would look if a machine had done it, and, for a regroover, that’s the most satisfying feeling in the world.

Quickly the narrative gives way to the other characters, and what appears to be the story proper gets under way. This is why Scott Pack invokes Richard Yates: it’s unhappy families all the way. Jack, following a brush with the law, is forced to move in with his sister Fay and her husband Charley, who have problems of their own. Charley’s a violent thug – but who wouldn’t be, faced with Fay’s contrary selfishness? She makes perverse demands on Charley, nagging him to do housework and then accusing him of being unmanly when he agrees; money runs through her hands like water; and she adopts a unique brand of motherly love for her two children:

A child is a filthy amoral animal, without instincts of sense, that fouls its own nest if given a chance. Offhand I can’t think of any redeeming features in a child, except that as long as it is small it can be kicked around.

How much of this is characterisation, and how much Dick’s bitterness (the character of Fay is reportedly based on Dick’s first wife), is difficult to know, but it certainly makes for lively friction between Charley, Fay and Jack. The rift is deepened when Fay befriends a new couple in the town, Nat and Gwen Anteil, whom she finds irresistible because of their beauty: inevitable developments follow.

The book lacks Yates’s clear-eyed honesty – often it feels Dick is forcing the nastiness – and certainly his elegant prose, but I can see the similarities in subject matter. The family are forced together through social pressures which existed in the 1950s, which they are simultaneously trying to escape, and in the challenge to reality of Jack’s world view, and Charley’s misanthropy, I saw elements of Patricia Highsmith too.

The story kicks along at a fair pace, and Dick is brave enough to give a dramatic conclusion earlier than we expect (and it’s tense and gripping), leaving 50 pages for the consequences to play themselves out. It’s extraordinary and refreshing to see a writer so well known in one genre, take on another and give it such a good going over.

My main concern was with the integrity of the story: that title page I quoted above suggests that the whole book – Jack’s narrative, Fay’s narrative, even the third person viewpoint which tells Charley’s and Nat’s stories – is the creation of Jack, his “confessions”. This ties in with an element of the plotline, where Jack writes down an account of Fay’s secret indiscretions and presents it to Charley, but if it is really all Jack’s invention then doesn’t the whole story become fluid and meaningless? Perhaps I’m seeing what’s not really there, doubting the reality presented to me: must be reading too much Philip K Dick.

* after Fanny Burney

May 6, 2008

Joan Didion: The Year of Magical Thinking

Posted in Didion Joan at 8:06 am by John Self

As usual there are three stages in getting to read this book: wanting to, acquiring, and actually beginning. I wanted to read it when it was published, partly because I’d heard of the author but didion’t know much about her, and partly because I loved the way the cover of the hardback expressed the subject of the book – Didion’s grief over the sudden death of her husband John Gregory Dunne – so cleverly and movingly.

The Year of Magical Thinking

But I didn’t buy it until last year, when the less beautiful paperback was on sale for half price in a local bookshop’s closing down sale. And there it sat on my shelves until the book came back into the limelight recently, with its theatrical production in London as a monologue starring Vanessa Redgrave. Depressing really to think how many factors must coalesce just to get me to read one book. How many others are going to the wall just because Vanessa Redgrave hasn’t got her finger out?

Didion tells us:

This is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed [John's death], weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself. As a writer, even as a child, long before what I wrote began to be published, I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of the words and sentences and paragraphs, a technique for withholding whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish.

There is no impenetrable polish in The Year of Magical Thinking, which often seems not so much an investigation of grief as an expression of it. Didion wrote it in the months which ended the first year of her life without Dunne, when the wound was still open. In the course of the book, Didion goes through several of the known stages of grief, beginning with denial: she throws out Dunne’s clothes but keeps his shoes because “he would need shoes if he was to return.” When she is given his personal possessions by the hospital, she organises the banknotes in the wallet in with her own, in order of denomination: “I remember thinking as I did this that he would see that I was handling things.”

There’s a sense that we are spying on someone vulnerable: Didion’s intelligence and the fact that she chose to write and publish the book do not cloud the clear feeling that even as the book ends, this is a woman who is far from through with the grieving process. Near the end she acknowledges this: “the craziness is receding but no clarity is taking its place. I look for resolution and find none.” Indeed she finds that she does not want to enter a recovery process, because

my image of John at the instant of his death will become less immediate, less raw. It will become something that happened in another year. My sense of John himself, John alive, will become more remote, even ‘mudgy’, softened, transmuted into whatever best serves my life without him.

In that sense, the book is an attempt to cheat this softening of the edges of memory, to fix in place forever the bright unignorable moments from his sudden silence as Didion was making dinner (“John was talking, then he wasn’t”) through to the dash to hospital by ambulance, where two people go in and one person comes out.

There is a complicating factor in all this, which is that at the time Dunne died and Didion was beginning to grieve, their adopted – only – daughter, Quintana, was in a coma in hospital. (On the night of Dunne’s death they had just returned from visiting her.) Didion writes a lot – too much – about Quintana’s illness through the course of the book, and these seem like a distraction. Then I learned that, after the book was completed but a few weeks before it was published, Quintana died also. The obsessive recounting of her illness now seems like the sort of foreshadowing which she discusses in Dunne’s case: she interprets various innocuous comments made by him in the days before his death as intimations of mortality on his part. Again these are presented straight-faced, and it’s hard to know whether Didion is knowingly acknowledging her own grief-stricken blindness, or just in a muddle in the middle of it.

One quote on the cover of the book suggests that it will “maybe comfort anyone who has lost forever the one they loved.” I doubt that, but it may provide understanding to those, like me, who have been lucky enough not to undergo – yet – even the ‘normal’ grief of losing parents, let alone a partner or a child. The Year of Magical Thinking cannot necessarily help that process, but it can warn the unwary up-front of the sort of ‘temporary madness’ that can arise, and that can be endured.

Curiously, what the book left me with most was a desire to read not only some of Didion’s other books, but also Dunne’s novels: both their books are quoted in excerpts throughout The Year of Magical Thinking, as it becomes as much a memoir of two writers’ lives together as it does of the survival of one. Titles like Playland were familiar to me already, and now I want to know more. And what greater purpose could this book serve than to enable Dunne – to enable any writer – to live again in the minds of others, who read his books long after his death?

May 3, 2008

Beryl Bainbridge: Young Adolf

Posted in Bainbridge Beryl at 10:12 am by John Self

Beryl Bainbridge – the ‘Booker Bridesmaid’, shortlisted five times but never a winner – is an author whose books I always want to love. About ten years ago I read a couple of her early novels – The Bottle Factory Outing was one – and I remember failing to get through two of her (then) latest titles, Every Man For Himself and Master Georgie. It was as though there was a sheet of glass between her writing and my reading: I could see what she was doing, but couldn’t make contact. Like Margaret Atwood, only shorter. Then I saw a copy of Young Adolf in my local charity shop, and thought I should give her another go.

Young Adolf

Young Adolf [1978] was Bainbridge’s first foray into the type of historical fiction which has now become her speciality: reimaginings and extrapolations of real events. In this case, however, the event is putative only. Bridget Hitler – a name not easily forgotten – lived in Liverpool with her husband Alois (Adolf’s half-brother), and in her memoirs, she told of Adolf Hitler’s stay with them in 1912-13, when he was in his early 20s. Whether this really happened is unknown, but it didn’t stop Bainbridge from using it as a springboard for a diverting piece of fiction.

It’s a title that will carry a lot ahead of it, and rather like Connell’s The Diary of a Rapist, it seems certain to bring about equal forces of attraction and repulsion in the bookshop browser. In that sense it has a knowing quality – you cannot write a book and call it Young Adolf and expect people to approach it without preconceptions – but I am quite sure Bainbridge wrote it with the best intentions, of intellectual curiosity and a desire to show that fiction can explore truth even where historically the facts are not known.

In the novel Adolf – one of the curious sensations the reader is going to have to get used to is being on first name terms with Hitler, if only to distinguish him from his half-brother Alois – is little more than a youth, weedy and feckless, “looking as though a good wash would kill him.” His arrival in Liverpool is the result of stealing the passage money which Alois had meant for their sister Angela, and pretty soon it’s clear that the whole Hitler clan is touched with undesirable qualities. Their father, ‘Old Man Hitler’ is a brutal thug, and Alois himself is not above a little unbalanced behaviour:

Once, before the birth of darling Pat, Alois had won on the National at Aintree and had taken [Bridget] to Monte Carlo for a holiday. His restaurant in Dale Street had been doing moderately well. He was pleased at the thought of his coming child. Strolling along the road above the bay he had been full of good humour, idly swinging his stick and murmuring on his his expansive way about the vastness of the sky above, the smoothness of the Mediterranean below. She was so accustomed to his chatter that she hardly distinguished his words from the droning of the bees in the wild flowers that grew beside the path. Turning to her, he had inquired: ‘What colour, do you suppose, is the sea?’ ‘Why, blue,’ she had answered. ‘Why, blue,’ he had mimicked, and squeezing her arm viciously had shouted: ‘The water is a composite of white and blue and green. It is a reflection of the earth and the sky, you docile bitch.’ For several days after this correction he had ignored her. She sat alone in their hotel room, with its view of the absorbent sea, and looked at her bruised arm in the dressing table mirror. Had he cared to ask, she could have told Alois, without stammering, that her skin in one particular patch above the elbow was turning black and blue, ringed with a faint tinge of mauve.

However the general tone of the book is comic, as Adolf struggles to find his feet and friendship in Liverpool, and exhibits paranoia in fear of a bearded man he believes to be pursuing him. Bainbridge is shrewd enough to limit his anti-Semitism to one outburst, so it cleverly seems an aberration rather than a defining characteristic (and indeed his best friend, Mr Meyer the landlord, is Jewish). However she can’t resist a couple of nuggets of dramatic irony, which sit uneasily and show too much of the novelist’s hand:
Mary O’Leary, another tenant in the building, gives Adolf a length of linen to make himself some clothes (“‘Brown?’ Bridget said dubiously. ‘It’s an odd colour for a shirt’”); and at a hostel, when he is assigned a number rather than a name, Adolf

longed to make a scene, to insist they brand these same numbers on his forehead or his wrist, thus drawing attention to their own lack of humanity.

Geddit? Bainbridge writes well, and in this case undoubtedly the presence of real people as characters gives the book an added weight which its often whimsical tone and brevity wouldn’t otherwise have. Whether that’s enough, however, I’m unsure, and I can’t say I’ll be rushing back to Bainbridge unless I see another of her titles for a knock-down price in a charity shop (though of course I’m always open to recommendations). A word of warning: the back cover blurb in the edition I read (pictured above) gives away the glib but neat last line of the book. Could have saved 218 pages then!

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