June 30, 2008

Bernard Malamud: The Assistant

Posted in Malamud Bernard at 8:09 am by John Self

I’ve heard Bernard Malamud’s name returning like an echo from the past in recent months. A biography by Philip Davis was well received last year. He was said by some to be the model for E.I. Lonoff, the admired writer in Philip Roth’s Zuckerman books, which have given me so much pleasure of late. And he was mentioned in blogs I admire such as This Space and The Age of Uncertainty. My own experience of him was limited to two novels, read maybe ten or more years ago: The Tenants and Dubin’s Lives. I enjoyed both, so it was time for a belated continuation of Project Malamud.

The Assistant

The Assistant (1957) was Malamud’s second novel and, like most of his books, is out of print in the UK – a scandal, but what can you do? – so I picked up this US edition, which has that kind of uniquely bad cover design which can only come from someone trying very hard but who really doesn’t know what they’re doing. I would almost have preferred the charming cleavage-based cover of an earlier mass market edition. But – for once – forget the cover design. Inside it’s all good: Roth had great taste in mentors.

From the first page Malamud throws us into real life, as refracted through Morris Bober, Jewish grocer in New York whose store isn’t doing too well. And no wonder:

The front door opened and a girl of ten entered, her face pinched and eyes excited. His heart held no welcome for her.

“My mother says,” she said quickly, “can you trust her till tomorrow for a pound of butter, loaf of rye bread and a small bottle of cider vinegar?”

He knew the mother. “No more trust.”

The girl burst into tears.

Morris gave her a quarter-pound of butter, the bread and vinegar. He found a penciled spot on the worn counter, near the cash register, and wrote a sum under “Drunk Woman.” The total now came to $2.03, which he never hoped to see. But Ida would nag if she noticed a new figure, so he reduced the amount to $1.61. His peace – the little he lived with – was worth forty-two cents.

Immediately I felt I was in safe hands; safer than Morris’s store anyway. He moved to the US for a new life, but “he had hoped for much in America and got little. And because of him Helen and Ida had less. He had defrauded them, he and the bloodsucking store.” Helen is his daughter, and the centre point of the triangle which The Assistant describes (and very much the centre point of the older cover above). Morris spends most of his time out the back of the store, waiting for custom that rarely comes – “Waiting he thought he did poorly. When times were bad time was bad” – and when Helen comes home to the store:

“Me,” she called, as she had done from childhood. It meant that whoever was sitting in the back should sit and not suddenly think he was going to get rich.

The third point is Frank Alpine, a drifter who volunteers to work in Morris’s store to make up for various misdemeanours which it would be inappropriate to reveal.

If he could root out what he had done, smash and destroy it; but it was done, beyond him to undo. It was where he could never lay his hands on it any more – in his stinking mind.

And “he was troubled by the thought of how easy it was for a man to wreck his whole life with a single wrong act.” Well, he has at least one more wrong act in him, but in the meantime Frank manages to turn around Morris’s grocery store, bringing its best turnover since the opening of the rival delicatessen around the corner. Morris suspects Frank’s success is due to goyish customers being more willing to deal with their own kind than with a Jew, though as is often the case in The Assistant, he is misinformed – or underinformed anyway.

Malamud sets up a classical three-way stasis, a sort of essence of sitcom where the three characters whose minds we inhabit – Morris, Helen and Frank – all have reasons to leave their confinement within the world of the store, but cannot bring themselves to. They are trapped by an attachment to their unhappiness. In Morris’s case, he fears change, even from the hell he currently experiences. Helen is torn between a couple of lunks who would take her hand if she’d only give them another part; “she walked on, lacking, wanting, not wanting, not happy.” Frank longs for Helen but also for Morris’s acceptance, which will be an even longer time coming if Morris ever finds out the other terrible thing he’s done.

All this cannot begin to touch on half the material of the story, the Jewishness and need for belonging which permeate the pages, or summarise the delight which Malamud takes in telling his thin but intertwined tales. His precise but devastating perceptions of how the human mind and heart work together to bring about their owner’s misery had me drumming my heels in perverse merriment. He writes – to quote a critic’s comment on Howard Jacobson which fits perfectly here – with an agility that gives pleasure akin to humour even when it isn’t actually funny. And it isn’t funny: what happens to these people is mostly terrible. But oh my, it’s thrilling to read it. Why? Why do you think?

He asked her what book she was reading.

The Idiot. Do you know it?”

“No. What’s it about?”

“It’s a novel.”

“I’d rather read the truth.”

“It is the truth.”

June 26, 2008

Pat Barker: The Ghost Road

Posted in Barker Pat at 8:00 am by John Self

Having recently read The Siege of Krishnapur and The Conservationist (or in the latter case, almost read), I succumbed to temptation and decided to complete the Best of the Booker shortlist with Pat Barker’s 1995 winner The Ghost Road. Neither of the other two had surpassed the three I’d already read some years ago – Midnight’s Children, Oscar & Lucinda, and Disgrace – so I had high hopes. Friends recommended the Regeneration trilogy to which it belongs, as ‘powerful’ and ‘affecting’.

The Ghost Road

Now everything that follows comes sashed with a disclaimer: I read The Ghost Road without reading the first two books in the trilogy, Regeneration and The Eye in the Door. That might well render my opinion worthless, so feel free to skip straight to the comments below where everyone tells me just how wrong I am.

The book opens brilliantly, in the shell-shock ward at Craiglockhart hospital in 1918. Two characters from the earlier books meet there – Billy Prior, soldier and patient, and William Rivers, psychiatrist – and in the midst of death there is plenty of life. Some of this comes from real people (including Rivers himself) such as Wilfred Owen, and there are deft portraits of Siegfried Sassoon, from Prior’s viewpoint:

Owen has somehow managed to stick a portrait of Siegfried Sassoon to the wall of his [privy]. Sassoon in distinctly Byronic mode, I should say – not the Sassoon I remember, legging it down the main corridor at Craiglockhart with his golf-clubs on his back, hell-bent on getting out of the place as fast as possible.

- and of Lewis Carroll (real name Charles Dodgson), from River’s:

At dinner one evening Mr Dodgson had leant across to mother and said, ‘I l-l-l-love all ch-ch-ch-ch-“

‘Train won’t start,’ Charles had whispered.

‘Children, M-Mrs R-Rivers, as l-l-l-long as they’re g-g-g-girls.’

He had looked down the table at the two boys, and it had seemed to Rivers that the sheer force of his animosity had loosened his tongue.

Boys are a mistake.’

This touching on Carroll’s purported tastes – for which we’d have quite a different word now – is just the tip of a larger subject of sexual variations, from Prior’s experiences as a boy to his omnivorous sexuality in young adulthood. As a result the book is often much more – what would be the word of the time? – bawdy than we might expect from a sombre and traditional First World War novel: not to mention funnier. Prior thinks of Lizzie, a prostitute he used to frequent:

She’d told him about her regulars. One man came every month, turned a chair upside-down and shoved each one of the four legs in turn up his arse. Didn’t want her to do anything, she said. Just watch.

- Well, you know what a worry-guts I am. I keep thinking what’ll I do if he gets stuck?

- Saw the bloody leg off.

- Do you mind, that’s the only decent chair I’ve got.

This first part takes us through the first hundred pages, and if it had all been as good as this – with the vigorous characters in the shell-shock ward, and wonderful scenes like Prior and his girl’s attempts to evade her mother and, as they didn’t say back then, ‘get it on’ – I would have been very happy. But Barker stretches her concerns from this point and in my view damages the book as a result. The rest of the book is taken up largely with alternating chapters of Prior’s journal and Rivers’ memories of his anthropological and missionary work in the South Seas, where he encounters ‘primitive’ tribes with bloodthirsty rites. The intended parallels seemed too heavy-handed and obvious – conquest by force, sacrificing their best young men – and not particularly illuminating, with Rivers making trite observations like this:

He looked up, at the blue, empty sky, and realized that their view of his society was no more or less valid than his view of theirs.

Similarly, Prior matches him for bland platitudes when, among the mentally ill of Craiglockhart, he observes of the wider warfare, “We’re all mad here,” a shattering indictment of the poorly run campaigns of the First World War which I think I last saw expressed in Blackadder Goes Forth. All this is a shame, because the ending brings some power back to the book, but by then I felt it had devolved more or less into literary fiction by numbers – rather like my only other experience of Barker’s fiction, her 2007 novel Life Class.

In the end I was moved to wonder not only why The Ghost Road was on the Best of Booker shortlist, but why it had won the Prize in the first place. I wonder whether the judges at the time – and indeed those who drew up the Best of Booker shortlist – read it as a stand-alone novel or read the first two volumes along with it. My bold view is that it would be wrong to award a prize to a book based on the cumulative power it holds along with two earlier volumes. It removes the notion of a level playing field against the other titles under consideration. If a book is being considered for a single-book prize, then it must have excellence as a single book without any knowledge of its earlier parts. (That opens a can of worms, of course, about the extent to which all literature is indebted to its antecedents: can Ulysses be properly rated without The Odyssey? Or The Hours without Mrs Dalloway?) Or perhaps they did read it alone and still thought it the best novel of 1995/one of the best winners since 1969. In which case I must just quietly disagree.

June 22, 2008

Joseph O’Neill: Netherland

Posted in Booker Prize 2008, O'Neill Joseph at 8:41 am by John Self

Here it comes, this year’s Great American Novel*, a shoo-in for everything from the Pulitzer to a place on Oprah’s couch, garlanded with praise in the UK alone from critics comparing it to Banville, Bellow, Fitzgerald and Updike. Even James Wood in The New Yorker loved it. And here I am, having disliked most of the last handful of books I’ve read, keen for something to love, just waiting to be seduced; frankly a pushover.

Netherland

You’ll have predicted, from the breathlessness above, that I didn’t love it as much as they did; indeed I’m not sure I loved it at all. It was nonetheless worthwhile: I got to wonder how different my experience of reading it was, forearmed by all the orgiastic praise in the press, than it would have been if I’d picked it up at random. Just as we inevitably – consciously or not – give a book more consideration when we know it’s an established classic, I think I must do the same when I’m assured it’s a future classic. Certainly it’s conceivable that, without any knowledge of other opinions, I could have given up on Netherland early on. And that, just to muddy the waters of opinion one last time in this paragraph, would have been my loss.

The cover shows ice skating – a shrewd move, because the recreational sport that the book really revolves around is cricket, and a cover image of that would have limited sales dramatically, irrespective of reviews. Yet it is cricket, or rather the idea of cricket played by immigrants in New York, which is the great idea that gives the book steel down its spine. This works obviously as a metaphor both for the multicultural absorption of melting-pot America and the essence of fair play (“I cannot be the first to wonder if what we see, when we see men in white take to a cricket field, is men imagining an environment of justice”), but also adds a memorable, almost surreal note, and – crucially – brings to mind the sporting elements of other would-be Great American Novels (Rabbit‘s basketball, Underworld‘s baseball, American Pastoral‘s athletics). Netherland also consciously evokes another American classic, with a passage (which I didn’t mark in my copy and now, of course, can’t locate) that parallels Jay Gatsby gazing out at the green light of Daisy’s dock (and there’s mention of a boat on the last page too).

O’Neill’s Gatsby is Chuck Ramkissoon, who at the start of the novel is found dead in a canal. Our Nick Carraway, filling us in as to how he might have got there, is Dutch immigrant (via London) Hans van den Broek. He tells us:

Chuck valued craftiness and indirection. He found the ordinary run of dealings between people boring and insufficiently advantageous to him at the deep level of strategy at which he liked to operate. He believed in owning the impetus of a situation, in keeping the other guy off balance, in proceeding by way of sidesteps. … The truth is that there was nothing, or very little, I could have done to produce a different ending for Chuck Ramkissoon.

Chuck is the founder of the cricket league which Hans joins, and which yokes together the newcomers to New York, as well as the elements of the novel. Otherwise, Hans spends a good deal of time, narratively speaking, away from Chuck, which is to the book’s detriment. His present day concern is the reassembly of his fractured marriage, after his wife left him to return to London with their child. Her move was in part inspired by a sense of fear after the World Trade Center attacks, though unlike other readers, I’m unconvinced that this makes Netherland a “post 9/11″ novel: except in the sense that it was published in 2008, which is admittedly post 9/11. A more plausible link might be in a growing sense of fear of difference which could have led Chuck to fall foul of others, though Hans seems clear enough that he was significantly the author of his own misfortune.

The centripetal influence of Chuck as a character is welcome in a book which otherwise seems to dart about too much, and leave traces in too many places to cohere in the way that is achieved by so many of the books it’s been compared to. I also found evidence of effort on too many pages: for every just-so phrase (“ambulances sped eastward on West 23rd Street with a sobbing escort of police motorcycles”) there’s a tortured image (“a murky tank in which cheap fish hesitated in weeds and an artificial starfish made a firmament of the gravel”), a case of arrestable whimsy (“Taspinar explained that he had dressed as an angel for two years now”), or plain clunkiness (“I’d assumed that some unilateral failing of mine had been at the bottom of our downfall; now it seemed that some malfunction of Rachel’s might also have been operative” – yes, he really did say might also have been operative).

There are other fine things worth mentioning, such as the book’s acute sense of the importance of place in personal memory and the prism of sentimentality through which it’s often viewed, as when Hans reflects on New York once he’s back in London (he’d been warned before going to New York that he would always miss it if he left):

[In London], unchanged is the general down-the-hatch, who-are-we-fooling light-heartedness that’s aimed at shrinking the significance of our attainments and our doom, and contributes, I’ve speculated, to the bizarrely premature crystallization of lives here, where men and women past the age of forty, in some cases even the age of thirty, may easily be regarded as over the hill and entitled to an essentially retrospective idea of themselves; whereas in New York selfhood’s hill always seemed to lie ahead and to promise a glimpse of further, higher peaks: that you might have no climbing boots to hand was beside the point.

No doubt the book has many other qualities, spotted by the critics, which passed me by. In short, my difficulty with Netherland was that, while the central character of Chuck lit up every page he appeared on, and the bold central image of cricket in New York is a winner that will hold it widely in memory, the book as a whole just never took off for me; enjoyment is a chemical reaction between reader and book which either happens or doesn’t, and no amount of critical appraisal can gainsay that.

* contractual terms require the use of this phrase in all reviews of Netherland.

June 18, 2008

Imre Kertész: The Pathseeker

Posted in Kertész Imre, Melville House at 8:01 am by John Self

Beaten but unbowed (well: perhaps a little bowed), I delved straight back into the literature of Nobel laureates after my recent failure. After falling in literary lust with Melville House’s Art of the Novella series, I was pleased to see them expanding into modern fiction, with the unsnappy but unarguable Contemporary Art of the Novella series. That, plus at just over 100 pages, I felt this was a Nobel winner even I could get through.

The Pathseeker

I have mixed feelings about the way I found this book. On the one hand, it was the blurb which interested me in it ahead of others in the series, and yet I know my enjoyment – and puzzlement – could have been enhanced if I had approached it cold. The description sounded, probably to misuse an overused term, Kafkaesque (Martin Amis points out that the word has become so devalued that a long queue in the Post Office is now described as Kafkaesque). Perhaps a better one would be ‘Ishiguroish': I’m thinking in particular of his wonderful but overlooked 1995 novel The Unconsoled. Its atmosphere of mystery and foreboding, an unknowable man with an unclear purpose in a strange town, seem just right for the blurb of The Pathseeker:

In a mysterious middle-European country, a man identified only as “the Commissioner” undertakes what seems to be a banal trip to a nondescript town with his wife – a brief detour on the way to a holiday at the seaside – that turns into something ominous. Something terrible has happened in the town, something that no one wants to discuss.

In quoting this I have stopped short of the giveaway words, of which there are two: one repeated just in case you didn’t pick up on it the first time, and one which kills stone dead the vaunted sense of mystery, the sort of word which comes with its own capital letter. For the blankness and openness of the story itself, the white, uncluttered cover seems to suit it nicely.

This is a new translation, but The Pathseeker is one of Kertész’s earliest works – though ‘early’ is not quite right, as it was published when he was 47, two years after his debut and most famous work Fatelessness (also published in English as Fateless). Tim Wilkinson has done a fine job as translator, and in the Michael Hofmann tradition has thrown in a free afterword, which helps the reader with some of the more obscure references in the book, and suggests a tangential connection with Melville’s ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’.

So what can I say about this book, or story, without spoiling it? It has a dramatic opening, where the Commissioner, visiting the unnamed country and hosted in the home of a man named Hermann, in the middle of a friendly conversation, suddenly becomes an unwelcome guest.

He took the pipe from his mouth and cut him short with calm, premeditated hostility. He then informed him in a single terse sentence who he was and the objective of his mission and the investigation that he was to pursue. Hermann turned slightly pale.

The Commissioner proceeds with his investigation, and along the way Kertész makes references to relationships of predation and submission, and how willing people are to submit to power. Even passengers on a train – a symbol pretty heavy with meaning in this context – are “blind instruments of a higher design, they faithfully fulfilled their roles, dutifully meeting the calculation that was attached to them.” The Commissioner admits he wants “to make a splash with his presence, advertise his superiority, celebrate the triumph of his existence in front of these mute and powerless things,” which leads to notions of the objectification of human life. He visits a factory, with German language ironwork on the gates, and an exhibition of “defunct instruments of past ages, contraband curiosities … cheerfully illuminated.”

What could this collection of junk, so cleverly, indeed all too cleverly disguised as dusty museum material, prove to him, or to anyone else for that matter? Its objects could be brought to life only by being utilized. The only test of their efficacy could be experience.

The Pathseeker is both nebulous and forceful, obstructive and direct, which leaves room for the reader’s own responses while directing them artfully along Kertész’s chosen path. There is a ghostly creepiness to it, and the sort of calm silence around the setting which settles after a period of calamitous noise. Tim Wilkinson tells us that the story took twelve years for Kertész “to wrestle into a form he was happy with,” and was then rejected by the publisher he submitted it to. And more than three decades after that, it has been finally been translated into English, so we can benefit. The Pathseeker made it at last.

June 14, 2008

Nadine Gordimer: The Conservationist

Posted in Bloomsbury, Gordimer Nadine at 12:19 pm by John Self

This is the sorriest post I have ever made. You see, I couldn’t – at least didn’t – finish the book which over the course of several days last week in my house became known as The Conser-frigging-vationist. So anyone coming here for Best of Booker betting, or looking for inspiration for a coursework essay, apologies: surf elsewhere. So why I am writing about it? Because I did read enough of it to express some views, and because the difficulty I had with it is not unique: neither with this book for me, nor, I suspect, for other readers.

The Conservationist

Nadine Gordimer has so many literary laurels that the cover – front or back – of The Conservationist doesn’t even bother to mention that it won the Booker Prize in 1974 (jointly, with Stanley Middleton’s Holiday). The biggie of course is the Nobel Prize in Literature, which she took in 1991. This should have been warning enough for me, since try as I might, I struggle mightily with most Nobel laureates I’ve tried: Bellow, Beckett, Camus, Faulkner, even popular ones like Hemingway and Steinbeck. (Thank heaven for Coetzee, Márquez, and even at a push Lessing.) Why should this be? I’m pretty clear that it’s my fault: I read too quickly, I know, and clearly the winners of the world’s most prestigious literary award are writing at a level where pace needs to be slowed to ensure the contents seep through the mind and don’t just run off over the surface.

The Conservationist is set in contemporaneous – 1970s – South Africa, around wealthy white man Mehring and his farm.

Many well-off city men buy themselves farms at a certain stage in their careers – the losses are deductible from income tax and this fact coincides with something less tangible it’s understood they can now afford to indulge: a hankering to make contact with the land. It seems to be bred of making money in industry. And it is tacitly regarded as commendable, a sign of having remained fully human and capable of enjoying the simple things of life that poorer men can no longer afford.

This is one of the few times when Gordimer seems to enter the narrative and direct the reader; otherwise, Mehring is damned by his own actions and the words of his employees. It is this general refusal to interfere with the characters that is the book’s greatest strength, but Gordimer’s immersive approach is also where I began to falter. Mehring is rarely referred to by name, so I sometimes had to backtrack at passages to remind myself which “he” was the focus of a scene – Mehring, his herdsman Jacobus, or another worker. Gordimer’s dialogue, too, can be tricky to follow because she doesn’t always make clear who is speaking.

Then again there are passages of compelling lucidity, such as Mehring’s encounter with a teenage girl on an aeroplane (“she need not be afraid of wanting what was happening because it was happening nowhere”), or the discovery of a body in his fields near the start of the book (“How is happen. What is happen here. Why he come down here on this farm. What is happen”). However these windows, for me, proved to be rare exceptions. Instead, I too often found myself struggling not just to understand the book as a whole, but to work out what was happening on the surface of each scene. The overall effect was of looking through a fogged-up window that I constantly had to wipe clear to stop it from clouding again. Occasionally I forgot, and the pages drifted by, and I realised I hadn’t retained a thing from them.

So eventually, with a third of the book still to go and (inevitably: here’s the other problem) a clutch of other books-to-be-read yapping hungrily for my attention, I gave up. Maybe if I’d taken a fortnight, even a month, to read it – to savour and concentrate and just damn well knuckle down, I would have got more out of it; but one good reading experience in a month would still leave me feeling short changed at the opportunity cost of all the books I could have read in that time.

June 10, 2008

Hari Kunzru: My Revolutions

Posted in Kunzru Hari at 9:32 am by John Self

Hari Kunzru made a bit of a splash with his first novel The Impressionist, and was named as one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists in 2003.  The Impressionist was a fine book, rich in detail and witty flourishes, and showed Kunzru to have a knack of producing fleeting characters with a real sense of identity to them.  This was balanced by the conscious decision not to give the protagonist (‘the impressionist’) a character of his own, which may explain why the book hasn’t become a more widespread success.  His second novel Transmission, had a wonderful buzz to its first half, but after the central plot point had unfolded – a computer virus released on the world which did everything the Millennium Bug didn’t – Kunzru seemed not to know where to take his story, and the horribly rushed ending put the tin hat on Transmission as an honourable failure, or an example of difficult second book syndrome.

My Revolutions

My Revolutions unfortunately shows a further decline.  It was pure ploddery from start to finish, and the most striking and disappointing aspect was that none of the characters came alive, which is extraordinary from the author of The Impressionist.

The concept of the book is an interesting one.  Mike Frame is a 50 year old Englishman living a comfortable life with his partner Miranda; together they run an upmarket toiletries business called Bountessence.  However Mike is not really Mike, but had a former life in the 1970s as a left-wing rioter and bomber called Chris Carver.  As the book begins, on the eve of his 50th birthday celebrations, he is about to be uncovered:

I have to be clear.  It’s already over.  All this – the house, my family, this ridiculous party – no longer exists.  But accepting that doesn’t mean I know what to do next, and even if I choose to do nothing, events will carry on unfolding, and very soon now, days or even hours, my life here will be over.

His life – his new life – will be over because his old life is still there, waiting in the shadows.  Identity then is central to this book as it was in The Impressionist, but this book never really gets properly into the issue. We are supposed to wonder whether the central character, is really his ‘now’ self – Mike Frame, prosperous suburbanite – or his ‘then’ self – Chris Carver, Vietnam war protestor turned agitprop revolutionary. “What, I wonder, if we were what we appear to be?” So the central drama of the story should be how Chris, and more importantly those around him, deal with the revelation of his hidden past.

Unfortunately – spoiler for a book the author pre-spoiled for you – this never happens, as he’s just about to tell his wife as the book ends. Instead Kunzru concentrates mostly on Mike/Chris’s past, and his slow development from anti-war campaigner into Leftist bomber in 1970s England. (Kunzru in the acknowledgements emphasises that the story is not a representation of the Angry Brigade, though some of their bombings match. Why so cagey? Can you libel terrorists?)  As a reader never that interested in ‘backstory,’ it’s uninvolving and not even particularly illuminating: why tell us what made a person who he is when we never find out much about who he is? I have no doubt Kunzru researched his people and milieu thoroughly, so it’s a shame that so many of the characters seem types and the details feel like stock background (“…a flophouse in Naples where you could hear cockroaches scuttling about on the tiled floor after they turned out the lights … I sat around in my bedroll on main squares, listening to long-haired kids playing guitars and hustling one another for dope…”).

There is the odd hint of the old Kunzru’s talent for smart phrasemaking (a town centre with Starbucks and other ubiquitous brands is “a wipe-clean playpen for the consuming classes”) but overall the impression My Revolutions gave me was that it was beginning to look worryingly as though, with three books behind him, it was the good one that was the anomaly. There’s an interesting story to be told about an Englishman’s involvement in leftist terrorism in the 70s, and it’s the last third of William Boyd’s Any Human Heart. There’s an interesting story to be told, too, about living a dual identity in politically violent times, and the trauma of hiding your past from your family, and it’s by William Boyd too: Restless. Either would be a better investment of time than this.

June 7, 2008

John Updike: A Month of Sundays

Posted in Penguin Modern Classics, Updike John at 12:53 pm by John Self

Penguin Modern Classics have had their revenge on me at last. Always keen to read more John Updike after the Rabbit series, I struggled to decide which of his many novels to take away next, and ended up plumping for the one with the nicest cover. Clever of them to do that, because it is, by Updike’s standards at least, a stinker.

A Month of Sundays

A word first about my other experiences with him. John Updike is one of what I think of as the big three American mainstream novelists of the late 20th century – Roth and Bellow the others – yet he is so strongly associated with the four Rabbit books, about the skittish Harry Angstrom, that most of his other novels are in shadow under their mass. And it’s some mass: the four books weigh in at 1,700 pages (and there’s another 200 pages in ‘Rabbit Remembered’, the story – I call that a novel – published in the collection Licks of Love). I enjoyed the first and last books best – Rabbit, Run and Rabbit at Rest – but you only get to the end by reading the middle two as well – Rabbit Redux and Rabbit is Rich, which for me had their ups and downs. But it’s hard to carp when Updike can sum up Harry Angstrom’s ambivalence to domestic life as beautifully as he does in a few words right at the end of Rabbit is Rich, when he holds his daughter’s daughter in his arms for the first time:

Through all this she has pushed to be here, in his lap, his hands, a real presence hardly weighing anything but alive. Fortune’s hostage, heart’s desire, a granddaughter. His. Another nail in his coffin. His.

Where do you go – reader, writer – from there? I enjoyed his 1977 novel Marry Me but struggled with – gave up on – his debut The Poorhouse Fair and his 1986 novel Roger’s Version. So I may not know much about Updike but I know what I like in book design, and A Month of Sundays (1975) was irresistible.

The title is explained by the structure: a daily diary by the Reverend Thomas Marshfield, who is in exile from his family and his flock owing to sexual indiscretions. He has been banished to a desert retreat, where he reflects on his errors and continues to write sermons which will never be delivered, and which take to new heights the mischief-maker’s favourite pastime of interpreting holy scriptures to his own ends:

Of the two adulterous women Christ encounters in the Gospels, one is commended, and the other is not condemned. [...] Adultery, my friends, is our inherent condition. “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his own heart.”

But who that has eyes to see cannot so lust? Was not the First Divine Commandment received by human ears, “Be fruitful, and multiply”? Adultery is not a choice to be avoided; it is a circumstance to be embraced. Thus I construe these texts.

And there is much of Updike’s usual interest in extra-marital relations, as seen in Couples, the Rabbits, and elsewhere. So what marks this out – and down – from other Updikes? It’s that throughout the author seems in thrall to the author of another Great American Novel. The inkling first prickled when I read this interjection by Marshfield into an anecdote about his past:

This is fun! First you whittle the puppets, then you move them around!

That coolness, that solipsistic distance: where had I seen them before? It arose again, when Marshfield refers to “the redhead deftly evoked pages ago, and there was a bony fellow-counsellor one summer we may never find the space for.” It kept coming and coming (“But to prolong this paragraph might compromise its shortness and brightness”), and it was when I was half-expecting him to reflect that you can always count on an adulterer for a fancy prose style, that I realised Updike, in A Month of Sundays, is helplessly in thrall to the tics and tricks of Vladimir Nabokov.

It’s so glaringly obvious that it becomes slightly embarrassing – Updike, when he wrote this, was a fortysomething novelist with plentiful acclaim, so his apparent desire to write what practically amounts to a pastiche is mystifying. This coolness and irony suits Nabokov because we sense, however perversely, that he means it, where Updike is typically a warmer writer, and it sits on him oddly. Even the motifs are a mixture of Nabokov obsessions – Freud, insomnia – and Updike standards – God, golf. The prose too has a baroque quality which might be said to approximate Nabokov at his most excessive, where Updike normally knows (just) when to rein back the verbiage:

The room still nudges me with its many corners of strangeness, though one night’s sleep here has ironed a few rumples smooth. I know where the bathroom is. O, that immaculate, invisibly renewed sanitas of rented bathrooms, inviting us to strip off not merely our clothes and our excrement and the particles of overspiced flank steak between our teeth but our skin with the dirt and our circumstances with the skin and then to flush every bit down the toilet the loud voracity of whose flushing action so rebukingly contrasts with the clogged languor of the toilets we have left behind at home, already so full of us they can scarcely ebb!

We might charitably assume that this is simply Updike’s way of showing his character’s ungodly pretensions – his use of language not as a clear pane to illuminate his actions, but a stained glass with which to obscure the truth – but even so, it’s a pain to read. There are still passages of impressive language (morning light falls onto glass “with an almost audible splintering of brightness”) but they are drowned out. Fortunately I’ve read better Updike than this, and hope to again – I have The Centaur on my shelves (another handsome cover…) – so I’ll consider A Month of Sundays an anomaly, and draw a veil over it. The 1970s: truly the decade that style forgot.

June 4, 2008

Doris Lessing: The Fifth Child

Posted in Lessing Doris at 8:08 am by John Self

When Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year, I wasted no time in getting hold of one of her books: The Golden Notebook, as it was the only one they had in my local bookshop. I then wasted even less time reading it …by which I mean I didn’t bother. It seemed so long (“But novels – they’re all long, aren’t they? They’re all so long,” as my namesake put it in Martin Amis’s Money), with such small print, and such high intentions, that I was perversely put off by how good and important it might be. At least that’s my excuse. Last week when I was killing time in an airport, I found instead her slim later novel The Fifth Child. 150 pages! Now we’re talking. (Yes I am ashamed.)

The Fifth Child

The Fifth Child was published in 1988, but set in the 1960s and 70s, when more fluid social mores create a firmer base for the novelist. The timing seems to be important, even though on one level the story is an old archetype of the normal parent and the monstrous child. Think The Midwich Cuckoos, Rosemary’s Baby, or Simon Fisher in Knowing Me, Knowing You With Alan Partridge. David and Harriet are a couple of borderline social misfits – or more kindly, simply not in tune with their times – who meet at an office party and quickly strike a chord and settle down. And by quickly I mean that Lessing’s pacing is eccentric to say the least: no wasting time letting the characters bed in when you can just get them in bed and married in literally a couple of lines. At the party

they went on sitting there, close, talking, until the noise began to lessen in the rooms across the corridor, and then they went quietly out and to his flat, which was near. There they lay on his bed holding hands and talked, and sometimes kissed, and then slept. Almost at once she moved into his flat, for she had been able to afford only a room in a big communal flat. They had already decided to marry in the spring.

I had to read it a couple of times to make sure some sort of dimensional shift – or printer’s error – hadn’t taken place. But all Lessing is doing is cutting down on the waffle, avoiding the tiring authorial (and readerly) slog of getting characters from one place to another plausibly. It kept me on my toes as a reader, as did her prose, where each sentence never quite ended up where I thought it would at the beginning.

David and Harriet want to have “lots” of children (“six, eight, ten”) which earns them the disapproval of their families: and not without reason, as even when they have their first four, they can’t afford to keep them and have to rely on their relatives for financial support. It’s the fifth child, as the title suggests, which will breach what the back cover blurb calls their “glorious hymn to domestic bliss and old-fashioned family values: four children, a beautiful house, the love of relatives and friends.” But I didn’t read it this way at all. As already mentioned, that familial love is decidedly muted, and there’s something both sickeningly religiose (their favourite times of year are Christmas and Easter: birth, and rebirth) and even sinister about David and Harriet’s wilful self-determination, and their vision of themselves as a perfect, flawless unit.

‘You aren’t really going to have four more children?’ enquired Sarah, sighing – and they all knew she was saying, four more challenges to destiny. She gently put her hand over the sleeping Amy’s head, covered in a shawl, holding it safe from the world.

‘Yes, we are,’ said David.

‘Yes, we certainly are,’ said Harriet. ‘This is what everyone wants, really, but we’ve been brainwashed out of it. People want to live like this, really.’

It doesn’t last long, when Harriet falls pregnant with Ben, who in the womb kicks and struggles with such ferocity that “sometimes she believed hooves were cutting her tender inside flesh, sometimes claws.” It doesn’t get any better from there, and the last two-thirds of the book deals with David and Harriet’s struggles to deal, and not to deal, with this – what? – stroke of bad luck? Punishment for hubris?

Harriet was wondering why she was always treated like a criminal. Ever since Ben was born it’s been like this, she thought. Now it seemed to her the truth, that everyone had silently condemned her. I have suffered a misfortune, she told herself; I haven’t committed a crime.

The results tell us as much about social conformity and responses to difference as they do about Harriet, David and Ben themselves. Indeed, when every thought and experience of Harriet in particular is under the microscope, and I sometimes wanted a little more mystery, it’s precisely the unknowability of Ben’s character – is he a genetic throwback? A goblin child? A Frankenstein’s monster? – which provides this essential distance for the reader.

All these ‘issues’, together with the slim extent of the book, make it the sort of thing which would go down a storm in book groups, though I realise that to some that will sound like an insult, which I don’t intend it to be. It’s frankly impressive to squeeze so much into such a small package: I kept wanting to look for hidden compartments. But the ending seems almost randomly placed; and the view that Ben’s story could have been ended earlier, or later, seems validated by the fact that on turning the last page, I was greeted with an advert for Ben, in the World, a sequel which Lessing published a dozen years later.

June 1, 2008

Julian Maclaren-Ross: Of Love and Hunger

Posted in Maclaren-Ross Julian, Penguin Modern Classics at 10:54 am by John Self

In my regular trawls through the silver (now white) spines of Penguin Modern Classics in bookshops, here is one title I’ve only occasionally come across and never paid much attention to. The cover is pretty dreary by their usual high standards, and the title offputting. Nonetheless, having PMC withdrawal symptoms in Cambridge last week, I picked it up and read with interest about Maclaren-Ross’s life as a true bohemian dandy of the mid-20th century, of which you can read a little more here (“April 1957: Briefly imprisoned. June 1957: Embarks on the first of numerous popular radio serials for BBC”), together with extracts from his work.

Of Love and Hunger

Of Love and Hunger was Maclaren-Ross’s first full length novel, published in 1947 but set in the nervous time immediately before the onset of the second world war. The milieu is down-at-heel, down-on-its-luck Brighton, peopled by boarding-house drifters and problem drinkers; like the Paris of Jean Rhys though without her mad fluidity, or the England of Patrick Hamilton. Hamilton, in fact, is the most obvious comparison, though Maclaren-Ross has a gentler and less hard-nosed touch. He’s still capable of poking fun at the denizens of low-rent hostels, just as Hamilton did so brilliantly in The Slaves of Solitude:

Someone switched on the wireless in the sports-room. One o’clock news. The set was turned very loud so the old girls could hear what was going on. At the same time the other loudspeaker in the lounge began to talk too. Albania and the Italians. King Zog. President Roosevelt’s appeal for ten years’ peace. Hitler and Mussolini. Hitler and Mussolini with the soup, with fried liver to follow, with the bread pudding and the coffee that came out of a bottle. Hitler and Mussolini all through the meal.

The not so deaf sister said: ‘Terrible, terrible,’ at intervals to herself. She said to me: ‘Isn’t it terrible, Mr Fanshawe, the things they do.’

‘Terrible.’

‘That poor Queen. Hounded out of her own country.’

I shook my head to show I thought it terrible. The other sister shook her head in sympathy. ‘Whatever will happen next?’ the not so deaf one asked me.

‘It’s hard to tell.’

‘I beg pardon?’

‘Terrible,’ I said, to save time. They both nodded.

We are in 1939, the febrile year when the threat of war stifled plans and hopes (“‘It’d shake some of these women up, anyway.’ ‘The wrong people always get the shaking in a war. Not those who deserve it'”), though it’s likely that for the narrator Fanshawe, his plans and hopes were pretty unformed anyway. He has taken a job as a vacuum cleaner salesman, his days filled by canvassing reluctant housewives for the slim chance of giving them a demonstration of his wares, for the even slimmer prospect of actually making a sale. Salesmen are ever under threat of the sack for not selling enough, and have to contend with bumptious superiors and facile encouragements in song (“Dust-pans are forgotten / A cleaner home begotten / And I’m going to sell ‘em one right now”) and crass advertisements.

Posters on the walls showed two contrasting homes; one of a haggard-looking housewife brushing up the floor by hand: coughing children, clouds of dust, germs dancing delightedly on the cheese, and so on: the headline for this one was YOU are responsible for the dustpan and brush! The other showed the same home with Sucko installed: radiant housewife ten years younger, germs beating it through the open window, kids eating off the carpet, and a doctor beaming congratulations at the door.

One colleague, Roper, with whom Fanshawe has begun to socialise, doesn’t make the grade, and ends up taking a job as a steward on an ocean liner. He asks Fanshawe to keep an eye on his wife: “If only you’d see her sometimes and have a talk.” Fanshawe reluctantly agrees.

‘You’re a good fellow, Fanshawe,’ he said.

‘No. I’ve never been a good fellow,’ I told him.

Fanshawe has problems of his own in that direction. He is tortured by the memory of his ex girlfriend Angela, and Maclaren-Ross brings out his regrets in passages all the more affecting for their brevity and understatement.

Truth was, I didn’t altogether want to give up my bachelor life in Madras. I wasn’t really ready for that yet: mem-sahib, settling down, and so on. I earned enough to have a good time, and if I married it’d be cut down by half. So I said, ‘Wait,’ not knowing she’d had enough of waiting, that she wasn’t prepared to wait any more. And she never told me: how was I to know? She said once she’d wait for ever.

As a reader with no patience for ‘backstory’ in novels, I revelled in this: that’s the way to do it. We are given enough – of Angela and of Fanshawe’s memories of his father too – to identify the causative factors, and to know how much they circulate stagnantly in his mind, without hammering the points home. As a result the book maintains a tricky balance between sympathy and a pleasing misanthropy, and the epilogue brings together the threads of war and personal life. In the end Of Love and Hunger seems like a perfect example of its kind.

That offputting title, by the way, comes from Auden and MacNeice’s Letters from Iceland:

Adventurers, though, must take things as they find them,
And look for pickings where the pickings are.

The drives of love and hunger are behind them,
They can’t afford to be particular:
And those who like good cooking and a car,

A certain kind of costume or of face,

Must seek them in a certain kind of place.

Which just shows that you can take your inspiration from two celebrated poets, and still end up with a terrible title – and still end up with a terrific book.

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