July 29, 2008

Brian Aldiss: Hothouse

Posted in Aldiss Brian, Penguin Modern Classics at 8:08 am by John Self

One of the things I like about the Penguin Modern Classics range is how they try to expand the notion of what constitutes a (mainstream) classic. In recent years they’ve dabbled in the more soft-edged side of science fiction, with John Wyndham, as well as established names like Philip K Dick and Kurt Vonnegut. Now they’re introducing writers less widely read in literary circles: next year Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! (best known as the inspiration for the film Soylent Green) will join the Modern Classics list, along with John Christopher’s The Death of Grass (already championed by Steerforth in The Age of Uncertainty). Those two titles have a vaguely ecological angle for today’s reader, with their apocalyptic visions of overpopulation. This month, we get Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse (1962), which seems to offer similar Schadenfreude jollies for our contemporary concern for global warming.

That appearance in fact is deceptive, as the temperature rise in Aldiss’s future earth is entirely due to natural processes, as the sun prepares to go supernova. We are, therefore, thousands of years in the future when the earth is “riotous and strange.”

Over the long slow eons as the sun’s radiation increased, vegetation had evolved to undisputed supremacy. … Over everything, indifferent begetter of all this carnage, shone the sun.

Most of the animal kingdom has died out, other than insects and a few pockets of human beings, who have evolved to become smaller and with less intelligence, as in the world controlled by plants, instinct for survival matters more than reasoning.

Hothouse is a book which requires the reader – at least the reader who, like me, doesn’t get much SF in their diet – to submit to its thinking wholly, or risk being thrown off at regular intervals by head-scratching strangeness. Or make that silliness, when the names of the dominant plants arise: trappersnappers, treebees, thinpins, pluggyrugs. However this turns out to be a clever use by Aldiss of baby language for two reasons: first, language has devolved, being of little use in the new world (“one did or one did not: it needed no talk. Whatever happened was the way, and talk could not touch it”); and second, the humans who name the plants are little more than children themselves. By the time of adulthood, they have either “fallen to the green” or have “Gone Up”, which is their process of moving to the next world – which is not (quite) the same thing as death. The humans of the future have their rituals, superstitions and habits just as we do: some things cannot be evolved away.

There are few passages in Hothouse which cry out for quotation, other than for the wrong reasons (“Vegetables have no voices,” one paragraph concludes with an air of misplaced drama): Aldiss, it seems, is not that kind of writer. Indeed, it’s not always a smooth performance, with Aldiss as author too keen to hack his way onto the page and explain not just the different mutant plants, which could plausibly be explained as the viewpoint of the characters, but things which they could not know, such as the nature of the traversers (mile-long spider-like entities which have yoked the earth and moon together with webs). This appetite for over-explanation reaches a maddening peak at the end of Part One, where a scene which gives hints of references to Genesis (“You’ll be like gods!” two humans are told as they are offered a quantum leap in understanding), only to hammer home the point by calling the female “another Eve” and the land “their dangerous Eden”.

Taken individually, many of the chapters seem like mindless – literally mindless – conflicts between humans and plants, a series of (what shall we call them?) vegetaction set pieces. However the book gains considerable cumulative force, as it becomes clear that Aldiss’s interest lies not in the details of how the plants came to rule the planet, nor in the human struggle for survival – few of the characters are distinguishable from one another – but in the notion of the propagation of life itself in any form. We see how insects have adapted for this fearful new world; how a sentient form of fungus rides parasitically on host humans to further its own spread; and how the human instincts, which have enabled the limited survival of the species, are hampered by the development of intelligence. The way in which the fungus involves itself in humanity has echoes of 2001: A Space Odyssey and its source story, Arthur C Clarke’s ‘The Sentinel’.  There also seemed to be similarities with Aldiss’s contemporary, J.G. Ballard.

Hothouse then is refreshingly different from my usual reading matter, and it’s not until I read this book which celebrates the propagation of life itself, in any form – animal, vegetable or other – that I realise just how limited the outlook is in so many of the books we read and acclaim. It may seem self-evident that we need to turn to science fiction for a portrayal of the world which does not centre on humankind, as we tend to share Arthur Dent’s view of the Universe as being “still divided into two parts – the Earth, and everything else.” I suppose I know why this is, just as I know why it is that when science fiction is written by a ‘respectable’ author – Ishiguro in Never Let Me Go, Atwood in Oryx and Crake or The Handmaid’s Tale – it’s never described as such. Meanwhile, authors like Aldiss provide works which are not just mind-expanding but literature-expanding.

This edition also benefits from an instructive and enthusiastic introduction from Neil Gaiman, who gives a valuable rundown on golden age science fiction as well as Aldiss’s own career, and also has a new afterword from Aldiss himself (“who is,” Gaiman cautiously notes, “as I write this, a living author”). This made me think about Aldiss, of whom I have long been aware as “the godfather of British science fiction” (Sunday Times). Why is it that, until I read Gaiman’s introduction and the About the Author page, I couldn’t have named a single work by Aldiss (other than the story ‘Supertoys Last All Summer Long’, source for Kubrick project and Spielberg vehicle A.I.)? Is it a deficiency in my reading, in the literary tastemakers, or of Aldiss’s making? (His “two most recent” non-SF novels are named in this book as HARM and Walcot. Walwhat?) Perhaps a superintelligent fungus will come along to enhance my understanding. Until then, guidance welcomed below.

July 26, 2008

Stefan Zweig: The Post-Office Girl

Posted in NYRB Classics, Zweig Stefan at 3:31 pm by John Self

A new Stefan Zweig book is always a welcome prospect: so how about a new Zweig which is literally new – the first English translation of a book unpublished at the time of his death in 1942 (though it was released in Germany in 1982) – and as a bonus, comes in the lovely NYRB Classics format? Furthermore, at 250 pages, it’s a full novel rather than his usual story form. Say no more.

The Post-Office Girl (’1930s’ is the best date we have for it) must be two or three times longer than anything else I’ve read by Zweig, and it shows that he can sustain his usual strengths of psychological truth and moreishness at novel length.

What’s particularly interesting is that, where Zweig’s usual form is to overwhelm the reader with immersion into the obsessive or passionate mindset of the protagonist, here, initially at least, he takes a more omniscient approach, scattering his gift widely around many characters, encapsulating them efficiently in a paragraph or two. An affair and marital break-up is despatched in a page and a half, and even passing characters are depicted in loving detail, such as the schoolmaster Franz Fuchsthaler, “a scrawny little man, anxious blue eyes hidden behind spectacles”:

For this quiet, unprepossessing, passive man who has no garden in front of his subsidized flat, books are like flowers. He loves to line them up on the shelf in multicoloured rows; he watches over each of them with an old-fashioned gardener’s delight, holds them like fragile objects in his thin, bloodless hands.

But quickly it becomes apparent that the central character is Christine Hoflehner, postmistress in the Austrian village of Klein-Reifling, who is thoroughly bored with her existence. It is 1926 and for years Christine has been in the same job, where “the hundreds of thousands of letters will always be different letters, but always letters. The stamps different stamps, but always stamps. The days different, but each one lasting from eight o’clock until noon, from two o’clock until six o’clock, and the work of the office, as the years come and go, always the same, the same, the same.”

Christine jumps – eventually – at the opportunity to visit her aunt Claire van Boolen in Switzerland, where she finds her life transformed by the social whirl and the new opportunities – and people – available to her.

And continually she asks herself in bewilderment, “Who am I? For years people on the street walked past without a glance, for years I’ve been sitting there in the village and no one gave me anything or bothered about me. …Is there suddenly something in me that was always there and yet not there, something that just couldn’t get out? Can it be that I was actually prettier than I dared to be, and smarter and more attractive, but didn’t have the courage to believe it? Who am I, who am I really?”

But even here the seeds of a turnaround are sown, as Zweig points out that although “she’s discovered herself for the first time in twenty-eight years … the discovery is so intoxicating that she’s forgetting everyone else.” Further than this it would be unfair to go (so don’t read the back cover: see below), but the story proceeds with Zweig’s usual combination of cruel logic and contorted emotion.

If the book’s moreish readability makes it seem at times less substantial – despite its greater length – than some of Zweig’s other works, then there is enough to make up for this in his skewering of class awareness, social shame and the desperation of reduced circumstances. The ending to me at first seemed rashly abrupt, but on rereading the closing pages I came to the view that it made a perfect marriage of ambiguity and inevitability.

Now a few quibbles with the edition from NYRB Classics (I know; I never thought I’d see the day). The back cover blurb is perhaps unique in that it reveals the entire plot right to the end of the book – a grave error, given that there are developments and switchbacks along the way which are a good part of the pleasure, as ever, in reading Zweig. On the other hand I would have welcomed a bit more background to the book, if not a full introduction then at least a translator’s note – where did the book come from, why didn’t Zweig publish it during his lifetime, and so on? (In fact NYRB Classics Editor Edwin Frank has written a little about it on their website, though this is not much more helpful, with its wild description of the book as “hardboiled, as if Zweig … had fortified himself with some stiff shots of Dashiell Hammett.”)

Finally I’m unsure about the title. The original is Rausch der Verwandlung. The last word I know from Kafka, but a rough Google Translate gives the whole as Noise of the Transformation. Edwin Frank prefers The Intoxication of Metamorphosis, which makes more sense. Both are more enigmatic and striking than The Post-Office Girl to be sure. Then again, the chosen title has a blank simplicity which appeals too, and an irony in finally reducing Christine to her social role however hard she wishes to escape it. Plus if we translated everything literally, then this post would be about a book by Stephen Branch. Sometimes publisher knows best then.

July 23, 2008

Hermann Hesse: Siddhartha

Posted in Hesse Hermann, Penguin Modern Classics at 8:10 am by John Self

Hermann Hesse is yet another of those authors I’ve never had much success with. Gave up on Steppenwolf, intimidated by the scale of The Glass Bead Game (not to mention his Nobel), and tempted – but not enough – by lesser-known titles such as Peter Camenzind and Strange News from Another Star. As for Siddhartha, well, a rationalist, sceptical soul like me knew it for a load of sentimental, soft-hearted spiritualism. (A presumption which had a purity all its own, untainted by evidence.) Now Penguin have gone and made me rethink my prejudice by issuing the book in their fine Modern Classics range. As with Robert Walser’s The Assistant, they’ve pulled out the promotional stops by wrapping the book in a vivid red sleeve, advertising a new introduction by the egregious Paulo Coelho (the Helen Steiner Rice de nos jours). This blocks about a third of the beautiful cover illustration by fashionable designer Julian House; but on the plus side, (a) it may attract people to the book who wouldn’t otherwise consider it (er, other than those swayed by a Penguin Modern Classic tag), and (b) the introduction is very short.

Siddhartha (1922) was published when Hesse was in his mid-40s, and might unkindly be considered the result of a mid-life crisis. In throwing out explicitly the biggest questions of all – how to live, the purpose of existence, the meaning of happiness – the book risks ridicule, which it courts doubly with its mystical eastern setting. Immediately the reader is thrown into a world of Brahmins and Oms and Govindas, and the cynical-minded have to struggle against making up their own jokes (referring to the glossary, for example, to find that Atman is akin to the soul, and not a superhero who travels by email).

In fact Siddhartha is not nearly so unworldly as it might first appear. Hesse’s eponymous character, the son of a Brahmin (holy man), has a pretty sceptical eye himself:

he would not become an ordinary Brahmin, a lazy sacrificial official, an avaricious dealer in magic sayings, a conceited worthless orator, a wicked sly priest, or just a good stupid sheep amongst a large herd.

Siddhartha feels that “his worthy father and his other teachers, the wise Brahmins, had already passed on to him the bulk and best of their wisdom, that they had already poured the sum total of their knowledge into his waiting vessel; and the vessel was not full, his intellect was not satisfied, his soul was not at peace, his heart was not still.” This acknowledgement of the limitations of what I thought would be the solutions offered in the book is surprising and disarming, as is Hesse’s decision to make Siddhartha not a tiresomely virtuous seeker after truth, but a human with unattractive qualities (as when he shows contempt for others who don’t share his values).

The story follows Siddhartha as he struggles to make sense of his life, follows and rejects various spiritualist practices, embraces materialism and sexual indulgence, and moves toward epiphany and enlightenment. Against expectations, it’s a clear-eyed and plainly written account, without sentimentality. It’s a tribute to Hesse’s ability to embrace without embarrassment the spiritual aspects of the story, and at the same time avoid fortune-cookie philosophising, that each time I returned to this short volume I wanted to make the journey last as long as possible. It even made me feel relaxed and optimistic (though I did read it on holiday … then again holidays are usually stressful, so let that stand).

The question that then arises is how well Siddhartha straddles the line between literature and self-help volume. It’s invariably viewed to some extent as the latter these days, even though when Hesse wrote it eighty years ago, it’s likely that the person he was seeking to help was himself.  I noticed in the bookshops recently that there’s another UK edition, published by Picador, with a very long introduction – at 70 pages, half the length of Siddhartha itself – covering much of Hesse’s life and the writing of the book, which I feel I would probably benefit from reading.  (Coelho’s introduction here, surprise surprise, is mostly about himself.)

Those coming to Siddhartha for spiritual sustenance in fact probably will find content here to ponder (“Was then not all sorrow in time, all self-torment and fear in time? Were not all difficulties and evil in the world conquered as soon as one conquered time, as soon as one dispelled time?”). Furthermore, from a literary point of view it provides a fascinating display of a writer stretching his aims and entering unknown territory, and coming through the struggle on top, or at least with a sense of completeness. And what more enlightenment could one wish for than that?

July 20, 2008

Patrick Hamilton: Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky

Posted in Hamilton Patrick, NYRB Classics at 8:00 am by John Self

Hard to believe that it’s taken me over a year to return to Patrick Hamilton after The Slaves of Solitude reminded me how great he is. Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky (1935) is widely considered to be his first major work, but its 500-page extent kept putting me off until I went on holiday and had the ideal opportunity not to be tempted by anything shorter. It’s available in the UK in Vintage Classics and in the US as an NYRB Classic. For what it’s worth, Michael Holroyd’s introduction to the former is superb.

A word about the titles. This book is an omnibus edition of three novels, connected but independent, which were first published separately. I’m not mad on the collective title, particularly in comparison to the individual titles of the novels within. The Midnight Bell (which inspired an excellent and elegant BritLitBlog), The Siege of Pleasure and The Plains of Cement seem to me to have that golden ear for a good title which Martin Amis (I seem to be quoting him a lot lately) called “almost a guarantor of minor work”. That word ‘minor’ is noteworthy. Today the language of superlative has become so devalued that ‘favourite’ has practically been supplanted by ‘most favourite’, which used to be a gag to show up an ignoramus on Only Fools and Horses, but is now used with sincere intent. In these times, ‘minor’ seems positively insulting. But it fits for Hamilton, who clearly has his limitations – the little bit (two inches wide) of beer-slopped bartop on which he works – but does what he does brilliantly, scintillatingly even.

The Midnight Bell (1929) tells the story of Bob, barman in the eponymous Euston Road pub (the book is subtitled A London Trilogy) which is full of “bottly glitter” and regulars such as Mr Sounder (“he had been to Oxford University, and was a man of letters – mostly to the papers”) and Mr Wall:

‘Ah Ha!’ said Mr Sounder. ‘The worthy Mr Wall!’

‘Oh ho!’ said Mr Wall. ‘The good Mr Sounder!’

But the two men looked at each other with a kind of glassy gleam which belied this broad and amicable opening. Indeed, these two were notoriously incapable of hitting it off, and the thwarted condescension of the one, together with the invulnerable impudence of the other, were features of ‘The Midnight Bell’ in the evening.

Bob’s mind is elsewhere, however, on a young prostitute called Jenny Maple who visits the Bell. His obsessive love for her (“completely captivating, and accessible by ‘phone”), and purchasing of her affection, is apparently based on Hamilton’s own infatuation with a prostitute, Lily Connolly. (“He informed himself that he was not insanely anxious to get her on this walk because he was in any way in love with her. It was simply because he had to find out whether he was or not – to see where he was.”) So too, we presume, are the authentic scenes of mornings after:

He went to bed with a rich and glorious evening, and he awoke at seven to find that it had gone bad overnight, as it were (like milk), and was in his mouth – bitter and sickly. He had been fooled. He had not, after all, had a great time: he had merely been drinking again.

(Hamilton, it’s worth remembering, was on three bottles of vodka whisky [thanks Tom R.] a day by the 1940s, and died in his 50s of cirrhosis of the liver.)

In The Siege of Pleasure (1932), we learn how Jenny, with her unfortunate combination of exceptional beauty and a “gift of pleasing,” came to turn her hand (so to speak) to the oldest profession. In The Midnight Bell, there had been some touching on its social origins (“Jever hear of Bernard Shaw? … Well, he wrote a book called Mrs Warren’s Profession – an’ showed it was all economics…”), but here Hamilton focuses forensically on one evening in the life of Jenny which leads her to lose her job in service to two old maids. The story is built within an artificial framing device, as Jenny goes through the motions with another fine gent.

She saw how badly he needed a drink, and marvelled, as she always did, at these little men, to whom an evening of delight, apart from the money they paid for it, entailed such strenuous mental suffering. You would have thought he hated the sight of her – instead of loving the look of her – which his four pounds definitely demonstrated that he did in some sort of way.

This is the shortest of the three books, and is devoted almost entirely to that fateful evening, where Jenny’s anxiety “not to appear unfamiliar with the manner and ways of her present company” leads to her downfall. What is so impressive is how Hamilton has the courage to go into every detail, never pausing or leaving the reader to imagine how awful the night gets. He shows us absolutely every step on the way. This unity and direction give it – and indeed the other books in the trilogy – the force of a (very long) short story, and it’s easy to succumb to reading each one almost in a sitting.

The final volume, The Plains of Cement (1934), takes this technique of gazing unblinkingly at things we would rather not see, and applies it to Ella, the barmaid at the Midnight Bell, who adores Bob as much as he in turn adores Jenny. As a distraction from her love for Bob, Ella allows herself to be seduced – sort of – by Ernest Eccles, whose ridiculous vanity is perfectly captured in his first appearance in the book.

You could see at a glance that for the time being the man lived in and through his hat. You could see that it cost him sharp torture even to put it on his head, where he could not see it, and it had to take its chance. You could see him searching incessantly for furtive little glimpses of his hat in mirrors, you could see him pathetically reading the fate of his hat in the eyes of strangers, you could see him adjusting his tie as a sort of salute to his hat, as an attempt to live up to his hat. You could see him striving to do none of these things.

For the scenes that follow, where Ella tries not to become engaged to Mr Eccles (I was reminded of the similar fate for Major Archer in J.G. Farrell’s Troubles, who ended up betrothed when he and his lady friend “had kissed behind a screen of leaves and, reaching out to steady himself, he had put his hand down firmly on a cactus, which had rendered many of his parting words insincere”), the reader is well advised to pre-curl their toes in preparation. However it’s in this volume that the story also soars into truly affecting scenes, not least when Ella finds how “painful it would be to go on discussing the man to whom she was engaged with the man she loved,” and the muted emotion of the closing pages brings the trilogy as a whole close to something like greatness.

Even when being cynical about the passing caricatures, Hamilton makes his central characters sympathetic – and, as someone who normally isn’t bothered whether he likes the characters or not, I can report that it was a very nice experience for a change. The book too has a passionate depiction of Hamilton’s city, more in foul weather than fair:

‘Oo, look!’ she said. ‘It’s snowing!’

And it was. Quite hard. Tiny flakes, whirling and scampering down, as though in terror or ecstasy, from the hidden night above. A myriad host of minute invaders, coming to fill, with their delicate but excited concerns, the gloomy plains of electric-lit London.

By the end, through Bob’s obsessive trudging of the prostitutes’ favourite venues in doomed pursuit of Jenny, I felt that I really had walked the streets myself. If only Hamilton hadn’t been so keen on his research, we might have had a few more novels from him yet. Speaking of that, suspicions about Bob’s nature as representation of the author are supported too by the revelation that he writes short stories in his spare time.

And then he gave up doing that, and took to dreaming again – dreaming about a great novel that he would one day write. This would take the form mostly employed by young novelists who have never written any novels. That is to say, it would hardly be a novel at all, but all novels in one, life itself – its mystery, its beauty, its grotesquerie, its humour, its sadness, its terror. And it would take, possibly, years and years to write, and it would put you in a class with Hugo, Tolstoy, and Dreiser.

Pah! Who wants the company of those major writers when you can get all the mystery, beauty, grotesquerie, humour, sadness and terror you could wish for, all in a perfect minor key, right here?

July 16, 2008

Andrew Sean Greer: The Story of a Marriage

Posted in Greer Andrew Sean at 8:00 am by John Self

I didn’t intend to read Andrew Sean Greer’s novel The Story of a Marriage until I read a hat trick of rave reviews from trusted bloggers dovegreyreader, Lizzy Siddal and Kirsty. They loved it to a man (that is, woman), and I decided I had to see what all the fuss was about. Then I saw Mark Thwaite on ReadySteadyBook take a somewhat different line – “mawkish tapestry of cliché,” was it? – and there’s a spirited set-to between him and dovegreyreader on her blog link above which is well worth reading. Now I definitely had to see what all the fuss was about.

The Story of a Marriage

The first thing to say about The Story of a Marriage is that there’s very little I can say about it without spoiling it for anyone else fuss-curious. This is because the book contains a series of revelations – or perhaps the comedic word reveal would be more appropriate – which mean that it’s impossible even to say what the main subjects of the story are without giving one or two away. The second thing to say is that Greer has – rare enough these days – kept his story down to fewer than 200 pages. Such restraint is admirable, particularly – and here’s my reveal – as it means I wasted less of my time reading the book than I otherwise might have.

I’m reluctant to make this post into a simple catalogue of my criticisms of the book, though that might be inevitable, as there isn’t much I can think of that I liked about it. This doesn’t mean there isn’t anything I liked, but often a tipping point is reached during the reading of a book, where my view is crystallised and becomes fixed. So I will tend to notice more things that support that view, and overlook aspects that don’t. I can still see that many of the things that bothered me will actually have delighted other readers, and will have had them drumming their heels in merriment even as they had me rolling my eyes.

For example, Greer’s language some will find beautiful -

Perhaps you cannot see a marriage. Like those giant heavenly bodies invisible to the naked eye, it can only be charted by its gravity, its pull on everything around it. That is how I think of it. That I must look at everything around it, all the hidden stories, the unseen parts, so that somewhere in the middle – turning like a dark star – it will reveal itself at last.

- whereas for my tastes it was portentous and overdone. I also had initial doubts about this mannered voice, supposedly that of a 1950s housewife, but this is explained as our narrator, Pearlie, being well read – “he loved that I ‘talked like a book,’” she tells us on page 2. He is Holland Cook, her husband, and it is her marriage to him which is the story in question.

It is 1953: we know this is the year because Pearlie keeps telling us, and throws in relentless references to the events of the time, which begins to resemble Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’:

It was 1953, and weeks before we had all watched on television as President Eisenhower and Richard Nixon were sworn in… We watched that inauguration, full of worries about the Korean War, race issues, the Rosenbergs, the Communists hidden everywhere around us, the Russian bombs being prepared…

She also drops Wedding Singer-like references to contemporary technology – her dishwasher gets a mention three times in the first dozen pages – which to me was a sign of laziness. If an era is evoked only by explicit references like these, is it really being evoked at all? Books with a similar setting, written closer to the time – say, Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road – don’t need it.

Pearlie and Holland are about to have their happy union cracked open by the appearance of Buzz, an old friend of Holland’s from during the war. This is where the undisclosable revelations begin, and even though I didn’t like the book, I’m not about to spoil anyone else’s enjoyment. So instead let me work around it and say why I thought the story was badly told.

It is the revelations that are the primary problem, or at least symptomatic of the primary problem. They are timed well – too well, often coming just after the turn of a page and at the end of a chapter – and Pearlie withholds information that she would naturally be expected to tell, purely to keep the reader in suspense and surprise them. To me, this is dishonest, and shows clearly that the person telling the story is not Pearlie Cook but Andrew Sean Greer (whose name, sure enough, looms down over the text on every other page). The whole book feels like an exercise in overturning the reader’s expectations, and at times I could almost hear the pop of the cap of Greer’s pen as he sat back with a satisfied sigh at his own cleverness. Dammit, he is clever, but it sits uncomfortably with Pearlie’s heartfelt narrative and confused innocence. It’s artificial, and while I like a bit of artifice – I’m a big fan of Martifice Amis – this is important because each time I was reminded of Greer’s presence, I was distanced from Pearlie’s story emotionally and intellectually.

This brings me back to elements which others will have loved but I didn’t at all. Pearlie’s husband, Holland, is less a presence than an absence. Is this bold way of defining a character by the space around him – a sort of literary Rachel Whiteread sculpture – which reflects the silent oppression of people like Pearlie and Buzz (“We were born in the wrong time”), or is it a lack of effort on Greer’s part to draw a third character into the triangle? And are the other details (a significantly mute dog, for example) brave or just silly?

Now I feel bad for going on so much about what I didn’t like in the book. So on the plus side, The Story of a Marriage is readable and kept me turning the pages easily to the end. Greer can pull a nice phrase out of the hat – city lights at night are compared to a chandelier – and the issues covered are sincerely intended and always worth exploring. But – sorry, here I go again – pretty much all these issues were also addressed, in the same setting, in Todd Haynes’ 2002 film Far from Heaven. That was a pastiche of the melodramas of Douglas Sirk, and melodrama is what The Story of a Marriage felt like to me. There were other interesting moments of déjà vu, such as a character who got out of war the very same (unusual) way that Johnny Wheelwright did in John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, and a scene (one of the end-of-chapter revelations) where Pearlie reacts unexpectedly in exactly the same way to exactly the same sort of bad news as Brenda Last in a pivotal scene in Waugh’s A Handful of Dust. Two more good points then: it reminded me about a couple of books I enjoyed much more.

This is an unusual review, because while I have almost no positive things to say about The Story of a Marriage, it’s clearly a book which will polarise opinion and there’s every chance that you will love it as much as my fellow bloggers did above.  (Indeed, this is an unusual review in that it may not mean very much unless you’ve read the book.)  So read their reviews too and – why not? – read the book, and make up your own mind. Just – ahem – don’t say I didn’t warn you.

July 12, 2008

Shalom Auslander: Foreskin’s Lament

Posted in Auslander Shalom at 8:00 am by John Self

Shalom Auslander came recommended to me for his first book, a collection of stories called Beware of God, but it wasn’t until I was amused by a column he wrote for the Guardian newspaper that I realised I would like to read a book by him. Fortunately, he published a memoir earlier this year, which goes by the unmistakable title of Foreskin’s Lament. Is there something he’s trying to get off his chest here?

Foreskin\'s Lament

As we might have guessed from his name and the titles, Auslander’s subject is Judaism, or, I suppose, Jewishness. The source of the book is neatly summed up in the first line of the About the Author blurb: “Shalom Auslander was raised as an Orthodox Jew in Spring Valley, New York.” And he’s been living with the consequences ever since.

The people who raised me will say that I’m not religious. They are mistaken. What I am not is observant. But I am painfully, incurably, cripplingly, miserably religious, and I have watched lately, dumbfounded and distraught, as around the world, more and more people seem to be finding Gods, each one more hateful and bloodthirsty than the next, as I’m doing my best to lose him. I’m failing miserably.

I believe in God.

It’s been a real problem for me.

The book is apparently written over a period when Auslander’s wife is pregnant with their first child, and Auslander is writing stories (which will presumably become Beware of God). His need to purge himself of the faith in which he was raised, and his simultaneous inability to stop believing, form the conflict which defines the book, and the author.

A few days ago, I resumed work on my God stories. I’m pushing my luck, I know, but if this child somehow lives, I want him or her to know where I come from, why I haven’t taught him or her what they taught me, why I have, as my mother put it in one of her last ever emails to me, forsaken my people. I know that God knows what I’ve written so far, and I know that He knows that He’s coming off like an asshole – He also knows that it’s only going to get worse before I am done, and He’s doing everything He can to stop me from finishing. Killing me? Too obvious. Murdering the very child for whom I’m writing the book? That would be so God.

The problem with all this is that it’s difficult to credit that Auslander really does have the unshakable (however hard he tries) belief he claims to: if he does, then he hasn’t conveyed it convincingly to the standard-issue postreligious reader. And it becomes clear that there’s not much more to the book than this constant double-hander of Auslander as God-fearer versus Auslander as God-baiter.

That’s not quite true: there’s a fairly upsetting portrayal of an out-of-control father (who may have had his son’s blasphemous urges but sublimated them all his life) and the book becomes moving toward the end, as Auslander struggles over whether or not to give his newborn son the traditional Jewish snip which gives the book its title. And even when his anti-God arguments are simplistic (along the lines of Why do bad things happen to good people?), he has a pithy way of putting it.

Speaking of his sexual desires, the poet Max Jacob wrote, —Heaven will pardon me for the pleasures which it knows are involuntary. A few years later, Heaven killed Max in a German concentration camp.

Still, despite these qualities, Foreskin’s Lament seems over-long – it could easily have lost a third of its 300 pages – and had that rare quality (technically known as Michael Moore’s Syndrome) of vaguely irritating me even though I was pretty much in agreement with its author. It does, however, have the funniest acknowledgements page I’ve ever seen. It’s headed Whom to Kill.

July 8, 2008

Damon Galgut: The Impostor

Posted in Galgut Damon at 7:53 am by John Self

Damon Galgut is one of those authors who justifies the existence of literary prizes. Without its multiple shortlistings – Booker, Impac, Commonwealth Writers’ Prize – few, at least in the UK, would have come across his fine 2003 novel The Good Doctor. Since then his backlist has been drip-fed to us, while he laboured over his next novel. Here it is at last, worth the wait, and perhaps the best new book I’ve read this year.

The Impostor

When reading The Impostor I began to think about the other South African novelists I have read: not a long list, probably beginning and ending with the big ones, Coetzee and Gordimer. I set to wondering why it is that their books – like Galgut’s – seem imbued with a dry, almost monochrome air, as though bleached by the harsh sun. Certainly Galgut is as somber as his Nobel-winning fellows. It might be something to do with South Africa being so freighted with significance in its modern history: the writer can be more spare, allow the reader’s knowledge to provide texture and, um, colour.

This, in fact, seems to be a central theme of The Impostor: how people respond to history. For Adam Napier, through whose eyes the story is told, the upheavals in South African society give rise to change in his own life: they were, after all, the reason for the loss of his job (“It was a deep, cold shock to discover that the young black intern he’d been training for the past six months was, in fact, being groomed to replace him. His boss had been apologetic, talking about racial quotas and telling him it was nothing personal. But how could it not be personal?”). He moves from Johannesburg to a rural area, where he takes over a tumbledown shack owned by his brother.

The air inside was dead and heavy, as if it had been breathed already. The furniture was a depressing mixture of old, clunky pieces interspersed with the tastelessly modern. The four rooms were functional and barren. There was no carpeting on the concrete floor, no picture on the walls, no softness anywhere. All of it was immured in a thick, brown pelt of dust. There was the distinct sense that time had been shut outside and was only now flowing in again behind them, through the open front door.

Here, Adam feels “the absence of history … there was only the land, rolling and vast and elemental.” He takes to writing – or planning – poetry, and solitude makes his mind “a little loose, a little displaced on its foundations.”

It wasn’t a bad feeling, to be sure – and that was the danger. You went a bit further and it felt okay, so you went a bit further still. This was how people lost track, the mental rivets popping out one by one. It crept up on you, the slow dereliction of the senses, till one day you were holed up in a ruin, beard all the way to your knees, defending your territory with a shotgun.

He is surprised one day, then, to be dragged back to reality by hearing himself addressed by an embarrassing schoolboy nickname, and to encounter Canning, an old schoolfriend whom Adam can’t remember. Galgut’s balance is superb in their opening scenes – the starting blocks of the story – where the reader is not always sure whether this is all really happening. (To add to the postmodern self-awareness, the author even appears as a set of initials carved into a school desk in Adam’s memory. “Who was DG and why are his initials haunting him now?”)

Canning lives with his wife Baby in an artificial nature reserve which he inherited from his father, and the palatial home he has built on it “is like an old colonial dream of refinement and exclusion, which should have vanished when the dreamer woke up.” His response to the freshly-minted history of South Africa is to view the point of change as an end rather than a beginning. “What I wouldn’t give to rewind to that time,” he says, ostensibly (and also) about his childhood. “Before we grew up and realised how complicated the world was.” Canning plans to exact a revenge on the past for letting him down, which will drag Adam into a very modern world of corporate greed and political corruption.

There is also a Greeneish thread in the book (the spirit of Greene often seems nearby when reading Galgut) of unsatisfying adultery, as Adam, Baby and Canning form the never simple ABC of a love triangle. Simultaneously, Adam is battling the new officious regulations of the region and struggling to find beauty in his poetry and also his garden, which resists his attempts to remove its own history:

He bends down and tears one of the little plants out. It comes away easily, a translucent filament topped with two bright leaves. It is months away from becoming the tough, thorny adversary he’s been dealing with. But it will: the future is encoded in its cells. Generations of seeds are lying dormant under the surface, waiting for his labours to release them. The very means of clearing the yard is what will fill it again.

If this seems to be hammering the point that ‘the past is not dead; it’s not even past’ then this is, for me, the book’s only weakness. Galgut never omits an opportunity to raise the spectre of history, and while it’s entirely satisfying – exciting, even – to see how he approaches it from many angles, and how everything is in the right place, at times I would have liked fewer authorial nudges. Similarly, if you’re going to write a book called The Impostor, where a key question for the reader is clearly going to be who or what in the novel that word can apply to, then don’t include a line like, “He is not the only one whose connection to Canning is built on lies; he is not the only impostor.”

But this is a minor quibble, and even these over-enthusiastic elements begin to fade as the surprisingly gripping (almost too gripping) plot takes hold, and reaches its terrible, inevitable but appropriate conclusion. Galgut can also pull out a just-so phrase when he feels like it: a line of mountains “stood out like a strip torn from the sky.” The Impostor is a magnificent achievement: feel free to picture me sighing and smiling in pleasure at the mere memory of it as I type this. It should outdo The Good Doctor in prize shortlists and might even win a few. History will be the judge of that.

July 4, 2008

Steve Toltz: A Fraction of the Whole

Posted in Booker Prize 2008, Toltz Steve at 8:23 am by John Self

Steve Toltz’s debut novel A Fraction of the Whole is one of those books which almost defies critical comment – but I’ve never let that stop me before – by flattening everything in its path with (a) its 700-page length, and (b) its relentless charm offensive which you’ll find either irritating or winning. I found it a bit of both, which I suppose makes me the perfect balanced sample.

A Fraction of the Whole

Martin Amis observed (I’m paraphrasing as I can’t find the quote; suggestions below) that there are two kinds of long books: books that need to be long, and short books which go on for a very long time. Moby-Dick needs to be long. Ditto Heller’s Something Happened. Then there are long books by the likes of John Irving, or Tom Wolfe – large-print, loud-mouth entertainers (I say that as someone who has enjoyed both), whose books nonetheless acquire a certain force by sheer massing of detail and character. A Fraction of the Whole is the second kind of book, an unashamedly and unembarrassed big, rollercoaster, rollicking – it says here – read.

“This was either rubbish or it was brilliant,” the narrator says at one point, “and I couldn’t decide which.” We are in Australia. The narrator is Jasper Dean, but the main character is his father Martin. He is a man who has struggled all his life to make a mark on the world, usually by foul means rather than fair. Toltz uses him as a mouthpiece for observations about the spirit of the age:

You can’t know what a hero is, Jasper. You’ve grown up in a time when that word has been debased, stripped of all meaning. We’re fast becoming the first nation whose populace consists solely of heroes who do nothing but celebrate each other. … And now everyone returning from armed conflict is called a hero too. In the old days you had to commit specific acts of valour during war; now you just need to turn up. These days when a war is on, heroism seems to mean ‘attendance’.

Martin associates with hardened criminal Harry West (“I chose a life apart from the common flow, not only because the common flow makes me sick but because I question the logic of the flow, and not only that – I don’t even know if the flow exists!”), who inspires him and his brother Terry to form a “democratic co-operative of crime” and to publish his handbook of crime.

Toltz is capable of fine phrasemaking (an unwelcome smile is “like a window painted shut”) and the book is at its most amusing when Toltz, in the guise of Martin or his much-loved brother Terry or Harry West or one of the dozens of other ‘colourful’ characters, goes off on a little riff on some subject.

Honestly, I’ve never known how people do married life. I mean, when I go from the bedroom to the bathroom, the last thing I want to do is stop to have a chat.

The problem is that the jokes, although funny, too often seem to come directly from the author rather than through the characters. Similarly some sections, such as the extracts from the handbook of crime, look as though they have been lying on Toltz’s desktop for some time and were thrown into the mix because bigger is better, because why the hell not?

It’s futile to criticise a book for lacking what it doesn’t aim for, and doubtless it was Toltz’s intention that A Fraction of the Whole should be the epic, vibrant romp that it is. Nonetheless, certain themes recur so often – parents and children, fame and notoriety, how to live and the rebellion against conformity – that there must be some intention to treat them seriously. The difficulty is that because so much of the book is a vigorous splash, and depends to a large extent on its high internal pace, that anything more nuanced tends to be skimmed over in the reading. Similarly, he cannot have his cake and eat it by trying to have characters that are both cartoons and empathetic people (two of them, after all, are mass murderers). Still, they’re more plausible than the females, most of whom – Astrid, Caroline, Anouk, the ‘Towering Inferno’ – are simple sexual fantasies of lithe bodies and carnal willingness.

The length of the book is its strength and weakness. On the one hand, one can’t help but admire the skill needed to sustain a succession of stories at such length, but then again it’s easy to wonder whether it would have been just as much an achievement at 600 pages, or even a piffling 500. I must admit that, with about 200 pages still to go, a Murdoch-style media mogul was introduced to force a conclusion to the plot even more unlikely than everything that had gone before, I sighed a little. Perhaps Forster was right, when he said that we tend to overpraise long books, simply because we have got through them.

On the back cover, A Fraction of the Whole is compared with A Confederacy of Dunces. I’d go along with that: like Confederacy, it’s – to me – enjoyable, unlikely to withstand rereading, and probably best appreciated by readers younger and less jaded than I. Toltz probably foresees such faint praise: the following reflection by Jasper seems decidedly pointed, and comes right in the middle of the book.

‘Mass entertainment is the death of civilisation,’ those highbrows spat, but I say, if a man giggles at something puerile and his body glows from the joy, does it matter that it was caused not by some profound artwork but by a rerun of Bewitched? Honestly, who cares? That man just had a wonderful inner moment, and what’s more, he got it cheap. Good for him, you ponderous fuck!

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