February 26, 2009

Norman Collins: London Belongs to Me

Posted in Collins Norman, Penguin Modern Classics at 8:00 am by John Self

E.M. Forster said, “One always tends to overpraise a long book, because one has got through it.” In adjusting for this with Norman Collins’ 736-page epic London Belongs to Me, now reissued in Penguin Modern Classics, I may overcompensate and end up underpraising it instead. You’ll just have to triangulate your own way with this one.  (I see also that, unusually, the cover is emblazoned with a quote of praise. By the standards of this series, that practically constitutes dumbing down. And a prize of nothing but kudos to the first person to name another Penguin Modern Classic that has stooped to having a quote on the cover.)

London Belongs to Me was a massive popular success when first published in 1945, selling not far off a million copies. Publishers now would give their right leg for those kind of sales, even for a rubbish title. But back then, the British public still had a love affair with reading, before entertainments like television were widely available. And who do we have to blame for that? Well, how about Norman Collins – as well as author of 16 novels, he was controller of television at the BBC, and co-founder of independent television in the UK. I suppose he was hedging his bets.

It’s appropriate that a novel by a founding TV executive should be one mammoth soap opera. Collins uses to good effect the old trick of exploring the lives of the people brought together in one residence: for a superlative example, see Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude. Here, we are in a lodging-house at 10 Dulcimer Street, owned by the widowed Mrs Vizzard and occupied by a raft of types: the recently retired clerk Mr Josser and his wife; Mrs Boon and her son, petty crook Percy (“‘Only fools carry a gun,’ he said to console himself for not having one”); the Pooterish Mr Puddy (“a man who for years had been plunging in and out of employment like a porpoise”); and Connie, a washed-up actress who provides the most affecting character portrait in the book. Later comes a new lodger, fake psychic Mr Squales (“[palmistry] might have been very paying if only the fat, stupid looking female who pathetically wanted to know about her love chances hadn’t in the end turned out to be a police woman”). Collins sets them in motion and lets us watch.

So much happens – often of a banal but diverting nature – that to reveal some of it would be not so much spoiling as inadequate. The centre of the book is a murder trial, which unfolds brilliantly over just 30 pages but feels much more substantial. It gives the book – particularly what comes after – necessary focus and structure, which was earlier meandering. This looseness comes despite lovely touches such as the sparky dialogue when Percy Boon takes a shine to a girl working at the funfair (“She wasn’t good looking, judged by the top standards. But she was all right. And she looked as if she might be adaptable”):

‘Hallo, beautiful,’ he said. ‘You new here?’

The girl looked at him for a moment before answering.

‘Fresh, aren’t you?’ she answered.

Percy didn’t mind this reply. It was all part of the pattern. And in any case he didn’t like girls who gave themselves away in the first five minutes.

‘I noticed you as soon as I came in,’ he said.

‘I dreamed about you last night,’ the girl told him.

He grinned politely.

‘Ever have any time off?’ he asked.

The girl shook her head.

‘No, I go straight on. All day and all night.’

‘What’s your name?’ Percy asked.

‘Oh, call me Mrs Simpson,’ she replied.

‘Like to come out some time?’

‘Yes, but not with you.’

‘Fond of dancing?’

‘Never heard of it.’

London Belongs to Me runs from 1938 to 1940, and war enters the story gradually and then suddenly. Initially, the only presence is through the character of Otto Hapfel, an incompetent Nazi representative in London, but later, as the Blitz beckons, the war fills every corner of the pages. The blackouts are vividly presented (“it had a sinister, almost solid, quality of its own, this blackout, so that you felt you had to carve your way through it, scraping and scooping out a passage as you went along”) and when Collins emphasises the carry-on attitude of Londoners during the war, it seems not so much heroic as dutiful (“[Mr Josser] had something else to think about. Rent collecting. The Germans unwittingly had chosen a rent-day on which to open their offensive”).

1953 Fontana Edition

1953 Fontana Edition

At its best the book is a directed but unforced tour of aspects of British – English – culture during wartime: a world of “chimney pots and telegraph wires”, of Bakelite and green baize, of séances and boxing matches (“The Tiger entered the ring in his celebrated striped dressing gown, allowed his seconds – two bullet-headed thugs like escaped convicts – to disrobe him as though he were too well-bred to do that kind of thing for himself, and stood there, like a cockerel, turning himself about for the people to admire him”), and of Lyons’ Corner Houses and miserable London weather, where “it was as though someone had deliberately smeared a wet dirty cloth across the sky”.

Ed Glinert in his introduction makes a sort of pre-emptive disclaimer for the novel (“simply entertainment … no rival to Graham Greene or Evelyn Waugh”) – but who wants to read a 700-page novel by Graham Greene? The appeal of London Belongs to Me is in its easy fluency and compelling serial storylines, and in its satisfying representation of a place and time which feels nostalgic but was written as contemporary reporting. Collins lacks the edge of Patrick Hamilton or Julian Maclaren-Ross, but the book has a charm and warmth which goes beyond the not insignificant achievement of simply writing a 700-page book without cocking it up. Maybe that’s what E.M. Forster meant.

February 23, 2009

Peter Stamm: Agnes

Posted in Bloomsbury, Hofmann Michael, Stamm Peter at 8:00 am by John Self

I don’t normally write here about books I didn’t like, or felt indifferent toward. First, I’m unlikely to finish them. Second, if the book is out of print, as this one is, there’s not much point in writing a post just to say: Here’s a book you probably haven’t heard of; and it’s no good. Peter Stamm’s Agnes is not, in fact, no good, but it doesn’t match up to the high standards expected when Michael Hofmann’s name is attached as translator. It was by searching for Hofmann translations that I found Stamm. Another novel of his, Unformed Landscape, has the funniest (intentional, I hope) quote of praise I’ve read in a long time, from the New Yorker: “If Albert Camus had lived in an age when people in remote Norwegian fishing villages had e-mail, he might have written a novel like this.”


Agnes (1998; tr. 2000) is an object lesson in the dangers of book blurbs, which have to be interesting enough to make the reader pick the book up, but not so detailed that they will detract from the pleasure of following the line the author has drawn. Here, the blurb tells the story from start to finish.

Agnes is dead. Killed by a story.

All that is left of her now is this story. It begins on that day, nine months ago, when we first met in the Chicago Public Library

‘Write a story about me,’ Agnes said to her lover, ‘so I know what you think of me.’ So he started to write the story of everything that had happened to them from the moment they met.

But as he writes, at first studying her intently from his computer, and later on his own, the borders between fiction and real life begin to blur. Each day he reads a new chapter to Agnes, and eventually their story catches up with the present.

On New Year’s Eve he leaves Agnes alone in their flat. She turns on the computer and reads on, into the future which he had imagined for her. And to her death.

Agnes is an unforgettable and haunting love story with a chilling conclusion.

The problems with this are threefold. First, it sells the book as some sort of metafictional piece of postmodernism, which it is not. There is no real blurring of the border between fiction and real life in the story, or in the story which Agnes’s lover writes about her. Second, it omits what is actually most interesting about the book, which is its portrayal of personal interdependence and freedom. Third, it is not accurate: in neither the story nor the story-within-a-story is there any indication that Agnes has died, and only the most generous interpretation would allow for it. The pointer does also appear in the opening line of the book (“Agnes is dead. Killed by a story”), but this is a far more ambiguous use of ‘dead’ and ‘killed’ than the blurb suggests. So by altering my expectations of what the book was about, it became a disappointment which it needn’t have been.

The narrator, unnamed, is a Swiss writer living in Chicago, who has published non-fiction books on Pullman trains and the like, and whose aims for art have broken down over the years (he started a novel but never finished it). He is disaffected and disinterested.

I liked [the coffee shop] because none of the waitresses knew me or talked to me, because I didn’t have a special place where I always sat, and because someone asked me every morning for my order, though it was always the same.

He meets Agnes, with whom he falls in love (“I felt an almost physical dependency on her; when she wasn’t there I had a dismaying sensation of not being complete”), but this love does not improve his constitutional mood:

We imagine we all share the same world. But each of us is in a mine or quarry of his own, just chipping away at his own life, doesn’t look left or right, and can’t even turn back because of the rubble he leaves behind him.

The story explores dependency: the narrator’s for Agnes; hers for him when he begins writing her story which she comes to rely on as a guide for what to do (“Now Agnes was my creation”); the reader’s for the author generally. “I’m always sad when I finish a book,” says Agnes. “It feels to me that I’d become the character in it, and the character’s life ends when the book does.” (This, presumably, is the passage which is supposed to lead us to conclude that Agnes dies at the end of the book.) This dependency clashes with the need for freedom, as the narrator observes when his relationship with Agnes ends. “My freedom had always mattered more to me than my happiness.” It is also reflected in the research the narrator does on his Pullman trains, finding that their creator, George Mortimer Pullman, suffered a revolt by the workers for whom he had created a model village:

The failure of Pullman’s vision and the uprising of his labour force against the complete control of their lives by their employer fascinated me more than the company’s celebrated railway carriages. It seemed that Pullman had planned for every contingency, except his workers’ desire for freedom. He thought he had constructed a kind of paradisal community for them. But his Paradise didn’t have a door.

The question for Agnes and the narrator is whether life has a door. There’s not much spoiling to be done here – the book comes pre-spoiled by that blurb – but one other excerpt is worth quoting, going right back to the issue I began with, of whether to write about books we don’t care for. The more I write about it, the less sure I am that I didn’t care for it. Why do we go back to books we’re unsure of? Does hope spring eternal, do we think that all writing must have some qualities if only we can dig deep enough (in the same way that even a poor film gives me pleasure, because I so enjoy the experience of going to the cinema)? Or is it something else?

‘I don’t read much anymore,’ said Agnes. ‘Because I didn’t want books to have me in their power. It’s like poison. I imagined I’d become immune. But you never become immune.’

February 20, 2009

Jill Dawson Interview

Posted in Dawson Jill, Interviews at 8:00 am by John Self

Jill Dawson is one of the UK’s most reliably interesting writers. The first book of hers I read was the Orange-shortlisted Fred and Edie (2000), based on a controversial murder case from 1923. This displayed her finest qualities: a masterly ventriloquism, a handling of female roles in society without being strident or obvious, and a seamless twining of history and invention. The next novel of hers I read, Watch Me Disappear (2006), was one of my favourite books of the year. Recently I found that with her new novel, The Great Lover, she has lost none of her style, narrative intelligence and aplomb. When not being a novelist, poet and anthologist, she mentors new writers under the Gold Dust programme. She has kindly agreed to field some questions for this blog.

Jill Dawson photographed by Tim Allen

Jill Dawson photographed by Tim Allen

In The Great Lover you imagine periods in the life of Rupert Brooke. How do you strike a balance between artistic licence and responsibility to the subject?
I think each writer sets themselves their own rules. I like to do a lot of original research, just as a biographer or historian would. Not simply relying on accounts by others but going to original documents, sources, newspapers, books of the time, places. In Brooke’s case I mostly read his letters, over and over, including some which have only recently come to light and not been included in any biography yet. Did he have a relationship with a maid like Nell? No, I don’t think so. Might he have been interested in such a girl, given what he wrote about the ‘lower orders’ and girls in particular – yes. I take as my guide what I call the ‘logic of imagination’. And I’m clear that it’s a novel, not a fictional biography.

Several of your recent novels have been based on true stories or real people. Do you actively seek out historical figures or events which sound as though they might make a novel, or is it pure coincidence? Have you had other such ideas which haven’t come to fruition?
I’m not sure I seek them out. They seem to find me…. I read a great deal of non-fiction and I do get attracted to ideas and themes and want to write a non-fiction book on a subject and then discover that a novel is what I am writing. I mean, I read a lot of biography and am beguiled by it as an art-form. And yet, when I think of writing one, I know that I am very frustrated by defining statements such as ‘Rupert Brooke was clever /troubled/ misunderstood/playful etc …’ and would rather try to conjure him up for a reader and let them make up their own mind. More like meeting a person in real life, where we all have our own views.

(Any other ideas that haven’t come to fruition?)
I did write two bad novels in my twenties that thankfully remained under the bed and have since been thrown out. One was about a tiny shrinking girl (like Mrs Pepperpot, the children’s novel, if you know that) and I think some of the ideas from that one morphed into Watch Me Disappear twenty years later, and also went into an earlier novel of mine, Magpie.

Richard Price spoke of the difficulty when researching a novel of knowing when (and how) to stop the research and actually make the decision to sit down and write the first sentence. Has this been a problem with any of your more heavily-researched novels (Fred & Edie, Wild Boy, The Great Lover)? Does research assist the imaginative process by providing a factual springboard, or does it tie you down to what must be known?
I do both simultaneously: research and write. It does my head in, as new discoveries keep changing things, but I can’t seem to help it.

In The Great Lover, sexuality features as a prominent theme as it did in Watch Me Disappear and, to a lesser extent, in Fred & Edie. These books also touch on how we see figures in the public eye. Is there a unifying intention here? Does sexuality define people, or provide them with their most novelistic and newsworthy experiences?
I think sexuality is certainly a theme and something too about the myths that underpin our culture – wanting to excavate these a little. Beyond that I’m afraid I’m not good at theorising about my novels. I feel that fiction is my first language, not a stand-in for something else. My task is to pick the exact word, try to get as close as possible to an atmosphere, scene or emotion that I want to invoke. But the rest is happening in the reader’s imagination and not under my control.

Watch Me Disappear pays explicit homage to Lolita. As with Nabokov, style seems central to your books, particularly when adopting a character’s voice. Do you have priorities as a writer, among plot, characters, style and so on?
Yes, I definitely start with a place, a vague idea of a character and then work hard to get a voice. That takes the longest time. The voice is most important to me. With Watch Me Disappear I embedded loads of phrases from Nabokov’s Lolita and an earlier novel of his The Enchanter. I paid Nabokov’s son (and literary executor) to use some of them, but others were just fragments and seemed to go unnoticed by reviewers, which I took as a compliment. (Phew! – could have been costly!) With The Great Lover I started with Nell. I’d an idea that the whole novel would be narrated by Nell. Then Rupert Brooke kept barging in. I heard his voice so clearly, through reading the letters that I tentatively began to narrate snippets from his point of view as well. Then they got bigger and bigger…

A non-literary question if I may. You live in an award-winning eco house designed by your husband. Can you tell us something about what led to this project and how you’ve found sustainable living in the six years since it was completed?
It’s five a.m. as I write this. I was lying in bed worrying – a very rare thing for me, but I’ve got a new novel out and that’s always a stressful time. (I’m happiest when I’m knuckling down writing one, not popping up promoting it). So I creep upstairs to my study at the top of the house. For many years (fifteen I think) I did not have a study, but worked at a computer in my bedroom. Really, that’s what this house means to me – a study. My husband meanwhile has been carefully monitoring the energy use and gleefully noting how well it has performed. It’s very well insulated (with recycled newspapers) and uses passive solar energy – that, as I understand it in my non-technical way means it makes best use of the sunlight at different times of the day and the year, in the way it is positioned.

To his frustration I tend not to be properly interested in all of that, but think of it simply as a lovely house to live in – full of light and kind of plain and unfussy. The floor is made from the off-cuts of cherry wood that people normally throw away, that kind of thing.

Can you recommend any unfairly neglected books or authors to the readers of this blog?
Not sure it’s exactly neglected, but I love William Maxwell’s So Long, See you Tomorrow. Anybody know that? Small-town America and the unreliability of memory… and exquisite tenderness in the writing that makes me want to read it all over again.

February 16, 2009

Benedict Kiely: Proxopera

Posted in Kiely Benedict at 8:00 am by John Self

I had never heard of Benedict Kiely (1919 – 2007) until a few months ago, when I saw that Methuen have kept a couple of his novels in print: Nothing Happens in Carmincross and The Captain with the Whiskers. Methuen don’t publish much fiction these days (see postscript), and one of their recent projects was bringing Richard Yates back into print in the UK, so I took this as a good omen and bought Nothing Happens in Carmincross after reading the first few pages. Then I saw his novella, Proxopera, in a charity shop a few weeks ago, with critics on the cover comparing him to Balzac, Conrad and Gogol. At 50p, it was worth a bet.

Proxopera is subtitled A Tale of Modern Ireland (and dedicated ‘to the memory of the Innocent Dead’), and was first published in 1977, at the height of Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’ (an elastic term: pretty much any year from the 1970s and 80s has been described as ‘at the height of the Troubles’). Anthony Burgess called it “nearly flawless as a piece of literature” and William J Kennedy “a small masterpiece.” Surprisingly, Proxopera does not disappoint.

The book has the connection to the land and tradition of storytelling which we might expect in an Irish tale. The central character, Binchy, has retired to his homeland of County Tyrone, where he remembers from his childhood “the spring that came on an iron spout out of the naked rock.”

That, for him, had been the well at the world’s end mentioned in the old stories. No water had ever tasted like that water. One of the best meals he had ever eaten had been eaten there: raw turnips taken from a neighbouring field, cleaned in the spring and sliced, washed down by the clear ice-cold water.

But it is the still water of the lake fed by the spring which becomes the central symbol in the story.

Below, in a hollow of quaking bog was a small lake, surrounded by sallies and bog-birch, in which demented old ladies and others were continually drowning themselves. There was an almost vocal sadness about the place.

The lake recurs, as source of and solution to tragedy. Storytelling is prominent also in the sense that Proxopera is driven by its plot, from which it derives its tricksy title. Binchy (‘Binchy One’ to distinguish him from his son) and his family are invaded by IRA men who hold his family hostage and demand that he drives a bomb in a milk churn to the home of a judge in the town. (“Judge Flynn is one of the best men in the North.” “The more reason he shouldn’t be where he is. He lends credit to the system.” “So you kill a man more readily because he’s a good man?”)

Not even the Mafia thought of the proxy bomb, operation proxy, proxopera for gallant Irish patriots fighting imaginary empires by murdering the neighbours.

Binchy knows two of the three republicans through their balaclavas: a handy way for Kiely to underline that violence cleaves apart existing communities, where “nowadays people die for Ireland in the oddest ways,” and ideologies pit against one another people who have more in common with each other than they do with their respective allies. Kiely’s anger is undisguised, even though he does humanise the terrorists, if only collectively and backhandedly (“And the odd thing, Mr Binchy, is that a lot of these fellows … if left alone wouldn’t hurt a cat or a child. But get a few of them together and give them what they think is a leader or an ideal and they’d destroy Asia and themselves and their nearest and dearest”). When one of them hisses about “fighting the Brits”, the response seems to sum up Kiely’s view:

Fight the Brits, says Binchy Two, to the last Catholic shop in the village of Belleek or the town of Strabane. Man, you love the Brits, you couldn’t exist without them. The nickname is affectionate. They give you the chance to be Irish heroes. They give you targets you can easily see.

The subject and plot loosely recalls Brian Moore’s Booker-shortlisted novel Lies of Silence, though Proxopera predates that book by 13 years. Kiely’s story is more lyrical than Moore’s, the setting rural rather than urban, and its proximity to the outset of the Troubles gives it a hard edge which the beauty of the writing does not soften. It is tense and thrilling, but rich and complex in its understanding of a man’s relationship with his landscape, and of men’s relationship with their homeland. It is a book which fills me with pleasure at the potential riches in Kiely’s books I’ve yet to read, and despair that such a fine literary creation is out of print (though it is available in Kiely’s Collected Stories. Which is also out of print).

*

Postscript: The edition of Proxopera which I read was published in the Methuen Modern Fiction imprint in 1988. I was fascinated to see the range of authors listed at the back, ‘also available from Methuen’. As well as Richard Yates (two decades ago, Revolutionary Road would have cost you £4.50), there are abandoned Booker winners (Stanley Middleton), modern Europeans (Handke, Lenz, Tournier), British writers who used to be big names (Christopher Isherwood), and even the odd South American. Am I suffering from false nostalgia, or is it unlikely that such a wide range of writers would be published by a mainstream house today?

February 11, 2009

Love Stories (Everyman Pocket Classics)

Posted in Lahiri Jhumpa, Nabokov Vladimir, Smith Ali, Wolff Tobias at 8:00 am by John Self

I think there’s something pretty crass about themed collections of stories. Surely the subject matter is the least interesting aspect of a piece of fiction? At the same time, however, it can be interesting to observe how tried (and tired) themes are dealt with by different writers. And there is also the analytical aspect, of seeing one person’s choices on the subject, feeling or feigning outrage at the omissions, and perhaps discovering new voices. Here, the reliable Everyman’s Library follow their recent Christmas Stories and Ghost Stories collections with the widest and riskiest theme of all: Love Stories.

Like Christmas Stories, Love Stories is edited by Diana Secker Tesdell, and it doesn’t hurt that it is a handsome volume, a solid little hardback with fully sewn cloth binding and a ribbon bookmark. The contents, for the most part, are equally impressive, and hardly any are traditional ‘love stories’ in the soppy sense of the term.

Tesdell is unafraid to challenge the reader, so the second story in the collection (after a short overture by Maupassant, ‘Clair de Lune’) is Italo Calvino’s ‘Blood, Sea’ from t-zero, the second of his Cosmicomics collections. Calvino admirers will recognise that book as one of his most rigorous, narrated by the immortal being Qwfwq and containing fictions based on scientific suppositions, and ‘Blood, Sea’ is filled with ideas, long sentences, characters who are not really characters, and intellectual delight. At the other end of the difficulty scale is Roald Dahl’s ‘Mr Botibol’, one of his underrated adult stories (though not one of his best), about a lonely man who “resembled, to an extraordinary degree, an asparagus” and who finds some sort of happiness in imagination and music.

Among recent favourites on this blog, I was delighted to see the inclusion of Tobias Wolff’s ‘Lady’s Dream’ (one of his best very short stories), and Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘A Temporary Matter’, which was praised by readers here last year when I wrote about Lahiri’s new collection, and which I was eager to read as a result. With its unsentimental detail and neatly surprising ending which stops short of tricksiness, it did not disappoint.

This lack of sentimentality is a welcome recurring theme. One of the stories, Dorothy Parker’s ‘Here We Are’, indeed is so non-slushy that it also features in Penguin Classics’ own Valentine money-spinner, Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off, which is themed around ‘love quarrels’. Parker’s story, of a recently married couple’s conversation as they go on honeymoon, is one of the highlights of the book, with its laconic expressiveness (“there was a silence with things going on in it”), wordplay (“‘Well, I’m not so sure I’m not sorry I didn’t,’ she said”) and blithe cynicism:

‘Everything was so mixed up, I sort of don’t know where I am, or what it’s all about. Getting back from the church, and then all those people, and then changing all my clothes, and then everybody throwing things, and all. Goodness, I don’t see how people do it every day.’

‘Do what?’ he said.

‘Get married,’ she said. ‘When you think of all the people, all over the world, getting married just as if it was nothing. Chinese people and everybody, just as if it wasn’t anything.’

Parker is one of a handful of names in the book whom I’d always meant to read but never had. Another, more prominent, was Lorrie Moore, whose stories are regularly cited (along with the likes of William Trevor, who also features here, and Alice Munro, who doesn’t) as being examples of the best of the art. Her story ‘Terrific Mother’ is the longest here at 44 pages, and makes it obvious why she’s so highly regarded. Her style is for sentence-by-sentence detail, with black wit (“Yes, I can see us growing old together,” she said, squeezing his hand. “In the next few weeks, in fact”), or some surprising expression in almost every paragraph. ‘Terrific Mother’ is about a woman who accidentally killed one of her friend’s children, and now is struggling to re-enter life (“You don’t understand,” she said. “Normal life is no longer possible for me. I’ve stepped off all the normal paths and am living in the bushes. I’m a bushwoman now”). There are times when this relentless artificial brilliance risks the story looking more like a Swarovski crystal than a diamond, but there is no denying Moore’s facility, and for me a purchase of her recently published Collected Stories can’t be far off. (Then again, even after one story I could see why Adam Mars-Jones Observed that Moore’s relentless humour is “closer to a compulsion than a talent.”)

Another revelation was Elizabeth Bowen’s ‘Dead Mabelle’, about a man obsessed with a movie star.

She had an unusual way with her, qualities overlapped strangely; in that black-and-white world of abstractions she alone moved in a blur. Each movement, in unexpected relation to the movements preceding it, outraged a preconception. William sat with an angry, disordered feeling as though she were a rising flood and his mind bulrushes. She had a slow, almost diffident precision of movement; she got up, sat down, put out a hand, smiled, with a sparklingly mournful air of finality, as though she were committing herself, and every time William wanted to rise in his seat and say, ‘Don’t, don’t – not before all these people!’

When she dies, he finds he has “no power of being.” The story also has a lovely ending, an essential quality for a short story, you might have thought, but surprisingly rare still. So step further up my to-be-read pile, Bowen’s novel The Death of the Heart.

It’s not just about revisiting old friends, or discovering new delights (the book is like a mail order catalogue in that sense). A collection like this is also an opportunity to cement one’s prejudices, as against T.C. Boyle (glib and forced), D.H. Lawrence (super-sincere and utterly humourless) and William Trevor (just… not that great). In addition, the story ‘Bluebeard’s Egg’ enabled me to affirm my lifelong indifference to the works of Margaret Atwood.

This volume, clearly intended for the Valentine gift market, is one I shall be keeping for myself. One niggle is the lack of biographical detail of the authors. While it’s true that most don’t require this – Fitzgerald, Marquez, Katherine Mansfield, Ali Smith even – I would have liked to be ‘reminded’ about Colette, and to know more (ie anything) about Yasunari Kawabata, whose story ‘Immortality’ is the shortest and one of the most striking here. Perhaps we’re not supposed to seek such detail, and to take the tales on trust. Love is blind.

February 6, 2009

Harry Harrison: Make Room! Make Room!

Posted in Harrison Harry, Penguin Modern Classics at 8:00 am by John Self

Harry Harrison was first recommended to me by a friend in school, over 20 years ago. (Dan: I told you I would.) That recommendation, from a teenage Douglas Adams fan, was for Harrison’s comic sci-fi Stainless Steel Rat books, which I see now stretches to a dozen volumes, including titles like The Stainless Steel Rat Joins the Circus and The Stainless Steel Rat Sings the Blues. He is also the author of a re-interpretation of Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk, called Bill the Galactic Hero. By these standards, the title of his 1966 dystopian novel is positively restrained.

Make Room! Make Room! is best known as the inspiration for the 1973 film Soylent Green, though the central revelation of the film is not in the book, which is a more straightforward environmental clarion call. The book is set in 1999, when unrestricted population growth has led to a population of 35 million in New York City.

After the damp hallway the heat of Twenty-fifth Street hit him in a musty wave, a stifling miasma compounded of decay, dirt and unwashed humanity. He had to make his way through the women who already filled the steps of the building, walking carefully so that he didn’t step on the children who were playing below. The sidewalk was still in shadow but so jammed with people that he walked in the street, well away from the curb to avoid the litter and rubbish banked high there.

‘He’ is Andy Rusch, a cop on the trail of a murder, an increasingly common crime in new New York. Most go uninvestigated – mere control of ration distribution is about the limit of the overstretched police department’s capabilities – but this one is different, because of a possible gangland connection. Harrison investigates it too, following the perpetrator – a kid among millions, living hand to mouth and dreaming of being able to eat soylent (soybean and lentil) steaks – and the lover of the victim, a society gal for a society that has all but collapsed, one of the privileged few who can afford to eat real meat and drink “Frenchwine Champagne – a rare, selected, effervescent beverage of great vintage. Artificially colored, flavored, sweetened and carbonated”.

So much of the fun here is the usual fun with future dystopias: Harrison bringing imagination to bear on names, social changes and innovations. But he is entirely serious about his bottom line, which is of man’s pillage of the earth and its resources. Interestingly, and unlike John Christopher’s ecopocalypse novel The Death of Grass (forthcoming in Penguin Modern Classics), humanity’s downfall comes not by way of nature’s revenge but by science’s selfless behaviour directly. Harrison’s view seems to be expressed in the words of Sol, the only character who isn’t drifting along as though everything is the same as it always was:

I’ll tell you what changed. Modern medicine arrived. Everything had a cure. Malaria was wiped out along with all the other diseases that had been killing people young and keeping the population down. Death control arrived. Old people lived longer. More babies lived who would have died, and now they grow up into old people who live longer still. People are still being fed into the world just as fast – they’re just not being taken out of it at the same rate. Three are born for every two that die. So the population doubles and doubles – and keeps on doubling at a quicker rate all the time. We got a plague of people, a disease of people infecting the world. We got more people who are living longer. Less people have to be born, that’s the answer. We got death control – we got to match it with birth control.

This is surprising too from a 21st century perspective: it’s difficult to credit that birth control was a controversial social issue (was it?) in the US in the 1960s. And even though it no longer is, Harrison in a short afterword to this new edition feels that the thrust of his prediction has come true, but that “if science fiction has taught us one thing – it is that we have the power to change.”

Harrison, as suggested by his large back catalogue, is an old pro, and applies imagination to plot and themes, together with a smattering of wit, to produce an entertaining and interesting read – even if it does seem (despite his afterword) as much a snapshot of the fears of times past as a contemporary parallel. Nonetheless, in a way its greatest prediction is itself: that environmental concerns would become so mainstream in 40 years’ time that the book would warrant the present handsome reissue. What I still want to know, however, is whether Harrison’s other work stands up to modern attention, particularly given his reputation for humorous sci-fi, that genre with the shortest half-life of all.

February 1, 2009

Jill Dawson: The Great Lover

Posted in Dawson Jill at 8:00 am by John Self

I have the strongest feeling of foreboding. Something beyond my worst fears is about to happen. I don’t know what it is but I know I’m right because I’m almost there. I’m approaching it with every rattle of this coach’s wheel.

Relax; you’re in safe hands. Jill Dawson’s last novel, Watch Me Disappear, was one of my favourite books of 2007. However it was unrepresentative of her work (if such a thing can be said of such a protean writer): her previous novels, Fred & Edie and Wild Boy, were based on real people, fictionalised extrapolations of life. With her new novel, The Great Lover, she again turns to history for inspiration, with an interpretation of periods in the life of Rupert Brooke.

Brooke is a perfect subject for novelisation: a recognisable name about whom relatively little is widely known: war poet; ‘think only this of me'; died young; ‘is there honey still for tea'; er, that’s it. Oh yes: he was also good-looking, referred to by Yeats as ‘the handsomest young man in England’. It is his poetry and his sexuality which stand at the centre of the book.

We’ll live Romance, not talk it. We’ll show the grey unbelieving age, we’ll teach the whole damn World, that there’s a better Heaven than the pale serene Anglican windless harmonium-buzzing Eternity of the Christians, a Heaven in Time, now and for ever, ending for each, staying for all, a Heaven of Laughter and Bodies and Flowers and Love and People and Sun and Wind, in the only place we know or care for, ON EARTH.

In The Great Lover Dawson adopts two voices, that of Brooke (through which she splices real passages from his letters, such as that above), and of Nell Golightly, a housemaid in Grantchester, where Brooke stayed as a guest near the Old Vicarage (now the home of another writer of great personal beauty). There is a framing device by way of a letter in 1982 to an elderly Nell from a Tahitian woman, Arlice Rapoto, who claims to be Brooke’s daughter (“My mother always told me that my father was a very famous man, very pretty. She called him Pupure. (This means Fair One.) He was a sun god, she said, and a famous poet, very pretty”).

This gives Nell the opportunity to revisit her memories of Brooke’s times in Grantchester, and Dawson the opportunity to inhabit two alternating voices with fluency and skill, and to investigate whether Brooke really was “ruled by high undoubting purpose,” as Churchill’s obituary of him claimed. In Nell’s reply to Arlice Rapoto, she says that biographies “set too much store by facts and not enough by feelings,” which may be an indication of flights of fancy to follow. Yet she also identifies herself as someone “able to face, very easily, the ugly facts of things. I can look squarely at them and not look away.” This she proves with an immediate portrayal of her father’s death, rich in Dawson’s evocative, surprising prose:

I saw his white shape slip over like a bottle of milk and I knew before we reached him exactly how much of him had been spilled. … His funeral was like all funerals in this part of the world. The fen soil shines like black oil when the harvest blade turns it up and is far too soft and rich for any to be buried in it. … [My sister and I] surely looked as the land itself does: as if something of huge, terrible weight had just rolled over us.

It is not surprising that there should be a frisson between Brooke and Nell – who is “startled [to find] my own heart leaping about like a dog when a visitor arrives” at the mention of his name – but Dawson’s sinuous way with what becomes of it is surprising, and satisfying too. The irony of Brooke’s position as a beautiful man is that at the time of his first stay in Grantchester – he is 21 – he is a virgin. He dithers in his attraction to various women – real figures in Brooke’s life such as Ka Cox and Noel Olivier, and the fictional Nell – but loses his virginity to a male friend (“Then it was purely body to body – my first, you know!”) in a scene of exquisite tenderness which shows that few can write sex as well, and as clear of clumsiness or embarrassment, as Dawson.

Brooke tortures himself over his duality – desired but uncommitted – “Am I capable of loving one person for more than one day? Is everyone capable of this, or is denied to some of us?” – and as a successful published writer he feels “inexplicably ridiculous. A fraud. An idiot – to see one’s own ambition and limitations writ large.” Underlining these personal contradictions is a supporting matrix of dichotomies on the social scale: the distinctions between Nell’s world and Brooke’s. This expands into wider consideration of the limitations on the role of women in society at the time, which leads to its own contradiction in turn: the world of Brooke and his Bloomsbury friends is easy, effortless, on several levels seductive; but at once oppressive and limiting.

There is something so choking, so suffocating, about being adored. The oxygen of indifference is what I need: it surely makes my heart pump healthily. I am a Poet, so I must be the one doing the loving. The Great Lover, that’s me, not the beloved. The beloved is despicable. That’s the role of a girl.

It is the immersive quality of Brooke’s world which is perhaps the most impressive feature of The Great Lover. Dawson, a subtle stylist, conjures up a world we think we know even as Brooke is warning against “longing” for a past which “never was, but exists only as a sentimental constructed memory.” It is one of those books which tipped me in its favour so early that I could happily overlook elements I didn’t care for (such as the symbolic honey bees, or indeed my general apathy for historical novels). Also, a couple of weeks after finishing it, it is beginning to look like one of those books which, by some authorial sleight of hand, becomes more powerful and striking as time passes from the reading. Pure poetry.

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