April 30, 2009

Colm Tóibín: Brooklyn

Posted in Toibin Colm at 8:00 am by John Self

Colm Tóibín is one of those writers who works slowly and never disappoints. I think of him as a sort of Irish Ishiguro: five years per novel, and always on the shortlist for the Booker Prize. His last novel, The Master (2004), was the best book in a strong shortlist, and his previous novel, The Blackwater Lightship (1999) effortlessly held up when I revisited it a couple of years ago. His new novel then comes heavily weighted with expectation, not least for his new publishers Penguin, who are hoping this will be Tóibín’s “break-out novel” which “will do for him what Atonement did for McEwan.” Whether that is something he would wish for is a debate for another day.

Brooklyn divides its story, and its character, between the borough of New York and Tóibín’s favoured stamping ground of Enniscorthy, in Wexford, south-east Ireland. (“I thought it was dreary,” he said of this landscape in an interview, “but it somehow stayed in my memory.”) The character is Eilis Lacey, whom the Penguin publicity materials boldly compare to Emma Bovary and Tess of the D’Urbervilles. No pressure now. Eilis lives a limited existence in Enniscorthy in the 1950s, directed by her mother and outshone by her sister Rose, who is forever going off to play golf. Eilis must content herself with a Sunday job in a local shop for local people, run by the miserable Miss Kelly: “Eilis realised that she could not turn down the offer. It was better than nothing and, at the moment, she had nothing.”

‘Your mother’ll be pleased that you have something. And your sister,’ Miss Kelly said. ‘I hear she’s great at the golf. So go home now like a good girl. You can let yourself out.’

Soon, however, Eilis finds that other plans have been made for her, when an Irish-American priest comes to visit and suggests that she could come ‘across the water’ to work in Brooklyn.

Eilis felt like a child when the doctor would come to the house, her mother listening with cowed respect. … And then it occurred to her that she was already feeling that she would need to remember this room, her sister, this scene, as though from a distance. In the silence that had lingered, she realised, it had somehow been tacitly arranged that Eilis would go to America. Father Flood, she believed, had been invited to the house because Rose knew that he could arrange it.

Already Eilis is displaying her primary characteristic: of being utterly passive in her own destiny, so much so that at times the reader wants to shake her. She rarely makes decisions: until the very end of the book. Like a sailing vessel she floats and sinks with the tide, subject to the influence of others: Father Flood; Mrs Kehoe, her landlady in Brooklyn; or Georgina, her cabin-mate on the uncomfortable journey across the Atlantic.

Indeed the sea-crossing section of the book, a superb toe-curling comic set piece featuring a communal bathroom and motion sickness, is significant in showing that Tóibín can flex his narrative muscles and entertain the reader. This is just as well, because much of the rest of the book is written in a low-key tone which, while entirely appropriate to Eilis’s personality, frankly lacks oomph. In his tale of frustration and limited lives, Tóibín seems most of all to be channelling William Trevor, a writer I have often thought (warning: the following sacrilegious statement may shock) somewhat overrated.

Which is not to deny the high expertise of Tóibín’s ability. Brooklyn is a relatively short book at 250 pages, but each page tells us so much about Eilis, her story and her surroundings – while the prose remains fluent and clear – that I began to wonder if I had missed some hidden compartments. This is managed, too, with relatively little explicit signposting of Eilis’s emotions.

She was nobody here. It was not just that she had no friends and family; it was rather that she was a ghost in this room, in the streets on the way to work, on the shop floor. Nothing meant anything.

Brooklyn achieves its own modest aims, but lacks the ambition of The Master. However like that novel, it has an integrity which means that it reads like a portrait of a person, rather than a fictional character. It dips its toe in the social issues of the times, such as racism in America. It also has a unity of purpose, as a result of which Eilis Lacey’s story sticks in the mind, even if the jury will remain out for the next century or so on whether she does have the longevity of Tess or Emma. The book’s elegance, straightforward narrative and emotional conclusion may well give it an appeal that earns Tóibín a deserved wider readership. Nonetheless I couldn’t help wishing that, like its heroine on board the translantic ship, it might have gone out on deck a little more often, and got its hair messed up a bit.

April 27, 2009

César Aira: An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter

Posted in Aira César at 8:00 am by John Self

A short review of a short book. César Aira’s An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (2000, tr. 2006 by Chris Andrews) is a beermat of a book. At 87 small pages, it’s less a novel than a novella, less a novella than a story. I read praise of it by Mark Thwaite on ReadySteadyBook, which was recommendation enough for me.

cesaraira

This is a strange little book which knits known facts about the life of German artist Johann Moritz Rugendas (1802 – 1858) into a spellbinding fiction. But it doesn’t start there: Rugendas was the latest in an artistic line.

It was Johann Moritz’s great-grandfather, Georg Philip Rugendas (1666-1742) who founded the dynasty of painters. And he did so as a result of losing his right hand as a young man. The mutilation rendered him unfit for the family trade of clock-making, in which he had been trained since childhood. He had to learn to use his left hand, and to manipulate pencil and brush. He specialized in the depiction of battles, with excellent results, due to the preternatural precision of his draughtsmanship, which was due in turn to his training as a clockmaker and the use of his left hand, which, not being his spontaneous choice, obliged him to work with methodical deliberation. An exquisite contrast between the petrified intricacy of the form and the violent turmoil of the subject matter made him unique.

Like his great-grandfather, Rugendas was “a genre painter”, inspired by Alexander von Humboldt, “an all-embracing scholar, perhaps the last of his kind: his aim was to apprehend the world in its totality; and the way to do this, he believed, in confirmity with a long tradition, was through vision.” Rugendas believes that for him true vision – “the other side of his art” – can be found only in Argentina, with “the mysterious emptiness to be found on the endless plains at a point equidistant from the horizons.” For him, “travel and painting were entwined like fibres in a rope.”

It is during his visit to Argentina, where Rugendas travels with his friend Krause to paint thousands of scenes of the landscape, that the episode occurs with which this story concerns itself. Rugendas finds himself drawn to certain impulses, “like a satellite in thrall to a dangerous star”, and he suffers setbacks which leave him “fragile, as if perched on stilts, his hands and feet very far away.” If it seems as though I am being unnecessarily circumspect in detailing anything about the story, that is because I believe the best way to enjoy An Episode is to approach it ignorant of its content, as I did.

But how, then, to express why it is worth reading? Because it is unique and unfathomable and, I believe, brilliant. Because it is a short sharp report which also slips down beautifully. Because it exhibits a refreshing directness that I only seem to see in fiction in translation. Aira revels in both unashamed storytelling delight – there is rampant violence and what can only be described as a cracking pace – and intellectual engagement: Aira is concerned with the interconnectedness of art with science, history and life. The book is unself-conscious but highly self-aware.

Aira writes of how Rugendas, in painting Indian raids, brings about “a progression towards unmediated knowledge.”

This is something that happens in everyday life, after all. When we strike up a conversation, we are often trying to work out what our interlocutor is thinking. … What could be more closed off and mediated than someone else’s mental activity? And yet this activity is expressed in language, words resounding in the air, simply waiting to be heard. We come up against the words, and before we know it, we are already emerging on the other side, grappling with the thought of another mind.

“The same thing happens with a painter and the visible world. It was happening to Rugendas. What the world was saying was the world.” And this is why it does not matter to me that I cannot quite quantify this book’s appeal, or reduce its essence into other words. All I need to do is recommend it, and look forward to reading it again, and more of Aira’s work too. What the book is saying is the book.

April 24, 2009

Daphne du Maurier: Don’t Look Now

Posted in du Maurier Daphne, NYRB Classics at 8:00 am by John Self

It’s typical of my wrongheaded priorities that the only time I’ve been inclined to read a book by Daphne du Maurier – author of Rebecca! Creator of The Birds! – was when I saw a book of her stories issued in Penguin Modern Classics. That volume – Don’t Look Now and other stories – was a collection published in her lifetime (original UK title: Not After Midnight). Other than the title story, I had mixed feelings about it. Now the du Maurier estate have clearly decided to have another crack at my defences, with a double whammy of a selection of her stories chosen by Patrick McGrath, and published by NYRB Classics.

dontlooknow

I felt the stories here – nine of them, filling 360 pages – to be of better quality than the Penguin book – which they well might be, as a sort of best-of. Having read the title story, I can see why the film it inspired – which I haven’t seen – is so famous (and not because of the realistic sex: none of that between these covers): it’s brilliantly creepy and sinister, wonderfully reducing Venice from city of romance to a tawdry, soiled backdrop for cruelty and paranoia. I knew the vague bones of the story – dead child, couple go on hols to recuperate, spooky goings-on, child in red cloak omnipresent, lots of water – and that’s all you need to know too if you’re a newcomer like me. The opening line is good:

“Don’t look now,” John said to his wife, “but there are a couple of old girls two tables away who are trying to hypnotise me.”

- and, cleverly, is actually a joke and not a sinister opening … only for it to become sinister very quickly. The only weak point is the very last sentence, which risks reducing the whole thing to bathos – it’s very badly judged and should have been removed, leaving the penultimate sentence to do its unsettling work.

Du Maurier’s other most famous story, ‘The Birds’, comes next. It’s a story that’s hard to come to fresh, so famous has the Hitchcock adaptation become (achieving the sort of cultural osmosis so that even people who haven’t seen the film know what it’s about). This doesn’t matter, as it’s quite different, and better, in written form. The build-up of atmosphere is superb, and it ends up a Wyndhamesque thing, bleak, apocalyptic and really quite frightening. And English. As with Wyndham, too, du Maurier’s characters tend to be stout, hearty types, everymen to whom strange things happen. McGrath in his intro calls ‘The Birds’ “a starting point in the popularisation of an entire genre of environmental-catastrophe narratives” – or perhaps not quite the starting point, as it was published a year after The Day of the Triffids. (‘The Birds’ in fact exceeds Day of the Triffids as a concept – where Wyndham had to blind everyone to make plants threatening, flying creatures with sharp beaks need no such assistance.)

Endings are one of the strengths of du Maurier’s stories, particularly when they open the story up further rather than closing it down. This is exhibited well in ‘Blue Lenses’ which, like many of the stories here, could be summed up in a single sentence, a high-concept pitch. The one where the birds start attacking people. The one where the woman gets her sight back but... This simplicity in summary risks making them seem one-dimensional, and some of the time I couldn’t help thinking that critics were right when they “dismissed with a sneer” her work, as du Maurier unhappily put it. Like Nevil Shute, she is a popular writer with just enough critical kudos to drift in and out of print.  But there is more here too. ‘Blue Lenses’ has a faintly silly premise, but it succeeds where others do not because it offers not only an indication of life extending beyond the story (the last lines are deliciously suggestive) but beneath the story too.

‘Split Second’, by contrast, spends most of its 55 pages treading water so that the characters can gradually catch up to what the reader had worked out early on (in fact they never do quite catch up). The same goes for ‘Escort’, a moment of crisis on a wartime ship. In a way this playing for time is a necessary motif of suspense stories – the slow building of atmosphere is an essential element of such work, and in that sense requires a little length to get going – but the problem is expectations. The sort of supernatural or sci-fi elements that arise here might be surprising in a story read out of the blue, here we know that in a du Maurier story that sort of thing is de rigueur, and so I just kept thinking, ‘Get on with it!’

Some of the stories resemble Roald Dahl’s adult fiction – his ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ – though lack his skittish charm. Du Maurier wrote her short works throughout her writing life, between the 1920s and the 1980s, but all have a period feel, slightly fusty and formal. Weakest of all are a couple of early works, a dozen pages or less each and pretty unmemorable.

However the last story, and longest at 80 pages, ‘Monte Verita’ is every bit the equal of ‘Don’t Look Now’ and ‘The Birds’ – and even, with its novella length, has the scope to dig a little deeper than those, and be more unusual still. Instead of Roald Dahl I was reminded of Stefan Zweig – story of two obsessions, one we can see the workings of and one we can’t. Like the others, it is best discovered page by page, so I will say nothing more of it, or of the book, except that now I’ve covered a selection of du Maurier’s short fiction, all I need now is to find a way into her novels. Any recommendations?

April 21, 2009

Geoff Dyer Interview

Posted in Dyer Geoff, Interviews at 8:00 am by John Self

Geoff Dyer is undoubtedly one of the most interesting writers in the UK. The stock response for his books is ‘genre-defying’ – so often cited that it has more or less become a genre in itself. He is one of those few writers whom I will read on any subject – even those pieces he did with Maggie O’Farrell in Waterstone’s magazine – and the breadth of his interests can be seen in Anglo-English Attitudes, his collection of “essays, reviews, misadventures”. He has written a book about not writing a book about D.H. Lawrence (Out of Sheer Rage), a book about public memorialising of the First World War (The Missing of the Somme), and a travel book where “everything in this book happened, but some of the things that happened only happened in my head” (Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It). His latest genre-defying, Dyeresque book is a novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, which has been praised in the press as “an early contender for the most original, and the cleverest, novel of the year.” If you haven’t read Dyer, you must remedy that: and where better than with this interview he kindly agreed to do for this blog?

Geoff Dyer photographed by Jason Oddy

Geoff Dyer photographed by Jason Oddy

Martin Amis said that The Information was not a novel about a mid-life crisis; the novel was the mid-life crisis. Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi contains a narrator who achieves some kind of spiritual fulfilment in an Indian holy city. Is this a novel about a mid-life crisis? Or…?

I am resigned to the book being seen that way but would like to stress that the author is not in the grips of such a thing and, in fact, is not even convinced such a thing exists. Since we’re quoting Amis, it’s worth remembering that the war against cliché isn’t waged just at the level of phrases and unthinking habits of expression. People think in clichés – and the notion of a mid-life crisis is just such an unthinking mental reflex. Having said that, if after all this grumbling, we extemporise on Amis’s comment a bit, maybe the novel, as a form, is in a state of perpetual mid- or late-life crisis while appearing oblivious to the fact.

jeffinvenice

You’ve said that the distinction between your fiction and non-fiction “means absolutely nothing” to you, and also that you “dread” inventing things for books. In your new novel, when you blur the lines between Jeff and Geoff, are you making a virtue out of a necessity?

Yes, that’s exactly what one learns to do as a writer, or as any artist. You arrive at your own style by default or failure. You know, Miles Davis wanted to sound like Dizzy Gillespie but couldn’t do the high register thing so had to content himself with becoming… Miles! And although I dread inventing things I would get very bored simply transcribing things from life, as they actually happened. What I like is improvising on them, embellishing or altering them a little.

I would like to think that my books encourage readers to ask themselves about the kind of experience they are having – and that, in turn, raises other questions about the often unquestioned formal expectations brought to the act and habit of reading, i.e. to ideas of how a book is supposed to behave or comport itself in their hands! In this case, it’s not that I’ve tried to write a novel like other novels and have failed (“The woman in the first half? Oh shit, you’re right, I completely forgot about her. Sorry” ). I’ve tried to write a book which succeeds or fails within its own internal physics.

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, like Yoga, Paris Trance or Out of Sheer Rage, is very funny but also very serious. “Everything began as a joke,” observes Jeff, “but not everything ended as one.” Do you feel ideas have to be smuggled into your books under cover of entertainment? Is one mode easier for you to write than the other, or do they all, as it were, come out of the same hands?

When you’re with friends that you really get on with, there’s a constant shuttling back and forth between joking and serious, with no change of gears at all and it’s the same in writing. One of the things I’ve really worked hard to achieve in writing is a tone or style which enables me to move freely and quickly between comedy and more discursive and analytical parts. Actually even that’s not right because the funny bits can be analytical too, so both things are happening simultaneously. I’m really not interested in entertaining the troops and can’t imagine anything worse than being a so-called comic novelist. I never read comic novels: I almost never find them funny because they’re always holding up this tacit sign saying ‘LAUGH NOW’ so one sits there, grim-faced. For me, the funniest writer is Thomas Bernhard who is also one of the most profound – you can’t stop yourself laughing.

Actually, while we’re at it here’s an example of my idea of brilliant comic writing (from The Forever War, Dexter Filkins’ collection of dispatches from Iraq and Afghanistan) about a suicide bomber in Baghdad:

Sure enough, they’d found the head. They’d placed it on a platter like John the Baptist’s, and set it on the ground next to an interior doorway. It was in good shape, considering what it had been through… The most curious aspect of the face was the man’s eyebrows: they were raised, as if in surprise. Which struck me as odd, given that he would have been the only person who knew ahead of time what was going to happen.

outofsheerrage

In Jeff in Venice…, Jeff recalls John Fowles’ distinction between “the Victorian point of view – I can’t have this forever, therefore I’m miserable – and the modern, existential outlook: I have this for the moment, therefore I’m happy.” As a writer, you must have half an eye on permanence and posterity. Or do you, like the characters in the book, seek nothing but the ongoing moment?

The books preserve those fleeting moments so it’s a way of having it both ways. And this is something that has been a major concern of many writers, since the romantic period especially. You know, it’s Wordsworth’s “I would enshrine the spirit of the past for future restoration.” Personally, I think I’ve been quite good at depicting happiness which we’re always told is difficult to do (‘Happiness writes white’ etc – another reflex non-thought). In terms of posterity etc, I think it’s really unfortunate now that one’s standing is decided so early on that it’s increasingly difficult to distinguish from the pre-publication marketing campaign (“the next big thing…”). I’ve never really been plagued by doubts about the worth of what I’ve been doing, only about my ability to continue doing it which has not really been tied up with whether that high opinion was shared by others.

You portray yourself as terminally lazy and uncommitted, but few writers are as protean, or as widely and highly acclaimed. Is Geoff Dyer the George Best of literature, gifted with such a great natural talent that he can get away with not knuckling down to make the most of it? Or is this just a pose?

What an unbelievably flirtatious question! I don’t think it’s laziness so much as a chronic, deep-down existential desire to do nothing, to down tools, to just potter away my time. But if I succumbed to that – and I get closer to succumbing to it with every passing year – I would sink into depression. Paris Trance was ultimately about the siren call of that. In a way I would like to have acquired the habits and discipline of the career novelist without becoming one. And since Thomas Mann is lurking in the background of the new book I’ll quote that line of his that I love so much: a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. To be honest, it’s an absolute mystery to me how I’ve ended up writing all these books. When you are younger there are more things to tempt you out but as you get older it becomes more difficult to concentrate.

yoga

You say your eclectic range of books comes from taking an interest in a subject – jazz, photography, Lawrence – and wanting to find out more about it. Are there any such projects which have failed to make it to book form? What topics do you have your magpie eye on currently?

There is something thing that I am very interested in at the moment but which I have no desire to write a book about: the US Marine Corps. My house is full of books about the Marines but there’s nothing in it for me as a writer. That grew out of, or is a by-product of, the series and book Generation Kill but, more generally, I’ve been reading all these books about Iraq, Afghanistan etc: The Assassin’s Gate, The Looming Tower, Imperial Life in the Emerald City, The Forever War etc. This is the big story of our time – in fact, these are some of the great books of our time – but there’s no chance of me trying to write anything like that. I am tempted to write a whole book about Tarkovsky’s film, Stalker. I like that as an idea: following up Jeff in Venice, which I guess has a wide potential readership, with one that has almost no readership at all. And tennis is a perpetual source of torment, both in terms of playing it and trying to write about it.

Can you recommend an overlooked book or author for readers of this blog?

I really love this American poet Dean Young, who I suspect not too many people in UK will have heard of (though I could be wrong). He comes out of that Ashbery surreal school but he’s very distinctive. Also hilarious – and profound at the same time. The various volumes all have pretty much the same proportion of great, good and not-so-good poems but the first one I read – and therefore the one for which I have a special affection – is First Course in Turbulence.

April 18, 2009

David Park: Swallowing the Sun

Posted in Bloomsbury, Park David at 8:00 am by John Self

Being from Northern Ireland, I’ve long been conscious that my own corner of the world has been overshadowed in literary terms by its quarrelling parents, Britain and Ireland. What novelists from Northern Ireland could reasonably said to be of international stature? Brian Moore, certainly. Bernard MacLaverty. There are younger writers like Glenn Patterson or Robert McLiam Wilson, but I haven’t read enough of them to judge. Let me now suggest, however, that David Park belongs to that company; that he is, at the very least, better than many higher-selling and more widely acclaimed British literary novelists. Last year I delighted in his latest novel, The Truth Commissioner. Now I begin the pleasurable task of working back through his output.

swallowingthesun

Swallowing the Sun (2004) reflects the times in which it was written: when Northern Ireland was struggling to free itself of the legacy of ‘the Troubles’. There was a time when the very sniff of this subject matter in a book would send me running, but something must have changed – time, distance – as this is the second book on the theme I’ve read this year, the first being Benedict Kiely’s excellent Proxopera. In fact to call Park’s book a ‘Troubles story’ is limiting and wrong, since it is also a family story, a thriller, and a meditation on the difficulty of fitting in while to thine own self being true. “What good would it be if your own self was inadequate or unformed?”

The central character is Martin Waring, a man whose background – a violent father, a loyalist neighbourhood – are efficiently sketched out by Park in a short preface. His upbringing defines Waring, if only because he cannot let it go. He has taken a job as a museum security guard to try to discard his educational failures and “live inside the world of ideas”, and is both proud and intimidated by his daughter Rachel’s academic success. (He has other reasons too: “strange to feel safest from the past in a museum.”) He is impressed and seduced by art and intelligence. When an artist who is being exhibited at the museum has a conversation with him,

it was … as if she liked him and that made him feel good and he wondered if being washed in enough people’s like could be the thing that would make him clean. Like everyone else. The same as everyone else.

Park’s ability, as in The Truth Commissioner, is to present a plausible human drama from different points of view, and not only that, but to exhibit an expert control of pace which made me race through the book in a day. Swallowing the Sun is a plot- and character-driven book, where the developments (unfortunately hinted at on the back cover blurb) fit together neatly with everything that has gone before and slot into the political context.

‘Now the Troubles are over, everybody has to make a living from legit crime – drugs, protection, counterfeit goods, moving fuel over the border and all the rest. It’s what they think of as the peace dividend.’

This is a book which, while not stylistically innovative, is structurally satisfying and has a well-judged ending. It’s hard to know with a book like this, which seems to me as good an example of its type as I’ve read, whether I derived some additional pleasure from the familiar (to me) setting. So, for example, when a character refers to a lemonade factory on the Castlereagh Road, I know it’s the one I used to drive past on the way home from work. I hope that this ‘local halo’ is negligible, and that I would have liked the book as much if set in Surrey (…with its well-known paramilitary past).

Swallowing the Sun does not have the scope or ambition of The Truth Commissioner, but I found it a much more gripping and urgent read. And if – I said if – it does not quite match up to Park’s latest work, then that should not be cause for concern. It just means he’s getting better, from an already high standard, and that the best is yet to come.



I have a copy of Swallowing the Sun to give away – it has a different cover from the above (yes, I was silly enough to buy a new copy when the above rejacketing occurred) but is pristine and unread. If you would like to be included in the draw for it, say so in the comment box below before 25 April 2009. I’ll draw a winner at random after that. Anyone anywhere in the world can enter, and the only condition is that you read it and come back here to share your thoughts.

April 15, 2009

William Maxwell: The Château

Posted in Maxwell William at 8:00 am by John Self

William Maxwell is a writer so often named as underrated, that he can hardly be considered underrated at all. The reliable Harvill Press reissued most of his books in the UK in the 1990s, and I read four of his five available novels without remembering much about them, except that I can say each one must have been good enough to make me want to read the next. Recently, Jill Dawson on this blog recommended his novel So Long, See You Tomorrow, and Christopher Enzi added a comment recommending one of Maxwell’s stories; all of which made me decide to turn to the one Maxwell novel I haven’t read.

chateau

Maxwell (1908 – 2000) was in some ways an old fashioned writer, and the very title of The Château (1961) seems to confirm this: the circumflex which nobody would use now notifying us that the book comes from a time when that word was still thrillingly foreign. It is a book about (not always thrilling) foreignness, recounting in considerable detail an American couple’s four-month stay in France in 1948.

Maxwell is a superb writer. When an author can lob into an opening paragraph a line like -

the sea was calm, the lens of the sky was set at infinity

- without disrupting the flow of the prose, or can nail a character in a few sentences like so -

He was thin, flat-chested, narrow-faced, pale from lack of sleep, and tense in his movements. A whole generation of loud, confident, Middle-Western voices saying: Harold, sit up straight … Harold, hold your shoulders back … Harold, you need a haircut, you look like a violinist had had no effect whatever. Confidence had slipped through his fingers. He had failed to be like other people.

- then you know you’re in good hands. There is something very seductive about the simple assurance and aplomb with which he writes.

The Château is one of those books which I tiptoed through for the first hundred pages or so, terrified that it might stop being as good, and that the act of my reading it might ripple its pond in some way. Perhaps it did, because what I found was that Maxwell was bottomlessly readable when writing about Barbara and Harold Rhodes, but that their interactions with the French – and they go on for over 300 of the book’s 400 pages – made my eyes glaze over. I made a similar complaint about J.R. Ackerley’s Hindoo Holiday, so perhaps this shows some latent xenophobia on my part. But Maxwell does get his point across – “their isolation as tourists in a country they could look at but never really know” – and the French receive the Americans coolly, resentful at their expectations of plenty after the privations of wartime, and not as grateful for the Marshall plan as the Rhodeses expect.

Yet this is also a surprising book. Maxwell’s default style seems to be stately and understated, an old-fashioned omniscient narrator, but suddenly the narrator becomes not just omniscient but omnipotent, and enters the text himself and interacts with the reader. The last fifty pages of the book (“Some Explanations”) are made up of this sort of Q&A.

Is that all?

Yes, that’s all.

But what about the mysteries?

You mean the ‘drama’ that Mme. Viénot didn’t tell Harold Rhodes about?

And where M. Viénot was.

Oh, that.

This extraordinary technique, maintaining his formal style, gives the impression of a book simultaneously ancient and modern.

William Maxwell was an editor at the New Yorker for 40 years, and helped shape the prose of some of the foremost US writers of the 20th century. Reading The Château, one sees elements of Updike’s descriptive ability, or of Cheever’s experimentation – and one wonders who influenced whom. The Château is not the book on which to judge him – it is in the second rank of his work, and typically the books people are recommended to begin with are The Folded Leaf and So Long, See You Tomorrow. Nonetheless, even though flawed by its excess of detail, it is a fascinating read and a singular work in a world of identikit fiction.

Eventually they crossed over into the middle of the street and moved from booth to booth, conscientiously examining pots and pans, pink rayon underwear, dress materials, sweaters, scarves, suspenders, aprons, packets of pins and needles, buttons, threads, women’s hats, men’s haberdashery, knitted bathing suits, toys, stationery, romantic and erotic novels, candy, shoes, fake jewelry, machine-made objets d’art, the dreadful dead-end of the Industrial Revolution, all so discouraging to the acquisitive eye that cannot keep from looking, so exhausting to the snobbish mind that, like a machine itself, rejects and rejects and rejects and rejects.

April 12, 2009

Norman Lewis: Naples ’44 / J.R. Ackerley: Hindoo Holiday

Posted in Ackerley J.R., Lewis Norman, Penguin Modern Classics at 8:00 am by John Self

Chain bookstores come in for a lot of stick, often justified, but one initiative I applaud wholeheartedly is the Writer’s Table series by Waterstone’s. Here, authors select favourite books which are then promoted across the chain. Philip Pullman’s selection from last year included some very interesting choices: and in a world where prize shortlists and sofa chatshows deal in new titles only, where else would old books get nationwide promotion? The latest Writer’s Table was chosen by Nick Hornby, a writer often looked down upon but whose novel How to Be Good I thought surprisingly worthwhile. One of his choices is by Norman Lewis, whom my brother-in-law Will Self calls “one of the greatest of twentieth century British writers,” adding, for the avoidance of doubt, that “Naples ’44 is his masterpiece”.

Norman Lewis, Naples '44

Norman Lewis, Naples '44

Naples ’44 (1978) is subtitled An Intelligence Officer in the Italian Labyrinth: say what you see, Norm. It’s presented in diary form, covering September 1943 to October 1944. Lewis arrived shortly after the armistice with Italy was signed, and was involved in the considerable task of trying to maintain order after the collapse of the fascist structures. Part of this is the busy invigilation of mail and telephone calls by misguided busybodies:

The prize example so far is one solemnly headed ‘Illegal use of telescope’. This referred to a passage in an overheard conversation between two lovers in which the girl had said, ‘I can’t see you today because my husband will be here, but I’ll admire you, as ever, through love’s telescope.’ … In one case we had to make an entry for a suspect about whom nothing is known but his possession of three teats on the left breast, while another was described as ‘having the face of a hypocrite’.

A recurring theme is the grinding poverty under which the Italians are living, where limpets are prised from rocks and boiled “to add some faint, fishy flavour to a broth produced from any edible odds and ends.” The odds and ends include chickens’ heads and calves’ windpipes. Also “there is a persistent rumour of a decline in the cat population of the city”. We meet characters such as Vincente Lattarullo:

one of the four-thousand lawyers of Naples, ninety per cent of whom had never practised, and who for the most part lived in extreme penury. There are estimated to be at least as many medical doctors in a similar situation; these famished professionals being the end-product of the determination of every middle-class Neapolitan family to have a uselessly qualified son. The parents are prepared to go hungry so long as the son is entitled to be addressed with respect as avvocato, or dottore.

The adjective here is ‘colourful’, as Lewis details the intricacies and eccentricities of Neapolitan life, from the near-riot situations which develop as townspeople await the propitious liquefaction of a saint’s blood, to the legendary criminal defence lawyer, who once “delivered a speech lasting two and a half days, in which Browning and Shakespeare were quoted, and the proceedings at one point were held up to allow the judge and jury to regain emotional control.” Throughout, however, Lewis comes across – he would, wouldn’t he? – as sympathetic and gentlemanly, expressing disgust for abuses by British troops and general love for the people and the place he is battling to restore.

The book ends somewhat suddenly – Lewis discovers with a day’s notice that he is to leave Naples – which supports the veracity of the journal format (though no doubt there was a deal of polishing and editing before publication) but does leave the reader lacking a sense of closure of the story arc. Naples ’44 is nonetheless a fascinating and addictive read, and I’m delighted to see that several other titles by Lewis are available from the same publisher, Eland Books. I can see them become a new favourite of mine, with their qualities of elegant type, smooth creamy paper, and pages properly stitched like granny used to make.

Another favourite imprint of mine, needing no introduction on this blog, is Penguin Modern Classics. Recently they reissued J.R. Ackerley’s Hindoo Holiday (1932), which, like Naples ’44, is a travel memoir in diary form. The book is already available as an NYRB Classic, and I thought Ackerley’s novel We Think the World of You a little gem, so for all these reliable reasons my expectations were high. Inevitably, I was disappointed.

Ackerley writes beautifully about himself – his other two books are also memoirs, and the novel is considered strongly autobiographical – but for the most part here he is writing about others. He opens well with an elegant and effective introduction (“An Explanation”) detailing what led him to become Private Secretary to the Maharajah of Chhokrapur (“He wanted someone to love him – His Highness, I mean; that was his real need, I think” – the punctuation alone had me drumming my heels in delight). However, we quickly become bogged down in a repetitive tale featuring indistinguishable characters (a problem perhaps foreseen by the publishers, who provide a dramatis personae at the start by way of a key), some temperamental Indians, some ridiculous British. The latter do provide amusing dialogue for Ackerley to recount.

‘What nice hands you’ve got; too nice for a man. I hate effeminacy in a man.’

‘Yes, they are nice hands,’ I said, looking at them. They were quite clean and I had given up biting their nails. I was genuinely pleased with them.

‘Of course you’re frightfully conceited,’ she observed. ‘That’s such a pity. I hate conceit in a man.’

‘Do you mean about my hands?’

‘Oh no, lots of things. I’ve been watching you. I rather hate you.’

I did not say anything; there seemed nothing to say, and it was perhaps lucky that I didn’t, for shortly afterwards she said:

‘I love you now. You don’t mind me saying so, do you? I always make a point of telling people if I change my opinion of them. I think it’s only fair.’

‘But why have you changed your opinion?’ I asked.

‘I’ve been observing you. Yes, I love you now. You’re a dear. So you must like me too – do you?’

‘Yes, rather!’ I said enthusiastically. But perhaps I overdid it.

‘Well, anyway, you’ve done me good – not making love to me. Every other man I’ve met has. But I’m not conceited. I’m not, am I? I’m nice really, as you’d find out if you knew me better. You don’t know me very well, do you?’

‘Very well enough,’ I couldn’t help saying.

‘You’re the rudest man I ever met!’ she exclaimed. ‘Bar none!’

Otherwise, however, great swathes of conversation and activity passed without catching on my brain, and I’m afraid that by halfway through its 280 pages I felt that I was skimming the book. For that reason I append my comments on it here, shamefaced and secondary, rather than attempt to dignify them with a post of their own. But it is worth bringing to attention, because Ackerley is an interesting writer – I still intend to read his other books, My Father and Myself, and My Dog Tulip – and I expect others will get more out of Hindoo Holiday if they give it a better reading than I did.

April 9, 2009

Hans Fallada: Alone in Berlin / Every Man Dies Alone

Posted in Fallada Hans, Hofmann Michael, Melville House, Penguin Modern Classics at 8:00 am by John Self

Midway through Hans Fallada’s 1947 novel Alone in Berlin (US title: Every Man Dies Alone), a character gives up on reading a book. He’s asked if he isn’t enjoying it.

Ach, you know, not really … They’re all such terribly good people, and I get bored. It’s too much like a proper book. Not a book that a man can sink his teeth into. I’m looking for something with a bit more excitement, you know.

How kind of Fallada to incorporate that passage to make it easy for people like me to say: he should have read Alone in Berlin then. Here there is plenty of excitement to sink your teeth into – even though it is very much like a proper book.

Hans Fallada, Alone in Berlin

And the beauty of it is that most of the characters are not “terribly good people”: and we’re not even talking about the Nazis. Alone in Berlin is “the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis” (Primo Levi), but it is its open-eyed realism which makes it shine. The characters are venal, selfish, chaotic, not types but real people. (Indeed, the book is based on true events.) There is the ineffectual and emotionally incontinent Enno Kluge; Emil Borkhausen, whose loyalty lies with the highest bidder; Karl Hergesell, former resistance organiser who gave up for the comforts of a secure home life (“My happiness doesn’t cost anyone else a thing”). Even the heroes of the story, the Quangels, are deluded about the scope of their resistance campaign.

As the book opens, Otto and Anna Quangel, living in an apartment block in Jablonski Strasse, Berlin, in 1940, have just learned that their son has been killed when fighting for Hitler in the war. It’s a merciful release, in a way, from the ever-present fear for him (“After each letter from the front you felt better for a day or two, then you counted back how many days had passed since it was sent, and then your fear began again”). When Anna, distraught, blames Otto – “you and that Führer of yours!” – this sets off an emotional journey in Otto which leads him to undertake a modest but life-threatening resistance campaign across the city. This, incidentally, is where I began to see more sense in the UK cover design, which initially seemed to be a dramatic lapse in the normally good taste of Penguin (if I didn’t know better, I’d swear that was Comic Sans). I still have my doubts, however, about the UK title. On the one hand, aloneness, as discussed below, is a central theme; on the other, the US title, Every Man Dies Alone, is a closer translation of the original German (Jeder stirbt für sich allein) and has a brutal relevance, as a chaplain points out to Otto Quangel when he doubts the value of the resistance.

Of course, it would have been a hundred times better if we’d had someone who could have told us. Such and such is what you have to do; our plan is this and this. But if there had been such a man in Germany, then Hitler would never have come to power in 1933. As it was, we all acted alone, we were caught alone, and every one of us will have to die alone. But that doesn’t mean that we are alone, or that our deaths will be in vain.

In fact the UK title and cover – and quotes on the back, where Alan Furst and Philip Kerr get precedence over Primo Levi – make clear that here, Alone in Berlin is being sold as a thriller. And it is: there is an excellent control of pace (over 570 pages), good and not-so-good guys in all shades of grey, and some genuinely thrilling moments such as the showdown between Escherich and Kluge at the end of part two.

Hans Fallada, Every Man Dies Alone

Beyond that, Fallada displays an acute understanding of motivations. When Enno Kluge is being interrogated by a Gestapo man, he is so psychologically beaten by the experience that he offers a false confession as a “favour” – “he was terrified of antagonizing this nice inspector”. The inspector himself, knowing the confession is false, nonetheless comes to believe in Kluge’s guilt because “too many curious coincidences clustered round the fellow.” Fallada efficiently shows that of such illogical (in)humanity are life and death decisions made.

The book is not perfect. Fallada wrote it in less than a month, and it is an astonishing achievement with or without that knowledge. But sometimes his haste shows – tenses change mid-scene with alarming frequency – and too often his thumb is on the scales, with melodramatic chapter endings and authorial intervention. Even translator Michael Hofmann, never knowingly underpraised on this blog, makes a few odd choices, such as using words like “mate” which give the impression that the book has been translated not into English but into British. Curiously, the rough edges seem to enhance rather than detract, neatly meeting the book’s promoted status as an unearthed relic, written on the hoof (Fallada died shortly after completing it, having been incarcerated in a Nazi insane asylum during the war). We should be grateful to have it in translation at last. It’s hard not to see Alone in Berlin becoming a widely read modern classic.

Solitude – being alone, in Berlin or anywhere else – is foremost in the minds of many of the characters. One character longs for it – “perhaps when she’s alone she will amount to more: she’ll have some time to herself, she won’t need to put herself last”, while wondering when facing time alone, “what will I discover about myself that I never knew?” In a Germany “jam-packed with uniforms”, all the resistance volunteers are made to feel alone together. “No amount of reticence could change the fact that every individual German belonged to the generality of Germans and must share in the general destiny of Germany, even as more and more bombs were falling on the just and unjust alike.” The sense of oppression is well done, and all the better for its contemporaneity, which gives it the essence of reportage and the ring of truth. “Danger’s not on the doorstep,” Otto Quangel tells his wife. “Danger is somewhere else, but I can’t think where. We’ll wake up one day and know it was always there, but we never saw it. And then it’ll be too late.”

April 6, 2009

Penguin English Journeys

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

I can’t help fearing that in financial hard times, the lowest common denominator will win out, and that mainstream publishers will abandon their more interesting and imaginative projects. Well, Penguin Books recently reported record profits in the teeth of a recession, so they must be doing something right. And fortunately, it seems that they intend to keep on doing it. Over the past few years, they have given us several series of slim, small-format paperbacks with beautiful covers and meaty content: three runs of Great Ideas from thinkers through the millennia, as well as Great Journeys and Great Loves. Now they narrow their sights with English Journeys, a series of elegantly designed volumes containing literary celebrations of the English countryside, heritage and regions.

It is a rich selection, which contains cultural compilations (Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard and other poems, Country Lore and Legends, English Folk Songs), famous literary lights (Henry James on Cathedrals and Churches, Vita Sackville-West’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Gardens, the Wordsworths on Life at Grasmere), regional reviews (William Cobbett’s From Dover to the Wen, Francis Kilvert’s A Wiltshire Diary), special interests (L.T.C. Rolt’s The Clouded Mirror on narrowboating, Simon Jenkins’ Country Churches, Alan Davidson’s The Pleasures of English Food), and even the odd title which I always thought was a Victoria Wood joke (Celia Fiennes’ Through England on a Side-Saddle).

It does risk seeming parochial, however, and unless you’re going to buy all twenty books (I did that with the first two Great Ideas and Great Journeys, but a shelf space recession has long since hammered that completist impulse out of me), it’s difficult to know which titles to try. On the one hand, this is a serendipitous selection: I want to read them because they’re there, and would never have known about them without this series, and because I trust the judgement of the editors at Penguin Classics. On the other hand, I need some stars to steer by, and I ended up selecting three to sample based on knowledge of the authors’ names.

Many of the titles in the English Journeys series, like the Great Loves and others, are extracts from larger works, which I obscurely feel somehow to be cheating. One book which appears complete is A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. I risk expulsion from polite literary society by admitting that I had never read it before now. Yet what a revelation, not just for its inspiration to other authors for titles and epigraphs (I spotted phrases lifted by James Ellroy, Dennis Potter and J.L. Carr at a glance), but its perfect rendition of celebration, remembrance and elegy.

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

It is bucolic without being sentimental. If, like me, you’re foolish enough to have got to here without reading it, correct that imbalance now.

James Lees-Milne was a name familiar to me as a prolific diarist; fifty years of his journals have been published in several volumes. For much of his life he worked for the National Trust, and Some Country Houses and their Owners brings together his diary entries dealing with his work on the Trust’s Country Houses Scheme, where the government offered incentives for owners to donate their properties to the Trust. In the 1940s Lees-Milne travelled the country trying to persuade them to sign up. His informative, gossipy entries speak as much of the owners as of their houses (“Poor Tom, he should not have lived in this age. He cannot drive a car, ride a bicycle, fish or shoot. He would have stepped in and out of a sedan chair so beautifully”. Another is “a common, waspish woman, who got where she is through persistence and money”) and even more of Lees-Milne himself: his love of the aristocratic homes (“I am blissfully happy this afternoon. I write this at my table on the raised platform at the south-east end of the Gallery…”) and his snobbish despair at their passing:

This evening the whole tragedy of England impressed itself upon me. This small, not very important seat, in the heart of our secluded country, is now deprived of its last squire. A whole social system has broken down. What will replace it beyond government by the masses, uncultivated, rancorous, savage, philistine, the enemies of all things beautiful?

Despite this, Lees-Milne is an affable and amusing diarist, relating how he “kept nodding off” as one owner read his interminable will to him, or another took him into her confidence (“She denied that the Germans had committed atrocities, and declared that the Jews were the root of all evil. Oh dear!”). But he never forgets his first passion: “my loyalties are first to the houses, second to their owners, and third to the National Trust.”

One book which has stared down at me from the unread shelves for some time is Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield. Its damned small type has been the main thing putting me off what I understand – and now know – to be a masterpiece of oral history. I know this because one of the English Journeys is a condensed version, Voices of Akenfield.

Akenfield is a fictional place, a putative village in Suffolk which Blythe has constructed from the words of rural workers in the 1960s. Voices abridges these, leaves out many (30 of the 50 in the original Akenfield are omitted) and does not include any of Blythe’s commentary. Nonetheless it is a exceptional work. Many of the people we hear are elderly, the last of a dying culture (sometimes dying literally: “they worked and lived, and kind of toppled over at the end”), who remember how things used to be. “People believed in religion then,” says Leonard Thompson, a farm worker, “which I think was a good thing because if they hadn’t got religion there would have been a revolution. Nobody would have stuck it.” This notion of belief bringing people together recurs. During the War (the First), “we believed the fighting had got to be done. We were fighting for England. You only had to say ‘England’ to stop any argument.” This notion seems to distance us from the times spoken of more than any material details. Even those who are younger seem to be of another time. Christopher Falconer, gardener:

I am a young man who has got caught in the old ways. I am thirty-nine and I am a Victorian gardener, and this is why the world is strange to me.

What comes out repeatedly is the sense of limitation of life, where people are not only happy with their restricted lot (“Nobody would have stuck it”) but view with suspicion any attempt at self-improvement.

Should there be a boy or girl with initiative and a bright intelligence, he or she is soon frustrated. With most of them it is, ‘We know quite enough for what we have to do, thank you very much.’ … A market gardener I know, who is now about twenty, is a lonely person because he went to the grammar school and the village women say, ‘Didn’t get him far, did it? All that schooling and he’s still on the land!’

Voices of Akenfield shows that everyone has something to say which is worth hearing, or at least that they do with Ronald Blythe as editor. It is essential reading.

All three books I read here make the pastoral vision of England appealing largely because it is portrayed as being in decline. The English Journey in question is not only through the geography of England, but through time also. Even when there is a sense of loss, there is a balancing impression of reassurance – probably because the past cannot spring up and unpleasantly surprise us as the present so often does. Perhaps that makes such an admirable project as this ideal for pressing, recessing times after all.

April 2, 2009

John Christopher: The Death of Grass

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

The Death of Grass (1956) has been praised highly by trusted sources on the blogosphere, and so when I learned that Penguin were to reissue the book as a Modern Classic, my curiosity was all the more piqued. This is a welcome addition to Penguin’s lengthening list of the genres which contain classics. The back cover of a 1970 film tie-in edition proclaims that the book “invites comparison with the novels of John Wyndham.” OK, here we go then: it’s not as good as the novels of John Wyndham. (Well, they did invite it.)

The main problem is that it’s not very well written, and it’s no surprise to read in the new introduction by Robert Macfarlane that the book was written “in ‘a matter of weeks’, with revisions being made only to the first chapter.” The opening scenes are full of people telling each other things for the benefit of the reader, and few of the characters are strongly distinguished – though there are a couple, such as the firearms store owner, Pirrie, who stand out. There’s an inevitably dated quality too (“There’s an awful lot of Chinks in China. They’ll breed ‘em back again in a couple of generations”).

Nonetheless The Death of Grass is a gripping story. It might be considered a sort of prequel to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – less evolved in both chronological and literary terms – as the world succumbs to a virus which kills off all grasses around the world and leads to the breakdown of civilisation. The main storyline details the attempts by one family to journey the length of England to find a safe haven in a relative’s farm. Their travels coincide with the swift development of barbarism and violence among the British people.

There is plenty missing here: little description to evoke the image of a world without fields or crops, and only the odd reference to mass suicide or panic.

‘Did you ever see those old pictures of the rabbit plagues in Australia? Wire-netting fences ten feet high, and rabbits – hundreds, thousands of rabbits – piled up against them, leap-frogging over each other until in the end they scaled the fences or the fences went down under their weight. That’s Hong Kong right now, except that it’s not rabbits piled against the fence but human beings.’

At the same time where the book surpasses Wyndham is in the lack of cosiness elsewhere – characters do not hesitate to turn violent, and the closing scenes provide satisfying turns in the narrative. There is also the occasional nice image, as in one character’s anticipation of remembrance:

There will be legends, he thought, of broad avenues celestially lit, of the hurrying millions who lived together without plotting each other’s deaths, of railway trains and aeroplanes and motor-cars, of food in all its diversity. Most of all, perhaps, of policemen – custodians, without anger or malice, of a law that stretched to the ends of the earth.

(That last sentence contains within it a pretty cosy presumption to begin with.)

The book is also suitably depressing, particularly with environmental and social breakdown seeming ever more relevant topics. (A common conception: the end of the world always seems more imminent than it did a few decades ago.) The moral voice of the narrative is contained in one paragraph early in the book, when a character says:

‘In a way, I think it would be more right for the virus to win, anyway. For years now, we’ve treated the land as though it were a piggy-bank, to be raided. And the land, after all, is life itself.’

Robert Macfarlane’s introduction places the book in the mid-20th century tradition of the ‘floral apocalypse’ story, detailing Triffids but also less well known examples as Thomas Disch’s The Genocides and Ward Moore’s Greener Than You Think (and, less obviously, it occurs to me, Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse). John Christopher, whose real name is Samuel Youd and who is in his 87th year, has written around 70 novels under several different names. Given his rampant – virus-like – productivity, the real surprise is that The Death of Grass is as good as it is.


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