May 25, 2009

James Lasdun: It’s Beginning to Hurt

Posted in Lasdun James at 8:00 am by John Self

James Lasdun is one of those gifted writers who seems to have avoided the attention he deserves as a result of scattering his talents so far and wide. Novelist; short story writer (with a story adapted for film by Bertolucci); poet; award-winning screenwriter. And he’s friends with Michael Hofmann, mascot of this blog. Damn his eyes. But he’s good: his two novels The Horned Man and Seven Lies have been highlights for me of their respective years. Now, with one of those titles which seduces straight from the shelf, he returns to the short form.

James Lasdun: It's Beginning to Hurt

It’s Beginning to Hurt is, in places, the best story collection I have read since Tobias Wolff’s Our Story Begins. Those places are where Lasdun plays to what is evidently his strength: creating a wry but rounded examination of muddled modern men, usually on the slip road (arriving or leaving) of middle age. The first of these, and a fine example of this mini-genre, is ‘An Anxious Man’, which won Lasdun the first National Short Story Award in 2006. (Didn’t I mention that above? Well: I didn’t want to embarrass him.) Happily, you can read this story in its entirety here.

Here we have a perfectly judged portrayal of the knots into which anxieties tie us, the restrictions they place on our lives, and the defeats we create for ourselves through them, in the story of Joseph Nagel. He is on holiday but failing to relax because he is too busy worrying about the performance of his wife’s inheritance on the stock market.

You could never get out once you were in anyway; couldn’t sell when you were ahead because you might miss out on getting even further ahead, couldn’t sell when you were down because the market might come surging back the next week leaving you high and dry with your losses, though of course when it merely continued tanking you wanted to tear your hair out for not having had the humility to acknowledge your mistake, and salvage, sadder but wiser, what you could…

“Whatever you did,” Joseph concludes, “it seemed you were bound to regret doing it, or not having done it sooner.” This comedy (well, I think it’s funny) of indecision recurs like a motif – or maybe just because that’s what we’re like.

In ‘The Natural Order’, a man on holiday with a friend is so taken aback by the other’s relentless bedding of every woman he meets, that he begins to doubt his own experiences and intentions. It occurs to him that his friend, on whom he had always looked down, “was in some sense a higher order of being than himself … under the man’s crassness a fine, bright flame seemed to burn in him. One was almost physically aware of it: a steady incandescence of sexual interest in the world, the lively brightness of which was its own irrefutable argument.” As a result:

he wondered for the first time whether his faithfulness as a husband had been a matter of deliberate choice, or passive acquiescence. Had he deliberately suppressed the appetites of a potential philanderer for the sake of a greater happiness, or had his life taken the shape it had because he didn’t have those appetites in the first place?

Elsewhere, men drive themselves to distraction over family tensions or health anxiety, and not always in the obvious ways (“Was it death itself that frightened him? Not exactly. [...] More upsetting was the prospect of being reassigned in the minds of others from the category of the living to that of the dying, which appeared to him a kind of sudden ruin: an abrupt calamitous coming down in the world, with all the disgrace and shame that accompanied such a circumstance”). Often Lasdun seemed to have such an acute insight to my own range of neuroses that I suspected him of some kind of espionage. However, I’m suspicious of liking a book because of identification with the characters, and there’s no doubt that Lasdun has what it takes in pure prose terms too: there is wry spikiness, attitude without swagger, which appeals greatly to me, and best of all he resists the fussy or ponderous language which can mar fiction by poets.

This covers around half the stories. It’s when Lasdun seeks to expand his range – with a hint of the supernatural, or Dahlish revenge fantasies – that the results are less successful. These stories are not weak or bad; the problem is that they lack the force of personality which fills the others and makes them take flight. They could be by any competent writer. It is a perfect example of how a good writer’s limitations are also his greatest strengths. For about half its length then, this is a superb collection, which is more than you can say for most. If you want further persuasion, you can read the title story, a mere two pages, online here. And, to bring this review to a neat end, it’s worth commenting on Lasdun’s neat way with an ending. They’re judged just right, providing enough closure and leaving enough unsaid to leave the reader satisfied. In ‘The Old Man’, Conrad has just “received some momentous intelligence … that he needed to absorb” when about to open a bottle of champagne for a celebratory party.

All three women were looking at him now. They seemed to be waiting for some explanation as to what was all of a sudden filling him with this apparent reluctance to open the bottle. He was aware of something perilous in his own immobilised silence; that the longer it continued, the more he stood to lose. And yet for some time he was unable to move.

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16 Comments »

  1. Trevor said,

    I’m glad to hear you enjoyed Seven Lies. I bought it when it was The Economist‘s best book of the year, but I’ve never made it past page 5. I’ve always picked it up at the wrong time (like when flying on a plane with an infant), so I’ve never really given it a chance, but I was beginning to think it was the book and not me. I’ll give it another go sometime soon and get to know Lasdun.

  2. leyla said,

    Tidy review, John. I loved almost all the stories in this collection. In my own review on http://www.rocksbackpages.com I mentioned that the story with the supernatural element met with my cynicism initially, but that, even though I didn’t find it credible, it was still so well written that it evoked a whisper of chill.
    Of his novels, I loved The Horned Man and very much liked Seven Lies. Have you read any of his earlier collections of short stories, and if so, which would you recommend?

  3. Thanks for the links, John — I’ve read both and they certainly confirm your review. I don’t know Lasdun and certainly appreciate this introduction.

  4. [...] John Self said in a recent review, [...]

  5. John Self said,

    Leyla, I haven’t read any of his earlier stories. I suspect the selected edition, which goes under the title The Siege (and has a horrible tie-in cover for the movie Besieged which it inspired), may be the way to go. Not least because it’s still in print, unlike the original collections.

    Kevin and Trevor, I hope you both get to like Lasdun. The Horned Man is a very good introduction – I say that because it was my introduction to him and it has made me read each of his subsequent works.

  6. Thanks for those links John, it’s nice to be able to ‘try before you buy’ (even with the typos).

  7. Tony S. said,

    I read James Lasdun’s first book of stories, “Delirium Eclipse”, in 1986. I was very impressed. He has stayed on my list of authors to read. However somehow I missed “Seven Lies”, and that book appears like it might be the work to read now.

  8. Biblibio said,

    Really, the title and the cover are enough to get me interested. That’s a neatly published book right there, an intriguing title and a picturesque but enticing cover image. Of course, there’s little connection between these two variables and the quality of the book, but I’ll take your word for it in this case.

  9. John Self said,

    Yes, it’s a lovely title Biblibio, though I slightly prefer the (similarly themed) US cover.

    Tony, I’m pleased to hear someone was reading Lasdun back at the start. I think his first collection was published as The Silver Age in the UK – it has the same publication year at any rate.

    • john hilden said,

      I just stumbled across this blog and thought I would dip in my oar.

      I’ve been a Lasdun fan since the beginning and have read all of his stuff. In my opinion, he’s the best thing going–the closest thing to Nabokov we’ve got. I can’t understand why he’s not better known. There are tons of writers who are much more famous and not half as good as him. As for how “The Horned Man” failed to even make the Booker list… Well, something’s very wrong there.

      Regarding what to read first, the person above who suggested “The Siege” was right on as far as the short stories go. It’s a compilation of the best stories from his first two books of stories. Novel-wise, definitely “The Horned Man.” “Seven Lies” is a novel he was working on before he wrote “The Horned Man” even though it came out after “The Horned Man”.

      Regarding his poetry, all of his books are good. I prefer “A Jump Start”, his first, but the others are good too.

      John Hilden

      • John Self said,

        That’s great John, I appreciate the info from a seasoned Lasdun-watcher. I didn’t know that about Seven Lies. Like others here, I did like The Horned Man more. I must look into his poetry also.

  10. wugya said,

    For the release of “It’s Beginning to Hurt”, he talked about his favorite short stories: http://flavorwire.com/32882/james-lasdun-its-beginning-to-hurt-short-stories-recommendations-favorites.

  11. John Self said,

    Thanks for the link wugya. I’ll have to look some of these out. I’ve heard about Breece D’J Pancake, whose silly name does not quite put me off. And I’ve read some Jhumpa Lahiri, though not that one, I think.

  12. john h said,

    I just read the review of Lasdun’s “It’s beginning to hurt” in the New York Times today and I’m indignant on Lasdun’s behalf. A one paragraph review of a writer of his stature is an insult in my opinion. Not to mention that they gave him a shitty review when “Seven Lies” came out.

    I read “It’s beginning to hurt” a few weeks ago when it came out in the states and loved it. There are just not that many writers this perceptive and graceful out there. True, not every story knocks your socks off. I wish he hadn’t included the title story for instance. That one didn’t do much for me. And I didn’t like that as a book for the book either. “Oh Death”, while well executed, did not fit with the rest of the collection. It felt more like a nonfiction piece with the names changed. But these are quibbles.

    Rereading your review, John, I’m curious about one thing you said; the bit about being suspicious of liking a book because of identification with the characters. Isn’t that the aim of fiction or any other kind of writing for that matter? Getting the reader to identify with your character. The kind of writing I can’t stand is the sort where the writer is sneering at his characters. Evelyn Waugh and Martin Amis come to mind.

    At any rate, the reviews of Lasdun’s book have been very very good for the most part and I hope it gets him the attention he so clearly deserves.

  13. John Self said,

    What I meant, John, was that I am always suspicious that when I like a book in which I personally identify with the characters, I worry that that’s the reason I like it, rather than any purely literary reasons. Of course, since reading a book is always a personal and subjective experience, it is probably the case that there are no purely literary reasons.

    Perhaps we mean different things by identifying with the characters. I don’t mean empathising with them or liking them as such, but actually reading about them and thinking, “Wow, I know how that feels” or “Has he been reading my mind?” Does that make sense?

  14. john h said,

    We’re probably getting into subtleties here I don’t really understand but I think I know what you mean about literary value. I guess if I want to get more specific about it, it’s not so much identification with the character or characters that I require in a book. I mean, there are obviously books I like that have despicable characters in them. “Felicia’s Journey” by William Trevor comes to mind. I guess what I’m getting at is that it’s more an identification with the sensibility of the writer that is essential to me and I suppose that’s where the whole literary thing comes in. I respond on an emotional level when I see someone making art of human experience and doing so in a way that chimes in with my own particular biases. It may be that it all happens on a precognitive level.

    I’m probably getting too analytical here. All I know is that I know a good book when I read one. Maybe it all just comes down to taste in the end.


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