July 30, 2009
I was shocked to learn this month of the death of Gordon Burn at the age of 61, and disappointed (but not that shocked) by the lack of coverage in the news media. I’d read most of his books (assiduously avoiding his work on Fred and Rosemary West) but had always assumed that Pocket Money, his second book, was an apprentice work. I bought it when it was reissued by Faber last year, but felt no urge to read it despite the appealing, to me, combination of snooker (good) and Burn (even better). Feeling that the best tribute we can pay to a dead author is to read the books, I belatedly dived in.
Pocket Money: Britain’s Boom-Time Snooker was published in 1986, and has the excesses of its decade running through it. Snooker, driven by the private enterprise of sports promoter Barry Hearn, in the previous few years had grown from an unregarded working-class pastime to “Coronation Street with balls”, or rather became a combination of the two: a world, in the words of the The Star newspaper, where “beer and fags meet glossy soap-style living.” Its apogee was the final of the world championships in 1985, where 18.5 million people set viewing records by staying up until after midnight to watch Dennis Taylor beat Steve Davis on the final black ball. This was some improvement from the years 1957-64, when the world championships weren’t contested because there wasn’t enough support to make it worthwhile; or on 1976, when the promoter made off with the money.
Barry Hearn’s crusade to render it a ‘socially hygienic’ game by representing the cleanest stars such as Davis and Taylor was forever under threat by the wilder – one might say more interesting – characters. Alex Higgins “at one point was dossing in a row of derelict houses in Blackburn where, he claims, he kept just ahead of the bulldozer, with five addresses in one week: 9, 11, 13, 15 and 17 Ebony Street.” Another troubled player was represented by an agent whose “father had to place a small ad in the Sporting Life when he needed to get hold of him in a hurry to let him know that his mother was dying.” Hearn’s response was to raise his players’ prices, exert a stranglehold on the game’s governing body, and maximise his (and his players’) returns. “You want it tasteful but you want it volume” was a guiding principle for him, leading to decisions such as the launch of the ‘Matchroom’ fragrance (“For Men Who Play to Win”). (Or as Ray Reardon, a ’gentleman player’ of the old school, put it, “If going round chemist shops autographing boxes of aftershave is what you want to do, then fine. You should sign with Barry Hearn.”)
Pocket Money is a story of the past versus the future. The past appears as the game’s governing body, the WPBSA, initially a sort of gentlemen’s club presided over by prewar champion Joe Davis, maligned by Hearn but held in affection by those like commentator ‘whispering’ Ted Lowe, whose views (“the world’s upside down”) were reflected in his personal involvement in the banning of Alex Higgins from the TV show Pot Black: “He had three girls in his dressing room, black as the ace of spades, straight off the streets of Birmingham.”
If the tawdry underbelly of snooker is ‘very Gordon Burn’ (the book is peopled by men in “deep-vented dude-suits” or who have had shotguns fired through their windows: “It blew the chandelier off the ceiling”), then so too is the approach to fame. “Almost everything I have written,” Burn said last year, “has been about celebrity, and how for most people celebrity is a kind of death.” We can see the beginning of his interest in the subject when he writes of Terry Griffiths, the snooker success of the late 70s and early 80s, who found homesickness and a kind of vertigo to be the penalties of fame. He couldn’t visit his old snooker club. “They all just changed towards me in a day.” It was the same for Joe Johnson, who in 1986 came from nowhere to beat Steve Davis in the final, just as Dennis Taylor had the year before (the book spans the period in between).
Johnson … said ‘no’ to most of the commercial enticements which flooded in. Privately, he was known to believe that becoming world champion was both the best and the worst thing that ever happened to Dennis Taylor. ‘Even in the first week,’ Johnson said, ‘my wife, my friends and my family were treating me different. I don’t want to be treated different.’
Barry Hearn, to whom success was measured by the number of zeros on a cheque, put it another way. “Joe had his chance to have it off, and he fucked up.” Burn’s presentation of voice is as impeccable as in a good novel, with Hearn’s wide-boy locutions a particular highlight. “Are you sure? Are-yew-shaw? Are-yew-really-shaw?” Others are presented in memorable one-line depictions which seem to define their place in the tableau: fighters, also-rans, bottlers.
At 3-0 down in his quarter-final against Cliff Thorburn, Willie [Thorne] would race round the players’ room borrowing the £1,000 or so in cash to place on himself in the Corals office in the foyer, in an effort to give his game some edge.
Reading the book from two decades’ distance reminds us that the if the past was bad, the future did not turn out as many in the game hoped. The mid-80s turned out to be the peak of snooker’s popular success. Clive Everton, in an eloquent afterword, bemoans the opportunities squandered by the WPBSA. Pocket Money describes the time “when snooker was on honeymoon with the world.” It is as much social document as sporting chronicle, a vital and engrossing read, and a perfect introduction to Burn’s beady eye.
July 27, 2009
I had the idea recently that I would like to read and review 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye, the ‘unauthorised sequel’ to J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. The ever-vigilant Salinger had his lawyers on the case, and a few weeks ago a judge banned the book from sale in the USA, though it remains available elsewhere. I bought it, and then realised I hadn’t read Catcher in the Rye since I was in my late teens and would need to revisit it. But I couldn’t find my copy. Undeterred, I dived into 60 Years Later and quickly came to the conclusion (when the Caulfield character took eight pages to get to the bathroom mirror so he, and the reader, could see that he was an old man and not the teenager he thought he was) that it was a lot of phony crap. By then, however, my itch to read some Salinger again had become unbearable.
I opted for Franny and Zooey (1961) as some would have it as Salinger’s masterpiece. Janet Malcolm said that rereading it “is no less rewarding than rereading The Great Gatsby.” This seems like a wild claim. The book comprises the story ‘Franny’ and the novella ‘Zooey’, first published in the New Yorker in 1955 and 1957. They are further chronicles of the Glass family children, first introduced via eldest brother Seymour in the 1948 story ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’. Although Salinger has not published for over 40 years, it’s understood that he has continued the Glass chronicles, a thought which fills me with ambivalence. There are seven Glass children, and they grew up in the public eye (or ear) by featuring on a radio quiz ‘It’s a Wise Child’:
Public response to the children was often hot and never tepid. In general, listeners were divided into two, curiously restive camps: those who held that the Glasses were a bunch of insufferably ‘superior’ little bastards that should have been drowned or gassed at birth, and those who held that they were bona fide underage wits and savants, of an uncommon, if unenviable, order.
It’s not hard to side with the haters, not least because Salinger himself seems so firmly in the, if not adoring, at least thoroughly fascinated, camp. He has lavished detail and attention on the Glasses, and he said on publication of Franny and Zooey that his writings on the Glass family were “a long-term project, patently an ambitious one, and there is a real-enough danger, I suppose, that sooner or later I’ll bog down, perhaps disappear entirely, in my own methods, locutions, and mannerisms.”
It seems already to have happened, though it’s not all bad news, as Salinger’s style is charming enough in its way, and he is not uncritical of his characters. On the first page of ‘Franny’ he has college students on a railway platform, in hot discussions, “clearing up, once and for all, some highly controversial issue, one that the outside, non-matriculating world had been bungling, provocatively or not, for centuries.” Among these is Lane, boyfriend of Franny Glass, reading her last letter to him (“I love you to pieces, distraction, etc.”) as he awaits her train. As it arrives, he tries “to empty his face of all expression that might quite simply, perhaps even beautifully, reveal how he felt” about Franny.
Well he might: she’s hard work, perhaps even more so than others of her age. She rails against the ambitions of her contemporaries:
‘I’m just sick of ego, ego, ego. My own and everybody else’s. I’m sick of everybody that wants to get somewhere, do something distinguished and all, be somebody interesting. It’s disgusting, it is, it is.’
She’s “sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody.” If this sounds dangerously as though we are heading toward effacement of the self through varieties of spiritualism, then you’re right to be worried. (“When I hear the word ‘spiritual’ I reach for my luger,” says Cynthia Ozick. “It suggests narcissism and little else.”) Franny tells Lane that she is adopting the unceasing repetition of the Jesus Prayer, inspired by the Russian work The Way of a Pilgrim.
The second part of the book, the novella ‘Zooey’, takes us directly on from Franny’s exchange with Lane, in the family’s Upper East apartment, which has a bathroom large enough for two characters to walk around and have a 40-page dialogue in. These two are brother Zachary (‘Zooey’) and Bessie Glass, their mother, and the story, we are told, is written by elder brother Buddy (“who was a writer, and consequently, as Kafka, no less, has told us, not a nice man“), and opens with one of those sentences that had stuck in my mind ever since I first read the book (but which I wouldn’t have been able to place, unprompted). “The facts at hand presumably speak for themselves, but a trifle more vulgarly, I suspect, than facts even usually do.” This uneconomical voice which Salinger gives Buddy is consistently held throughout, so that one hundred pages doesn’t deal in much that’s summarisable other than ‘Zooey talks with his mother and then his sister.’
The voice is a symptom of Salinger’s singular characteristic as an author: control. We already know from his history of litigation and his refusal to permit film adaptations or illustrated covers that Salinger exerts meticulous control over his creations, but this comes within the text too. The most curious example of this is his intensive application of italics within dialogue (“It’s infuriating not to be able to get him. It isn’t even normal”): he makes absolutely certain that the reader will read the words precisely as he intended them. This exercise of control is exactly what Franny wants from the Jesus Prayer (Zooey mocks and challenges her motives for relying on it), and there is a section of the book which reproduces several passages of Eastern wisdom, presumably alternative dabblings by Franny and her siblings.
What makes me uncomfortable about Franny and Zooey is that we know that this search for spiritual enlightenment also exercised Salinger at the time (and thereafter, at great length). It feels almost as though the reader is prying on Salinger’s private struggles: an ironic position given Salinger’s hard-fought protection of his privacy. Salinger is a talented writer, though I do wonder if he would be so popular now if he had continued to publish instead of attaining mythic status through his silence. One sentence in particular, addressed to the Glass children, seems particularly poignant. “I don’t know what good it is to know so much and be smart as whips and all,” Salinger has Mrs Glass tell them, “if it doesn’t make you happy.”
July 23, 2009
Peter Ferry: Travel Writing / None of This Ever Really Happened
I’ve noticed a few books recently whose titles have been changed for paperback publication. Presumably this signifies poor hardback performance. If so, such failure is entirely undeserved for Peter Ferry’s novel Travel Writing, which has been reissued in the UK as None of This Ever Really Happened (it retains its original title in the US). Ferry is an experienced practitioner of – among other things – travel writing, and it’s a pleasure to see a debut novel which has the mark of maturity and isn’t just the beginning of a long apprenticeship performed in public.
If the publishers wanted to give it a hook for browsers to hang it on, they could do worse than comparing Ferry to Paul Auster, whose metafictional storytelling and tone the book often resembles. The book is narrated by Peter Ferry, who shares not just his name but also his biographical details with the author: teacher, travel writer. He begins by telling his creative writing students about an experience which didn’t happen to him (except that it really did), where he saw a semi-naked woman driving a car erratically alongside his, and, while he was still wondering whether to intervene, watched her collide with a wall and die. The exchange between Ferry and his students as he expands on the story provides the framing device for the book.
It’s all a little tricksy (real writers such as John Fuller appear, as well as a character called Peter Carey, who is not the writer), but compelling in a way that I found quite surprising. I’m just not sure how Ferry managed to get his story under my skin quite so effectively. As well as this, the novel is full of very nice things, such as a subtle and effective portrait of grief, when the narrator, reflecting on his father’s death, finds himself exhaustively listing all the items he had to clear out of his storage shed. However the line between author and character is a little too nebulous when he includes several chapters of his real travel writing, one of which was first published by Ferry over 20 years ago. The end result however is a pleasing hybrid of cleverness and narrative pull, which deserves wider attention. Its potentially broad appeal is reflected in the cover quotes which include praise from sources as diverse as the Times Literary Supplement and (I did say diverse) Good Housekeeping.
George Saunders: The Braindead Megaphone
George Saunders has a mundane name for such a distinctive writer. His specialities are absurd satire – of political doublespeak and a service sector economy gone mad – and pathetic portraits of damaged losers, sometimes in the same story. I’d recommend his collections Pastoralia, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, and The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil/In Persuasion Nation. This book is a collection of essays, which I won in a Twitter draw: I didn’t buy when it came out as I’d been disappointed by his non-fiction in the Guardian, where his weekly column suffered the usual occupational hazard, of too often having to make bricks without straw.
Some of the selections here are truly dire, such as ‘Woof’, ‘Proclamation’ and ‘Ask the Optimist!’, which seem like abandoned drafts of Saunders fiction. I reserve for special mention ‘A Brief Study of the British’, which I remember without fondness from its original version in the Guardian (you can read it here, but please don’t): a sort of sub-Bryson romp for which readers should be advised to pre-curl their toes at the outset. This also features one of Saunders’ least appealing weaknesses: a fondness for what J.B. Priestly called Komic Kapitals (or what I call the last refuge of the scoundrel).
Once we get those over with, this is not a bad collection. The longest pieces are Louis Theroux or Jon Ronson-esque pieces for GQ magazine, on the Buddha Boy, the US-Mexican border, and Dubai (“capitalism on steroids, [with] the gap between Haves and Have Nots wide enough to indicate different species”). At around 40 pages each, they are too long, but there is some nice phrasemaking (the Himalayas are “Platonically white, the white that existed before other colours were invented”) and the odd unexpected sentiment (“A human being is someone who, having lived a while, becomes terrified, and, having become terrified, deeply craves an end to the fear”). There are also articles on Slaughterhouse-Five, Barthelme’s ‘The School’, and Huckleberry Finn (never having read the last, I am not persuaded to, as Saunders spends most of his time defending what he acknowledges as the very many “missteps” of the book).
Where Saunders excels,as in his fiction, is when he’s taking on cant and illiberalism. The title piece condemns the degradation of our public discourse, where “the people who used to ask, ‘Is it news?’ now seem to be asking ‘Will it stimulate?’”, and where “in surrendering our mass storytelling function to entities whose first priority is profit, we make a dangerous concession: ‘Tell us,’ we say in effect, ‘as much truth as you can, while still making money.’” As a result, Saunders says:
The era of the jackboot is over: the forces that come for our decency, humour and freedom will be extolling, in beautiful smooth voices, the virtues of decency, humour and freedom.
Always in the background of these pieces is the US and British invasion of Iraq in 2003. In ‘A Survey of the Literature’ – riddled with Komic Kapitals – Saunders proposes ‘fluid-nations’ made up of people with particular attributes, such as Men Who Fish, Farmers Who Mumble Soundless Prayers While Working in their Fields, and – you can see where he’s going with this – People Reluctant to Kill for an Abstraction. Also uniting these pieces is Saunders’ interest in language. His manifesto seems to be expressed in ‘Thank You, Esther Forbes’, an expansion of this Guardian piece from 2005, where he praises Hemingway, Isaac Babel, Gertrude Stein and Henry Green for their “sentences that had been the subject of so much concentration, they had become things in the world instead of attempts to catalogue it.” A statement of ambition for Saunders too, I presume: so get back to it, George, and give us more fiction.
Michael Sims: Adam’s Navel
Another Twitter discovery – when discussing ‘genre-defying non-fiction’ with author, reviewer and tweeter-par-excellence P.D. Smith, he recommended Michael Sims, whom I’d never heard of. I investigated by getting hold of his 2003 book, Adam’s Navel, described patronisingly on the UK paperback as ‘the Weird and Wonderful Story of the Human Body’, but more accurately summed up in the US edition above, as a Natural and Cultural History of the Human Form.
This is an excellent book which could be unfairly dismissed as ‘a perfect book for dipping into’. I read it through and enjoyed it thoroughly: Sims takes us on a journey from the hair to the toes, with biological facts as well as cultural, literary and historical insights into the various body parts. It has vivid imagery (“the human head is roughly the size and weight of a bowling ball and the spine labours like the stem of a sunflower to carry such a burden”) and apposite quotations (Wilde: “The great mystery of the world is not the invisible, but the visible”). So crammed is Sims’ journey that it is a book with literally half a dozen fascinating things on every page: which actually makes a sequential reading quite a drawn-out process.
If pressed to criticise Adam’s Navel, I would admit to being at times irritated by Sims’ informal style and his needless editorialising (does the typical reader of this book need to be told that people who see faces in the shadows of the surface of Mars are “goofy”, or care to know that Sims thinks internet emoticons are “ridiculous”?). I would also have liked, as well as a bibliography, chapter-specific endnotes, so that I could see, for example, the source of insights such as this, in a section on our expectations of “appropriately ‘childlike’ proportions” in human babies:
Sociologists have found again and again that children who are born with more adult-looking features are likelier to be victims of child abuse than their cuter fellows.
Sims’ references are idiosyncratic – from Calvino to Calvin & Hobbes – and his knowledge impressive. Reading Adam’s Navel is a little like going to see a great comedian: there’s so much good stuff in there that you can’t remember a single example by the end. Fortunately, and unlike most stand-ups, Sims provides us with a detailed index to help us find that elusive nugget again in order to impress our friends.
July 20, 2009
Anita Brookner, to me, was always one of those authors so easily pigeonholed that I didn’t need to waste time reading her to know what I thought of her. She writes elegantly gloomy books about lonely people, and is the epitome of the middlebrow English Hampstead novel. Easy. But even while dimissing her thus, an itch worked at me. I kind of like elegantly gloomy books, and if the last two and a half years of this blog show anything, it’s that my tastes are pretty middlebrow. It wasn’t until I read an appreciative piece about Brookner by Mark Thwaite on ReadySteadyBook, that I allowed my secret desires to be unleashed.
Well: I was right. Strangers, her 24th novel, is a mostly miserable story, and because of that, absolutely fascinating. In what I believe is a break with tradition for Brookner, her protagonist is not a woman who is lonely, but a man (who is lonely: it’s not that much of a break with tradition). And for all the overt bleakness of the subject, surely I can detect a twinkle in Brookner’s eye when she opens her book with the line:
Sturgis had always known that it was his destiny to die among strangers.
Sturgis’s solitude inhabits everything – the long days he must fill, the routine of his daily routes, the emptiness of his home. “Work! That was what was missing.” He has one relative, even more elderly than he is; in his weekly visits she perpetually protests her social activity (“Oh, I’m busy. Yes, I’m very busy”) but Sturgis knows that she is completely alone too. “If he cried out (but he would never do such a thing) no one would hear him.” His only other resource is “contact with strangers. … Fortunately there was no shortage of strangers; in fact everyone was a stranger.”
One of these strangers is Vicky Gardener, a woman in her 50s – twenty or so years his junior – whom he meets on a flight to Venice. He takes a trip there to avoid spending Christmas alone, even though he knows it will be expensive. “He justified himself, as he always did, to an audience of unseen critics.” Really what is missing in Sturgis’s life, apart from work, is children: a regret Brookner herself has expressed in a recent interview. Even as he strikes up a rapport with Vicky, Sturgis is reflecting that
he might have done better, even prospered, in another era, or even another place, where the natives, the citizens, were more helpful, more curious, and indeed more candid. … The answer might be to go in search of that other place, an easy republic of manners in which one could communicate and be understood. Even so he wondered if this were possible outside the confines of a novel.
He does, however, have a past, and has had lovers. “He had, in the past, wanted to be kind, and, as ever, had supplied the wrong sort of kindness.” His ex, Sarah, dismissed him as too ‘good’, a condemnation which he now considers was correct. “Goodness was not an evolutionary goal.” In Strangers – in Sturgis’s world anyway – his goal of a balanced relationship, even friendship, is impossible; there is never a mutual pull of interest. His elderly relative deflects his enquiries with assurances that she is fine. Vicky Gardener appears and vanishes and vanishes and appears, relying on Sturgis in moments of crisis, forever visiting unnamed friends in far-off places. Indeed there is something not quite real about Vicky – her sudden departures and arrivals, and the unexplained demands she places on him seem to represent a concentrated form of the sort of dependent relationship Sturgis dreads yet desires. This brings the suspicion that Brookner is dabbling in less naturalistic waters than I expected, so that when self-reference seems to creep in, it seems sobering rather than tricksy:
Life, as he had discovered, was not like a novel. Or perhaps he had mistaken fiction for truth, or, more likely, mistaken truth for a more thrilling, more authentic form of fiction.
This is also a book about age, and the only end of age. “There was a great deal of discussion in the media on care of the elderly, but only the elderly could – but would not – reveal their own distress at what was happening to them.” (Why aren’t they screaming?) “He was briefly glad that he had no children whose lives might be overshadowed, even ruined, by attendance on him.” Similarly, we see Brookner’s artistic despair as reflected in the interview above, in lines like these:
In comparison with what he saw in front of him, all artistic endeavour seemed futile, an attempt to engage with mortality and win the contest. There was no choice in the matter: the contest was unequal. Even sorrow was an inadequate response. What he felt was awe, even dread.
By now you have a fair idea of what you will get in Strangers, and of whether or not you will like it. It is sometimes a bleak and chilly book, but also rich and compelling. For Sturgis, “against his expectations the age of reason was proving something of a disappointment.” For me, Brookner has surprised in quite the opposite way.
July 17, 2009
[Note: the review below refers to the CB Editions publication of this book. It has now been reissued by Faber to tie in with the TV adaptation starring Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson]
Last year I wrote about Gert Hofmann’s extraordinary last book, Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl. It’s published in the UK by CB Editions, and since then I’ve been keeping an eye on their site for other titles I might like. Then recently I saw a poem by Christopher Reid on Faber’s excellent 52 weeks 52 poems widget (Reid was poetry editor of Faber from 1999 until 2007), and found that his latest book was published by CB Editions. Serendipity in action.
(I am pleased to report, too, that CB’s books are much more handsome in person than they appear on their website. This volume is a slim, narrow paperback, with stiff covers in smooth buff card and yellow endpapers.)
The Song of Lunch is a nostalgic narrative poem, telling the story of a publishing editor who has lunch with an old flame in a Soho restaurant. It will be seen by some as too cosy and insular, speaking of a world well described in literature and known to few outside that world; but I found it seductive, amusing and even touching.
Reid is a fellow of the Martian school of poetry, headed up by his old tutor Craig Raine (Raine’s magazine Areté is the publisher of Reid’s other recent book, A Scattering, which explores his grief on the death of his wife). So he has no shortage of ‘poetic’ imagery (“his trusty blue pen / can snooze with its cap on” … “the lift yawns emptily”) but initially it’s his portraits of people which impress most. Our unnamed editor steps out of the office into the Soho streets (with their “acres of cottage architecture”) and imagines its “literary ghosts”:
And there goes T.S. Eliot,
bound for his first martini of the day.
With his gig-lamps and his immaculate sheen,
he eases past you like a limousine:
a powerful American model.
This sets off thoughts alternately wistful and angry about the death of the culture he knows (“the speciality food shops / pushed out of business, / tarts chased off the streets, / and a new kind of trashiness / moving in: / cultureless, fly-by-night”). And while this is nothing more than an ageing man resenting being pushed out of the way by the next generation, it’s hard not to sympathise – particularly if you have sufficient affection for that past to want to read the book in the first place. “Seriously, though, / what will they say when they look back / at our demythologised age? // Postmodern Times: / garrulous, garish classic / starring // some idiot off the box.”
This fogeyism becomes more affecting when he enters his old Italian haunt, Zanzotti’s, and finds it under new management, and changed, without even the red, white and green tablecloths on the tables:
The very table linen
has lost its patriotism.
Plain white: we surrender.
And this menu, this twanging
big as a riot policeman’s shield?
Once he meets his old ‘friend’, the unsatisfying disparity between past and present becomes all the more pronounced. The Song of Lunch is a lament, expressing regret for what has been and can no longer be, as well as what should never really have been in the first place, such as our hero’s belief in his own long-dead poetry collection. And it’s not difficult to presume Reid’s own experiences are reflected to some extent in this vigorous rant on the current state of the publishing industry, inspired by an innocent question by his companion about how work is…
It’s an ordinary day
in a publishing house
of ill repute.
Another moronic manuscript
comes crashing down the chute
to be turned into art.
This morning it was Wayne Wanker’s
latest dog’s dinner
of sex, teenage philosophy
and writing-course prose.
Abracadabra, kick it up the arse -
and out it goes
to be Book of the Week
or some other bollocks.
What a fraud. What a farce.
And tomorrow: who knows
which of our geniuses
will escape from the zoo
and head straight for us
with a new masterpiece
lifeless in his jaws.
That’s about the size of it.
What about you?
Still, if the parlous state of mainstream publishing means that small presses like CB Editions can arrive and thrive, giving us delights like this, then really, what’s to complain about?
July 14, 2009
If there is any longer such a thing as a much-talked-about book, then surely this is it. But discussion of Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work has centred less on the book than on the author. This year he has acquired a reputation (“Alain de Botton is the new Jeanette Winterson” – Daily Beast) of making bad-tempered responses to his critics. The most renowned of these spats is succinctly reported here, and includes de Botton’s reaction to the whole affair. There were others too. Irrespective of the merits of his complaints, they make him look touchy and petulant. What seemed a shame to me was that some of the criticism of de Botton suggested that because of his privileged background – because unlike most of us, he would not have to work if he did not choose to – he was not entitled to write about the world of the wage-slave. I wanted to read the book myself, to judge it, as far as possible, on its merits.
Perhaps it stems from recent work wobbles of my own, meaning that the book came at just the right time, but I am coming down on de Botton’s side with this one. The impetus behind The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work was, it seems, to address the fact that work is rarely represented centrally in literature. “If it does appear in consciousness, it does so via the business pages of newspapers. It does so as an economic phenomenon, rather than a broader human one.” To try to discover what work means to us, de Botton spends time with various occupations – an artist, a logistics firm, an aviation sales fair, accountants, biscuit designers, and others. He has observations to make and statistics to despatch, some hypnotically boring to reflect the automated, depersonalised world from which they come. There is a strange poetry in lines like this:
The aisles of an average supermarket contain twenty thousand items, four thousand of which are chilled and need to be replaced every three days, while the other sixteen thousand require restocking within two weeks.
It is a job of selection and excision for the author. Herein, it seems, lies the controversy. The review which got de Botton’s goat accuses him of “mockery” of some of his subjects in the book. But it seems clear to me that these objections to the book were based on a misreading, in particular on the chapter on biscuit manufacture. Yes, there is a sly sense here that such attention to trivial matters is ridiculous, is unworthy – but that can be extended to any non-essential human endeavour. Close attention to the ‘unimportant’ is inherently absurd, just as brand names are inherently comic (ask Victoria Wood). In this chapter you need get no further than the end of the first paragraph to see that de Botton is viewing it all with a raised eyebrow, when he writes of visiting “the corporate home of United Biscuits, the number-one player in the British biscuit market and its second-largest producer of bagged nuts.”
That polite disrespect might itself seem offensive if it weren’t so honest. Most of us would find it hard to keep a straight face when being passionately regaled on the relative market placement of Savoury Biscuits v Crackers and Crispbread. What is key, however, is that by the end of the chapter de Botton has completed a voyage of discovery - experienced an epiphany, almost – concerning the place of such menial work in all our lives (“what may look like a childish game is in fact never far from a struggle for our very survival”), and in civilization generally:
It was in the eighteenth century that economists and political theorists first became aware of the paradoxes and triumphs of commercial societies, which place trade, luxury and private fortunes at their centre whilst paying only lip-service to the pursuit of higher goals. … Their self-indulgence has consistently appalled a share of their most high-minded and morally ambitious members, who have railed against consumerism and instead honoured beauty and nature, art and fellowship. [But] it is the high-minded countries that have let their members starve, whereas the self-centred and the childish ones have, off the back of their doughnuts and six thousand varieties of ice cream, had the resources to invest in maternity wards and cranial scanning machines.
What follows from this is one of the most interesting chapters in the book, on career counselling, which details the brilliant work done by Robert Symons. De Botton, leading on from the understanding he experiences in the world of biscuits (see? Biscuits are intrinsically funny), discusses with historical context the modern conflict so many of us suffer from: “the widely held belief that our work should make us happy.” This is the key. Symons runs a business which can help people understand what they really want from work, rather than what they think they want, and his skill and empathy are a revelation. He has a quote from psychologist Abraham Maslow on his wall: “It isn’t normal to know what we want. It’s a rare and difficult psychological achievement.” (I think I will pin that to my wall too.) So it’s uncomfortable to have de Botton comment on the boiled cabbage smell of Symon’s home office, or on the multiple rejections his book typescript has suffered. (These elements too are singled out in the New York Times review.) Yet they turn out to be pertinent. The modesty of Symons’ surroundings reflects on the absurdity that
in our society something as prospectively life-altering as the determination of a person’s vocation had … been abandoned to marginalised therapists practising their trade from garden extensions. What should have been one of the most admired professions on earth was struggling to attain the status open to a travel agent.
His failure to get published is relevant because it shows that this man, so attuned to helping others learn what they want to do with their lives, has frustrated and probably misplaced ambitions himself.
However de Botton does sometimes get it wrong. There are observations which seem to be there only for the purpose of winking at the reader – such as a man whose hobby is tracing the routes of electricity pylons, who tells de Botton that his marriage broke down because of “a lack of shared interests,” or an exchange with a woman in United Biscuits which leaves her looking inarticulate in the face of de Botton’s intellectual curiosity. What is clear is that where de Botton passes judgement on others, or on what they do, he also passes judgement on himself. (He also mocks his own pseudish reputation.) The book is his personal journey, and he places his own preconceptions, which many of us would share, plainly for the reader to see.
Some of the chapters did not engage me, even where they have a worthwhile point to make, such as the story of rocket engineering, which emphasises the collective value of otherwise anonymous individual jobs. Elsewhere however, the writing soars, as in the chapter on accountancy, which I found both moving (in de Botton’s cinematic narrative sweep of one accountant’s morning and journey to work: “the start of work means an end to freedom, but also to doubt, intensity and wayward desires”) and elegiac (when another reflects that “he will perhaps only ever do one thing well in his life”). This is fine writing, and delivers the sort of intellectual and emotional punch which we have been looking for all along.
Elsewhere, de Botton is at his best when looking at issues in a refreshing way. His overall conclusions may not be shocking – for example, that work distracts us from intimations of mortality – but there is plenty to chew on along the way. He reflects on the inadequacy of everyday language in comparison with technical symbology; or on the “marginality of the stories in the daily paper, which has no option but to focus on murders, divorces and films, for its readers cannot be expected to follow in detail any of the real developments which unfold obscurely in the realms of science and economics and on which our future depends.” In a chapter on entrepreneurship, he observes that in this business-oriented world, “our era is perverse in passing off the exception as the rule.”
The likelihood of reaching the pinnacle of capitalist society today is only marginally better than were the chances of being accepted into the French nobility four centuries ago, though at least an aristocratic age was franker, and therefore kinder, about the odds. It did not … cruelly equate an ordinary life with a failed one.
Here too is where the occasionally spotted mockery – does a handful of dubious lines invalidate an often fascinating book? – seems almost entirely justified. Some of the entrepreneurs would never get past the top of the stairs on Dragons’ Den, such as the innovator behind the Crisp Bar (“Now you can have your cupboard back! Your favourite snack without the hassle”). Frankly, these people need all the amused discouragement they can get. Someone’s got to stop them. De Botton, I think we’ve found the perfect job for you.
July 10, 2009
Following the success earlier this year of Hans Fallada’s rediscovered novel Alone in Berlin / Every Man Dies Alone, I was keen to read more. Step forward Melville House, who have obliged by reissuing Fallada’s most famous novels, The Drinker and Little Man, What Now? To me, the latter had always been a Morrissey song. In the song, the ‘little man’ is a faded star (a very Morrissey motif), whereas in the book, a glorious past is more than the central character could hope to attain.
Little Man, What Now? was a success on publication in 1932, serialised in over 50 German newspapers and selling half a million copies worldwide in its first two years, by which time it had been filmed twice. This was surely due to its forthright presentation of the woes of millions of Germans in the dying days of the Weimar Republic, with massive unemployment and hyperinflation; Fallada presents the latter in the confused words of an old woman, who has her own explanation for where all her money has gone (“Can a pound of butter cost three thousand marks?”)
‘I’m going to tell you. I now know that my money’s been stolen. Somebody who rented here stole it. But I can’t recall the names, so many people have lived here since the war. I sit and brood. I also realize it must have been someone really clever, because he falsified my housekeeping book so I wouldn’t notice. He turned three into three thousand without me realizing.’
Listening to this are our little man, Pinneberg, and his Lammchen (‘little lamb’), his recently pregnant girlfriend with whom he now needs to set up home before their ‘Shrimp’ is born. He’s sure he’s in love with her: well, fairly sure. When she throws off his compliments about her prettiness (“Who’d want to dance with a nanny-goat like [me]?”), “[a] feeling he didn’t quite like came over Pinneberg. ‘She really oughtn’t to be telling me this,’ he thought. ‘I’d always thought she was pretty. Perhaps she isn’t pretty after all.’”
The main problems they face, however, are those which every little man of the day faced: the scarcity of work, the worthlessness of money, and the uncertainty whether their future would best be secured by the Communists or the promising-sounding National Socialists. The book was written before the rise to power of the Nazis, and they feature rarely in the book (Fallada would make up for that in Every Man Dies Alone). Instead, his concerns are the quotidian struggle. “Everything gets more complicated when you’re poor.” Even when Pinneberg finds work, and “he really is happy … behind that happiness lies the fear: will it last? No, of course it won’t last. So, how long will it last?”
Daily labour – one might say the pleasures and sorrows of work – is something which Fallada represents very well (and made me realise how rarely work is realistically represented in novels that are not explicitly about work). He gets a job as a menswear salesman, and the tedium, camaraderie, fear and occasional victories of working life are beautifully done. It has the ring of experience, as do Pinneberg’s struggles with fatherhood when (and just before) ‘the Shrimp’ is born: and my judgement on their authenticity is born of experience too.
The Shrimp screamed! The small bright room re-echoed with his screeching; his little voice was extremely loud and piercing. He was getting bright red. He’s got to draw breath some time, though Pinneberg.
There is comedy too – the essential comedy of hard times – with naturists, businessmen’s power struggles, and a surprising secret about Pinneberg’s mother. All that is seeded within the context of an immersive story, realistically appalling characters, and heartfelt empathy for the little man. Pinneberg buttonholes a famous actor who comes to the gentlemen’s outfitters, an actor in whose art he has found consolation, as millions of Germans would in Fallada’s book:
‘You know things aren’t going at all well for ordinary people like us, and it seems to me sometimes as though everyone and everything is making a monkey of us. Life in general, you see what I mean, and one feels so small…’
Included in this edition is an exemplary afterword by Philip Brady – at 20 pages, a mini-essay on Fallada and Little Man, What Now? which greatly enhanced my enjoyment of the book. It places the book in its social, political and literary context, and in a curious way was a highlight of my reading experience. As with their edition of Every Man Dies Alone, Melville House have done full justice to Fallada’s work.
One of the most affecting phrases in the book is not from the text of the story at all. After the slings and arrows suffered by Pinneberg and Lammchen (“Down the slippery slope, sunk without trace, utterly destroyed. Order and cleanliness, gone; work, material security, gone; making progress and hope, gone. Poverty is not just misery, poverty is an offence, poverty is a stain, poverty is suspect”) – after all this, after the relentless difficulty of everyday existence – particularly at this time, in this place – what most touches the heart is a chapter heading near the end of the book. it reads: “Epilogue: Life Goes On.”
July 7, 2009
What a pleasure it is to write about a book that I loved without complication. For those academics even now preparing studies on whether or not the new social media can actually sell books, chalk one up for me. Already an admirer of NYRB Classics, I bought this book when they mentioned it on Twitter or Facebook or, you know, one of those sites. We owe a debt of gratitude to novelist Jonathan Lethem, who lobbied for its reissue, and to NYRB Classics editor Edwin Frank, who listened.
A Meaningful Life was first – and last – published in 1971, and until now had not even reached a paperback edition. Says Davis in this fascinating piece about the background to the book and its rediscovery, “It came out and nothing happened.” (Hugo Wilcken, take heart.) There really is no excuse for this, as it’s the most miserably funny book I’ve read all year.
The meaningful life of the title is sought by Lowell Lake, who one day shortly after his 30th birthday, wakes up with “the sudden realization that his job was not temporary.”
He’d found his level, and here he was, on it. He was the managing editor of a second-rate plumbing-trade weekly, a job he did adequately if not with much snap. It was, he realized with a dull kind of shock, just the sort of job for a man like him. Someday he might rise to the editorship, either of the plumbing trade monthly or of something exactly like it. Big deal. But it was all he was good for, and he was stuck with it.
Here we are then, in the territory previously occupied by any number of dissatisfied suburban workers: Frank Wheeler in Revolutionary Road; Sinclair Lewis’s George Babbitt; Bob Slocum in Something Happened; Tom Rath in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. The ease with which I can recall examples indicates how much I’ve enjoyed these books; but do we need another? Did we in 1971?
Well, it didn’t hurt. Davis executes his tale with much more open wit than the others: Something Happened is a very funny novel but is “black humour … with the humour removed”, in Kurt Vonnegut’s words, as the author “cripples his own jokes intentionally.” A Meaningful Life is more straightforward, more seductive than that, and in that sense all the more impressive for allowing no light at the end of the tunnel for its ‘hero’. It is different from Something Happened in that there, the narrator makes his own miserable comedy; here, the jokes are all on Lowell Lake. But like Heller’s book – like the best comic writing – it comes unsweetened, tempered by an undertow – an overflow – of despair.
Lowell, an inadequate man, is surrounded by inadequates, such as his boss, Crawford, the editor of the plumbing trade monthly, who fears an office coup, “that someday they would contrive to get him no matter what he did to stop them.” Or his father-in-law, Leo, whose relentlessly droning smalltalk drives Lowell to distraction (“Lowell was afraid to open his mouth for fear of screaming in the little man’s face”). It even, in a nicely astute moment, begins to infect Lowell’s perception of his wife:
“Great”, said Lowell, noticing with a sinking feeling that her last sentence had been spoken with her father’s inflection and ended with her father’s phrase. He’d never noticed a thing like that in her voice before. He began to listen for it, and shortly his fears were confirmed. It was there all right, coming and going like the odor of burning tires in a rose garden.
This is how he got here. Lowell, frustrated in his job, silently bored by his marriage, decided to do a Frank Wheeler and move to a new life: not to Europe but to New York from his western home. Unlike Frank Wheeler, he never got around to putting it off:
There was no getting out of it. Afloat on a tide of events and furiously propelled by his wife, he gave notice at the library, renouncing his scholarship at the Berkeley, and told everyone in sight that he’d decided to go to New York, desperately hoping that someone would give him some smart-sounding and compelling reason for doing no such blame-fool thing, but no one did. On the contrary, the more people he told about it, the more it seemed like he was actually going to go.
As Lowell brings himself with him, the new life feels very much like the old life: and not a very meaningful one at that. What he does to try to overturn this is the central plot of the book: he buys a Brooklyn brownstone “of such surpassing opulent hideousness that Lowell could scarcely believe that someone was actually offering to sell it to him. It was just the kind of place he’d always really wanted with a powerful subconscious craving that defied analysis.” His project to refurbish the building is undertaken on the very good grounds that busy fingers are happy fingers; but it never occurs to Lowell that the question “How can I have a meaningful life?” is one which, once asked, cannot be satisfactorily answered.
The chapter which shows Lowell meeting the existing tenants of the building, who will need to be evicted, is the weakest section of the book. Davis is by far at his best when trapping Lowell in the crucibles of family and work. There are some brilliant set pieces, masterclasses in comic writing, including one where Lowell tries to bribe a city man during the planning process, and another where he is accidentally anti-semitic during an argument with his mother-in-law. Davis excels in taking the comedy of discomfort and stretching it further than it should go.
The prose in A Meaningful Life is fast on its feet and often surprising. You can read the first chapter here; if you like it, this is a book for you. In a book where the central character’s “concrete desires” seem to him to be “almost facts”, it’s a relief when hopes and expectations for a book are more than fulfilled in reality.
July 3, 2009
A couple of years ago I enjoyed The Third Party, the latest novel by local (to me) author Glenn Patterson. When I wanted to read more by him, I went for his fifth novel, smartly titled Number 5, which is the only one of his books to be consistently in print by a national publisher since its first appearance. (His earlier novels had slipped out of print but are now available again through Belfast’s Blackstaff Press.)
Number 5 (2003) is a high-concept book: it tells the stories of the people who have lived in one house over several decades. It sounds like the sort of thing which must have been done before, though I can only think of books which cover different occupants of apartment blocks at the same time, such as Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual or Elif Shafak’s The Flea Palace. (Suggestions welcome.) Unlike those books, this is a relatively simple and linear story, though not without cleverness and bite.
Often reviews will claim that a building or place ‘becomes a character’ in the book. Here, instead, the building becomes the link between the characters and also what causes their divisions.
Each story of 50 pages or so opens with the estate agent’s brochure for the house: number 5 in an unnamed road. When the book begins, in the late 1950s, the street is a new development on the outskirts of pre-troubles Belfast (“Pleasantly situated in healthy rural surroundings, yet ideally convenient to shops and all four main churches”). By the end, at the close of the century, the blurb instead highlights proximity to the newest place of Sunday worship (“the attraction of this ever-popular development will be enhanced by the Little Lake shopping centre (with Tesco superstore) opening June 1997″). In between, we see the flow of change as gentrification, affluence and developing tastes alter the interior, from “dinette” and “attractive plastic cupboard tops” to “slate work surfaces” and “high-tensile steel shelf supports.” It reflects, too, as the residents come and go, changing domestic life: from the nuclear family to the house-sharing friends.
Naturally, the people living in number 5 change too, as do their view of what’s socially acceptable: when the Falloons live there, in the 1950s, Stella Falloon watches with caution as one neighbour “brought a kitchen chair out to the south-facing front of his house” and worries that this is too close to what she thought she had left behind. In the end she might be more concerned about what is yet to come: one might sigh at the prospect of the Troubles rearing their head in a Northern Ireland novel, but here Patterson manages to make it both key to the book and somehow incidental to the real life going on all around. A terrible incident will puncture Stella’s life, and punctuate the book at beginning and end, bringing back characters and providing a sense of completeness.
If this completeness seems a touch too close to neatness, it nonetheless works because of the book’s tone: it has a likeability and charm which comes through the ordinariness of the characters. It seems contrary to the spirit of such a book to say that it ‘deals with issues’ – but there is plenty here dealt lightly, incorporating nice plot twists such as a woman who gradually loses her family to Christianity, or the Chinese family (for decades, Chinese were the only ethnic minority in Belfast) whose experience of racism is not quite what it seems. When the son goes into his parents’ restaurant:
[a] few young men walked in out of the dark and sat at the tables nearest the door waiting for takeaways. I think they were disturbed to see so many of us in one place – there could be fifteen, twenty, sometimes more – and I imagined them waking in sweats from dreams where their world was reversed and they were the odd men out, the curiosities.
As in any book set in the recent past, Number 5 is not short of handy cultural references to the times. Occasionally these are heavy-handed (“You should consider yourself lucky,” says one woman to another who can’t get pregnant, “half the women in the world are praying for a pill to stop it”), but elsewhere brain-proddingly nostalgic (the mention of Gloy gum set off a chain of schoolboy memories for me: that brown gloop! The rubbery wedge tip!). Patterson also has a neat facility for evocative images, as with an alcoholic whose complexion “separated into a thousand broken veins and blood vessels, an intricate map of all the wrong roads he had taken.”
Finally it is not the locality, or the nostalgia, or the cleverness which pleases, but the strength in character-building: each story features several new people, and Patterson sets himself a significant task to create them all fully in a few dozen pages, but he manages it. Number 5 is Patterson number two for me, and makes me look forward to number three all the more.