October 29, 2009

“Enough of that. And of this.”

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:00 am by John Self

The love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and the heart showing themselves in the minute, strange and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print – the love which had to be hidden as if it were illicit and dangerous, he began to display, at first tentatively, and then boldly, and then proudly.

- John Williams, Stoner

Asylum is taking a break.  My sincere thanks to everyone who has read and commented over the last three years.

Seeking asylum

October 26, 2009

John Williams: Stoner

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

The cover design of the NYRB Classics edition of John Williams’ novel Stoner might have been expressly chosen to emphasise that, even though the book was published in 1965, this is not a sort of literary Cheech and Chong.  It is a sober study of one man’s slow journey to finding out who he is, and it is quietly magnificent.

John Williams: Stoner

Williams hits the reader straight away with a devastating summation of William Stoner’s career in the University of Missouri:

Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.

This is a tease, because the next 278 pages explain why such a dismissal is unwarranted.  It gives us a chronological account of a life, and of a man, who grew up on a farm, with a father “stooped by labour” and a mother who “regarded her life patiently, as if it were a long moment that she had to endure.” The anticipation of a life with little expectation and fewer rewards is withdrawn from Stoner when, in the year 1910 aged 19, he attends the University to study agriculture at his father’s suggestion.  Standing on the campus for the first time, “he had a sudden sense of security and serenity he had never felt before.”

Stoner switches from agriculture to English, and realises that he will never return to the farm.  This is a ‘talky’ book, with a good deal of the development coming through dialogue – a difficult and welcome achievement.  First is when Stoner’s tutor, Archer Sloane, takes him aside for a conversation.

“But don’t you know, Mr Stoner?  Don’t you understand about yourself yet?  You’re going to be a teacher.”

Stoner felt himself suspended in the wide air, and he heard his voice ask, “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure,” said Sloane softly.

“How can you tell?  How can you be sure?”

“It’s love, Mr Stoner,” Sloane said cheerfully.  “You are in love.  It’s as simple as that.”

Already we see a pattern developing, of Stoner following the direction of another. However he does often branch out from these directions and make his own decision in the end.  He comes to see the future as “a territory ahead that awaited his exploration.”  When the First World War breaks out and the US becomes involved, his colleagues sign up to fight, with one saying, “I suppose I’m doing it because it doesn’t matter whether I do it or not.”  Not for Stoner such a spirit: he remains in Missouri and courts, and then marries, a girl called Edith.

John Williams: Stoner (Vintage Classics, UK)

His marriage starts out as lukewarm and follows the laws of thermodynamics, and so it is through his work that he finds it “possible to live, and even be happy, now and then.”  At home, his refuge is his study.  “It was himself that he was attempting to define as he worked on his study … it was himself that he was slowly shaping, it was himself that he was putting into a kind of order, it was himself that he was making possible.”

Work means the university, and if you thought that ‘electrifying scenes of campus politics’ was an oxymoron, then you need to read Stoner.  It is a book which is structurally unadventurous but emotionally and intellectually engaging.  We see a man struggling to be allowed to do the one thing he has learned to do well, and to find the dignity in labour (“I think he’s a real hero,” said Williams of his creation), and to exercise love in the only way he can.

The love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and the heart showing themselves in the minute, strange and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print – the love which had to be hidden as if it were illicit and dangerous, he began to display, at first tentatively, and then boldly, and then proudly.

October 22, 2009

Tao Lin: Shoplifting from American Apparel

Posted in Lin Tao, Melville House at 8:00 am by John Self

Tao Lin is a writer I’ve been meaning to read since seeing praise for his novel Eeeee Eee Eeee. Lin is a self-made phenomenon, seemingly as interested in presentation of himself as in his work, perhaps as keen on ‘being a writer’ as in being a writer: he sold shares in his forthcoming second novel (to be called Richard Yates), and reading his irony-laden interviews, it’s easy to see why various publications have seen in him little but “vacuous posturing” or have considered him “the single most irritating person we’ve ever had to deal with.”  Still, the publication of his new novella Shoplifting from American Apparel in Melville House’s Contemporary Art of the Novella series, meant the time to read him was finally here.

Tao Lin: Shoplifting from American ApparelA way into Shoplifting from American Apparel might be found in Lin’s blog.  Just take a look at that URL.  Depending on viewpoint, it is stupid, or funny, or – just possibly – a clever reflection on the replication of everything online: the copy-and-pastes, the clicking links, the lack of original content (nobody, after all, is going to be typing that URL in afresh).  More than that, the importance of the tiny details also matches the content of the book.

Shoplifting in its opening, reminded me of the first lines of the first story in Bret Easton Ellis’s The Informers, ‘Bruce Calls from Mulholland’.  Lin’s opening shares Ellis’s knowingly blank, mesmerising poetry (“Bruce calls, stoned and sunburned, from Los Angeles and tells me that he’s sorry”) – but without vampires.

Sam woke around 3:30p.m. and saw no emails from Sheila.  He made a smoothie.  He lay on his bed and stared at the computer screen.  He showered and put on his clothes and opened the Microsoft Word file of his poetry.  He looked at his email.  About an hour later it was dark outside.  Sam ate cereal with soymilk.  He put things on eBay then tried to guess the password to Sheila’s email account, not thinking he would be successful, and not being successful.

The book continues in this affectless style, which becomes strangely funny when Sam engages in long Gmail chats with his friend Luis.

“I’m going to watch cartoon porn,” said Luis.  “No I’m not.  I’m going to look at Indian women.  Have you ever fucked an Indian girl.”

“No,” said Sam.  “Native American or Indian.”

“You are awesome,” said Luis.  “Is her picture online.”

“I’m confused,” said Sam.  “What are you talking about.”

“How did you meet her,” said Luis.

“No I haven’t,” said Sam.  “You’re confused.”

“What are you talking about,” said Luis.

“I haven’t had sex with one,” said Sam.

“Okay,” said Luis.  “What are you talking about.”

(The lack of question marks is key, I think, to why I find this funny.)  We are in a world where everything is simultaneously uninflected and endlessly reflected upon, which is not surprising given that Sam is a writer very like Tao Lin.  “If I’m having a shitty time with Sheila’s mom I think about writing it in my novel later.  I think about that the same time it’s happening.”  We only occasionally find out how Sam is feeling.  “I felt emotional today thinking about the past, like a year and a half ago, at Sheila’s house,” he tells a friend.  “But there was nothing I could do with the emotion really.  It just went away after a while.”  It’s the lack of disclosure which packs a – bit of a – punch.

Everything here is dealt with in the same manner, almost.  Sam’s online chats (which seem a timely acknowledgement of how, these days, so many of us get to “know” others – via social networking sites or blogs like this one – without ever meeting them) are presented with no more or less significance than his arrest for shoplifting from American Apparel.  Yet the scales don’t quite balance.  When Sam is with his friends, who are as languid and ‘alienated’ as he, the dialogue is pertinent because it’s so cutely banal (“I mean, I feel okay, or something”). In the police holding cell, by contrast, Lin introduces genuine ‘characters’ (“‘I don’t hold in farts,’ said a bony Hispanic lying on his stomach”), who invariably speak more fictionally (in a sense, more truthfully, for the purposes of a work of fiction):

“I am going to kill everyone here,” said the drunk man.  “Is everyone okay with that?  Is everyone in this cell okay with that?”

Is it a weakness when a book becomes too entertaining?  Is Lin adopting a pose, or doing the best he can, and does it matter?  The spirit of Shoplifting from American Apparel is that the minutiae of our lives are rarely dealt with in fiction – that the things which take up most of our time are deemed unworthy of writing about.  Lin suggests instead that everything is worth writing about, and the result is maddening, saddening and short enough to digest in between reading blog entries and updating your Facebook status.

October 19, 2009

Simon Crump Interview

Posted in Crump Simon, Interviews at 8:00 am by John Self

“If I was born with a name like Simon Crump,” said Chris de Burgh, “I would spend the rest of my life trying to get all that anger and resentment out of me by being very rude about other people.”  I recently reviewed Neverland: the Unreal Michael Jackson Story, Crump’s latest book.  Normally I feature interviews only with authors who have become firm favourites; but Neverland has seeped its way into my brain since reading it, and I’ve since bought Crump’s other three books, so here we are.  As one reviewer said of the book which agitated Chris de Burgh, My Elvis Blackout (2000), “it’s almost impossible to describe it without making it sound like one of the worst books in the world.”  So I thought I’d let the author take that risk. Simon Crump is also the author of Monkey’s Birthday (2002) and Twilight Time (2004).

Simon Crump

Simon Crump

You say that you were “living with Michael Jackson for three years”
 while writing Neverland – yet it’s quite a short book.  Can you tell us more about the writing process?  Was material jettisoned along the way?

I read every single thing I could find to read about Michael. I listened to all of his music, I subscribed to his fan forums, and I checked the weather and local news in Los Olivos every day. Everything I did for three years, I wondered how Michael might have done it and how he might be feeling if he did. And then I wrote it all down.

For me, editing is everything. Get the stuff down on the page and then make it less worse. Neverland would have been around 500 pages long (rather than the 200 it is now) if I hadn’t hacked it into shape and taken out the ideas which were getting in the way. Most of the last year has been spent trying to make Neverland not shite, and a lot of material has had to be surgically removed for that to happen.

Getting the order of the stories right took forever too. I ended up making a fifteen feet high wall-chart to do that, and as you narrow a book down, it becomes harder and harder to lose the stuff you’ve sweated over.

There was a line in one story where Michael said, ‘If I do one more back flip I’ll go deaf,’ and I still regret not being able to use that.

You also say that you finished writing Neverland a few hours before
 Jackson died.  Did you resist the temptation to add anything to the
book when you heard, or to alter, or soften, your portrayal of Jackson in any way?

You’ll have to take my word for this, but absolutely nothing in the book was changed. There was no point. To be pretentious, the stories changed themselves to a degree, and immediately became more poignant when they were suddenly about somebody who had just died.

The only significant change was that my publishers added ‘The Unreal Michael Jackson Story’ tagline to the Neverland title and brought the publication date forward by around six months.  As you would under the circumstances.

Have your portrayals of famous people in fictional settings ever
attracted wrath from their fans … or the celebrities themselves?

One of my favourite reviews for My Elvis Blackout was on a German Elvis fansite: ‘We do not know who is this Simon Crump, but he is not welcome in our town.’

Chris De Burgh took exception to being described as a reedy-voiced, ferret-faced little bastard by the Lamar character in My Elvis Blackout, but there was nothing Chris could do about that, because it is a fact.

What really got to him however, was that he was also characterised as being a stigmatic. Which probably isn’t true. Chris posted a long comment about me on his ‘Man On The Line’ website, where he mocked my unfortunate surname and then reminded me in no uncertain terms of his wonderful career, house, wife, children, etc. And my lack of.

I still cry myself to sleep when I remember his cruel words.

Neverland shows a particular interest in how “we love our stars,
but we much prefer them broken”, and in the “the grisly ritual of
historicization” of Jackson’s life and story. Do you think that Neverland in any way contributes to these problems, even as it addresses them?

Neverland is, and always was intended to be, a sympathetic portrayal of a talented, vulnerable boy called Michael who lived in a big house and was slowly losing his marbles. There was no way I was ever going to try to kick somebody when they were already down. You can sidle up to truth through fiction; it’s not a new idea. If you look at Agee’s Let us Now Praise Famous Men, or the shift between Herr’s Dispatches and his script for Full Metal Jacket, the notion that truth can be distilled and ultimately understood through fiction is right there in your face. And sometimes the only way to tell a sad story is to try to make it funny.

Which doesn’t answer your question at all does it?

You seem to be attracted to writing about simultaneously glamorous 
and seedy figures (Elvis, Jackson, and I saw a mention of Cliff
 Richard in another of your books), and in the twee and dark sides of
 England: your novel Twilight Time has a character who lives in an
1930s English Trust house but swears like a trooper.  Your work seems
to occupy a unique spot. Do you feel a part of a British (or any
other) literary tradition?

I’m interested in celebrity, people with talent, people who get what they want and are still unhappy.

I think every writer would hope that their work occupies a ‘unique spot’ of some description, however tiny and unpopular that place might be.

So far as ‘British’, I don’t know… I’d say ‘English’ really… and the self-loathing we do so well.

I always seem to get lined up with Dan Rhodes and Daren King, both of them more successful, more acclaimed and much better-looking writers than myself, and whose work I admire. I don’t really ‘feel a part’ of anything these days to be honest, I just want to keep writing the stuff I want to write and hope that one day, somebody might like it.

You’ve lectured in fine art and exhibited as an artist specialising in photography for over a decade before turning to writing. How did an interest in visual art lead to (if I can put it this way) such perverse prose? Is there any connection between the two?

All I’ve ever wanted to do is to make pictures.

I used to make ‘real’ pictures, very large and elaborate layered photographic collage affairs, measuring around 30 by 30 feet which never really turned out how I wanted. And each time I made one of the damn things it felt like I was trying to organise a bloody wedding.

It got to the point where after trying unsuccessfully to photograph a local Elvis impersonator in the deep end of a swimming pool, nearly drowning us both and ruining a perfectly good Hasselblad camera into the bargain, I decided to go for ‘the big one’, the greatest picture I was ever going to make, the one I’d been talking about making for years.

I bought a dead horse from a firm called Casualty Cattle in Derbyshire and had it brought back to my studio on a trailer. From that point on, things began to go wrong for me. Horses are actually quite a lot bigger than you think.

Anyway, the ‘great work’ never got made, I realised how ridiculous my practice as an artist had become, and looking back on the whole grisly business, I’m amazed that nobody tried to stop me.

I still make pictures now, much bigger pictures so far as I’m concerned and I don’t have deal with any of the crap I used to struggle with when I was an ‘artist’.

For me, writing is all about making pictures and it’s unfettered by anything but your own imagination. With writing you really can do anything you want.  You don’t need any equipment, you don’t need a studio and you don’t even need to get dressed. In my writing, I can control the weather if I want to, how my characters think, how they behave, and what they have to say. And if I get bored with them, I can kill them without having to bag them up and dispose of their bodies. And this time, nobody is going to stop me.

Patrick White’s The Vivisector provides epigraphs for two of your books. What’s your particular interest in White and in this book?

I first read The Vivisector when I was fifteen and now that book is like The Sound of Music for me. I read it every Christmas. It’s a ‘widescreen’ book, awkwardly written in places, but cumulatively relentless in its details and descriptions. I admire White for the same reasons as I do André Gide and particularly Zola. White takes in everything with The Vivisector, a whole life. It’s hard going to read it, but definitely worth the effort. White is also very good on painting. I always think of the artist Sidney Nolan when I read The Vivisector and if you go back a bit and read White’s Riders in the Chariot, the makings of that character are there in Alf Dubbo, the naïve painter who ultimately destroys his work.

Can you recommend an overlooked book for readers of this blog?
 (…apart from The Vivisector)

Researching Oblivion by Scott Murfin (if you can find a copy).

I’m currently re-reading  alternate chapters of Fan Dabi Dozi: The Krankies, Our Amazing True Story (by the Krankies), Gordon Burn’s Happy Like Murderers and Horse-Racing’s Strangest Races by Andrew Ward, which is an excellent way to mess with your mind without resorting to expensive drugs.

October 14, 2009

Stefan Grabiński: In Sarah’s House

Posted in Grabiński Stefan at 8:00 am by John Self

After enjoying two titles by CB Editions – Gert Hofmann’s Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl and Christopher Reid’s The Song of Lunch – I went on a spending splurge and bought three more of their buff-backed books. They are to me a wholly admirable small press, publishing such interesting stuff as words-and-pictures meditations on the recession, to this volume of stories by ‘the Polish Poe’. Publisher Charles Boyle also maintains a worthwhile blog.

In Sarah's House, with friends

Grabiński (1887-1936) suffered from tuberculosis all his relatively short life, and a heightened awareness of the corporeal and sensory is everywhere present in the stories selected here.  In the opening story ‘White Virak,’ children squeeze up sooty, claustrophobic chimneys, and people break out “in a peculiar rash, which covered our bodies with large white spots like pearly eruptions.”  Such is the heightened awareness of the characters that the sensory becomes neatly muddled with the extra-sensory, which is where the Poe comparisons come in.  When the narrator of ‘The Grey Room’ experiences disturbing visions, he suggests that they are simply dreams carried through into waking hours, normally blocked by “the misleading senses” and the “intellect in its arrogance. … For the stars exist in daytime too, though outshone by the mighty rays of the sun.”  (I was reminded a little here of Maupassant’s superlative The Horla.)

Whatever the source, there are some strange things going on here.  In the title story, the longest in the book at 36 pages, the sensory element is lethal.  The narrator, a doctor, suffers torments as he sees an old friend fall victim to sexual obsession with Sarah, a sort of succubus who appears to be – literally – draining the life out of him.

Impassively he let me examine him.  I put him into my Roentgen apparatus. The rays penetrated him fast, encountering abnormally low resistance.  The result went beyond any documented experiment.  His body had undergone some terrifying process of reduction: the bone structure showed signs of atrophy; whole layers of tissue had disappeared; entire clusters of cells withered.  His weight was that of a child; the iron hands of the scale showed a ridiculously small number.  The man was vanishing before my very eyes!

Grabiński has a nose for appropriate settings for his spooky stories: as well as factory chimneys and abandoned villages, two of the stories are set on disused railway lines. In ‘The Dead Run’, retired conductor Wawera cannot stand to see an old stretch of railway line fall into disrepair, so is permitted to take over its care.  All goes well until he hires an assistant, who tells him: “It seems to me you are only kidding yourself. There’s nothing to watch over.  It’s only a pastime, isn’t it?”  This cold blast of someone else’s reality causes Wawera to withdraw into a strange and sad reality of his own.

In the other railway story, ‘Szatera’s Engrams’, heightened awareness returns, this time for a man who “could never come to terms with the eternal passage of men, objects and events.”  A series of visions leads him to believe that “no event, even the most trivial, passes and dissolves into nothing.  On the contrary: everything is preserved and recorded.”  As with ‘The Dead Run’, this can’t end well.

The more straightforward stories here share with M.R. James the sort of dramatic irony which requires a balancing relationship between character and reader: the reader must be as expectant of supernatural activity as the character is ignorant, for the story to work.  When the narrator of ‘The Grey Room’ opens by wishing that in his new lodgings “I should be safe from that strange malaise which had forced me to abandon the other place,” the reader rolls his eyes: but simultaneously rolls up his sleeves and prepares to be teased and ultimately satisfied.  It’s the desire to find out the precise nature of the menace, and to see our expectations fulfilled, which keeps us reading. And thank heavens for CB Editions and their like: perhaps these are the places where everything worthwhile, however long forgotten, is preserved and recorded.

October 9, 2009

Vivant Denon: No Tomorrow

Posted in Denon Vivant, NYRB Classics at 8:00 am by John Self

Back in the mid-1990s, when novella trumpeters such as Pushkin Press and Melville House were not yet born, the grandaddy of cheap paperbacks Penguin quietly issued a series called Syrens. (So quietly, alas, that they quickly disappeared without trace.)  These were slim paperbacks with plain covers in contrasting colours, covering a wide range of fiction, poetry and essays such as Kafka’s Aphorisms, Beckett’s Modern Love First Love, Hardy’s Poems 1912-13, and less well known titles by writers including Proust, Wilde, Voltaire and Perec. I noticed recently that two titles have now been issued by NYRB Classics: Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Lord Chandos Letter, and this book.  My acquisitive nature meant that I picked up most of the Syrens titles at the time, but still haven’t read many of them.  Fourteen years from purchase to reading must be a record even for me.

Vivant Denon: No Tomorrow (Penguin Syrens)

No Tomorrow (Point de lendemain, 1777) was first published anonymously, though its author, born Francois Dominique Vivant de Non, was no self-effacing recluse. The introduction to the Syrens edition tells me that, with interests in art, antiquities and the theatre, he became a favourite of Louis XV and travelled on official service to Russia and Italy as Baron Denon. Returning to revolutionary France, he astutely dropped his title and, before ingratiating himself into Napoleon’s service, survived by his engravings of official uniforms and obscene etchings. This combination of interests in social status and the erotic arts are perfectly preserved in this, his only work of fiction. (Its skimpy length – 38 small pages in the Syrens edition – makes it hard even for a novella publisher to justify as a standalone work. NYRB get around this by presenting a dual language edition.)

Denon was 30 when he wrote No Tomorrow, but his narrator is a mere boy of 20. Nonetheless, the qualities that made one academic sum up Denon in the phrase “hedonist and scholar” are clearly present in the fiction. It opens with what Milan Kundera praised as “the playful elegance of repetition in the first paragraph of one of the loveliest pieces of French prose.”

I doted on the Countess ______; I was twenty, and I was naive; she deceived me, I was incensed; she deserted me. I was naive, I missed her; I was twenty, she forgave me; and because I was twenty, was naive, and, though still deceived, no longer deserted, I believed that lover was never more loved than I and I was therefore the happiest man alive.

But this dizzying opening – I had to reread it a couple of times – is deceptive. The Countess does not feature in the story. Instead, our hero’s journey begins when he encounters her friend, Madame de T____, in the theatre. “‘I see,’ she said, ‘that I shall have to rescue you from your solitary splendour. You look quite ridiculous all alone. Like patience upon a monument!’”

Vivant Denon: No Tomorrow (NYRB Classics)

Through subtlety and sleight of hand, Madame de T_____ persuades the young man to accompany her home, where she is to meet with her estranged husband. “I was afraid that I should be dreadfully bored alone in his company.” Finally, left alone, they fall to the inevitable:

Now, kisses are like secrets. One leads to another, they quicken, they grow more heated by the process of accumulation. And so it proved now. The first had scarcely been given when a second followed, then a third, each crowding closely on the heels of the one before, interrupting our talk and then replacing it entirely, until at last they hardly left any path for our sighs to escape by.

The story proceeds by further passion and subterfuge, a slinky, cynical treat. Hedonism and libertinage are the order of the day: no tomorrow! (Though an earlier English edition translated the title, oddly, as Never again!) Madame urges her boy to believe in “the power of pleasure, our sole guide and only excuse!”, while he seeks an emotional crutch for this new love affair, fearing that “unbridled passion murders niceness of feeling. We run toward pleasure and ride roughshod over the delights which precede it. A ribbon is snapped, a bodice is ripped: desire leaves its mark in its wake and soon the idol of our heart looks uncommonly like its victim.”  However he, by cuckolding his own mistress, is a player here as much as a victim.

It is only later, when he is permitted to enter into her highly symbolic “secret chamber”, that our young man learns just how ruthless Madame can be. At one point, as she initiates him in the rituals of cynical love, he “felt that a blindfold had been removed from my eyes, but failed to observe that a new one had been put in its place.” Blindfolds and masks are worn by all the players in this society, so concerned with surface that they decline to acknowledge their own feelings. David Coward, in an introduction to his translation in this Syrens edition, calls it “a masterpiece, as clear and self-confident as a line etched on glass with a very sharp diamond.” With its beautiful prose, seductive eroticism, precociously mannered methods, and clever ending, No Tomorrow itself resembles its central femme fatale, about whom another of her lovers cheerfully tells the hero: “She provokes, she arouses, but she feels nothing herself: that woman is a block of marble.”

October 5, 2009

Sarah Waters: The Little Stranger

Posted in Waters Sarah at 2:29 pm by John Self

The Little Stranger is another book that I read only because of its Booker shortlisting (though I’m not sure that’s a good explanation in itself).  I’d read her last two (also Booker shortlisted) novels, Fingersmith and The Night Watch, and liked them to varying degrees without doing anything mad like declaring myself a fan, or hanging onto them.  These tempered expectations meant that her new novel turned out to be a pleasant surprise.

Sarah Waters: The Little Stranger

The Little Stranger is tagged on the blurb as “a chilling ghost story”, which is both true and misleading.  In an interview, Waters said that while in the process of writing the book, she became ‘stuck’ and decided then on the introduction of a ghost.  Her primary interest initially was to explore the social changes in Britain after the second world war.

She does this very effectively.  The story centres on Hundreds Hall in Warwickshire, home to the Ayres family.  Our narrator, Dr Faraday, is a local family doctor, who worked his way up from “humble beginnings” to his present status, and is worried that the imminent introduction of the National Health Service by the postwar Labour government will send him crashing back down. Faraday’s mother worked at Hundreds Hall when he was a child, and he can still remember his first impression of the house:

[It] struck me as an absolute mansion.  I remember its lovely ageing details: the worn red brick, the cockled window glass, the weathered sandstone edging.  They made it look blurred and slightly uncertain – like an ice, I thought, just beginning to melt in the sun.

By the time Ayres returns to the Hall, called in the course of his work to attend to a sick maid, the melting is well and truly underway.  Living in the house now are Mrs Ayres, and her twenty-something children Caroline and Roderick.  With just two domestic staff, the fabric of the house (and spirit of the household) is crumbling, which Faraday attributes in part to the loss of the working class staff: “after two hundred years, those people had begun to withdraw their labour, their belief in the house; and the house was collapsing, like a pyramid of cards.”

There is another problem too.  A belief begins to spread through the Ayreses that Hundreds Hall is haunted, perhaps by the spirit of Mrs Ayres’ first daughter Susan, who died aged seven.  The story that unfolds tells of the effect that this belief has on the family, the house and on Faraday himself.

There is a great deal to like in The Little Stranger, in particular Waters’ almost miraculous ability to grab the reader and not let go through the long passages of spooky activity in the house.  It is also a portrayal of those postwar social changes referred to above, such as the decline of the landed gentry: the upper middle classes, like the Ayres family, are haunted by the spectre of the rising working class, their Labour government, their welfare state.  “What’s left for an old family like that in England nowadays?”  The land around Hundreds Hall is sold off to make ends meet, and council homes are built up.  Mrs Ayres feels that her world “is dwindling to the point of a pin.”  Roderick tips closer and closer to the edge:

‘I think they’d like nothing better than to hang us all from the mainbrace; they’re just waiting for Attlee to give them the word.  He probably will, too.  Ordinary people hate our sort now, don’t you see?’

Faraday’s own relationship with the Ayres and their “sort” is complicated.  He envies them their elevated status and resents them for allowing their house to fall into disrepair.  He resents too his own origins in “labouring stock”, and is embarrassed by how, as a young man, he came to feel ashamed of his parents.  Even his respectable occupation can’t obscure some kind of self-loathing: “I’m a nobody.  People don’t even see me half the time.  They see ‘Doctor’.  They see the bag.”

The weakness of the book for me was the repeated hints dropped by Waters about the true source of the Ayres’s problems.  It’s so heavily signposted that there is little room for interpretation, except around the edges of things like knowledge and intent.  It closes down possibilities even as it opens them up.  This, combined with the just-so symbolism and despite the room for discussion which is likely to make this a book group favourite, helps give The Little Stranger the neatness and cosiness of what some call ‘establishment literary fiction’.  Nonetheless I enjoyed reading it, not least because Waters is a great storyteller who pulls the reader through 500 pages a lot more smoothly than Hilary Mantel does (or than Simon Mawer does through 400). 

It struck me that The Little Stranger has some similarities with Patrick McGrath‘s 1996 novel Asylum, not just in the postwar setting or the narrative by a medical man (an authority figure in whom we automatically place our trust), but also in the psychological playout of the story.  However Asylum, I believe, is more subtle and complex (Jonathan Coe, a Booker judge in 1996, recently regretted that it didn’t win the prize then) … and at 250 pages, is also half the length.

Please note: if you haven’t read The Little Stranger, the comments below contain spoilers

October 2, 2009

Hilary Mantel: Wolf Hall

Posted in Mantel Hilary at 8:00 am by John Self

I approached Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall with great trepidation, and decided to read it only because of its Booker shortlisting. Aside from the length, my concern was the same one I have for most historical novels: that for full appreciation of the book, a good deal of background knowledge will be required of me that I don’t have. For example, would it be a problem that before reading about Wolf Hall, I’d never heard of Thomas Cromwell? Yes and no.

Hilary Mantel: Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall covers, with a little fringing around the edges, half a dozen years in the reign of Henry VIII, as he flexes his constitutional muscle to break with the Catholic Church – partly because he wants its money and assets in England for the Crown, but mostly because he wants a male heir to prevent another war of succession. His wife Katherine of Aragon cannot give him a son – at least that’s how he views it – so he wants to end his marriage and father a child with Anne Boleyn. (“If only he wanted something simple,” says his Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of York, Cardinal Wolsey. “The Philosopher’s Stone. The elixir of youth. One of those chests that occur in stories, full of gold pieces.”) However it is not Henry who is the central character, but Thomas Cromwell, his fixer: “the inconsolable Master Cromwell: the unknowable, the inconstruable, the probably indefeasible Master Cromwell. … He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury.” Cromwell appears in every scene of the book, referred to most of the time simply as “he”, which is an effective technique in training the reader to his viewpoint.

So, included in the fringes are Cromwell’s youth – son to the violent Walter, and subsequent runaway – and his quick learning. “You don’t get on by being original. You don’t get on by being bright. You don’t get on by being strong. You get on by being a subtle crook.” Cromwell’s cunning is present at a young age, when we see how he escapes from England to France:

He sees three elderly Lowlanders struggling with their bundles and moves to help them. The packages are soft and bulky, samples of woollen cloth. A port officer gives them trouble about their documents, shouting into their faces. He lounges behind the clerk, pretending to be a Lowland oaf, and tells the merchants by holding up his fingers what he thinks is a fair bribe. ‘Please,’ says one of them, in effortful English to the clerk, ‘will you take care of these English coins for me? I find them surplus.’ Suddenly the clerk is all smiles. The Lowlanders are all smiles; they would have paid much more. When they board they say, ‘The boy is with us.’

Cromwell begins his journey to Henry’s court as aide to Cardinal Wolsey. Initially a favourite of the king, instrumental in the dissolution of the monasteries and the crushing of heresies such as those who would translate the Bible into English, Wolsey “never lives in a single reality, but in a shifting, shadow-mesh of diplomatic possibilities.” However his power begins to exceed him: “[Wolsey] used to say, ‘The King will do such-and-such.’ Then he began to say, ‘We will do such-and-such.’ Now he says, ‘This is what I will do.’” He is accused of “running a country within the country” but the king is loyal to him until it becomes clear that Wolsey cannot deliver the “good verdict” from the Pope that he wants: an annulment of his marriage. Wolsey is doomed. Cromwell remains loyal (“What was England, before Wolsey? A little offshore island, poor and cold”) but is determined not to “go down with the Cardinal” – the only thing that Thomas Cromwell believes in, it seems, is Thomas Cromwell.

He ingratiates himself with Henry – the scenes where they come to know one another are among the most electrifying in the book – and becomes a councillor; Henry, in his turn, becomes Cromwell’s second surrogate father after Wolsey, and Cromwell is utterly invested in his life of ‘service’: “I shall not be like Henry Wyatt and say, now I am retiring from affairs. Because what is there, but affairs?” He is not popular with everyone, as he drafts the Act in Restraint of Appeals (…this realm of England is an Empire…). “Until now Master Cromwell’s talent was for moneylending, but now he finds he has a talent for legislation too – if you want a new law, just ask him.”

This is the spine of the story, but there is much commotion around the edges, and so many characters that, even with frequent recourse to the five-page dramatis personae, I never did work out the difference between Lords Norfolk and Suffolk, or several of the other cuckolds, in-laws and court hangers-on. My usual weakness as a reader is attention to detail while overlooking the larger themes, but here even the detail was difficult to grasp at times, though the telling – sometimes serious, sometimes playful – was always admirable. Mantel makes the reader work but does not withhold rewards, and the court scenes, forever at the edge of my knowledge, trod such an expert line that ignorance acted to stimulate my interest rather than freeze it. This is a huge story, after all, of England remaking itself, and the conflict between monarchy and clergy, from Thomas More to Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury. When Henry gets his ‘divorce’ (sorry to spoil it for you):

Warham shuffles up the to king. ‘Henry,’ the Archbishop says, ‘I have seen you promote within your own court and council persons whose principals and morals will hardly bear scrutiny. I have seen you deify your own will and appetite, to the sorrow and scandal of Christian people. I have been loyal to you, to the point of violation of my own conscience. I have done much for you, but now I have done the last thing I will ever do.’

“The English will never be forgiven for the talent for destruction they have always displayed when they get off their own island,” we are told. But there is plenty of destruction back home too. When Anne is pregnant, with what Henry hopes will be a son, “he is the beginning, the start of something, the promise of another country.” Wolf Hall gives us the politics and the personalities – even though the invention of those personalities must be a matter of some speculation, and not for an historical ignoramus like me to rely on. The old country still exists, and Mantel relishes the opportunity to pile on details of the dirt and disease rife at the time, with even those closest to Cromwell succumbing to ‘the sweat’: “one day walking and talking and next day cold as stones, tumbled into their Thames-side graves and dug in beyond the reach of the tide.”

The re-formation of England the book describes (“a miserable country, home to an outcast and abandoned people”) is inextricably linked with the Reformation running in parallel. Henry moves from crushing heresy against Rome to creating a church in his own image. The issues that exercise the reformers include literal interpretation of biblical scriptures: the origin of Purgatory, the transubstantiation of bread and wine. Cromwell finds that he cannot always rely on the Bible: “he knows the whole of the New Testament by heart, but find a text: find a text for this.” Similarly, Wolf Hall denies the possibility of knowing everything from a line-by-line reading of a book. “Some of these things are true,” we are told,” and some of them are lies. But they are all good stories.”

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