April 28, 2010

Evan S. Connell: Mrs Bridge

Posted in Connell Evan S. at 3:18 pm by John Self

Evan S. Connell’s ‘most famous’ novel is, on the surface, less turbulent than The Diary of a Rapist, which I wrote about a couple of years ago.  It’s hard to see why this book is out of print in the UK, being a portrait of quiet desperation almost as accomplished as the sort of thing people fete Richard Yates for.  (Or William Trevor, come to that.)  Classics imprints, where are you?

Mrs Bridge (1959) was Connell’s first novel. It is a sort of pointillist portrait of a woman, told in over one hundred brief and discrete (but broadly chronological) sketches, most only a page or two long.  (There’s a later, longer, companion novel, Mr Bridge.)

Throughout the book she is ‘Mrs Bridge’. “Her first name was India – she was never able to get used to it. It seemed to her that her parents must have been thinking of someone else when they named her. Or were they hoping for another sort of daughter?” So, Mrs Bridge it is, and this is as good a shorthand as any to sum up her personality and life: timid, stunted, any explorations into thought and unconventional behaviour quickly snuffed out by fear, or a sense of propriety, at least to begin with. “Appearances were an abiding concern of Mrs Bridge.”

But tentative struggles away from her own limited life do occur.  Indeed, they are the key to the book, and are generally inspired by Mrs Bridge’s friend Grace Barron. “India, I’ve never been anywhere or done anything or seen anything. I don’t know how other people live, or think, even how they believe. Are we right? Do we believe the right things?” Mrs Bridge might be wary of pursuing such questions far herself, given the unhappiness such introspection brings Grace. “Have you ever felt like those people in the Grimm fairy tales – the ones who were all hollowed out in the back?”

Mrs Bridge has her husband – ‘Mr Bridge’ – and her three children, Ruth, Carolyn and Douglas. Her children threaten Mrs Bridge’s equilibrium, as in the extraordinary scenes where Douglas, like Jocelin in Golding’s The Spire, begins to build an enormous tower from scrap in the family garden: a metaphor for the everyday tragedy of children growing away from their parents’ reach. As Ruth grows away from her – as children must – Mrs Bridge wonders, “Are you mine? Is my daughter mine?”

She is scandalised but fascinated by a production of Tobacco Road, and a visit to Europe becomes a highlight of her life, to which she still refers many years later. It is during the trip that one vignette seems to sum up one aspect of her character neatly, so I reproduce it here in full:

Before leaving on the trip she had checked over the luggage in the attic and concluded they did not have enough, so she had gone downtown and bought three elegant, darkly burnished leather suitcases. They were so beautiful that she was easily persuaded by the salesman to buy a set of canvas covers to protect the leather. These covers, to be sure, were ugly – as coarse as Boy Scout pup tents – but she bought them and had them fitted onto the suitcases. The covers remained on the suitcases while they were aboard ship, and as they had been in each city only a few days she had not bothered to remove them, but now she decided to see if the leather was being protected. She unfastened one of the canvas jackets, peeled it halfway off, and there – as beautiful as though still on display – the leather gleamed. Well pleased, she buttoned the cover.

The difficulty with this sort of portrait is that it’s all too easy for the author to appear to be mocking his subject. Connell avoids this by giving Mrs Bridge increasing self-awareness, and urgings to spread her wings, as the book proceeds. Seeds are planted for some kind of breakdown – when returning from her trip and sharing the platitude that “there’s no place like home”, Mrs Bridge is “troubled and for a moment … almost engulfed by a nameless panic.”

Mrs Bridge is a depiction of a person whose subsumed desires, hopes and yearnings are rendered hopeless by her upbringing, her social position, and her personality. The miniature scenes are perfectly rendered, and so neat that the reader has to work to see the thrashing life beneath the surface. The ending is memorable though, and at times the book and the life seem so closely twined that it’s hard to tell them apart.

They had started off together to explore something that promised to be wonderful, and, of course, there had been wonderful times. And yet, thought Mrs Bridge, why is that we haven’t — that nothing has — that whatever we — ?

April 21, 2010

Keith Waterhouse: Billy Liar

Posted in Waterhouse Keith at 8:00 am by John Self

I often bang on here about liking older books more than new ones, but inevitably the ones I read are old dressed up as new.  Here’s another one from the venerable Penguin. The publisher is soon to celebrate its 75th birthday, and has reissued a score of books by British authors which “represent their time and helped define their generation.” Well, maybe, but there are some interesting, lesser-read-these-days writers in there (John Mortimer, Penelope Lively, William Cooper, Margaret Drabble) and they’ve been given a decent format – all reset in uniform type with new introductions by contemporary novelists – and covers of varying quality (love the John Squire 80s ones, but the less said about Zandra Rhodes’ 70s, the better). I went looking for them in my local Waterstone’s and was horrified to see that they were stocking only three titles, so went to WHSmith and was surprised to see they had almost a full complement.

So I bought one from each decade, and decided to read the 50s first, with Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar (1959). I didn’t have high expectations, believing it to be similar to Lucky Jim (a book I hated, which is also in the Decades series, making a trio of discontented young men with William Cooper’s Scenes from Provincial Life), but I was pleasantly surprised. It takes us into the mind of Billy Fisher, a teenager living with his family in the Yorkshire town of Stradhoughton, working for a funeral director, and hating his lot.  “You know, dark satanic mills I can put up with, but when it comes to dark satanic power stations, dark satanic housing estates, and dark satanic coffee bars…”  To alleviate his boredom he fantasises a lot, creating a make-believe country where he is leader: the opening line of the book is “Lying in bed, I abandoned the facts again and was back in Ambrosia…”

But his inability to stick to the facts has its downside.  As well as his “number 1 thinking”, where he imagines his family and friends to be everything he wants them to be, he gets caught in loops of “number 2 thinking”, ruminating hypochondriacally about sinister and life-threatening ailments.  More seriously, it has allowed him to ‘court’ three girls at once, each of whom believes herself to be engaged to Billy, though his returned feelings for them depend more or less on how far they are willing to go.  (“The unfastening of Liz’s blouse had become a more or less routine affair and it was done in a detached way, rather as if I were helping her off with her coat.”)  It’s just as well, then, that Billy has a plan to get out of Stradhoughton and his dead-end job: he’s going off to London to work as a scriptwriter for comedian Danny Boon – but it seems to be taking him a long time to get around to leaving…

Billy Liar is lively, funny and short – so what more could we ask for?  Waterhouse manages to keep his central character fairly sympathetic despite his increasing ledger of peccadilloes, and there is an emotional heft to the last chapter, when Billy finally acknowledges that “I did not believe what I was telling myself”.  I was surprised – thinking, I suppose, that the 50s meant the 60s had not arrived yet – by the often frank references to sexual matters.  (Blake Morrison, in his introduction, says that the stage version of the book was booed for use of the word ‘bloody’.)  There’s something comforting about the unthreatening world which the book inhabits, even if it’s as unambitious in literary terms as Billy feels his surroundings to be.  Indeed, like Stradhoughton for him, Billy Liar is the sort of place that is nice to visit once in a while, even if you wouldn’t want to live there.

April 14, 2010

Jim Crace Interview

Posted in Crace Jim, Interviews at 2:30 pm by John Self

Jim Crace has been one of those writers for whom I drop everything since reading Signals of Distress sometime in the mid-1990s.  The bargain I got when I bought that, his funniest book, in a bookshop sale has been more than outweighed by my subsequent practice of buying his books in hardback immediately they were released.  They were investments well rewarded: his next two books, Quarantine (1997) and Being Dead (1999), still have a claim to be among his best work.  But he is always worth reading and never stays still, flitting in place from first century Judea to post-apocalyptic America, and in subject from food to fatherhood.  In other words, if you google for protean, you’ll find a picture of Jim Crace, probably looking younger than he is.  (I am sure it is no coincidence that he was a contemporary of two more of my favourite writers, Patrick McGrath and Gordon Burn, at Birmingham College of Commerce in the 1960s.)  His new book, All That Follows, has just been released.  It’s a thriller of sorts, and it may be his penultimate novel.  I’m delighted that he has agreed to answer some questions here about All That Follows and his other work.

A few years ago, I read that one of your planned books was The Finalist: “on one level only, a thriller of action and ideas, but its overarching intention is to be a metaphorical critique of both political individualism and the innate complacency of Western liberal democracies.”  I take it this became All That Follows.  Can you tell us something about the writing process, and how the book – and title – changed along the way?

Yes, this book is that book. The Finalist was only ever an interim title for contract purposes. All That Follows was a last-minute panicky choice, just plucked from the text.

I mostly intended the novel to be called Heroes, even though I was uneasy with that word’s gender specificity. The real heroes of this novel are the heroines, of course – Francine, Nadia, Swallow and Lucy.  But as soon as the TV series, Heroes, started airing in UK, I had to hunt for  an alternative title. Everything I chose was doomed, for one reason or another. For example, I was quite keen on Bravissimo for a while, as it suggested both heroism and a fearless musical tempo, perfect for the book. It was my daughter who pointed out, with some disdain, that I’d chosen the name of a lingerie store for large women. Hmm, it would have made an interesting marketing tie-in.

The focus of the book on “political individualism and the innate complacency of Western liberal democracies” remained close to my original intentions, though the critique was more plot-driven and less metaphorical than I might have expected.

The process of writing was just sitting down in front of a blank screen whenever I could be bothered and seeing what narratives, settings and characters offered themselves.

All That Follows features Leonard Lessing, to me your most sympathetic and ‘normal’ protagonist yet (not dead, not Jesus, not supernaturally fertile), and the language of the book seems plainer – less iambic – than in the past.  Was this a conscious decision to aim more at the heart than the head?

Conscious, yes. Purposeful even. I wanted to do something unfussy for a change. And I wanted a break from my usual declamatory tones. I’d already written nine books with a poetic voice and thought it was time to see if I could come to grips with some more conventional skills. I’d hardly ever used dialogue effectively, for example, and I’d only rarely held my mirror up to a real world rather than an invented one.  Besides, I could tell that my ongoing novel, Archipelago, was bound to be my most ecstatic and iambic so far.  Stepping back from that would give everybody a break, including me. Would that be aiming for the heart rather than the head? I don’t believe so and I hope not. I’ve always aimed for the heart. My books are more floridly sentimental than intellectually rigorous.

You’ve said that all your books are political, but in All That Follows it seems more explicit than ever.  Popular punchbag George W Bush features, as well as Maxie and Nadia, who set out to take direct action against him at a public appearance in 2006.  Yet for characters whose views we might expect you to agree with, and as revolutionaries, they’re pretty ineffectual.  Do you care what political message readers get from the book?

Yes, more explicit, less mediated. The book was written to answer my own question as a political activist: is the unprincipled man of action who is prepared to die or kill for an ism the only one who can effect worthwhile change in the world? The novel seems to favour political timidity, but I am still undecided, still thrilled by confrontation, yet still timid and inhibited. Do I care what political messages the readers get from the book? Well, I care what the book says. But there’s no accounting for what readers think. I’ve had right-wing religious zealots turn up at my readings to shout abuse. Should I care what they think?

Leonard in All That Follows is painfully risk-averse: ‘scared to death’.  Are you a risk-taker as a writer, given your fearlessness of big themes and refusal to write the same book over and over; or do your meticulous methods (Will Self used the term “anal retention“) mean you’re playing safe, working within your comfort zone?

Hmm. I don’t know how to answer this as I don’t recognise myself in the question. Will Self doesn’t have any information or experience at all about my writing procedures or the state of my bowels. So his remark must be either mischievous or unkind.  What I can tell you in that I don’t have any meticulous methods. Far from it. I have a blank screen, a clear desk,  and my fingers crossed.  The task  doesn’t feel like risk taking. It feels like fun, and it feels a little scary – a bit like tobogganing (from which I have just returned with what I suspect is a broken finger).

You’re known to be a terrific liar, “seeking the richer world beyond the facts” – making up not just plots, characters, histories and futures, but even the epigraphs of your books.  But The Pesthouse and now All That Follows are missing the last: in the new book you’ve stooped to using real quotations from real people.  Have Abraham Howper, Emile dell’Ova, Sherwin Stephens and their pals gone for good?

Yes, they are toast. I don’t invent epigraphs anymore. Once I managed to smuggle a false entry about my invented Pycletius (with references to the equally non-existent Abraham Howper and Emile dell’Ova) into the Oxford Companion to English Literature, I felt my work was done. I am now concentrating on other teases. It is after all the job of a novelist to make the lies seem real or at least to blur the interfaces between what is actual and what is invented. I have heard readers complain that they have been deceived by my fictions, as if deceiving them wasn’t part of the job.

David Lodge wrote about his anguish on publishing a novel about Henry James shortly after Colm Tóibín did the same.  Did you have any similar feelings on publishing The Pesthouse a few months after Cormac McCarthy’s The Road came out, given the superficial similarities between the two, and the ubiquity McCarthy’s novel has achieved?

It’s true, David and Colm’s wonderful books about Henry James had huge similarities – the coincidence was spooky – so I understand the anguish involved. I know both writers and have discussed the subject with each of them. It was just bad luck, I guess.  My Pesthouse was similarly eclipsed by McCarthy’s Road, I’ve been told. But I haven’t felt any anguish yet. I wrote the book I wanted to publish but I never claimed squatters’ rights over the subject of an American Armageddon. Anyone can have a say. Anyway, our books are fields apart. I’d like to think my novel is less bleak, more feminized, as well as being better value for money – it’s longer, so there’s more Armageddon to the dollar.

Can you recommend an overlooked book or writer to readers of this blog?

A favourite of mine is G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. It has weathered well, and still seems as mischievous and clever as ever.

You’ve warned before that we should “not overestimate the power of the writer or overrate the supremacy of the pen.”  Do you think of your own output for the last 25 years as “a self-indulgence”?  Do you still plan to stop after your next book?

Sure, it’s a self-indulgence, but what’s wrong with that? No harm done. But I am aware that  the world doesn’t exactly need my books. If I never wrote another word, there’d still be plenty of other stuff to read, and I would disappear with the merest sigh of regret from a handful of  fans. I do quite like the idea of hearing that merest sigh of regret, so retiring while I am fit and well and still looking for adventures is an appealing prospect. So, yes, I do intend Archipelago to be my final novel. I am sincere. But I might be fooling myself. Don’t start sighing yet.

April 9, 2010

Simon Crump: Twilight Time

Posted in Crump Simon at 7:19 am by John Self

After retrospectively loving Simon Crump’s Neverland last year, I bought his other three books and put them aside for a time when I fancied a reliable pleasure – a comfort read, if you like, though comfort doesn’t readily come to mind when thinking of the creeping madness and sick delights which seem to populate his fiction.  Nonetheless, the time was this week, and the book was Twilight Time, Crump’s only ‘novel’ proper: his other three books are a collection of stories, Monkey’s Birthday, and those unclassifiable fancies My Elvis Blackout and Neverland.


Twilight Time
(2004) tells the story of, and is narrated by, Bruce Glasscock, foul-mouthed husband of Linda and co-curator of the Hays House, a building preserved in its 1930s integrity by the English Trust. Bruce is mocked by the local kids (“Eee fuckin’ ‘ell, it’s fuckin’ lovejoy. Sold any clocks today, mester, shagged any old ladies?”) He is prone to adulterous fantasies, and once exposed himself to a friend’s wife (“A bit grey and baggy perhaps, but I reckon I could still cut it with the ladies. Nothing happening in the trousers, nothing much upstairs. Not bad for fifty”), but is fairly uxorious for all that:

I set the tea on the bedside table and same as every morning it steams over the photo of our wedding day. Me handsome in my uniform, Linda trussed up in her mother’s dress, all nipples and organza, thick fog drifting in.

The uniform is an army one, and we get the impression that Bruce has never really adjusted to life outside. (“I’ve seen the world and I didn’t like it.”) He enjoyed the orderliness of the army, just as he did with school before that (“They’d tell you when to speak and when to not, when and where to sit, when to shit and when to pretend to relax”. Even now he resents his job, where he’s second fiddle to his wife, and wishes “I was a binman. The pay’s good, the job keeps you fit, you’re out in the fresh air all morning and down the pub by dinner. You don’t have to think or worry about fuck all”). He spent so long adjusting himself to fit in with school and army colleagues that now “[I] don’t fit in anywhere any more.” His life, to paraphrase Philip Larkin, seems like an enormous no.

All this makes Twilight Time sound like a gloomy read, but it’s not. The dominant tone is of comic absurdity, from the satire on National Trust heritage (passionate debate arises at a meeting to determine how often, if at all, the toilet hinges in the Hays House should be cleaned), to excruciating banter on sexual hang-ups. But the melancholy comes often enough to develop into a recurrent theme, and the moments of greatest candour from Bruce (one review on the back cover calls him ‘dishonest’, which I’d dispute: he’s completely honest, which is one of his main weaknesses) tread a line between awkward and affecting:

The air smells like snow. I remember the first time I kissed her. She cut through me, the drinks cut me in half. I put a ring on her finger and brushed back her hair. I am, I am not a freak. Somehow I lost my connection, somehow I lost my way. Mind like a sewer, memory like a sieve.

And if I hadn’t read and liked Neverland so much, I would have wondered whether the awkwardness was Crump’s or his character’s. Twilight Time lacks Neverland‘s multi-faceted brilliance. However, like Neverland, it seems sometimes inconsequential, daft and annoying, but by the end, the undertow of melancholy built up so forcefully that it caught me unawares and quite swept me away. It made me want to do what reviewers so often claim to do: I wanted to reread the book immediately to see how Bruce had got here almost without my noticing. (The impulse soon passed, but the point remains.) What seemed like a scatological comic tale turned out to be a wrenching character study. When Bruce carries out some premature gardening on the house grounds, his response to Linda’s ‘What are you doing?’ tells us about his attitude to much else besides:

“I’m just trying, I am just trying, Linda, to get it over with.”

April 2, 2010

Jim Crace: All That Follows

Posted in Crace Jim at 8:00 am by John Self

In his last novel, The Pesthouse, Jim Crace gave us an America devastated by unspecified disasters; it was a good novel, overshadowed by being published a few months after a better one on the same subject, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  Now, with his tenth book, Crace portrays an ambiguously gentler future, where mankind is having a softer landing from its legacy of environmental destruction, and a harder time in other ways.

All That Follows is set largely in England, 2024, where the middle classes drive community-owned electric cars, where nicotine in moderation has been discovered to help protect against dementia, and where the news reports that “the Latino state” California is holding a referendum to secede from the Union.  On the day the book begins, the eve of the 50th birthday of erstwhile jazzman Leonard Lessing (‘Lennie Less’ – “it rhymes with penniless”), the news is showing something else.  As the blurb on my proof copy put it:

HOSTAGES ARE SEIZED ACROSS TOWN
THE GUNMAN’S FACE APPEARS ON TV
LEONARD RECOGNIZES HIM AS AN OLD FRIEND…
HE HAS A CHOICE TO MAKE

When I read this, my heart sank.  I remember very well last year’s disastrous (and successful) decision by William Boyd to write a pulpy thriller.  Fortunately Crace doesn’t let us down in this way.  In fact, he is clever enough to disable any trad thriller elements he does introduce, including one maddeningly brilliant conceit which matches Strangers on a Train’s murder swap for symmetrical perfection.

If All That Follows is not a thriller, then what is it?  A few years ago, Crace detailed plans for future novels, one of which was to be titled The Finalist, and was “on one level only, a thriller of action and ideas, but its overarching intention is to be a metaphorical critique of both political individualism and the innate complacency of Western liberal democracies.”  All That Follows, I believe, is the book which The Finalist became.  There is a little action, both in the ‘present’ (England, 2024) and the past (Texas, 2006), but the second part of Crace’s description is what underpins the book.

The man Leonard recognises on the TV is Maxim ‘Maxie’ Lermontov, a Canadian-Russian anarchist with whom he became friendly when living in USA at the turn of the millennium.  Maxie and his wife Nadia constituted the entire membership of a political sect calling themselves Snipers Without Rifles, and Leonard’s final involvement with them in 2006 was at their “AmBush”, when they plotted to take direct action against the then President at a public appearance in Texas.  Now, it seems, Maxie is taking hostages in England, where rights have been chipped away bit by bit until citizens are no longer surprised to receive a unwarranted and unexplained visit from NADA, the National Defence Agency (“not quite the police, not quite the SAS”).

Crace has never been afraid to go toe-to-toe with big subjects in his books: the nature of life in cities in Arcadia, the creation of a faith in Quarantine, what happens after we die in Being Dead.  In All That Follows he writes about the individual’s relationship with the state.  We ponder whether the erosion of civil liberties comes about when too many people engage in directionless rebellion like Maxie and Nadia (and Leonard, “the nation’s most nervous militant … a man of extreme principles, hesistantly held”) – or when too few do it.  But it is also Crace’s most human story yet, focussing on Leonard’s struggles to overcome, on the brink of his 50th birthday, a sense that his life is over, and that he lacks the guts to make it new.

Every dawn renews his hope and courage, briefly, he has found.  This is the day, is what he always thinks. He will not disappoint himself today.  He will not fail again today.

Against this is the unwelcome refrain from his wife, Francine – “That was then” – when faced with any reminder of their past.  “Used To Be is such a loaded phrase.”  Anyway she reminds Leonard that he has always been fearful, risk-averse – and now is a ‘nought per center’, a term used to describe citizens who avoid meat, sugar, salt, saturated fats.  In Leonard’s case, this also means “nought per cent passion, nought per cent fire, nought per cent tossing pebbles at the wall.”  Or as Francine puts it: “I know what they’ll put on your gravestone.  It’ll say ‘Scared to Death’.”  He changes, however, when Leonard Lessing becomes Lennie Less, saxophonist, a risk-taker, playing “only taxing jazz”: except that he hasn’t even done that in years, a shoulder injury killing off his career for now.  Still, “he’s not courageous when he’s playing, not mad and not demonic, just less frightened.  He’s Lennie Less Frightened, mapping out a landscape of his own where it is not truly risky to take risks.”

This makes Leonard a refreshing change from the ‘everyman’ hero of a thrillerish book: he turns down the crazy assignment, he takes the road more travelled.  He rationalises. “He’s done his best, it’s not his fault – the usual chorus line.”  Ultimately he will regain his mojo, his wife and his audience only when he stands up against the authoritarian state, exhibits some backbone, “not betraying any fear, not revealing any of the dread that was his foremost feeling at the time,” “mythologized” by the ubiquitous news footage, showing him seeming “fierce, and triumphant.”

He doesn’t quite resemble himself.

Crace too takes a risk in this book.  He moderates his authorial voice – it’s plainer, speedier – and threatens to frustrate both long-term admirers and those drawn by the catchy conceit.  The result, however, is a success, saturating its reader in its recurring themes as effectively as good music does.  In the future world of All That Follows, with its “bland eco-pods” and Reconciliation Summits, one development, wittily imparted by Crace, is particularly deplorable.  It seems that in 2024, the word ‘genius’ as an adjective has gained common acceptance.  Now that really does call for a revolution.

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