May 26, 2011
Lars Iyer’s debut novel comes from the admirable Melville House, home of Lee Rourke’s The Canal and Hans Fallada and the Art of the Novella series. It also features high praise on the back cover from Rourke and Steve Mitchelmore, a reliable source of recommendations.
Spurious began life as a blog, and its genesis shows: the chapters are short, like blogposts, and the consistency of voice and repetition of themes both emphasises and distracts the reader from the fact that there is not much directional plot. There is a little bit of plot, about damp growing in the narrator’s home (“The greatest experts on damp are completely baffled”), but a real plot would be unwelcome here. It would have driven me on and prevented me from stopping on almost every page to smile, think, or sense a cartoon lightbulb of understanding begin to glow above my head before popping out just as I concentrated on it. (With a plot, the lightbulb would never even have got going.) Instead, it has a spiral narrative – a Spirograph narrative! – turning on itself so you can see the same things passing over and over, a little closer or further away, from a different angle or level of familiarity.
Spurious is full of paradox. It’s about everything and nothing. It’s a funny book which uses exclamation marks (I know!). It provokes thought while evading easy understanding. Its characters speak simply about knotty concepts. The characters are the narrator, Lars, and his friend W. Most of what Lars tells us is reporting what W. says to him: we know more of what W. thinks than of what Lars does. W. speaks his mind (and Lars speaks W.’s mind too): “‘When did you know,’ W. says with great insistence. ‘When did you know you weren’t going to amount to anything?’” He is relentlessly critical of Lars. “It’s my fault, W. says. Everything went wrong when he met me.” But the lightness of touch, the artfulness in the repetition, means that it sounds not like bullying but an exaggerated, hyperreal version of banter between friends.
The conversations are short but feel like excerpts from one never-ending exchange, like arcs cut from a circle. Subjects and people recur: Béla Tarr, Maurice Blanchot, Franz Rosenzweig. Not mentioned, but all over the book, are Thomas Bernhard and Samuel Beckett. The narrative container of Lars reporting W.’s thoughts is pure Old Masters, and Vladimir and Estragon could not be more simultaneously comic and tragic. “These are the end times, but who knows it but us?” Lars asks. Still, cheer up:
W. and I never think about our deaths or anything like that. That would be pure melodrama. Besides, if we died, others would come along to replace us. Our position is structural, we’ve always been convinced of that. We’re only signs or syndromes of some great collapse, and our deaths will be no more significant than those of summer flies in empty rooms.
Also appearing through the book is Kafka. “Our lives each took a wrong turn when we opened The Castle. It was quite fatal: there was literature itself! We were finished.” Lars and W. define themselves by what they will never live up to. W. hopes that his regular bouts of ill-health will give him the genius of a Kafka. “But W.’s illnesses lead nowhere, he says. They always disappoint him.” Ultimately Lars and W. recognise that neither of them is Kafka, they are both Max Brod, whom they revere for rescuing Kafka’s works, and revile for his “stupid” commentaries on Kafka’s works. (Brod, like Lars and W., was no Kafka.) “‘But we’re essentially joyful,’ says W., ‘that’s what will save us.’” And they are: what Lars and W. represent is an endless intellectual curiosity, on everything from messianism to Peter Andre (though the pop cultural references for me were the least funny part of the book). Such interest in things can only ever be bright-eyed and vigorous, and funny even when it’s horrible. “‘Go on, tell me,’ says W., getting excited. ‘How fat are you now?’”
Lars and W. travel in the book, mostly from the south-west of England where W. lives to the north-east, Lars’s home. But they may as well stay in the same room, conversing all the time. What W. wants is for every conversation to be “something great, something life-changing.” His fantasy is “a group of friends who could make one another think.” He longs for “the twenty-second century, or the twenty-third, when things might start getting better again.” He wants all conversations “to go from the apocalyptic to the messianic.” He is insufferable, but inseparable from Lars. They are like two aspects of the same character, the warring mind of someone who acknowledges his limitations but nags at himself for accepting them.
How far apart, too, are the author and his characters? So far I have written about Spurious as though there was no author, so effectively does the book have its own life. Iyer has given an interview where he explains the origins of the blog and the novel, though I am trying to forget it as it imposes too much on my own reading. Anyway, when W. has a book published toward the end of Spurious, Lars agrees that “His book is better than him.” Writers suffer illness, get distracted, talk rubbish. Their books endure. Lars fears “the empty time which makes thought possible.” Spurious is fully attuned to our times, where thought is impossible because of our inability to stay off Twitter, and with no empty time we never properly think. W. wants friends who can make him think. Too bad: he will just have to make do with books that can be friends, books that make you think and entertain you at the same time, like this one.
May 23, 2011
Here is a book which gave me as much pleasure as any I’ve read this year, one of those rare novels which worked on me right from the opening sentence and never really let up. My review of it appeared in the The Guardian on Saturday, but I’m creating a post for it here as I don’t want any regular readers of this blog to miss out on such a wonderful work of fiction. Here is a link to the review, detailing the novel’s “disarming honesty, and a lack of vanity, which appeals as only truth can; the book is an act of bearing witness to a woman’s role, to everyday life and how it runs away.”
May 19, 2011
It occurs to me that I have developed a prejudice against new novels, particularly English language ones. This might be because I have had much reading pleasure lately from older reissued titles or books in translation: both types must have passed the editorial selection test at least twice. I give up on new books more quickly, daring them to do something new with the form. Yet at the same time, often when I give them a chance I continue to get pleasure from them. Here is a perfect example.
The Dubious Salvation of Jack V. almost challenges the reader to put it down before opening it, with its irksome title, equal parts quirk and mock-retro. In fact it makes reference to a trilogy of novels by Afrikaans writer Etienne Leroux, but to the reader coming to it cold, such an idiosyncratic title can seem like the literary equivalent of a novelty tie, worn in order to fake a personality that is otherwise absent. (The jaunty cover enhances this effect.) The second cause for concern is that this is a novel about an eleven-year-old boy, and if Room and Pigeon English taught us nothing else (and they didn’t), it’s that we should be wary of child narratives. In fact, I needn’t have worried, since the prologue – with nineteen paragraphs each beginning “When I was eleven” – makes it clear that this is a story about the narrator’s childhood, written by him when older, looking back. We are more in the territory of True Grit, with wit and aplomb, and with no need to handicap the narrative voice by artificial restrictions.
What Jack V. does have in common with the others mentioned above is its potential for popular success: it’s a confident and straightforward narrative in a well-achieved voice which gets its points across in fewer than 250 pages. Within the parameters of conventional literary fiction, what more could we ask for?
Jack Viljee is a South African with a burden of guilt to unload about how, at the age of eleven, he “betrayed Susie, our housekeeper, my friend, my second mother.” He also, along the way, has things to share about life in South Africa under the last days of apartheid (though that word does not feature in the book). Mandela’s release may have been just a year away, but there were still housewives in Jack’s “very nice street” in Johannesburg who would say, “A dishwashing machine? What would I need with one of those? All you need is a little black magic.” Jack’s family has Susie, whom Jack “loved … with the same possessive intensity that I loved my mother.” Susie is presented with the greatest sympathetic vigour in a narrative that is full of vibrancy: at times I was reminded of a less baggy John Irving. I consider Irving to be whatever the opposite is of an acquired taste – he was the first ‘grown-up’ writer I read, at the age of seventeen, and I still cherish my memories of Owen Meany and The Cider House Rules, but haven’t read him in years and don’t expect to again. Nonetheless, he has imaginative sympathy in spades, together with a knack for creating memorable sub-grotesques, which is what Strauss manages here, without falling into Irving’s habit of believing that every character deserves such attention. So we have novelties here like a family of four brothers, each of whom loses an arm in the same accident, or a shop selling prosthetic limbs, which are memorable but not overplayed or forced into a central purpose.
Jack’s struggle is between his Afrikaner and English ancestry on his father’s and mother’s sides respectively. He feels himself to be neither one thing nor the other. Fortunately, this gives him the chance to display the differences between the two cultures. (The English happily cremate their dead, for example, while Afrikaners “preferred to buy family plots in which you heaped up your dead, piled them up as evidence of your suffering.”) As he tells his story, Jack reveals himself to the reader in a knowing character portrait; but for him, his self-awareness just makes things worse. While the family of his friend Petrus are “completely at ease with black people milling about doing their bidding,” Jack is not. “But black people didn’t seem to like me any better for my awkwardness. They didn’t appreciate that I found the situation embarrassing.” The book is full of such just-so observations: the confusions of childhood sexuality – one moment making light of paedophilia, the next feeling shame at the extent of its own desires – are skewered perfectly. Given the setting, it is particularly good on how a child, becoming an adult, acquires an understanding of political realities and grows into, or away from, its parents’ views. (Economic sanctions against South Africa are noted by Jack, for example, because He-Man toys cost “at least ten rand and every time the president said something that upset people they would cost even more.”) This is where Strauss’s decision to make the narrative retrospective rather than contemporaneous is most clearly justified, as it enables subtleties and contradictions to be explored that would require too much smelting and welding in a child’s voice. In true immature fashion, Jack is sometimes more concerned with being right than doing right.
When Jürgen told me his father had cancer, I assured him that it was nothing to be concerned about – ‘People get cancer all the time. It’s like getting a bad cold’ – but when we learnt that his father had died, I thought it would have been better to tell Jürgen what I suspected all along. [...] His father is going to die, I thought, and none of us are going to know what to say to him. It’s going to be very embarrassing.
Above all, The Dubious Salvation of Jack V. is funny; both witty and ironic. Jack hates to be reminded that Susie “didn’t stay with us because she loved me … She stayed with us because it was her job.” The irony is that to stop her being their servant, to give her her freedom, he may end up having to do something terrible to her. Around all this cultural specificity, more general principles are touched on (“one could only conclude that humanity, rather than a ballast against the arbitrary, was … its very agent”) which feed back into the story.
If the real test of a first novel is not whether it is an unassailable masterpiece, but whether it suggests that the author’s next one will be worth reading, then Strauss succeeds and more. However my initial admission of prejudice against such novels might raise the issue of why I read this book in the first place. The answer is that someone tweeted a link to Strauss’s website, which made me laugh, and I was won over. In addition, he namechecks many of the right authors – Spark, Coetzee, Roth – though one might reflect that these are big names for a new writer to invoke. Still, they too were debut novelists once.
May 16, 2011
A discussion on Twitter recently about Irish writers uncovered the name John Broderick, new to me. The person who suggested him described Broderick’s books as “elegiac, character-driven, complex in ideas. A minor novelist (to be tough-minded) but interesting.” I thought I’d find out for myself.
The Waking of Willie Ryan (1965, reissued in the above handsome edition in 2004 by Lilliput Press) was Broderick’s fourth novel. His first had been banned by the Irish Censorship Board – a recommendation to the modern reader in itself, if only for reasons of cultural curiosity. From the subject matter of Willie Ryan – homosexuality and the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church dominating the mix – it’s easy to see why he was trouble to the authorities.
Broderick is an efficient writer in one sense: he wastes no time getting us into the heart of the story. In the opening scene, a woman whose car journey is interrupted by a hen crossing her path (no deviation from certain clichés of rural Ireland here), spots a man at the gates to one of the village houses. In the next chapter we learn who it is: “Your brother Willie, Mr Ryan. He’s come home, out of the asylum.” One could hardly wish for more intriguing first pages. (Twenty years later, Iain Banks would refine that down to the opening line of The Wasp Factory: “I was making the rounds of the Sacrifice Poles the day we heard my brother had escaped.”)
Willie’s brother and his wife consider themselves to be central to the community, an unnamed village in “the middle of the great central plain of Ireland.” In common with many such pillars, their main interest is in maintaining the status quo and their own position. “He must be sent back at once. If we act quickly it may be possible to get the whole thing over with quietly.” Unfortunately for them, it seems that the doctors at the asylum were happy to let Willie out as soon as there was anyone to take him. Willie left voluntarily, convinced that death is near, and walked the forty miles from the asylum, where he lived for 25 years, to return ‘home’.
This sets up some nice, if broadly painted, conflict between the Ryans and their son Chris. He is a free-thinker, engaged to a girl whom his parents consider to be beneath him when he could do better. “Look at Susan Carroll, two pubs and a hotel, and a nice refined girl into the bargain.” He takes Willie in when nobody else will, and represents a younger generation, one which Broderick must have hoped would be agents of change in these backward backwaters. The cast is filled out with Nurse Halloran from the asylum, sympathetic to Willie, and Father Mannix, naturally the villain of the piece, with his comical reactionary sentiments (“‘Is that English coal?’ he asked suddenly”). In a country where reactionary is the norm, this is bad news for someone like Willie, who just wanted “to live his own life,” but whose deviation from society’s expectations dooms him. The plot is strong and builds to a prolonged confrontation between Willie and Father Mannix.
There is a particular quirk to Broderick’s writing which almost stopped me from continuing with the book. The story proceeds mostly by dialogue, either filling the reader in on events or moving the story on with decisions made in conversations. However Broderick has a maddening practice of adding largely superfluous activities between the lines of dialogue. No character ever says something without doing something at the same time. Here is an entirely typical snapshot of one page. This is interesting because it ties in with something Tobias Wolff once said about such details.
There’s a kind of stock repertoire that comes out of drama, mainly of gestures and actions that people perform in stories. You know: the mixing-of-drinks, the-crossing-of-rooms, the-lighting-of-cigarettes. What’s wrong with them is they’re essentially anonymous. They don’t tell us that much. What you want is a gesture that tells you something particular.
This is so right of Broderick that he may as well have been speaking about him. It seems to suggest a lack of confidence by the author in the power of the words themselves, which is misplaced, because the dialogue is strong (if often too black and white). The benefit is that the reader can skip half the text in pages like these. Another unwelcome feature is Broderick’s decision to portray Willie as being physically girlish and unmasculine – his “small white hand, supple and beautifully shaped,” his “lithe and graceful step,” his “thin white foot, arched forward like a dancer.” These descriptions seem unhelpfully to conform to gay stereotypes even as the book seeks to take them on.
The strengths of The Waking of Willie Ryan are in the boldness of the subject matter – were many Irish writers as scathing about their own society half a century ago? – and the loving detail of the secondary characters, such as Miss Pinkie White (“Mountains falling and dunghills rising, that’s what I say,” is her assessment of the progress of Irish society). David Norris, in his introduction to this edition, describes John Broderick as “an awkward customer in the literary Ireland of the 1960s.” Although a minor novelist (an assessment I’d now agree with), it’s this awkwardness which make his books still worth reading and his name worth remembering.
May 12, 2011
After a few abortive attempts on other books (you’ll never drag them out of me … nor out of the compost bin where I hurled them), here is something which felt like a very great treat. Admittedly it scratched several of my itches before I even opened it – translated fiction, slim volume, the MacLehose imprimatur – but I was still delighted when I started it and felt myself to be in the presence of something like real literature.
The Sickness (La Enfermedad, tr. Margaret Jull Costa) is a small and piercing volume, a literary stiletto; quiet, intense and directed. It exerts an ambiguous pull on the reader’s inner hypochondriac, tickling delicately those intimations of mortality that we cannot look at directly but cannot bear to pull ourselves away from. (It might have helped that I began reading the book in the waiting room of an emergency out-of-hours dental pain clinic.)
It also fits neatly into my recent interest in books about fatherhood – here, the point of view is predominantly not that of the father but of the son. Dr Andrés Miranda has the usual difficulty of health professionals when it comes to personal involvement: too much knowledge. For a doctor used to dealing bad news to patients, the only thing worse than divining bad news about one’s own health would be learning it about one’s family. At the beginning of the book, Dr Miranda receives from a colleague some scans of his father’s chest. A combination of professional hunch, his colleague’s body language, and a son’s fear leads him to presume the worst without even looking at them.
So begins a sinuous exercise in examining our attitudes to illness and death. We typically say a book is “about” its subject, and here about is just the word: Tyszka writes around the topic, with Dr Miranda circling his father’s mortality with a combination of obsessively keen interest and logical dread. After years of dealing with the subject in his work, he finds himself in a strange country, addressing illness properly for the first time. Observations that may have seemed wry in knowing exchanges with colleagues – “health doesn’t exist, it’s a heaven that forms no part of existence” – now seem like a sick joke. The hospitalised death business takes on a new horror for him.
It remains a brutal violence. Right before their eyes, a life is being pitilessly laid waste, swept away. There’s a lot of gauze, a lot of cleanliness, a lot of qualified staff, but no pity. It’s a crime for which there are far too many witnesses, a legalised crime, a crime no one can stop.
In his novel Night Train (1997), Martin Amis’s narrator was a police officer who said, of the task of delivering the worst of all news to relatives: “When you’re bringing news of the kind I was bringing there are physical ramifications. The body feels concentrated. The body feels important. It has power, because it brings powerful truth.” If that’s the case, then it must be the suppression of the news – he doesn’t want to tell his father – that makes Dr Miranda feel so bad. “He never feels rested when he wakes up; he gets out of bed like someone coming home from a dark and arduous task, as if returning to the light after a fierce battle.” His father sleeps peacefully; Dr Miranda has taken on the burden of knowledge, is doing the suffering for him. Having always believed that it is unethical to withhold information from patients, he now wavers. If only his father would die immediately, without warning, he could spare him suffering! (Spare himself suffering.) “The difficulty lies in what is not yet over, in sickness.” He finds himself doubting the worth of his own vocation, the ideal he has lived since as a child he discovered “the existence of an order distinct from words, more physical, more tactile, less invisible.” Now, however, he is reduced to words again, thinking and wondering. “Mystery always helps make death a little more bearable. All this scientific exactitude is intolerable. What’s the point of it? Who does it help?”
The answer, which he has forgotten, is that exactitude – he makes it sound so contemptible – helps the desperate, the sick who need knowledge and certainty to lean on. The layman turns to the expert who understands what is happening, who has news – powerful truth – even if it’s not good news. This thread is expanded upon with the parallel story of Ernesto Durán, a patient of Dr Miranda’s who emails him obsessively about a mysterious affliction – “the sickness” – and whose correspondence leads to a borderline farcical subplot which I felt diluted the themes of the book rather than concentrating them. But the richness of the book (it packs a lot in to its 150 pages) is enhanced by Tyszka’s introduction of passages from other authors, from Charles Baudelaire to William Carlos Williams, on the subjects around sickness. It seems to be an acknowledgement that this is a meditation on a subject, disguised as a novel. But for all its provocations, it gets pretty deep into the heart with the central story, which spares the reader nothing.
One of Dr Miranda’s colleagues regularly wonders, “Why do we find it so hard to accept that life is pure chance?” It’s a sentiment echoed in one of the literary quotations in the story, from Chekhov’s ‘Ward No 6′, when a doctor says to a patient, “There is neither morality nor logic in my being a doctor and your being a mental patient, there is nothing more to it than idle chance.” The Sickness helps explain why we find it so hard to understand: because to do so is to accept that life is not a story with a moral, but is chaos which ends randomly. In working this knowledge into a story which takes on an understood form, and splices in a couple of seductive plots, Tyszka is either having his cake and eating it, or subversively spiking the drink.
May 5, 2011
Edward St Aubyn’s last book, Mother’s Milk, was the bridesmaid of the 2006 Booker season, the loser in one of the prize’s regular deciding votes. Mother’s Milk was the fourth instalment of Patrick Melrose’s story, slow on the heels of the trilogy Never Mind, Bad News and Some Hope (1992-94), but a welcome return to form after the non-Melrose titles On the Edge and A Clue to the Exit.
At Last declares from its title that this is (relief) another Melrose book. It’s a title which recalls the reticent beauty of the names of the first three books (now almost obliterated by their publication in one volume). At Last: speaking of its status as reportedly the final Melrose book, of the end of life, and even perhaps a joke at its five year gestation period.
Eleanor Melrose, Patrick’s mother – “the daughter of one bewildered family and the mother of another” - has died. We join him on the day of her funeral, 9 April 2005, when he is left with nothing but her corpse – “a transitional object for the far end of life” – and a desire to make sense of her. “Patrick wondered if he could ever make his ego light enough to relax in not having to settle the meaning of things. What would that feel like?” It would feel like he was someone else entirely, not Patrick Melrose, perhaps not human at all. He can’t let go, and why should he, when he still can’t work out whether his mother and father were “collaborators as well as antagonists”? Readers of the earlier volumes will know the horrors inflicted on Patrick by his father David Melrose, but was his mother forced to “abandon her desire to love him … compelled to pass on so much fear and panic,” or did she “use him as an extension of her lust for humiliation”?
Patrick’s turmoil is somewhat irrelevant, since one thing that everyone else attending the funeral seems to be agreed on is that Eleanor was a force for good (it would be unusual for mourners to come to any other conclusion). And what a crowd she has attracted! Grotesque family members, clingers and hangers-on, neurotics and charlatans: people who are “exclusively social and entirely friendless at the same time,” or people like Emily Price, who
had three main drawbacks: she was incapable of saying please, incapable of saying thank you, and incapable of saying sorry, all the while creating a surge in the demand for these expressions.
Prime among these is the monstrous Nicholas Pratt, whose hilarious and heartless monologue opens the book with a kick (“I saw [your aunt] last week in New York and I’m pleased to say I was the first to tell her the tragic news about your mother”) and shows us that St Aubyn’s comic gifts are undiminished. Indeed, it’s worth pointing out to new readers that the primary response to the coolly perfect prose in At Last is laughter: uncomfortable sometimes, desperate too, but tinkling as regularly as the ice in one of Patrick Melrose’s drinks. (“It felt so ancestral to have delirium tremens, to bow down, after his disobedient youth as a junkie, to the shattering banality of alcohol.”) If the earlier Melrose books are about the “varying states of being trapped“, then At Last promises to offer release – or threatens to promise to offer it. “Now that he was an orphan everything was perfect. He seemed to have been waiting all his life for this sense of completeness.”
Threading through the dominant arc of the story – simply the day of Eleanor’s funeral – are numerous threads. St Aubyn lets few characters off the hook, and we go back at least two generations in Eleanor’s family, as well as having the gaps filled in from Patrick’s life since Mother’s Milk. (Predominantly an account of his time at a rehab clinic, with its “downpour of self-centred advice.”) The very rich are different from you and me, even when they’re not very rich any more. Why try to make the reader empathise with characters whose defining characteristics include “the psychological impact of inherited wealth, the raging desire to get rid of it and the raging desire to hang on to it”? It is by treating Patrick and Eleanor dispassionately that St Aubyn does finally make the reader’s heart sing for them, albeit with restrained good taste. The author’s background, like Patrick’s, is of inherited wealth; perhaps it is this which enables him to treat his characters mockingly and sympathetically at the same time. His brittle, witty prose evokes comparisons with Evelyn Waugh, whose snobbish attraction to the upper classes, looking in on them from without, contrasts with St Aubyn’s cool-eyed appraisal. The phrase “a handful of dust”, quietly slipped into At Last, could be an acknowledgement of the similarities and contrasts.
Patrick is like his creator, not just in his background, but in his stylistic weaknesses:
It’s the hardest addiction of all. Forget heroin. Just try giving up irony, that deep down need to mean two things at once, to be in two places at once, not to be there for the catastrophe of a fixed meaning.
Patrick cannot evade fixed meanings forever, though he would like to. He recalls ruefully the family house in Saint Lazaire from his childhood (the one which Eleanor transferred to her shyster guru Seamus), which had “hiding places where no one had ever found him.” He may be forced to accept that by helping others and disinheriting her own family, Eleanor has indeed been a force for good, or at least has “made the question of what it meant to be good central.”
“There’s a sort of swelling orchestral effect to these last days. And plenty of horror, of course,” the loathsome Nicholas Pratt points out to Patrick. The worst horror of all might be the most banal: that he will never again see “the face he had known before he even knew his own.” This reader, unlike Patrick (“just how unconsoled was he prepared to be?”), prayed for a happy ending. Yet after all that we have witnessed in the last five volumes of Melrose madness, what could a happy ending even look like? Perhaps just that St Aubyn might yet change his mind about making this the final instalment (“In fact,” says Thomas, Patrick’s young son, “you should change your mind, because that’s what it’s for!”), and show us that where family stories are concerned, death is not the end.