November 28, 2012
The act of writing about a book has, for me, several consequences. It helps me determine what I thought about it – until then I often know only what I felt about it (and sometimes not even that). The business of articulating the thoughts crystallises them. But the words, once settled, become permanent and blot out everything else. When I look back at books I read years ago, I can remember nothing outside what I’ve written. This may be an improvement – if I hadn’t written about the book at all, then maybe I’d remember nothing about it – but it frustrates me when I see what I wrote, for example, on A.M. Homes’ previous novel This Book Will Change Your Life. What I said seems evasive, and I can’t help wondering what I would think of the book now. Short of re-reading it – who has the time! – the best option is to try her next.
May We Be Forgiven is largely wonderful, largely satisfying: ‘largely’ because, at almost 500 pages of pretty tight type, it hefts its epic status at you before you’ve even begun. As a year in the utterly changed life of an American man, Thanksgiving to Thanksgiving, it could be terrible: heavy with significance and with no self-awareness. It sometimes veers close, but mostly it surprises and subverts and is entirely gripping, in that way that books heavy on dialogue and without chapter breaks can be.
Harry Silver, who hates his TV executive brother George, finds himself simultaneously at the centre of things – in charge, on the front pages – and pushed to the side of his own life, after a series of mind-spinning, page-turning events. “Look at me. Look what has happened. Look what I have done. Take notice.” Harry is not entirely a bystander in these events, so when George is no longer able to look after his children Ashley and Nate, Harry steps in. George is so famous (“singularly responsible for shows such as Refrigerator Wars“), and the events that befall the family so grotesque, that Harry becomes public property: people have made their minds up about him, and what he actually does is barely relevant. This frees him to follow his instincts, to learn to become both a mother and a father to Ashley and Nate – and to the family dog.
This gives us one of the most refreshing elements of an engaging book: a book that piles incident on incident, relentless, unstoppable, and leaves the reader trampled but grateful, page-drunk. It’s that Homes spares us Harry’s past, so when we see the thread of his life unwinding and knitting something else, it is like witnessing the creation of a new person from nothing. Harry sees himself as being “in endless freefall, the plummeting slowed only by the interruption of being summoned to do something for someone else,” which sounds a lot like life as we all know it. But there’s also a dreamlike quality to that description – it reminded me of Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled – and sure enough, Harry has some literally nightmarish encounters such as being confused with his brother, and plenty of circular exchanges with officialdom which are not so much Kafkesque as Kafkaish.
I had better point out that one of the prime appeals of May We Be Forgiven is how funny it is. The stream of off-centre characters, bizarre conceits, absurd subplots, never stops. Comic highlight follows comic highlight, such as the scene when Harry (freed from society’s usual limitations) is receiving a blowjob from one of his many internet dates, and her son comes home. We get up-to-the-minute satire in a penal colony which combines outdoor pursuits with reality TV. And when Harry visits his mother in her residential home, he is greeted by another family telling him, “Do us all a favour – keep your hooker mother away from our father.” But there is also a fascinating ribbon woven through the story of political corruption and conspiracy in America, exemplified by Richard Nixon. Harry teaches Nixon studies to apathetic scholars, is “writing a book” about him, and during the course of his year of slow release, will get closer to Tricky Dicky than he ever thought possible. Harry’s interest in Nixon is
in his personality and the ways in which his actions and reactions were of a particular era and culture – the era that built and defined the American dream. [...] Without Kennedy’s assassination we wouldn’t have had Johnson, who paved the way for Nixon. Look at the Presidents all in a row and it makes sense: they are a psychological progression from one to another, all about the unspoken needs and desires and conflicts of the American people.
These are the strongest nods that here we have a form of great American novel: and so it is, but approached and executed in an entirely disarming way, a million miles from what Gilbert Adair called the “fat, virtuosically executed novel by one of that new breed of American wunderkinder who, I would be lying if I denied it, are positively bloated with talent but who are also just too fucking pleased with themselves.” With sly references to Cheever, cameo appearances by Don DeLillo, and a law firm named Herzog, Henderson & March, Homes wittily puts her flag on the lawn of the big American boys.
All through May We Be Forgiven, my thought was “where is this going?” It is a story of a man bobbing on a storm of events, and somehow thriving, of a life unplucked stitch by stitch until only the narrowest thread holds it, and then not even that. It is a twisted but loving portrait of a time and a country, and of the family unit (though as a contemporary novel, the absence of the economic crisis seems odd: the book was begun in 2005). There is so much going on that I had a tense time wondering whether Homes could keep her plates spinning, to what extent she was really in control, whether she could bring it to a successful conclusion – and, more and more, whether all those things really mattered. As his life flywheels further and further out from its origins, Harry finds himself “craving the normal, the repetitious, the everyday, the banal.” And a book which keeps itself close to the details, which doesn’t shout or put out flags beyond its dramatic early scenes, might be expected to resist the unlifelike artifice of a climax.
In the last fifth of the book, or thereabouts, Homes does start to put her thumb more obviously on the scales, beginning with the section where Harry takes the children to South Africa for Nate’s bar mitzvah. To end a book with established characters in exotic places is not new, but this feels more like Auster’s Invisible than Waugh’s Handful of Dust. There is a little light and predictable mocking of American insularity – “Do they have electricity there? Is it the same alphabet?” – but what throws the book off-key is the jarring swell of sincerity once they touch down in Johannesburg. Throughout the book, Homes walks a tightrope between sweetness and cynicism, but here she falls into the safety net. Although Harry continues to suffer indignities, here, uniquely, the people surrounding him are exempted. It is, perhaps, impossible for a white western author to write ironically about Africa, but the wide-eyed wonder here risks turning a breath of fresh air into a spray of cheap cologne.
The key is whether or not this misstep can corrode what went before. It did make me wonder if the sentimentality in the Africa section was present all along. Perhaps my experience of the book as pleasingly balanced in its sharpness/softness, was determined by my expectations, my knowledge that Homes was an author not known for niceness, and whose most famous book for a time was about a paedophile’s plot to seduce a child. Perhaps the darkness I saw under the happiness was just my own shadow. But I don’t think that disappointment is inevitable in this situation. If the book had ended before the bar mitzvah, for example, my praise would have been unadulterated: despite, and very likely because of, the lack of a ‘real’ ending. A long book develops constantly and the finale the author chose needn’t conclude our own thoughts on it. (Tim Parks wrote recently about the needlessness of finishing books at all.) Endings are difficult, and shouldn’t corrupt or diminish the pleasures of the earlier parts of the book. I will continue to think of May We Be Forgiven in terms of its considerable successes, rather than its minor failings; as a book about a man whose buffetings somehow absorb the pain of others, and transform it without alchemy into fulfilment; as a story which reminds us, in the words of Alan Bennett, that “all families have a secret. They’re not like other families.”
November 12, 2012
Bizarrely, I am convinced that a writer incapable of talking about himself
is not a complete writer.
- Journals, Vol 1
There must be a good reason why I never read Witold Gombrowicz before now, but all I can think of are bad ones. It must be a decade since I first had people recommend his books to me, but I think I was frightened off. I’ve never been slow to pick up translated fiction, particularly European – in fact I sometimes wonder if I favour them – so why was this? A feeling, perhaps, of an otherness so foreign that I would never be able to make it make sense to me. Look at the names: first the author. Witold Gombrowicz: a name with no way in, no obvious anglicised equivalent (not like Franz, not like Patrik). Or look at the titles of his books: Ferdydurke. Bacacay. They are untranslatable and unknowable. But then I read Keith Ridgway’s praise of him: again and again. Right. Fine.
Bacacay was Gombrowicz’s first book, or almost. His first book contained seven of the twelve stories here, published as the eminently translatable Recollections of Adolescence in 1933. Only when Gombrowicz became famous as a novelist did he add more stories to the book and republish it, in 1957, as Bacacay, a title which comes from a street in Buenos Aires where Gombrowicz lived, and which gives no clue to the content of the book. Gombrowicz said that he chose the title “for the same reason that a person names his dogs – to distinguish them from others.” Yet it is the last of Gombrowicz’s fiction to be translated into English (in 2004, by Bill Johnston, who also provides an afterword). Does this make it the dregs of his work, vaguely ho-hum like the endless slim volumes that Calvino’s next of kin keep pulling out from the bottom of his desk drawer?
Bacacay is no apprentice work, no runt of the litter. The earliest story was written when Gombrowicz was 22 years old, but it is fiction fully formed. There is character, voice and vision: that unmistakable quality of words that could never have been put together in quite this way by anyone else. The variety of content makes it artificial to try to round up these stories, but they are unified mainly by the tone: deceptively light, funny too, but with more than a homeopathic hint of strangeness and fear. (Gombrowicz described his “vision of the world” as “sinister, erotico-sensual and frankly monstrous.”) The closest relation I can come up with is Robert Walser: Gombrowicz has the skittishness, the sense of not really taking it seriously, leaving the reader with the seductive impression that his effects are achieved almost by chance. As such, it flatters us into thinking that the force of the fiction, and the control and power which gives it that force, comes from our reading as much as from the author’s writing. In a sense that is true, as it’s true for any work by any author – a book is a dialogue, not a monologue – but rarely does the author’s intelligence efface itself so carefully.
Another way of looking at this is that the stories generally resist straightforward interpretation. This seems to be something that Gombrowicz encouraged: early editions of Recollections of Adolescence included a ‘Short Explanation’ where the author explained the stories. You can read them here, and they make interesting afterwords for the reader to bounce their own thoughts against. Later editions, however, contain no intervention: the reader is free to make of, and take from, the stories what they will. The most appealing stories, like the opening ‘Lawyer Kraykowski’s Dancer’, combine clear ideas with an unsettling sense of the uncanny. In this story, the narrator begins to direct his life according to the actions of a stranger – the lawyer of the title. He appears to be ceding control over his life to the other man, but as the choice to do so is all his own, the control may really be flowing in the other direction. It is all the more interesting because this reverses the expected order of power between the two: one the one hand a wealthy lawyer who moves in certain circles, on the other our man, who barely moves at all, for whom “sickness, epilepsy, was my only occupation … there were indications that my debilitated organism would not last long.” His attentions soon develop into interventions. “Imagine the lawyer coming out of a public lavatory, reaching for fifteen groszy, and being told that it has already been paid. What does he feel at such a moment?” What indeed?
The shorter stories in Bacacay are the strangest – and the most invigorating – ‘Lawyer Kraykowski’s Dancer’ among them. The oddest is the shortest of all, ‘Philibert’s Child Within’, and it’s worth reproducing its opening paragraph in full, to see the effects Gombrowicz can achieve – and to show that oddness needn’t mean impenetrability.
A peasant of Paris had a child toward the end of the eighteenth century; that child had a child in turn, that child in turn had another child, and again there was another child; and the last child, as tennis champion of the world, was playing a match on the centre court of the Parisian Racing-Club, in an atmosphere of nail-biting tension and with endless spontaneous rounds of thundering applause. And yet (how terribly perfidious life can be!) a certain colonel of the zouaves in the crowd sitting in the side stands suddenly grew envious of the faultless and captivating play by both champions and, wanting to show the six thousand spectators gathered there what he too was capable of (the more so because his fiancée was sitting at his side), all at once he fired his revolver at the ball in flight. The ball burst and fell to the ground, while the champions, unexpectedly deprived of their target, for a short time went on waving their racquets in a vacuum; but, seeing the absurdity of their movements without the ball, they leaped at each other’s throats. Thunderous applause rang out from the spectators.
That’s the way to do it. Throughout, Gombrowicz digs deep even as he entertains. “What a relief it is to be Polish,” says the narrator in ‘The Memoirs of Stefan Czarnicki’, “and it is no wonder everyone envies us and wants to wipe us from the face of the earth.” (Gombrowicz wrote in Polish but lived in Argentina for much of his life. Clive James, in his essay on Gombrowicz in Cultural Amnesia, writes: “It was Poland’s fate that its artists had no home, especially if they were still in Poland. Their best way of keeping their country alive was to leave it.”) Elsewhere, as a magistrate investigating a death in ‘A Premeditated Crime,’ echoes of Robert Walser’s narrators, those little men who don’t quite fit, ring loud: “What an intolerable situation! What a dilemma for a person as sensitive, and above all as irritable, as I am!”
The difficulty with writing that is constantly surprising is the risk of devolving into whimsy. This would only be a risk with Gombrowicz if you didn’t feel that he means every word of it, that he is, as the quote at the top suggests, talking about himself. Even when we expect a reverse, we don’t anticipate that it will have the teeth that the story ‘Virginity’ does, with its unusual awakening for Alice, a young girl being wooed by a suitor. Whatever you expect this exchange between them to be about – “It’s disgusting!” “It’s blind, strange, mysterious, shameful and lovely!” – I bet you’re wrong.
The story which feels the most claustrophobic and internal is at the centre of the book. ‘Adventures’ is a more open title for it than Gombrowicz’s original choice, ‘Five Minutes Before Sleep’, which marks down its origins as lying in the author’s pre-dream fears. In it, the narrator is perpetually pursued and tortured by another man into whose control he falls, a man who “thought for a long time how, with me as an intermediary, he could enjoy experiences he would never have dared to try on his own – just like the Englishwoman who placed a bug in a matchbox and threw it over Niagara Falls.” This is a supremely ironic description of the “domineering unboundedness” to which our man is subject: dropped to the bottom of the ocean in a sort of bathysphere (“a thoroughly unique fate”); thrown overboard to float forever in a glass bubble; escaping and returning to the thing he can never really escape from. It is a sort of counterpoint to the perverse illusion of control in ‘Lawyer Kraykowski’s Dancer’. These are the author’s dreams, the character’s nightmares, coming from within to terrorise him, and to delight us: if delight is the word. And it is all delivered in a scrupulously innocent, irresistible voice. As one character says to another in the second story here: “Oh, how awful you are. You have no idea how awful you are.”