February 28, 2014

Jill Dawson: The Tell-Tale Heart

Posted in Dawson Jill at 8:00 am by John Self

Jill Dawson is one of the most frequently-reviewed authors on this blog. Her books seem to me to epitomise the best of what might be called traditional literary fiction. There is always a strong story, and clear characters, but there is a sharpness and darkness to her work, and some element of novelty – not to say control of narrative voice – which sets it apart from the pack.

Jill Dawson: The Tell-Tale Heart

The Tell-Tale Heart has a concept which is summed up by one blurb like this: “a thought-provoking tale of a man who has a heart transplant and finds his feelings – and capacity for love – seem mysteriously to have changed.” This is an almost archetypal elevator pitch, and one which had me sucking air in over my teeth, like a disappointed mechanic. If the book hadn’t been by Dawson, I might have gone no further – but predictably, she has done unpredictable things with this high concept.

The story is told, to begin with, by Patrick, a 52-year-old university professor. He is a bracingly unsympathetic narrator – though his refusal to ingratiate himself with the reader is itself quite an appealing characteristic. He resents being made to feel bad: “I hate tears. Tears make you the villain and the unfeeling one, regardless of what you feel, simply because you can’t produce them yourself.” He is a womaniser, with two children to two women, and a recently ended affair with a student which has thrown his future of his career into doubt. Indeed, his future generally is not what it was and he has recently been given a heart transplant in a new type of surgery: ‘beating-heart’ surgery, where the transplant organ is kept alive during the operation. Typically enough, Patrick becomes interested in the donor of his heart, and typically enough (not much story without it), he finds out who this is when his post-transplant counsellor Maureen accidentally spills the beans (this is a work of fiction). And did I mention that incorrigible Patrick thinks Maureen has a thing for him? The story then switches between here and now, and … elsewhere, elsewhen.

Throughout Patrick’s story, the heart is centre stage, both his own heart – his own hearts, old and new (“I feel an ache in my chest, a pain so severe it’s like something thrashing in there”) – and the heart in history and culture. “Like Thomas Hardy; wasn’t he, horribly, buried without his heart? Some dim memory of a story about a biscuit tin. The dog eating the heart, which had been kept in a biscuit tin…” His daughter visits him in hospital – he’s never been much of a dad either – and, gripped by the expected lifefulness that would naturally follow near-death surgery, the emotional lability, he begins to think he is undergoing a personality change. “I have a curious, powerful certainty: my old self won’t have me.” He walks a fine line between unreformed and capable of change: when he gets a letter from the family of his donor, and his first response is to comment on the “cheap paper” and “old-fashioned writing,” it’s hard to tell whether he’s sneering or sympathetic.

As well as Patrick, we hear from Willie Beamiss, a young man involved in the Littleport riots of 1816 (“I was quite in the suds about Politics”); those involved were punished harshly as a warning to others (“Now launched into all eternity”). As well as having contemporary parallels with the increased sentences handed out to rioters in England in 2011, Beamiss’s story introduces the questions explored in the rest of The Tell-Tale Heart: where is the seat of emotion and thought? What divides them, brings them together, gives one power over the other? This takes us back to Patrick’s story, and that of a third narrator, as they both make us think about the heart as historically considered responsible for both lust and love, when these feelings are now attributed to organs that run in opposite directions from the heart. These, more or less, are what the two parts of the story are driven by: the things men do, and arrange to have done to them, to satisfy these wants or needs.

What it becomes is a book about sex and power, told in two ways. (Patrick self-justifyingly says that the two mothers of his children “shouldn’t have put up with me, given me that glimpse of power”). In this The Tell-Tale Heart seems to me to be a companion piece to Dawson’s 2006 novel Watch Me Disappear, with its clear-eyed look at childhood sexuality. Here, as there, the book is riddled with suggestion and refuses easy answers, though there is a hint of where Patrick’s disdain for women comes from. Like all Dawson’s books, it’s busy – it whispered things in my ear all the way through. It is wide-ranging but retains a strong hold on its story – which might explain why I find it so difficult to write about satisfactorily. Patrick, made increasingly reflective by recent events, recalls that his mother told him “There’s more to life than winning things, you know. Just be a good man, that’s all I ask.” “Oh Mam,” thinks Patrick, now. “Why did you set the bar so high?”

February 18, 2014

Agota Kristof: The Notebook

Posted in Kristof Agota at 8:00 am by John Self

CB Editions is well known to readers of this blog. Its practice to date has been to publish new books, particularly those which might struggle to find a place elsewhere – through not lack of quality, but lack of mass appeal. Here, however, we have its first reissue, of a novel last in print in the UK almost 20 years ago. That made me think this must really be a book worth reading. Praise from Slavoj Zizek (“a book through which I discovered what kind of a person I really want to be”) added texture, and the deal was sealed by Gabriel Josipovici’s comment that reading The Notebook for the first time was one of those rare occasions “when you know immediately you are in the company of greatness.”

Agota Kristof: The Notebook (CB Editions, 2014)

The Notebook (Le Grand Cahier, 1986; tr. 1989 by Alan Sheridan) was Kristof’s first novel (and the first of a trilogy), though previously she had written poems and plays. Her memoir The Illiterate (L’Analphabète), which I’ll review next month, tells how The Notebook began life as “short texts based on my childhood memories.” Short they are: no chapter here is more than three pages long. In her real childhood, Kristof was separated from her brother; in fiction, she reunites them, in fact reinvents them as twin brothers. This is the one false note in the book, or perhaps it was a false note in my reading, as I was unable to hear the narrative in a male voice. It sounded simply like Kristof to me.

But that should not be surprising. Kristof fled her native Hungary for Switzerland, and lived there for years before learning to write in French. When she did, she consciously adopted a stripped and plain voice, one which resists easy attribution to a gender. The translator of her memoir, Nina Bogin, describes it as rendering “words as if they were being used for the first time, stripped of embellishment or metaphor or excess of meaning.” The brothers – who narrate in first person plural throughout – go further:

We have a very simple rule: the composition must be true. We must describe what is, what we see, what we hear, what we do.

For example, it is forbidden to write: ‘Grandmother is like a witch’, but we are allowed to write: ‘People call Grandmother the Witch.’

Words that define feelings are very vague; it is better to avoid using them and to stick to the description of objects, human beings and oneself; that is to say, to the faithful description of facts.

And so they do. At the beginning of The Notebook, the boys are evacuated from the Big Town to the Little Town for the duration of the war. (There are no places or times mentioned in the book, but we presume it to be Hungary during the Second World War.) They live with Grandmother, their mother’s mother, who is indeed known as the Witch. “Sons of a bitch!” she calls them, and beats them. In response, the brothers “decide to toughen our bodies in order to be able to bear pain without crying. We start by hitting and then punching one another.” They decide to toughen their minds too:

Looking each other in the eyes, we say more and more terrible words. One of us says:

‘Shit! Arse-hole!’

The other one says:

‘Bugger! Sod!’

We go on like this until the words no longer reach our brains, no longer reach even our ears.

Agota Kristof: The Notebook (Minerva, 1991)

Only then do they realise that they must also reduce the pain of other words, words their mother used to say to them: ‘My darlings! My loves! My joy! My adorable little babies!’ “By repeating them we make these words gradually lose their meaning and the pain that they carry in them is reduced.” They engage in other exercises, to get used to hunger, to cruelty. (“We Extend Our Repertoire”, one chapter is titled.)

And so, conditioned and hardened, the brothers embark upon life in the Little Town. They encounter comic figures, like the shopkeeper from whom they try to buy writing materials, and grotesque ones, like Harelip, a girl who allows herself to be fucked by a dog. (“The dog places his front paws on Harelip’s back. His back legs begin to shake.”) With their hearts and minds toughened, the brothers gain a reputation. “You’ve the makings of murderers,” says the postman. Yet for the reader, the brothers never do anything more or less than what is necessary to survive. And to survive together: they are a sort of gestalt entity, and when they are briefly separated in school, they fall ill. The connection between them, their indivisibility, is the strength they draw on and that they use to support themselves in dire circumstances. They empower each other: they use a priest’s secrets to make him pay money to Harelip and her mother.

‘It’s monstrous. Have you any idea what you are doing?’

‘Yes, sir. Blackmail.’

They encounter a masochistic army officer, who makes good use of their learned cruelty. All in all they become notorious, unassailable, but remain sympathetic and even vulnerable. Their story is rendered unemotionally but is fully engaged and engaging. The sheer range of the book, all coming from that plain language, makes you see what Josipovici meant when he spoke of “greatness”. What happens at the end is stated simply but echoes with the cumulative force of everything that has come before, and is devastating. In its odd, memorable, unique way, The Notebook is a masterpiece.

January 24, 2014

Brian Moore: The Doctor’s Wife

Posted in Moore Brian at 8:00 am by John Self

(This post is part of my Mooreathon, a project to read all of Belfast-born author Brian Moore’s novels in order of publication.)

After The Great Victorian Collection, Brian Moore quickly published The Doctor’s Wife – just a year later. The speed was a result not of writing the book quickly but of a delay in the publication of the previous novel. It brought him acclaim previously unknown: it did well critically and commercially (“On this book, unlike others, I have finally tasted the smell of riches which most successful authors must sense,” he said), and gave him his first Booker Prize shortlisting. It didn’t win, reportedly because one of the judges, poet and prime minister’s wife Mary Wilson, vetoed it due to its explicit sex. (She also vetoed Julian Rathbone’s King Fisher Lives: “I couldn’t be party to giving the prize to a book about cannibalism.” The prize went to David Storey’s Saville.)

Brian Moore: The Doctor's Wife

The Doctor’s Wife (1976), Moore’s eleventh novel, also holds a special place in my reading history: it is the only novel that my wife (who reads very little fiction) and I both loved. We raced through it consecutively, and that’s a tribute to Moore’s unfussy style and storytelling ability. The plot is simple: a woman travels to France and falls in love with a man ten years younger than her. In other words, this is another of Moore’s novels – like, to degrees, his first seven – which examines one life at a time of crisis. The woman is Sheila Redden, 37, married to a doctor and living in Belfast. She is interested in books and is attractive to many men, “like Pat Lawlor down at Mullen’s Garage who, when she drove in for petrol, would pull a comb out of his overalls and arrange his hair over his bald spot. Or the young butcher at Kennedy and McCourt’s who would bully his other customers to make up their minds so that he could get over to serve her.” Her husband, Kevin, is portrayed as staid and stuck, and it has taken a couple of years for Sheila to persuade him to revisit their honeymoon resort in the south of France. When we meet her in the book, she has just arrived in France, alone – Kevin has some last-minute surgery work to do and will join her in a day. “All of her life, it seemed, he had forced her to wait.”

Throughout the book, the narrative refers to Sheila only as “Mrs Redden”. She is identified by her marital status and husband’s name, just as in the title it is her marital status and husband’s occupation. It reflects how she is perceived by the society at the time (and Moore had previously played with questions of how name informs identity in I am Mary Dunne). This fits with the slightly formal style of her story and the presentation of her thoughts. It seems more 1950s than 1970s – more Judith Hearne than Sheila Redden – but it fits the social conservatism of Northern Ireland, where the old joke when arriving by air – “Please set your watches back 30 years” – still has some currency.

What makes it clear that this formality is a deliberate presentation by Moore rather than his own limitations as a writer – and he is no stylistic experimenter – is the frank portrayal of sex in The Doctor’s Wife. Sheila and her lover, American student Tom, are at it frequently and graphically. More interestingly, we get a little of it when Sheila is recalling her early days with her husband.

Kevin was the one, whenever we’d come up to this room to change, the wine in us, the minute I’d take my dress off, he’d be pulling down my knickers, with a big cockstand on him, always wanting.

It’s poignant (the occasional ridiculous word notwithcockstanding), because it reminds us that Kevin and Sheila once had a vital sex life, perhaps one as good as she now has with Tom – and that this new one too will likely decline, and indeed that this sort of entropy is a common feature in human relations.

Brian Moore: The Doctor's Wife

I have said very little about the plot of The Doctor’s Wife so far. There isn’t much, really, other than the affair and its consequences, though there are a few dramatic moments and reversals, not least bang in the middle of the book. This gives it a unity and force that drives the reader on. There is some background unrelated to the characters: this was Moore’s first novel with a (part) Northern Irish setting since the beginning of the Troubles, and they feature here as static interference. “‘They done Divis Street last night,’ Mrs Milligan said. ‘A big bomb. They say it was the UDF.'” It feels tacked on, however, and Moore may himself have realised that he could do better on the subject, which he did with his 1990 novel (and third Booker shortlisting) Lies of Silence. The book also exhibits Moore’s trademark psychological insight. A quote on the back cover of my edition says “No other male writer, I swear (and precious few females), knows so much about women.” I am in no position to judge that (though Moore at the time of writing this book had had practice at perfecting his female viewpoint, from Judith Hearne to Mary Dunne), but he certainly has people down pat. He gets the semi-logical way of thinking, how we justify things to ourselves, how we cope with things we can’t accept, how ideas and desires creep in from the fringes of our consciousness and eventually become unignorably central.

I’ve noted previously that Moore’s books explore the death of God in Northern Ireland (at least for some people: see link earlier) and how the resulting void is filled. Sheila Redden fills it not with sexual satisfaction per se, but with what it teaches her about living in the moment: “there is no past, there is this, just this.” She imagines what could happen if she could “forget my past forever. My past, that small story which is my life.” Not easy, when it involves not just a husband but a fifteen-year-old son. “My son. He is what I did in life.” So there is no guarantee of happiness, or even peace. The question is whether Sheila will stay with her lover, or return home. If she does, she will be reminded that Schadenfreude could be an Irish word. “As the old women in Donegal used to say of a pregnant unmarried girl, ‘Now she’s crying the laugh she had last year.'”

So The Doctor’s Wife is, in its way, a blast and a breeze. Its weakness is that it is never surprising: not in plot but in structure and form. Moore is so expert, and so courteous to the reader, that we know the only shocks will be the elegantly detonated ones we are expecting from the beginning. He is writing to his strengths, which is why The Doctor’s Wife is one of his best books. But where The Great Victorian Collection was (it seemed to me) in part about his limitations as a writer, here there is just the odd reference to the other end of contemporary literature. Sheila, early in her holiday, picks up a book by Muriel Spark that she has brought with her. “She had read a good review of this book, but after a few pages she put it aside: these new novels were strange, not like the early ones.”

January 7, 2014

Claudia Roth Pierpont: Roth Unbound

Posted in Pierpont Claudia Roth tagged at 8:00 am by John Self

My aim when writing a review is not so much to say what I thought of a book – though, that too – as to give people enough information to decide if they might want to read it. With Claudia Roth Pierpont’s Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books, I can guide you easily. If you are a fan of Roth and a serial consumer of his work – as I am – then you should read it and will probably like it. If you dislike Roth’s books, have no interest in them or have read just one or two, then it is likely to be of little use or interest to you.

Claudia Roth Pierpont: Roth Unbound

Roth Unbound is a biography not of a man but of his body of work. The author is no relation to Roth (“Did I use to be married to you?!” he asked her once), but has known him for a decade with increasing closeness: she is now, or was until he retired, one of the people to whom he showed unfinished drafts of new novels, for thoughts and advice. (“The first time he asked me to read a manuscript, I said, ‘I’d be honored.’ He said, ‘Don’t be honored, or you’ll be no use to me.'”) She is, clearly, not an impartial source, but that is part of the book’s point. It gives us thoughts on the work directly from conversations with Roth. Where we might read a viewpoint on Roth or his books and wonder, “What would Roth say to that?”, Pierpont can ask him, and usually does. The quality and reliability of those answers is another matter.

Pierpont claims that she has nonetheless “kept [Roth] resolutely out of mind” when it comes to her critical analysis of his books, and this seems to be true: she is far from enthusiastic about some of his work. Two aspects struck me here. First, in the first twenty years of Roth’s career, she seems to regard only two books – his 1959 debut Goodbye, Columbus and his 1969 breakthrough Portnoy’s Complaint – as truly essential. I admit I felt some relief in seeing her dispatch early work after early work – so many books I now don’t have to read! – as “overlong and laborious” (Letting Go, 1962), “harsh and plain” (When She Was Good, 1967), “overextended and strained” (Our Gang, 1971), “overwrought” (The Breast, 1972), “a giddy mess” (The Great American Novel, 1973), “part-brilliant, part-strangled” (My Life as a Man, 1974) and (for the most part) “rehashed and formulaic” (The Professor of Desire, 1977). She seems also to damn with faint praise the trio of slim novels with which Roth has ended his career – Indignation, The Humbling and Nemesis: they are, she says, “so simplified that they are […] ideal for the kind of elucidation that takes place in schools – or, today, in reading groups.” On the other hand, Pierpont rejects the conventional view that Roth’s renaissance as a writer began in 1997 with American Pastoral (some would extend it back one book to 1995’s Sabbath’s Theater). Instead, she argues that it was with 1979’s The Ghost Writer – the first of the four books in the Zuckerman Bound series – that Roth’s run of greatness really began. As longtime readers of this blog will know, I agree – 1983’s The Anatomy Lesson in particular is often overlooked as one of Roth’s very best books.

When discussing the books – at least the ones she considers most significant – Pierpont goes into such detail that in a few cases I had to avert my eyes, specifically for those books which I haven’t read but still intend to (such as Operation Shylock or The Human Stain). As well as characters, synopsis and critical commentary, she reports on the reception to the books on publication, and the elements of Roth’s life that fed into them. What interested me here was the news that it was not with Portnoy’s Complaint that Roth rose to notoriety, but his first book, the novella and stories in Goodbye, Columbus, published at the age of 26. “What is being done to silence this man?” asked one New York rabbi, who went on to accuse Roth of retrospectively contributing to the Holocaust, by creating a “conception of the Jews as ultimately led to the murder of six million in our lifetime.” His sin, according to Roth, was to disclose to the wider public that “the perils of human nature afflict the members of our minority.” Portnoy’s Complaint, ten years later, become even more famous, and rightly so. I read it for the first time recently and what struck me was not just the sexual frankness – Alexander Portnoy was wanking into his family’s food three decades before American Pie – but the voice, fully formed and recognisable to any Roth reader: ebullient, comic, energetic. The book was not only “a major event in American culture” (Life magazine), but a massive popular success, selling 210,000 copies in its first ten weeks and topping the list of bestselling novels for the year, ahead of commercial juggernauts like Mario Puzo, Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann.

Publication of a successful book by Roth has rarely come without controversy – as the details above indicate – and it’s not hard to see why. He is no stranger to taking revenge through his work. The ridiculous Milton Appel in Zuckerman Unbound was based on critic Irving Howe, who had incurred Roth’s wrath by disliking Portnoy’s Complaint after praising earlier work. In response to this John Updike, less fiery in prose and in person, reflected that at the age of 50, “a writer should have settled his old scores.” He didn’t take heed: a decade later, in his sixties, he included in Sabbath’s Theater swipes at Japanese characters (“little flat-faced imperialist bastards”) as a riposte to New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani’s dismissal of Operation Shylock. Most notoriously, Roth took revenge on his ex-wife Claire Bloom for publication of her memoir Leaving a Doll’s House – which featured much criticism of his behaviour during their marriage – by making Bloom and her daughter the models for two “caricatured demons” in his 1998 novel I Married a Communist. (Pierpont notes, mildly, “Certainly, Roth meant to get his own back.” That is one way of putting it.) This leads to the larger question of Roth’s portrayal of women in his books. The ugly word misogynist follows him, wagging its tail. In response to such accusations, Roth smiles and shrugs: “he considers himself a man who loves women.” This reminded me of the joke about the man accused of misogyny who responds, “But how could I hate women? I’ve been married to five of them!” (Roth, to be clear, has not been married five times, just twice, though I did lose count of the number of references in the book to relationships with women decades younger than him.) He would however acknowledge one highly negative experience with a woman in his life: his first wife, Maggie Williamson, whom he married at 25. What is interesting about it is that Roth paints – and Pierpont seems to accept – the picture of a great trauma done to him by Maggie, when she faked a pregnancy and abortion. But for me the most revealing part was that, after being lied to by Maggie about her pregnancy – she even, he says, faked a urine sample – Roth agreed to marry her on condition that she had an abortion “right away”, and gave her $300 for the procedure. Presuming Roth’s account is entirely true (Maggie is dead), this – and it is my turn to put it mildly – is not the stuff to deflect accusations of misogyny. He struggled with the experience of this relationship and tried to put something of it into his fiction, succeeding on some level with the novel My Life as a Man. That is not to accept the popular misconception that Roth writes about his own life: as he puts it, referring to the multiple realities in The Counterlife, he had to kill Zuckerman “just to make people stop saying that I write only about my own experience.”

Claudia Roth Pierpont: Roth Unbound

Roth Unbound is full of incidental delights, titbits I never expected, such as the discovery that he is left-handed (as a fellow sufferer, I am contractually obliged at this point to add, “like all the best people”), or that he briefly dated Jackie Kennedy in 1964. We get the lowdown on his relations with the ‘other two’ of his era, Updike and Bellow. (Bellow admired some of his work but was not interested in pursuing friendship. He had cordial relations with Updike until the latter reviewed Claire Bloom’s memoir in a way that Roth disapproved of; they never spoke again.) We learn too that Nixon – whose “screwy, dazzling lies” were the inspiration for the satire Our Gang – discussed how to deal with the threat Roth represented. It was all on those unhelpful tapes:

NIXON: A lot of this can be turned to our advantage … I think the anti-Semitic thing can be, I hate to say it, but it can be very helpful to us…

Also fascinating to me were the details of Roth’s involvement with Czech writers, which gave rise to his Writers from the Other Europe series for Penguin Books from 1974 to 1989, bringing back to anglophone attention such writers as Milan Kundera, Bruno Schulz and Bohumil Hrabal. He also arranged for other US writers including Cheever, Styron and Updike to send funds to Czech writers, struggling under their regime. More interesting still is the influence these writers had on Roth’s own fiction – “the richness of the screwball strain” in some European writing, he calls it – in enabling him to break out of “American realism” and get to the reflexive masterpieces of his 1980s Zuckerman books, culminating in halls of mirrors like The Counterlife and Operation Shylock. Aside from this, The Counterlife “changed everything” for other reasons: previously comfortable at 200-odd page length, here was a book which was not only his most complex but also one of his longest. “It was an aesthetic discovery,” he tells Pierpont, “how to enlarge, how to amplify, how to be free.” He maintained the stamina of writing at length through the more linear, but even more highly praised, books of the 1990s topped by Sabbath’s Theater and American Pastoral, both of which he enjoyed writing immensely (“the freest experience of my life,” he says of Sabbath).

(Most of) Philip Roth's books

We learn, then, a good deal about what went into the books. About the writing process itself there is not so much, though that might be because Roth gave us as much of that as we need to know in the voice of E.I. Lonoff in The Ghost Writer:

I turn sentences around. That’s my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write another sentence. Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around. Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around. Then I lie down on my sofa and think. Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning. And if I knock off from this routine for as long as a day, I’m frantic with boredom and a sense of waste.

We do learn – it seems to follow from the above – that Roth is not a fast writer. “Many days I was delighted to accept one page after six hours of work.” (That past tense! He meant it! He’s done!) The extraordinary productive run of the early-to-late 1990s – five fat novels in seven years – can only have come from sitting in a room all day and turning sentences around. He doesn’t plot his books in advance. “The first draft is really a floor under my feet. The book comes to life in the rewriting.” There is also insight into the composition of Roth’s final novel, Nemesis, which took thirteen drafts to get right. “This only happens,” Roth tells Pierpont, “when you’re not getting it.” In his own words, he hadn’t the strength anymore “to keep pulling something out of nothing.” A year earlier, when he completed Indignation, he was having trouble getting something new going, and Pierpont asked him “How long can you go without working on a book?” “Psychologically, about two hours,” Roth replied. Yet, he has come to feel “free” now that he has stopped writing novels, and one of the secondary pleasures of Roth Unbound is not how it makes me want to return to his books, but how it makes me want to read the books he is now re-reading, his lifelong loves. There is Thomas Mann’s Mario the Magician (“If he were dying and were allowed to read just one book, it would be Mario“), Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (“the best book of the first half of the twentieth century in America”), Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (“A nearly perfect book – no, a perfect book”). Pierpont herself is not slow in recommending other authors: on the strength of her likening it to The Great Gatbsy and The Ghost Writer as “one of our literature’s rare, inevitably brief, inscrutably musical, and nearly perfect books”, I bought Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House. A good book which tells us about very good books, and recommends great books: what more could a reader ask for?

January 3, 2014

Cynan Jones: The Dig

Posted in Jones Cynan at 8:00 am by John Self

For 2014, I’m going to try some shorter reviews, which I see as the only alternative to giving up this blog altogether (work, family, etc). They may therefore be a little sketchier than usual. By way of preface to this review (non-publishing geeks, skip this bit), the reason I read this book is that it was the last book bought for Granta by Philip Gwyn Jones. He is a man who has published many fascinating writers, from Keith Ridgway to Magnus Mills, Nicola Barker to Eleanor Catton, as a result of which I came to trust his judgement. He left Granta last year, after making it one of the most reliably interesting publishers in the UK.

Cynan Jones: The Dig

The Dig is a muscular, sinewy book. It is intensely physical and male: the only woman in it is dead and present solely in memories. Its seriousness, its attachment to the landscape and its language make Cormac McCarthy an obvious comparison, but it is entirely British (in fact Welsh) – perhaps it would be better to say that it reads like Cormac McCarthy meeting Ted Hughes down a dark country lane. (Perhaps it wouldn’t.)

It pits two men against one another, though they may not realise that they’re in opposition. Daniel is a young farmer whose wife died in a horrible accident: he is trying to carry on his commitment to the farm and his animals in the face of his grief. The other – unnamed, identified only as ‘the big man’ – is a poacher with a line in badger-baiting, fearful of being caught. Fear is a driver in the book – Daniel fears the big man, the big man fears the police – and in the book men generally are reduced to atavism, stripped of reason.

Their daily lives contrast as we read them in alternating scenes – Daniel caring for his sheep, birthing lambs, while the big man attempts to conceal the marks on a dead badger that will betray the bloodsport (“A little way down the road he turned round and came back and drove over the badger. Then he turned round and did it again.” And then “ground his foot down on the leg, and stamped over and over…”). The two men meet once, when Daniel is having removed from his land a large metal object referred to as ‘the shard’ – “a piece of lightning solidified there” – and the shard takes on an air of sinister mystery, an ominous agency like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Daniel feels “as if it had conjured” the big man.

I mentioned the language of The Dig earlier, and it is worth exploring. It is mostly blunt and plain, particularly when the brutal attacks on the badgers are being described (“Then they held up its head and held its jaw open with a jemmy and smashed the front teeth”), and the blankness of the descriptions only forces more power and emotion into the reading. Jones is fond of (yes) McCarthyesque strings of conjunctions:

He shifted the bunched carrier bags and the cleaning stuff and the shoe polish and dustpan and brush and box of nuts and hinges and screws and found an empty jar under the sink and opened it and smelled it and it had no smell and he smelled only the lanolin and straw and always the undertone of cattle on his hands.

The metaphors are carefully limited, in keeping with the characters’ experiences and knowledge, and in keeping with the sober tone (“when he got from the van it lifted and relaxed like a child relieved of the momentary fear of being hit”), and there is a semi-articulate quality to the words used through the men’s eyes, with a particular fondness for homemade nouns: Christmasness, surgicalness, automaticness. Among this we get an odd poetry – or poeticalness – which is not quite biblical but archaic: “all of these things of life awatered,” “that this thing is of purpose utmost.” All of this comes together to aid the seriousness of the telling. It works because the style is so intently pursued: one degree less, one percent more dilute, and it could cross the line into comedy.

Part of The Dig was shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award in 2013.  I read it at the time, along with the other shortlisted stories, and didn’t think it especially impressive. Here, in context, it makes sense, though it is still possible to see how it can stand alone (it forms Part 2 of the novel, concerning the big man and his son, and doesn’t explicitly refer to other parts of the book). Altogether The Dig is nasty, brutish and short, and thoroughly memorable. It ends horribly and inevitably, leaving marks in the brain that no amount of stamping or driving will easily erase.

December 18, 2013

My Books of 2013

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , at 8:18 am by John Self

(some of) my books of 2013

It’s not ‘Twelve from the Shelves’ this year as I didn’t read enough books I really loved this year to hit those heights. Or rather: I didn’t read enough that I reviewed. For example, if I’d reviewed them, I would have included:

  • Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring, a gripping report on writers and alcohol (with special attention to Tennessee Williams and John Cheever);
  • Joe Moran’s Armchair Nation, which recounted the birth and growth of television in the UK with the same spark that he brought to our roads; or
  • Deborah Levy’s Things I Don’t Want to Know, a powerful essay which combines biography, politics and a response to George Orwell’s Why I Write.

Interesting – perhaps – that those are all non-fiction, where my reviewed choices below are all-but-one fiction. Do I find it easier to review novels? The books below were all read, or re-read, by me this year, and are listed alphabetically by author.

Martin Amis: Money
No surprise that I rate the book which gave me my online identity. This is the book which proved that Amis was not just a writer of short comic novels: he was also a writer of long comic novels. The voice he developed for John Self is a miracle of sustained attention to detail. Money is one of those books where it’s clear the author sweated over every single word. And it was worth it.

J.M. Coetzee: The Childhood of Jesus
I expected this book to be all over the prize shortlists and end-of-year roundups, but it seemed to slip quickly from view after publication early in the year. Perhaps it was the conscious elusiveness of the story, screaming allegory from every page but never quite being nailed down. That was one of the reasons I liked it so much.

Andrew Crumey: The Secret Knowledge
New work from Crumey is always a delight, though he makes us wait – 5 years since Sputnik Caledonia. Once again he has evaded expectations with a novel which is less immediately lighthearted than most of his previous books, but just as provocative, containing parallel worlds, ideas on art and mass culture, and guest appearances from Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno.

William Golding: Pincher Martin
This is a book with an unforgettable twist or two, one in the very last sentence, but which only gains in power when re-read. It is full of strange wonders, not least how so much is packed into so few pages, and how a book so ultimately unknowable can at the same time be as clear as the water its ‘hero’ lives in. If the only Golding you have read is Lord of the Flies, try this.

Stephen Grosz: The Examined Life
One of two debuts on my list, and the only non-fiction title. The conceit is simple: a psychoanalyst tells us the stories of some of his patients. The results are simple and – to me – enormously affecting accounts of what can go wrong, particularly between parents and children, and how it can be possible to begin to put it right.

Chloe Hooper: The Engagement
Another book that I expected to conquer all this year, and which seems to have sunk without trace. Hooper’s second novel is not just a page-turning psychological thriller – though it certainly is that – but also an inquiry into sexuality, male-female relations, and the power of stories. I read it twice and it stood up brilliantly.

J. Robert Lennon: Familiar
Lennon, like Hooper, has the gift of telling stories so seductively that it’s easy to overlook how much he makes you think at the same time. Here we get a story of a woman who finds herself living a new life, everything suddenly and unexplainably changed. Perhaps, as with The Examined Life, it was the acute understanding of parenthood that so floored me here.

Eimear McBride: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing
Much-vaunted by critics and at least one prize jury, McBride’s amazing debut is worthy of all the praise. It is the sort of story you simultaneously want to read and to look away from, and the brittle poetry of the language is a perfect vehicle for the familiarly dark events in this Irish family’s life.

Muriel Spark: The Driver’s Seat
A short Spark shock which, like Pincher Martin, loses none of its impact when you already know its unforgettable ending. A comedy, like much of Spark’s work, but undeniably grim and odd even by her odd standards.

December 3, 2013

John Williams: Butcher’s Crossing

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

John Williams’s 1965 novel Stoner was the sleeper hit of 2013. A groundswell of word-of-mouth success in some European countries early this year coincided with the reissue of the book in the UK by Vintage Classics in December 2012 (having previously been published by NYRB Classics in 2006), and soon every UK newspaper wanted a piece of the action too. Attention is now beginning to turn to his other novels. This one was brought to us again by NYRB Classics in 2007, and next year it will be reissued, unappealingly emblazoned, in the UK.

John Williams: Butcher's Crossing (Vintage Classics, UK, 2014)

Butcher’s Crossing (1960) was Williams’s second novel, though he disowned the first, Nothing But the Night (1948), written in his mid-20s, so we might consider this to be his first mature work. It is written in a similar quiet style to Stoner, slips down just as delightfully, and has a likeminded lack of consolation. In subject, it is I suppose a western – check out that Panther Books edition from 1963, below – though I’m unsure exactly how to define that. It has men in battle: against the landscape, against animals and against one another.

Will Andrews is the reader’s eyes. He’s a 23-year-old Harvard dropout who has come west to find “his unalterable self”, and something related that he struggles to define: a “wildness”, or “a freedom and a goodness”, and in reality his quest may be more about evading than finding. It’s the 1870s, and he comes to Butcher’s Crossing in Kansas, not much more than “six rough frame buildings bisected by a narrow dirt street.” Encouraged by news of the burgeoning buffalo hide economy, and of one resident’s confident prediction that “this town’s going to be something two, three years from now,” he smooth-talks – and pays – his way onto a team of buffalo hunters, led by the experienced Miller.

John Williams: Butcher's Crossing (NYRB Classics, 2007)

What follows is pretty gripping, even as it takes its time. Miller takes on the role of a Captain Ahab, a driven, possibly demented figure who is determined to complete his quest whatever the outcome, and who drives the fate of the other, weaker, characters. The story is full of strong and immersive physical descriptions – a snowstorm, the skinning of buffalo, a journey across a treacherous river. At these times, Williams manages to enter some primitive part of the reader’s brain, to bypass reason, to grasp the reader by the tailbone and shake. This is impressive because the quietness of Williams’s style means that his story, horrifying though it is in places, lacks the sort of apocalyptic feel that Cormac McCarthy can whistle up. But it has a restrained power of its own.

During the journey, Andrews finds himself changing – “he thought at times that he was moving into a new body” – and the men on the hunt generally find that “rather than being brought closer together by their isolation, they were thrust apart.” The struggles through the journey are thrown cleverly into relief when the men discover near the story’s end that weather and landscape are not the only elements they cannot control, but larger challenges created by the mass of mankind – forces we are all prey to – may be even more difficult to surmount.

John Williams: Butcher's Crossing (Panther Books, 1963)

Along with Stoner, Butcher’s Crossing might cement Williams’s reputation as a man who wrote mostly about men. You could say the same about James Salter or William Golding, but when reading Butcher’s Crossing, I kept thinking about the accusations of misogyny laid against Stoner by writers and critics such as Elaine Showalter, Linda Grant and David Baddiel. Does Butcher’s Crossing fare any better? It’s not a good start to see that there are only two female characters in the book and both are, in the language of the men, “whores”. We don’t expect satisfaction of the Bechdel test from a western, any more than we would from Melville’s sea stories, but it’s more disappointing that the main female character (it’s a stretch to call her that) is not much more than a convenient vessel for Will Andrews, with uninspiring dialogue to match. (“I wanted you the first time I saw you. Without you even touching me, or talking to me.”) Williams does put some well-intentioned but clunky words in Andrews’s head – “He saw her as a poor, ignorant victim of her time and place” – which hardly helps. No real defence to those charges here, then. There is, it is true, one scene where women are discussed other than as an adjunct to men. High in the mountains, the crew discusses that the best way to draw the stiffness out of the buffalo hide is to pour urine on it. “Woman piss is best,” says one. “But we’ll have to make do with what we got.”

November 26, 2013

William Golding: Pincher Martin

Posted in Golding William at 1:30 pm by John Self

A couple of years ago on this blog, I bemoaned the fact that Faber has frequently rejacketed some of William Golding’s books, without ever doing the whole lot. (The last time they were all issued in consistent editions was in the 1980s, with Paul Hogarth’s sinister designs. I can still recall the bloodied pig’s head from studying Lord of the Flies at GCSE.) Well, bemoan no more, because this year the decent thing has been done: handsome covers by Neil Gower, new introductions, reset text. In the last few months I have read The Spire – clearly a work of brilliance – and Free Fall – less obviously so – but never felt equal to the task of writing about them.

William Golding: Pincher Martin

Pincher Martin (1956) is different. It is Golding’s third novel, and I had read it before. I knew what was coming, and that is a significant factor, because this is a book which needs to be read twice for full benefit. It contains more than one jaw-dropping revelation, but it is the one at the end which turns everything in the book on its head and sends the reader casting back through the pages. I wanted to see how the novel would stand up when I knew what was coming.

The first thing to say is that this is a short and seemingly simple book: the story of a shipwrecked sailor. We join Christopher ‘Pincher’ Martin just as disaster has struck:

He was struggling in every direction, he was the centre of the writhing and kicking knot of his own body. There was no up or down, no light and no air. He felt his mouth open of itself and the shrieked word burst out.


After a few dicey moments, he gains buoyancy by kicking off his seaboots and remembering to inflate his life vest. Yet already Golding is sowing doubt. Body parts are described as though separate from him – “the upper lip”, “the chattering teeth” – the, not his. Why is this? Because Martin feels detached from his body? Because the scene is being viewed not through his consciousness at all? These and other details make the reader understand that even in these opening pages, we do not really know what is going on. It also makes us think about the nature of identity – a major theme of the novel. What makes a person: a body? A mind? In fact, working out exactly what is happening is tricky until the time when Martin begins to reflect on his situation. (“He began to think slowly.”) Suddenly, the meeting of two minds – his, and ours – brings clarity. Thinking makes it so.

By then, Martin has washed up on a rock – “one tooth set in the ancient jaw of a sunken world” – somewhere in the Atlantic. No relief though: “Yet this solidity was terrible and apocalyptic after the world of inconstant wetness. It was not vibrant as a ship’s hull might be but merciless and mother of panic.” And there he remains, for the next 200 pages. All that time, in extreme and excruciating detail; moment by moment agony. What could be duller, right? Well. Golding’s style is quick, sketchy, full of fireworks, and never loiters. The interest in identity returns: finding his way about on the rock, Martin speaks aloud, even though there is no one to speak to, because “it gave him back a bit of his personality.” What else is needed for identity? Memory: and so we get snatches of Martin’s past, but where ‘backstory’ can be a vehicle for a writer who has failed to impart information in other ways, here it is tight and necessary. So tight, in fact, that the casual reader might not immediately notice how much it tells us about the sort of man Martin is. No feminist, for one thing. “That wench was good for a tumble.” A friend turned enemy, for another, to his colleague Nat. A failed actor, a conscripted sailor, a shipwrecked struggler.

William Golding's novels. Covers by Neil Gower

A man on a rock, hoping for rescue, must want to survive, and Martin applies his human resources and cunning to the task. He sets up signals visible to both shipping and aircraft, and survives on limpets and anemones. The struggle not just for survival but for supremacy runs through the book, most memorably in an anecdote Martin recalls about a grotesque (and, I hope, apocryphal) Chinese technique of rearing maggots as a delicacy. It challenges the reader in more subtle ways too. We have been in Martin’s head throughout the book, so we must associate with him, and want him to survive, and furthermore we are glad that he uses his brain to master the rock and the little life that’s on it. (One thing he does is give names to all the places on the rock, just as any first settler would. “I am surviving. I am netting down this rock with names and taming it.”) What, then, if it turns out that he had the same urge to master, the same ruthlessness, beforehand, when it was not needed for survival? The reader gets a taste of this when Martin struggles to define himself – to recover his identity – with no one else present to play off. Not, he thinks, like the old life, where

there were other people to describe me to myself – they fell in love with me, they applauded me, they caressed this body, they defined it for me. There were the people I got the better of, people who disliked me, people who quarrelled with me.

We begin to get the measure of him. But Golding is a master of paradox, not just in defining Martin’s character but in the very core of his style as a writer. As with his other novels, there is a great physicality present, and Martin’s senses are exhaustively explored, not least his remembered sexual urges in some of the book’s most vivid scenes (“I must, I must, don’t you understand you bloody bitch?”), and this gives a sense of solidity, of concrete certainty. Yet it is slippery and ambiguous through and through: those maddening moments of revelation see to that. It has links to Golding’s other works – the switch of viewpoint at the end recalls The Inheritors, the intense, enveloping portrait of one man at a time of crisis predicts The Spire, and the metaphysical inquiries and the question of evil are unavoidable. Toward the end when Martin begins to ramble with a cynical, almost destroyed view of human life – “…[man] is a freak, an ejected foetus robbed of his natural development, thrown out into the world with a naked covering of parchment, with too little room for his teeth and a soft bulging skull like a bubble. But nature stirs a pudding there and sets a thunderstorm flickering inside…” – it’s hard to tell whether he sees this as brutally clear insight or a final succumbing to madness. The reader, however, will get answers, though they lead only to more questions, such as how a grounded story set on a few square metres of rock can lead to something so boundless, eternal and infinite. 

November 18, 2013

Iain Sinclair: American Smoke

Posted in Sinclair Iain at 8:00 am by John Self

Click here to read my Sunday Times review of Iain Sinclair’s new book, American Smoke: Journeys to the End of the Light. It’s a short one – 230 words – so even if you don’t have a subscription, you can read most of the review in the over-the-paywall preview.

Iain Sinclair: American Smoke

As it’s such a short review, I didn’t have room to include some of my favourite passages from the book. So here they are, somewhat stripped of context.

“Like Kerouac I was slow to draw breath, a blue baby. Provoked to shout only when hope was fading, after my visiting father dropped a book, a detective story, on my head.”

(On the sale of Kerouac’s raincoat to Johnny Depp, referred to in the review)
“Depp dropped around. With his chequebook. A deal was struck. He was a pleasant, modest young man. Not bad looking. Polite. The quantity of noughts made the eyes water, but what I never managed to learn as a dealer is that you can’t charge too much for the unique item. Price confers value. The customer expects it. The least you can do is to offer your client the status of having paid a spectacular premium, thereby demonstrating seriousness.”

(Discussing with author Gregory Gibson the death of Gibson’s son, about which he wrote a book, Gone Boy: A Walkabout)
“The old life stopped for Greg at the split second of this event, and writing the book was one step towards whatever was coming next. What was required in the enveloping darkness, he felt, was a journey, a walkabout (a concept Greg admitted he barely understood). He developed a technique for ‘revisiting those power spots that are part of your geography’. The terrible pain does not disappear, or take new forms, but very slowly, day after day, the world shifts to accommodate it. ‘It’s a comedy in the classical sense,’ Greg said, ‘in that it begins in disorder and moves to order.'”

(On the end of the era of gangsters like the Krays and the Richardsons: “enthusiastic torture buffs and amateur (sans anaesthetic) dentists”)
“The first era of gangster-businessmen as the patrons of fading TV stars and cabaret singers, sexual predators who liked to rub shoulders with boxers and gay politicians like Tom Driberg and Lord Boothby, drew to a close. Giving way to teenage scream shows compered by middle-aged eccentrics hiding behind the shield of conspicuous charity. The toxic jukebox of Jimmy Savile, marathon man, hospital stalker, and marriage counsellor, by appointment, to Charles and Diana.”

(After interviewing Gregory Corso)
“When we take our leave of Corso, his minders ask after first editions of the authors they’d like to feature in the shop: Larkin, Barbara Pym. The masque of England the veteran Beats enthuse over – P.G. Wodehouse, Agatha Christie, Peter Ackroyd – is as much a surprise to me as my fondness for Wieners, Lew Welch and Ed Dorn is to them. We are both chasing, in our ignorance, compensatory stereotypes of difference.”

Iain Sinclair: American SmokeThe dust jacket unfolds to a poster-sized map

November 11, 2013

Jamie Mason: Three Graves Full

Posted in Mason Jamie at 8:00 am by John Self

Click here to read my review for the Guardian of Jamie Mason’s debut novel Three Graves Full, which is also the first book from the reliable Pushkin Press’s new imprint, ONE.

Jamie Mason: Three Graves Full

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