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

November 5, 2013

Eimear McBride: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing

Posted in McBride Eimear at 8:00 am by John Self

When I finished this book recently, I tweeted “You’re going to have to read this book, I’m afraid. I know, but there it is. Truly upsetting but impossible to shake.” That might do for a recommendation, and if you’re convinced, then don’t read on: go get it. After all, I seem to be in good company, and novelists in particular seem to like it. Lee Rourke called it “truly one of the best novels I’ve read.” For Stuart Evers it is “a fucking wonder of a novel.” Away from the brevity of social media, Anne Enright called it an “instant classic” and its author “definitely a genius.” Even Adam Mars-Jones, no pushover, thought it “remarkable” and “harshly satisfying,” and looked forward to a time “when this little book is famous.”

Eimear McBride: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing

That “harshly satisfying” is the key to why it might be important to say more about A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. (Mars-Jones added that “if every book was as intense as this, reading literature would be even more of a minority pursuit than it is already.”) It is a book which both is and is not difficult, and not just because of its form. But its form is the most clearly striking thing about it. It begins like this.

For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed, I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.

It doesn’t make sense, at least not in the usual way. But there’s something pleasing about it, something rhythmic and addictive, that keeps the reader going. By halfway down the first page, we know that it’s about a child with health problems (“Nosebleeds, head aches. Where you can’t hold. Fall mugs and dinner plates she says clear up”), and by the bottom of the first page we know why: “We done the best we could. There really wasn’t much. It’s all through his brain like the roots of trees.”

Soon the pieces fall, if not into place, then with enough space in the jumbles and overlaps to see where we are. The narrator is an Irish girl. The “you” of her story is her brother, two years older and, against medical expectations, still alive. “There’s good news and bad news. It’s shrunk. He’s saved. He’s not. He’ll never be.” The family consists of just the children and their mother. Father has gone, but there are other men around, notably an uncle and a grandfather, their mother’s father, whose reputation precedes him. “That man was sterner stuff than us. A right hook of a look in his eye all the time. [...] Movie star father with his fifteen young. His poor Carole Lombard fucked into the ground.” He roars into the early pages, what the Irish would call a “good-living” hypocrite, full of damnation and not much mercy. The narrative unrolls edgelessly from his religiose ranting – “but sure what’s the point. It’s like talking to that brick wall. You were always a selfish. No. Don’t please daddy me now” – to the children and their mother’s terrified reaction. “Such a quiet house after. Car blistering road beneath. She covered face up and whooping in her throat. Forcing air in. Shaking with tears. Tight as bows we sat.”

And if grandad isn’t quite Clive Dunn, then nor is uncle’s behaviour very avuncular. This is, in that sense, a truly Irish family story – so Anne Enright seems a natural enough fit as a critic, though this book makes The Gathering look like Ballykissangel. That’s the other side of why A Girl is a Half-formed Thing can be difficult to read: it’s awful stuff, it really is. The antics that go on! But the structure of the story at least is straightforward, taking us on a pretty direct line through the girl’s childhood and youth. Here is where the uncompromising style – which has hardly any sentences that simply say what is happening – softens a little, beginning with comparatively reader-friendly scene-setters like “The beginning of teens us. Thirteen me fifteen sixteen you.” After a time the language becomes less daunting: it is broken, yes, but mostly literal and direct. There are more full sentences than at first you think: it’s just that when surrounded by chips of language, they tend to look lost and broken themselves. The story is not in the end all that hard to follow, because it is pretty simple, and brutal. The fragmented phrases enable McBride to reach incredible pitches of intensity in certain scenes – in the areas that you might expect, such as sex (“like a great surprise has taken place”), violence, death.

Like all risks, it sometimes looks as though McBride’s narrative style might not pay off. In one strong snapshot of memory, where the girl recalls an addiction to eating chalk in school, it veers worryingly towards Stanley Unwin (“Didn’t lick the blackboard just my hand. Smacked it palmly on. And sweet chalk powder licky to my tongue”). Elsewhere, the accumulation of spot-on bits and crumbs gives way to the occasional forced observation, as when the girl plaintively asks “How would they ever understand my life is more than cider?” or over-astutely describes a group of cooing matronly women as “under-touched”. It is, also, impossible to read the book without wondering why it has been written in this remarkable way. It reflects, presumably, the voice of the background mind, the mad obsessive subconscious, seeing only the spikes and depths of its owner’s experiences. It might also be an angled view of things which are too horrible to look directly in the eye. McBride, in an interview, says that as she wrote the book, she had over her desk a line of Joyce’s: “One great part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot.” The other question raised by the style is whether this is the voice of the girl’s contemporaneous consciousness, or whether she is remembering. The vigour and vividness of the descriptions would suggest the former – it’s all happening live, we’re in the thick of it – but the failure of the style to develop or ‘mature’ as she ages from child to adult suggests that these are memories. Plausibly, given the circumstances of her life, it suggests that the girl may be as damaged in her own way as her brother.

What is unquestionable is that this way of writing becomes a way of thinking: the words are processed in the brain differently because they go in differently. They swirl, and settle. In bypassing normal ‘civilised’ sentence construction, the story seems to bypass the rational part of the mind and make a direct hit on an emotional centre instead. That is helped by the relentless events, and the answers given to questions like: if this woman is formed by her family (“Roots come growing. Slowly and tangle in”), what happens when her beloved brother is taken away? This isn’t – let’s not muck about – a gentle book. It is a wrenching book, full of the worst, so don’t say I didn’t warn you. It’s an aesthetic wonder all the same. It’s terrible beautiful.

October 21, 2013

Muriel Spark: The Driver’s Seat

Posted in Spark Muriel at 8:00 am by John Self

I’ve written about Muriel Spark before on this blog – was it really over five years ago? - but that was one of her later books, as by then I’d read most of the novels from her greatest and most productive period. (That, I think by pretty common consent, would be the 1950s to mid-1970s.) In a recent phase of trying to avoid all the new titles coming in to catch up with older books, I decided to reread a book that is one of her shortest, most memorable and certainly starkest.

Muriel Spark: The Driver's Seat

The Driver’s Seat (1970) is 101 pages long (in the irksome style of technology manufacturers who describe their products as “7.2mm thin”, I suppose I should say it’s 101 pages short). That is important because first, it shows that Spark has no interest in padding out her story – it is not one of those novels that is really an abruptly promoted novella – and second, because it means the story has almost no middle. It’s lean and hungry. There are many books whose beginnings or endings are praised, but how often do we say, The middle of that book? I couldn’t get enough of it. When you see a book without a middle – Patrick McGrath’s Dr Haggard’s Disease also comes to mind – it’s likely that rather than having only a beginning and an end, what has really happened is that the author has followed Kurt Vonnegut’s advice to “start as close to the end as possible.”

This is certainly what Spark has done in The Driver’s Seat. The beginning is very close to the end. We meet Lise, about whom all we know initially is that she is thin, 34 years old and has worked in an accountants’ office since she was 18 (“except for the months of illness”) – indeed, we don’t get to know much more about her in the traditional character-building sense in the rest of the book. She is contrary from the start: her first act in her story is to manically tear off a dress that she is trying on because the shop assistant has told her it doesn’t stain. Although she says this is because “I’ve never been so insulted … Do you think I spill things on my clothes?”, we learn that really it is because Lise does not want to repel the unwelcome or destructive: she wants to absorb it, inhabit it. She contradicts the assistant too in her choice of what to wear: clashing colours, eye-watering patterns. She wants to be noticed, remembered, found.

Here I hit the usual reviewer’s wall, in wondering how much I can reveal of The Driver’s Seat without limiting its effect. Like Golding’s Pincher Martin, it has an ending which is not just unforgettable but unremovable from the brain: you will never get rid of it. I read it this time knowing what was coming, but what I had forgotten is that Spark gives us some pretty strong hints along the way. Less than 20 pages into the book, for example, we learn Lise’s ultimate fate, and the warnings from the future come regularly thereafter (“So she lays the trail…”). This is an extension of the technique that Spark adopted in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, where the narrator’s eye would rise for a moment to look into the long distance and report back what happens in the end to various secondary characters.

What Lise is doing when she contradicts the shop assistant is preparing to go on holiday. This is triggered by an incident at work, where an exchange with her immediate superior leads to her laughing “hysterically” (there is a lot of hysteria in The Driver’s Seat).

She finished laughing and started crying all in a flood, while a flurry at the other desks, the jerky backward movements of her little fat superior, conveyed to her that she had done again what she had not done for five years.

The early pages of the book are full of tips to the reader like this about where Lise comes from: psychologically, that is, rather than geographically. (We never learn her nationality. She denies being English or American, though she is hardly a reliable source.) There are references too which plant the idea of disappearance and erasure: in Lise’s small flat, “everything is contrived to fold away”; when she says goodbye to her colleagues, her lips are “straight as a line which could cancel them all out completely.”  Once on her journey, she encounters numerous eccentrics, but by her flat single-mindedness, Lise manages to seem more disturbing than them all. At the airport, one woman asks her if she has “a young man.”

‘Yes, I have my boy-friend!’
‘He’s not with you, then?’
‘No. I’m going to find him. He’s waiting for me.’

Throughout her trip, Lise will speak to many people and make herself memorable to them all; their future roles outside the story, after the end of the story, are summed up briefly by Spark too, as witnesses, as bystanders, helping the police, quoted in the press. Here, when Lise says “I’m going to find him,” she means it literally. She weighs up each man she encounters in terms of whether he is her “type”. Her approach (“So she lays the trail…”) is memorable. “You look like Red Riding Hood’s grandmother,” she tells her neighbour on the plane. “Do you want to eat me up?” At times, in her destination city, she becomes tearful at her failure to find the man she wants. Otherwise, she is stoical and determined. “The one I’m looking for will recognize me right away for the woman I am, have no fear of that.” When she does find him, as to meet her intentions she must, her role is clear. “She made me go,” he will say. “She was driving.”

Muriel Spark: The Driver's Seat

The question of control is central to The Driver’s Seat, as the title implies. When an elderly woman observes to Lise that “you have your whole life in front of you,” the reader raises an eyebrow knowingly, but it is notable less as dramatic irony than as an example of the author’s omnipotence. The presence of the writer – those flashes forward to the future, to the world outside the book – ensure that the reader never forgets that this is a story, not reality, and this conflicts with the psychological mining the reader wants to undertake in order to explain why Lise does what she does. She does it because her creator makes her do it. Spark’s characters are, in Nabokov’s phrase, galley slaves. It is the author, not Lise after all, who is in the driver’s seat.

This is, as I discovered when I mentioned on Twitter that I was reading it, a much-loved book. That is not a description which seems naturally to fit, but those who like it really love it. “Phenomenal,” said one. “AMAZING,” another. Getting closer to the point, one person called it “nasty. In the best possible ways.” John Lanchester, in his introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition, notes approvingly that The Driver’s Seat “doesn’t tell us a single thing we want to hear.” Yet I remember harsh criticism of it by John Carey, when he reviewed Martin Stannard’s biography of Spark in The Sunday Times. Carey calls The Driver’s Seat an “empty experiment” and notes that

Stannard selects [it] as her “masterpiece”, apparently because it excludes the kind of person he feels superior to (“Readers seeking the comforts of realism are slapped across the face and sent spinning”).

There is an unpleasant tone to this comment, but what struck me more is that, if it is doubtful to judge a book on how you expect others to react to it, it is odder still to judge it by someone else’s expectations of how others will react to it. Carey observes with apparent disappointment that The Driver’s Seat marked for Spark a move away from “novels with intelligible plots, characters and moral issues,” with the implication that he approves of those. But I do not think it lacks any of those qualities. It is a refinement on and progression from Spark’s earlier work, rather than a departure from it; a horror story in broad daylight. It is a scalpel, cutting away the excess of the traditional novel and leaving only the core. It is a stiletto, piercing straight to the heart – or thereabouts.

August 19, 2013

J. Robert Lennon: Familiar

Posted in Lennon J. Robert at 8:00 am by John Self

This is the fourth novel I’ve read this year which appears to be about parallel worlds – or, if you prefer, the multiverse. The others are Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (much praised but it left me entirely cold, and I had no enthusiasm for reviewing it), Christopher Priest’s The Adjacent, and Andrew Crumey’s The Secret Knowledge. Just imagine that in an alternate life, I resisted the temptation in this blog post to open it with a joke about how you wait ages for a parallel world, and then four come along at once.

J. Robert Lennon: Familiar (UK, Serpent's Tail)

Familiar gets one up on Lennon’s previous novel, Castle, in that it has found a UK publisher. I had mixed feelings about Castle, but overall I remember it fondly. Like it, Familiar is driven by a central, existential mystery, and what the two books further have in common is that the mystery is mostly a device to explore the central character’s personality, and how she (in this case) ended up where she is.

She is Elisa Brown, a scientist in academia in the US whose defining life event – at least until page 13 (“everything’s going to change in a couple of minutes”) – is that her son Silas died several years ago. (It struck me how odd it is that we have a word for a child whose parents have died, and for a wife whose husband has died and vice versa, but none for a parent whose child has died. In the TV series Six Feet Under, one character made the same observation, and concluded: “I guess that’s just too fucking awful to even have a name.” Yes: don’t normalise it, don’t reduce it to a word.) This has left her marriage in shreds, her other son Sam affected – “they never did find a rhythm, the three of them. A way for them to fit together without Silas” – and Elisa stuck in an affair with a picture framer.

Suddenly, and quietly, while she is driving home from a visit to her son’s grave, Elisa changes. She finds – a blink, a breath, like that – that she is in a different car, wearing different clothes, on a different journey; in a different life. When she arrives home, it becomes clear from her husband’s behaviour that they have a new history, which she doesn’t know about. Also, Silas is alive, but he and Sam are living thousands of miles away in California. Elisa and her husband are in therapy. Her job has changed too, from academic to administrative, one which, like many jobs, is “both wildly intricate and completely boring.”

I began Familiar not entirely expecting to finish it: it seemed a sterile sort of premise, built from the concept up. There were pleasing diversions on the problems of entering a new life without memory: “she wonders how she usually does her hair: probably not this way.” And yet, by a third of the way through – it’s just over 200 pages, and what a relief a short book is these days – it was making thoughts blossom from every page. This was, I think, because soon it became clear that Lennon was less interested in the conceit, and in solving the mystery of what has happened to Elisa, than in exploring what happened to her in the old life. She had, for example, inevitably blamed herself for Silas’s death: for “pushing him away when she was trying to read. Failing to give the second helping of dessert. Letting him cry it out in the crib.”

J. Robert Lennon: Familiar (US, Graywolf Press)

This slow unpeeling of the old life comes entwined with the developing understanding of Elisa’s new life. The two are inseparable. It provokes the reader into thinking about how we take the good in our lives for granted and how little newness we experience, when so much of our day-to-day living is constructed upon the memories and understandings of what has gone before. Plus, as Elisa thinks, “hasn’t everyone wanted this? To just throw it all overboard, the bad decisions of the past, and start over?” It notes, too, how, in Dostoevsky’s phrase, “man is a creature that can get used to anything,” as we move from amazement to acceptance to apathy. Our experiences and memories flatten everything out: the steamroller of life. Elisa is faced with the worst horror of all: having moved to a world where her son is still alive, she finds herself wishing she was back in the old one.

The relationship between brothers Silas and Sam, and their relationship with their parents, is central to both the old and new lives. In the new world, where he didn’t die at the age of eighteen, Silas has become a noted computer games creator, and Elisa finds herself playing one of his games as a way of seeing into his mind. He is also, however, a notorious online troll – a bang-on contemporary subject at the time of writing this review – and Familiar is one of the few novels I’ve read which takes gaming and online life seriously. “There was a time,” Elisa thinks, “when [the internet] seemed like a dream. [...] There are people, she knows, who don’t use it, who have no presence on it, who can’t be searched for, who can only be accessed by going to their house and knocking on their door. But those people are the dream now. They’re like ghosts.”

It is at the end of the novel, where the awkwardness of a meeting of online friends is beautifully captured – the unreality of the real world – where the book achieves an intensity of pitch that has previously been muted by Elisa’s everywoman character (she never does anything surprising, perhaps as a balance to the extraordinary situation in which she finds herself). The ending is powerful and hints at an explanation for what has happened to her, if by that stage you still really want to know. But more unusually, the US and UK publications of Familiar have created a sort of parallel existence for the book: the US edition has an author’s afterword, which the UK edition lacks. The significance of this, and perhaps the problem with it, is that Lennon explains his intentions for the book so succinctly and convincingly that my own reading, still at that time freshly-formed and malleable, was smothered by it. The book is, he says, “about the psychological effects of parenthood – the transformation our personalities undergo in response to the utter impossibility of doing the right thing day in and day out for eighteen years and more. To survive being a parent is to fictionalize memory – to constantly re-create and re-contextualize the past, to invent a narrative that makes sense of the bizarre distortions introduced into one’s life under the strain of responsibility, obligation, and love.”

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