July 2, 2013
I have admired Christopher Priest’s early novels The Affirmation and The Glamour – both published around 30 years ago – so after seeing high praise for this, his latest novel, I thought it might be a good idea to get up to date. It particularly interested me as it comes less than two years after his previous novel The Islanders, which was his first in a decade. Is Priest, who will be 70 years old this month, having a Roth-like late renaissance?
The Adjacent, at 420 pages, is almost twice as long as the other Priests I’ve read. I mention this up front because I think it may be a factor in my taking a little less pleasure from it than I did from the earlier novels. At the same time it is a book whose structure and nature requires it to investigate different stories. And for stories read worlds: the longest, and I think best, section of the book is set in the Dream Archipelago, which Priest has explored before in the book of that title, as well as in The Islanders and (to a lesser extent) The Affirmation. As I’ve read only one of these, it’s possible I would have found The Adjacent to be a richer experience with better knowledge.
One could argue, however, that a novel which requires prior knowledge for its effects is not really a standalone novel at all (which is what I thought after reading, cold, Pat Barker’s Booker-winning The Ghost Road). And even within The Adjacent, there is a sense that the book’s qualities lie less in the stories themselves than in the space around them and how the reader fills it. I had better explain what I mean.
The central story is of Tibor Tarent, a photographer in a war-torn Europe sometime in the middle of the 21st century. Climate change has made the UK vulnerable to hurricanes, euphemistically referred to as Temperate Storms, which are given the names of cultural figures (Edward Elgar, Federico Fellini, Graham Greene). Britain is also now a Muslim country, the IRGB – presumably Islamic Republic of Great Britain – though there is no development of this idea. Tarent’s wife Melanie was killed while they were in Turkey, the victim of a strange weapon which annihilates everything within a triangular area and leaves nothing but flattened black earth. A similar, much larger, weapon has recently destroyed Notting Hill, killing over a hundred thousand people. Tarent is brought back to Britain, for reasons unknown to him, where he forges a relationship – well, has sex – with a high-ranking defence official he calls Flo. Alternating with Tarent’s narrative are stories from the first and second world wars, from the present day (that is, the past in the novel’s main time scheme) and from the Dream Archipelago. Themes and settings of Priest’s earlier work recur: war in the air, illusionists, pairings. Each of these stories features a man and woman whose names and qualities chime with those of Tarent and Melanie: there is a sense that we are reading the same story, or the same relationship, from different angles.
Many writers see their characters’ journeys as something to get through so they can arrive where they need to be for the purposes of the plot. Martin Amis (a contemporary of Priest’s on the Granta 1983 Best of Young British Novelists list) wrote in The Information of the slog of getting characters from one location to another. With The Adjacent, the journeys are the point. They enable the reader to share the mystification of the characters. They give Priest the opportunity to fill in the details of each world, and also to make the surprises stand out because they are set against a bed of such dull routine. The surprises include the concept of adjacency, or more fully the Perturbative Adjacent Field, which is discovered by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Thijs Rietveld sometime in the 2020s or 2030s, and developed as a passive defensive weapon which “Will End War.”
Using what quantum physicists sometimes call annihilation operators, an adjacency field could be created to divert physical matter into a different, or adjacent, realm. An incoming missile [...] need not be intercepted or diverted or destroyed – it could be moved to an adjacent quantum dimension, so that to all intents and purposes it would cease to exist.
And the stories fall into place: we infer that someone has made a very non-passive weapon from the adjacency field, and that the various iterations of Tarent and Melanie are adjacent versions: the matter which the adjacency field removes may cease to exist “to all intents and purposes,” but it has to go somewhere. Aside from the pleasant sudoku-like mental exercise this generates – keeping track, flicking back – Priest expands it further, floating the suggestion that, for example, differing experiences of the same event are not necessarily matters of interpretation, but actually reflect different realities.
All this is nicely done, and Priest has a knack with chapter endings which open possibilities like a flower in the reader’s mind, just as he refuses further explanation: particularly strong are the scenes where Professor Rietveld demonstrates the adjacency field to a photographer, and where Tarent slowly understands what must be in a coffin he observes. However these are also part of the weakness of the book, which is the sense I had that the stories exist only to lead us to their ends, and I took little joy from the stories themselves or the way they were told, often at length. The delight was in the connections, the gaps, the anticipation. The intrigues of the book, for most of its length, are technical rather than emotional or psychological, which is odd given the central conceit, of human loss told from several different angles. For me, Tarent’s mourning of Melanie – or, in another strand, Krystyna’s of Tomasz – never felt like more than a prop hung from a strong science fictional idea. This is not helped by the manner in which women in the story generally succumb sexually to the men not long after meeting them, and the reiterative nature of the story, where it happens over and over, exacerbates the point. There is internal logic to support the easy relations each man and woman enjoys, if they have already known one another in a different dimension, but it still feels too perfunctory, like the occasional what-exactly-is-this-thing-you-call-love-Captain dialogue. (“I am a woman in good health with physical needs. Sometimes those needs become urgent.”) It seems apt for a book which, with its visions of war after war after war, seems very much a boys’ story.
And yet, just as my interest in The Adjacent was flagging, Priest turns to the Dream Archipelago in the book’s longest section, ‘Prachous’. This brings together all the central elements of the story which have gone before, refracted through imagination, and makes something enjoyable and impressive from them, as well as having the most interesting events. Perhaps this is Priest’s enthusiasm for the Dream Archipelago showing, or perhaps I should have had more faith in him before then. It sets up the coda to the novel beautifully, and brings together the worlds we have encountered with the sort of effortless unobtrusiveness which is not really effortless at all. I must admit that the finale still had less emotional punch than I think was intended, but I finished the book with renewed interest in Priest’s work, and a determination to revisit his Archipelago soon. Not least, it shows that in comparison with the later output of some of his Granta 1983 contemporaries, Priest is holding up the SF/slipstream end pretty well. Perhaps some trickery is involved.
June 18, 2013
Click here to read my review of Marlen Haushofer’s novel Nowhere Ending Sky – published in 1966, and now translated into English for the first time - from the Independent on Sunday.
June 3, 2013
James Salter was interviewed in 2007, not for a new book, but for the reissue of two earlier novels, The Hunters and Light Years. In fact back then, all his novels were earlier: at the age of 81, he hadn’t published one in almost 30 years, since 1979′s Solo Faces: and that was an abruptly promoted screenplay. He was asked if there was a new novel on the way. “Oh yeah – and it’s going to be terrific. Maybe. It could be.” For those of us who loved The Hunters and practically worshipped Light Years, this was heady news, even if we didn’t necessarily expect to see it (well, you know what I mean). But, here we are and here it is, and it’s now been 34 years since that last novel. In such circumstances, any writer is likely to be doomed by the weight of expectations: if it turns out to be anything less than Ulysses, the response to All That Is might be ‘Is that all?’
All That Is takes for its title a summing up, which is apt enough. It is the book of a life; it is about a life. The life is that of Philip Bowman, from early adulthood to late middle age, though the narrative never limits itself to him. Indeed, only in the last third or so of the novel could the reader be certain that this is a book ‘about’ Bowman, so frequently do secondary characters rush into the foreground and steal the narrator’s attention, often so comprehensively that you think they might suddenly become the hero. That is surely no criticism – that the author’s empathy is so wide-ranging – and anyway it’s only the cover blurb that does limit the book to being Bowman’s story. So: it’s about Bowman’s world, better say. The happy reader must resist the desire to determine what a book is about before reading it.
And resist, too, the desire to expect it to be just like the reader’s favourite previous work by the author: or rather, to be simultaneously like that and entirely new. Clearly, All That Is was not going to be the new Light Years. For one thing, the fiction we’ve seen from Salter since then – the novel Solo Faces, the story collections Dusk and Last Night – shows a sparer, firmer, cleaner prose than Light Years. For another, Light Years was almost 40 years ago, and – to adapt Douglas Adams on P.G. Wodehouse – at the age of 87, you’re entitled to have your best work behind you. (See also fellow octogenarian Cynthia Ozick’s Foreign Bodies last year, which nonetheless wiped the floor with many writers half her age.)
All this might sound as though I am making allowances for a disappointment, and in a sense I am. But to avoid the charge of writing around the book but not about it – of writing a review that might be titled All That Isn’t – I had better say what it is like. Salter’s earlier works were generally books about how men measure themselves: against women (A Sport and a Pastime, Light Years) or against themselves (The Hunters, Solo Faces). All That Is, aptly for a summing-up, has both: in particular, a certain amount of war, and an awful lot of sex. This is a man’s book, a book of men, where women mostly are represented only in relation to their men. This is not to say that the men are portrayed without cynicism. When one recurring character, Vivian, is propositioned by a judge, she replies “I’ve already gone through one bad marriage,” which Salter follows with “The judge had gone through three, though he considered himself blameless.” However a more typical viewpoint seems to be that of Bowman, who, we learn, “didn’t like women who looked down on you for whatever reason. Within limits, he liked the opposite.” The men who come and go through All That Is are not always easy to distinguish, and tend to share an air of willed greatness, so that as Salter passes over his creations the effect is of a god checking in on his people, listening, moving on. Salter, who perhaps uncommonly for a writer has always been interested in success as much as failure, lords it over the reader in his reassuringly omniscient voice. He has no care for holding to a character’s restricted viewpoint, but is happy to direct and instruct the reader in all manner of details. One example is when Vivian, here aged eight, has a conversation with her mother Caroline about inviting some older boys over. After their exchange there is a passage which begins in Caroline’s head then switches quickly to an authorial aside, before slipping back into the story:
The age of imitation when there are no dangers though it depended. In the past, girls might be married at twelve, queens-to-be knelt to be wed even younger, Poe’s wife was a child of thirteen, Samuel Pepys’ only fifteen, Machado the great poet of Spain fell madly in love with Leonor Izquierdo when she was thirteen, Lolita was twelve, and Dante’s goddess Beatrice even younger. Vivian knew as little as any of them…
If Dan Brown did this, it would be considered an infodump from a guidebook and roundly mocked. Somehow, perhaps through reputation combined with the elegance of his style, Salter not only gets away with it but makes these asides into some of the highlights of the book. Perhaps this is what Martin Amis meant when he described reading the best books as being “a transfusion from above.” There are plenty more of these diversions in All That Is, most no more than a page, from a biography of Federico García Lorca to a report of a book on Reinhard Heydrich which is worth more than all of the overrated HHhH. These are page-thin slices of concentrated brilliance, and Salter brings similar expertise to short scenes usually involving intensity and danger, such as a thunderstorm and a nighttime swimming session. There is a masculinity to these too.
Then there is the sex. Ever since he wrote the words “he comes like a bull” in A Sport and a Pastime, Salter has been the poet laureate of a certain kind of sex prose. All That Is seems likely to be nominated for a Bad Sex Award, unfairly in my view, first because that award seems to me to be a puritanical thing devised to punish those who dare to describe sex at all in fiction, and second because Salter’s sex writing clearly comes from the heart – or thereabouts – and from a passion to render it fully. Even when it’s more confusing than enlightening – “he came like a drinking horse” in All That Is has taken on a meme-ish life of its own, or then there’s “her buttocks were glorious, it was like being in a bakery” – you can tell that he really gives a damn. Elsewhere, away from the eye-openers, I think the sex writing is better than some say, although that might be because I am a man, since this is an area of Salter’s writing which is even more male-oriented than the rest. A passage, for example, where a woman is fellating a man, goes, “It was like a boot just slipped onto a full calf and she went on doing it, gaining assurance, her mouth making only a faint sound.” Typing that out, stripped of context (“the zipper of his pants melted, tooth by tooth”), I admit it sounds as much pornographic as erotic. But the pornography of All That Is is not primarily of sex, but of living: everything is at a height, fully-realised and rich in colour. The characters enjoy lives of significance and meaning: events, roles, status. This is consistent with Salter’s previously expressed belief (adapted from Jean Renoir) that “the only things that are important in life are those you remember.” In All That Is, this is extended in the book’s epigraph (uncredited, and so presumably Salter’s coinage): “There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.” And so it is the big things that are written about and which stick: that interest in success again. “You lived,” he quotes Lorca, “by dying and being remembered.”
In a recent interview in Esquire, Salter said that when writing All That Is, he “wanted to write a book where nobody underlines anything on any of the pages. I don’t want it to rely on language or for the language to be conspicuous.” In one sense this is an admirable aim, and reminded me a little of Keith Ridgway’s comment that he tries in writing to “leave out anything that looks to me forced, deliberate or fake.” Yet Ridgway’s Hawthorn & Child was still full of memorable things, whereas outside the set pieces, my copy of All That Is remains – as Salter would desire it – fairly unblemished by swooning pencil marks. The characters, the publishing scenes, the conversations have gone largely uncommented here because they are already fading from my memory. What that would say in the context of Salter’s epigraph, I don’t know. When he is working as an editor, Bowman initially rejects a book which was “done elegantly enough, but past its time,” and I found it hard not to nod in sympathy. There is no doubt that Salter is already assured of a place in literature, but this must be largely on the strength of the earlier works. When one character reflects that writing is “the sacred thing. Everything would be forgiven because of it,” I thought, Well. Maybe.
May 30, 2013
Click here to read my review of Alice Thompson’s new novel Burnt Island, in the Guardian.
April 22, 2013
It’s a good idea, I think, to revisit favourite books from time to time and see how they are faring, how you and they measure up against one another. I did it last year with Joseph Heller’s Something Happened. Martin Amis’s 1984 novel Money, probably his most highly-praised, has pleased me so much in the past that, more than a decade ago, I used its narrator’s name for my own online identity and have been stuck with it ever since. Vladimir Nabokov, a literary hero of Amis’s, said that “one cannot read a book; one can only reread it.” And furthermore, that “a good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.” This is, he said, because a first reading is consumed with the “complicated physical work upon the book”; only with rereading does a book penetrate directly to the mind. I first read Money in 1995, having felt ambivalent about previous Amises – The Rachel Papers and Success – but it didn’t take me long to realise that if the word “breakthrough” meant anything in literary terms, this was one. (Geekish sidenote: I’ve read Money a couple of times since, but what prompted this re-read was the type being reset for the first time since its original publication. This, perhaps madly, was important to me because I always have a strong visual memory when reading a book of where particular phrases or scenes appear on the physical page. Furthermore – bear with me – I feel that rereading a book with all the words laid out in the same way as before will somehow deaden the reading, and stop me from seeing the book in a new way. I hope that that is not a unique experience: or if it is, what the hell.) The new typesetting of this Vintage Classics (at last!) edition of Money gave me a good reason to go back to it. The cover to this edition of a book about a 1980s advertising executive is, suitably, by Saatchi & Saatchi.
Money is a novel of pairings and extremes. This is common in Amis’s work: he is a “broad and comic writer” and describes - or at least reclaims the criticism of - his work as dealing in “banalities delivered with tremendous force.” The pairings are obvious in novels like Success – two brothers, one successful, one not - or The Information – two writers, one successful, one not. But they are there too less brashly (well, a little less brashly) in the underrated Night Train – Jennifer Rockwell and Mike Hoolihan, opposites drawn together – and House of Meetings – the brothers in the Gulag. Pairings enable Amis to highlight differences by contrast – a useful illuminatory tool when there isn’t much brightness in the worlds he creates. There are more pairings in Money than perhaps in any other Amis novel: John Self and his creator Martin Amis (who appears in the novel); John Self and his younger, fitter, happier business partner Fielding Goodney; Martin Amis and his New York counterpart Martina Twain – both mentors of John Self in their ways; the pairs of male and female actors in Self’s film; and other pairings which don’t become clear until the end.
John Self is an ad-man who is making a feature film to be titled either Good Money or Bad Money (the money men can’t quite agree). He flies between London and New York and each long chapter describes a trip to one or other city. Self is “200 pounds of yob genes, booze, snout and fast food”, driven by desires: for the fast food, the booze, the snout (“‘Yeah,’ I said, and started smoking another cigarette. Unless I specifically tell you otherwise, I’m always smoking another cigarette”), for pornography. He is “addicted to the twentieth century.” Self is a great success – money is drawn to him – and a terrible failure. His jetsetting life means that he never feels at home. He wakes up each morning feeling worse and worse (“Refreshed by a brief blackout…”). Before he left London, he was told that his girlfriend, Selina Street, was cheating on him. And who can blame her? After all, he wants to cheat on her. “I can never find anyone to be unfaithful to her with. They don’t want what I have to offer. They want commitment and candour and sympathy and trust and all the other things I seem to be really short of.” He’s violent. “It’s hard. It’s quite a step, particularly the first time. After that, though, it just gets easier and easier. After a while, hitting women is like rolling off a log.” He goes to strip joints. “The chicks on the ramp provided some variety. None of them wore any pants. At first I assumed that they got paid a lot more for this. Looking at the state of the place, though, and at the state of the chicks, I ended up deciding that they got paid a lot less.”
You can see what Amis is doing here. “A broad and comic writer.” Jokes and fizzy phrases are the holy grail and nothing is off-limits, not even domestic violence (elsewhere in the book, Self tries to rape Selina). Is this OK? Maybe so, as Self clearly is a really terrible person – yet there is also an attempt to make us empathise with him. Maybe this is OK too: after all, Humbert Humbert rapes twelve-year-old Dolores Haze, but by the end of Lolita he is, to me, a sympathetic, or at least pitiable, character. Amis himself, in this fascinating interview with (the?) Patrick McGrath in 1985, makes it clear that he “always adored him.” Self does at least have some insight into his condition. On the one hand, he misreads his reader: “Look at my life. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: It’s terrific! It’s great! You’re thinking: Some guys have all the luck!” But, he confides to us: ”I long to burst out of the world of money and into – into what? Into the world of thought and fascination. How do I get there? Tell me, please. I’ll never make it by myself. I just don’t know the way.” He shows impatience with the qualities that make him what he is:
Sometimes I feel that life is passing me by, not slowly either, but with ropes of steam and spark-spattered wheels and a hoarse roar of power or terror. It’s passing, yet I’m the one who is doing all the moving. I’m not the station, I’m not the stop: I’m the train. I’m the train.
Self gets some help with this from Martina Twain in New York, and from Martin Amis in London. Amis (“his face is cramped and incredulous”) appears as a character in the book: “a writer lives around my way … This writer’s name, they tell me, is Martin Amis. Never heard of him. Do you know his stuff at all?” This Self-indulgence is reportedly the moment in Money which caused Kingsley Amis to throw the book across the room, though that may be no more literally true than the story that after a certain age, Amis Sr would not read any book that didn’t begin “A shot rang out.” Martin Amis the character helps distance the author from the narrator. Martina Twain, like Martin Amis the author, takes on the role of reforming, and re-forming, John Self. His enthusiasm for going on a date with her (he is still trying hard to be unfaithful to Selina) means she can get him to try new things, like reading Animal Farm. (“What the fuck are popholes?”) Martina, in contrast to Selina, has had money all her life, and her power for Self is indivisible from this.
Money is everything to John Self. He is the poster-child for the ‘me decade’. That term, commonly associated with the 1980s, was coined in 1976 by Tom Wolfe, who went on to write that other great novel of 1980s money-men, The Bonfire of the Vanities. Money is set in 1981, and, like American Psycho published ten years later, it seems not so much a summation as a prediction. Books like these, cultural touchstones, help with the neat reduction of decades to one quality. In the 1980s UK of the book, money is a cushion, the only difference between happiness and misery. Men control it (“I am in a cab, going somewhere, directing things with money”); women are at the other end of it, paid, exploited, unaware. Often the relationship is defined in pornography. Self watches a film in a “porno emporium” – these are the days before the internet, before home videos even, made solitary pastimes more efficient – featuring a porn starlet named Juanita del Pablo and a nameless hunk. “By the time he was through, Juanita looked like the patsy in the custard-pie joke, which I suppose is what she was. The camera proudly lingered as she spat and blinked and coughed … Hard to tell, really, who was the biggest loser in this transaction – her, him, them, me.” Even Self’s stepmother, Vron, is “proud” of her appearance in what in those days was referred to as a jazz mag, “crouched over a flat mirror.” When he is looking at such magazines in a sex shop, a girl approaches him. “‘Why aren’t you ashamed of yourself?’ ‘But I am,’ I said.”
Money is a novel of extremes, with everything at its end-point, the streets populated with the madmen, the damaged, the motiveless: the moneyless. The notion of things never having been worse than they are now is always popular, and Amis interrogated it relentlessly in Money and some of the books that followed: Einstein’s Monsters (1987: nuclear armageddon), London Fields (1989: millennial environmental catastrophe), even, in a minor key, The Information (1995: intimations of mortality, the absurdity of the human project in the universe). Money, too, is a novel of great ugliness described with surprising beauty. It’s all in Amis’s shiny, hyperpolished, superprecise sound, full of lists and pairings (“in smiting light and island rain”, “tears of barbaric nausea”), variations and combinations (“blowjob knowhow”), repetition (“Fear walks tall on this planet. Fear walks big and fat and fine”) and comic brand names (cars called the Culprit, the Autocrat, the Boomerang, the Fiasco). The language is full of hardworking words like “heft” and “twang,” both of which recur throughout the book - indeed, heft and twang is a pretty good description of Amis’s high style. He likes his ellipses too – “I don’t know what it’s like to write a poem. I don’t know what it’s like to read one either…” – which to me seem a little like an author laughing at his own jokes, a mumbled exclamation mark. Self addresses the reader, too, involves us and claims our sympathy.
After all we are only human beings down here and we could do with a lot more praise and comfort than we actually get. Earthly reassurance – it’s in permanently short supply, don’t you think? Be honest, brother. Lady, now tell the truth. When was the last time a fellow-Earther let you rest your head on their heart, caressed your cheek, and said things designed to make you feel deeply okay? It doesn’t happen often enough, does it. We’d all like it to happen a lot more often than it does. Can’t we do a deal? Oh boy (I bet you’re thinking), that head-on-heart stuff, whew, could I use a little of that.
Here is a book built out of language. A friend once observed (speaking about The Information, but it’s as true for Money) that where some authors make you stop and note something every few pages, with Amis it happens every few lines. Its intensity, its volume, its full-throated technicolor charge should be maddening and tiresome, but instead it’s energising: it transmits its own energy, generates its own electricity. Self, of course, is a slob and a yob, yet his narrative is sparkily eloquent. Amis said he made this work – and it does – by distinguishing between Self’s thoughts (pearls) and his dialogue (drivel). To paraphrase Nabokov, he thinks like a genius and talks like a child. Within the thickets of the language there is a plot, but it is twined in with the talk and the repetition so thoroughly that it doesn’t seem like a plot so much as a life. There is a delayed script, woe with Selina and Martina, trouble with Fielding and Frank the Phone (an anonymous voice who calls up Self to threaten him, and provides a counterpoint view of his behaviour), and tussles with arrogant actors which provide many of the book’s best sustained comic riffs, like the one where Self tries to persuade humourless leading man Spunk Davis to change his name.
“The thing is,” I said, “in England it means something else.”
“Sure. It means grit, pluck, courage.”
“True. But it also means something else.”
“Sure. It means fight. Guts. Balls.”
“True. But it also means something else.”
Amis was never a great plotter, but there is development as the book rolls on. Indeed, there is a sense of an ending from about three-quarters of the way through, which gives us one hundred or more pages of coming to a halt: everything moves so fast that it needs this much stopping distance. When Self appears to begin to settle down, he starts exercising, no longer drinks – well, no longer drinks all the time – but the balance of things always comes as a surprise, and only too late does he discover that when everything else starts to go right in his life, that money – oldest stalwart, truest friend – might start to go wrong. Even the language and imagery become more tender:
And in the morning, as I awoke, Christ (and don’t laugh – no, don’t laugh), I felt like a flower: a little parched, of course, a little gone in the neck, and with no real life to come, perhaps, only sham life, bowl life, easing its petals and lifting its head to start feeding on the day.
When I finished reading Money this time, I felt a little lost afterwards, having lived in such a rich world for such a long time. Who has more fun than we do? You could say, rightly, that Money speaks almost as much to the financial times of today as it did to the 1980s (“If we all downed tools and joined hands for ten minutes and stopped believing in money, then money will no longer exist”), but that’s because it’s so alive in language that it will outlive us all. And no idiot will ever claim that Amis, Money-man for thirty years now, is famous for the wrong book. He has long been fond of saying that the only measure of success a writer should worry about (“there’s only one value judgement in literature: time“) is whether they’re still being read in fifty years. Well, Martin, you’re three-fifths of the way there: more, if you count the earlier books. Cut yourself some slack. You’ve earned it.
March 25, 2013
To recap: Belfast-born Brian Moore (1921-1999) wrote twenty novels, and I am reading (and in some cases rereading) them in chronological order. You can see them all here. In fact to say he wrote twenty novels is not quite complete. He began by writing thrillers, initially in his own name and subsequently under two pseudonyms, first Bernard Mara and then Michael Bryan (were their books significantly different, I wonder?). He kept this up for a time after he began writing ‘serious’ novels, though unlike Graham Greene’s ‘entertainments’, Moore’s pseudonymous thrillers (Wreath for a Redhead, A Bullet for My Lady, Murder in Majorca…) are forgotten. His first six novels proper - The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, The Feast of Lupercal, The Luck of Ginger Coffey, An Answer from Limbo, The Emperor of Ice-Cream, and I am Mary Dunne – all deal with a character at a time of crisis in their life, and some are more successful than others. You could extend this description to his seventh novel, Fergus, though it is definitely less successful. Then we had the problematic ‘documentary novel’ The Revolution Script, which fictionalised Quebec’s October Crisis, and was subsequently disowned by Moore as “journalism”; along with the early thrillers, it remains out of print. Next was the novella Catholics, which Colm Tóibín considers to be one of Moore’s three “masterpieces” (along with Judith Hearne and the 1985 novel Black Robe). One interesting thing about Catholics is that Moore’s usual blunt realism is held within a science fiction frame. That may be putting it too far, but it’s set in the future, and the reason I raise it is that his next book, The Great Victorian Collection, makes a further break with tradition.
The Great Victorian Collection (1975) is Moore’s tenth novel: the halfway point of his output. Its premise can be summarised in its opening paragraph:
There is still some confusion as to when Anthony Maloney first saw the Great Victorian Collection. Can it be said that he first envisaged the Collection in his dream? Or did he create it in its entirety only when he woke up and climbed out of his bedroom window?
There you have it. Anthony Maloney, a 29-year-old university lecturer from Montreal, is visiting Carmel in California when he dreams of a sort of marketplace in the parking lot outside his hotel bedroom window, the central aisle “dominated by a glittering crystal fountain” and the whole display filled with Victorian artefacts, objets d’art and curiosa. When he wakes up, the collection is really there. He recognises many of the pieces, and others he has read about. “It was as though I had memorised a huge catalogue.” He finds, to his surprise and excitement, that others can see the collection too – it really is there – and he does what any modern man would: he alerts the media. Experts are called upon, who confirm, reluctantly at first, that the items in the hotel car park are not fakes, but exact indistinguishable duplicates of the real items, which persist elsewhere, in the places where Maloney saw or read about them.
Moore’s narrative skill – his form as a thriller writer – means that the story gets going straight away, and pretty soon the reader stops waiting for Maloney to wake up again and begins to treat the odd scenario as given. This brings to mind – I never thought I’d say this about one of Moore’s books – Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and indeed it was Moore’s intention to write “an impossible premise treated realistically.” The tone begins with a certain detachment, that of a report or investigation, but Moore soon seems to forget this and gets on with it in his usual efficient style. There are no flashbacks, no switches in voice, just relentless pursuit of the story. Many of the people Maloney meets do not believe him that he dreamed up the collection (or, as it’s referred to throughout, the Collection) – but the reader does. We have no choice. We are in the hands of an expert manipulator: submitting to the power of a story means overruling your scepticism, willing the suspension of disbelief even where the events are impossible within the frame of the invented setting. The basis of The Great Victorian Collection seems arbitrary, and many of the character developments for Maloney seem directionless, but throughout the book I was itching to know what was coming – and the ending, though it could have followed many different middles, is inevitable and apt.
What makes The Great Victorian Collection interesting is the interpretations it offers to the reader. The Collection is, by definition, a product of Maloney’s mind: complete with pornographic materials in hidden rooms. It is hailed as “the first wholly secular miracle in the history of mankind,” and many of Moore’s characters are defined in part by their quest for a substitute for God. Moreover, though, the book read to me like an exploration of what it means to be a writer. Maloney must dream the same dream night after night to keep the Collection intact (or so it seems); like a writer, he has created something from nothing, and is now faced with the attention this draws to him, including religious observers who placard the Collection with warnings that GOD ALONE CAN CREATE. The Collection seems like a physical manifestation of his inner turmoil (I was reminded of Martin Amis, whom I recall saying of The Information that it was not a book about a mid-life crisis: the book was the crisis). The looseness of the plot in the second half of the book, until the end, shows Maloney prepared to go wherever the Collection – wherever his imagination – takes him. He is ambivalent about the possible loss of his ‘real’ job. The Collection, like a book, exposes Maloney’s soul to the public. “Fellows like you must be in love with yourselves. Otherwise, why would you dream up things to make the world take notice of you?”
At one point we get an odd exchange:
“See the green Chevy coming up behind us?”
“‘S not green.”
It disrupts Moore’s usual flow because it is obviously forced. The second line can only be intended, surely, as a reference to the famous coinage in the opening pages of Ulysses: “the snotgreen sea, the scrotumtightening sea.” The prose of Joyce and Ulysses are about as far as you can get, stylistically, from Moore’s clear pane of glass. Although Moore wanted to write something quasi-experimental (that “impossible premise treated realistically”), he remained clear in his view that his taste was for story and not style:
I’ve discovered that the narrative forms – the thriller and the journey form – are tremendously powerful[.] They’re the gut of fiction, but they’re being left to second-rate writers because first-rate writers are bringing the author into the novel and all those nouveau-roman things.
Does Maloney’s turmoil, then, represent a conflict within Moore about his own work, or perhaps about its perceived value? One of Maloney’s confidantes turns on him near the end of the story. “What a joke! The Great Victorian Collection. Never mind whether you dreamed it up or not, have you listened to what serious people have to say about it? Why, they say it isn’t relevant, it’s completely out of date, it has nothing to do with our contemporary reality. That’s what they say and they are right.” Ouch. The Great Victorian Collection is not, in my view, one of Moore’s best books – though it won awards both in the UK and Canada – but it has his usual effortless pull, and shows him stretching himself and earning the “chameleon novelist” tag that his first biographer gave him.
March 18, 2013
Gerbrand Bakker’s The Detour (tr. David Colmer; US title: Ten White Geese) is a short, odd but captivating book which brings a European literary sensibility to rural Wales. While reading it I struggled to think of other novels I’ve read which are set in Wales: Kingsley Amis’s wildly overrated The Old Devils, perhaps, and part of Patrick McGrath’s brilliant Asylum. About the latter, one unhappy Amazon reviewer said “[McGrath] seems to suffer from an extreme form of xenophobia centered on the Welsh and they are described in this book variously as: lacking in warmth towards strangers, wheedly-voiced, suspicious, dour, sly, crotch rubbing, and animal-like in behaviour.” Bakker’s book is kinder: all crotch-rubbing is consensual.
The detour of the title is one made by a woman who calls herself Emilie, a lecturer in translation studies in Amsterdam who is also writing a thesis on Emily Dickinson. She flees her home after her husband discovers that, in the words of a notice posted around the university, she is a “heartless Bitch” who “screws around” with a first-year student. On her way to Ireland via Hull, she stops in north-west Wales, hires a cottage, and stays there. She has, however, another reason for her departure that her husband doesn’t know about.
To describe The Detour as a comedy would not be quite right: it’s too muted and mysterious for that. Yet there is a wryness, a twinkle, underlying the details throughout, such as the suspicious locals (“Are you German?” “No, not at all”), the unromantic landscape descriptions (“It was a grey day and Hull was hideous”) and the GP who smokes in his surgery and argues with the patient. This last is part of another element running through the book, of doubt being cast on what we are being told. Emilie, lying naked on the rocks outside her cottage, is bitten on the foot by a badger. She attends for medical treatment. “Impossible,” says the doctor: “Liar.” She tells others, such as her landlord, Rhys Jones. “Impossible,” he says. “Badgers are shy animals.” What are we to make of this? Do we believe the narrative, or its characters?
There are other mysteries. Why did Emilie come here at all? Why does she lie naked on the rocks? What is the significance of ”her beloved Emily Dickinson,” whose poems and portrait she has brought to Wales with her, but whose life she seems increasingly determined to divert from: “a bird of a woman who made herself small,” with a life of “withdrawing further and further, writing poetry as if her life depended on it, and dying”? Where Emily “would have sat inside coughing and sighing, writing about bright spring days and the first bee,” Emilie decides to get out and do it: making a home for the geese she has inherited as tenant of her cottage; pollarding trees. She has some help with all this from a young man, Bradwen, who stops by while walking, and stays. Unlike Rhys Jones, whom she finds creepy and intimidating, Emilie is drawn to Bradwen, and an erotic tingle runs through the pages where she observes him as they work together. At first it looks like a harking back to the affair with her student. But it may be that Emilie is drawn not to Bradwen’s beauty so much as his youth, his vitality, and his health. In addition, Bradwen, like Emilie, doesn’t seem to fit into a locality that is half League of Gentlemen, half All Quiet on the Orient Express.
Emilie underlines a passage in Dickinson’s biography: “since nothing is as real as ‘thought and passion’, our essential human truth is expressed by our fantasies, not our acts.” She walks a line between the two, and one of the most striking scenes in the book is her recollection of a fantastical act by her uncle. One day in November he “walked into the pond, the pond in the large front garden of the hotel he worked at. The water refused to come any higher than his hips.” He was “so far gone that he hardly realised that hip-deep water wasn’t enough to drown in. Incapable of simply toppling over.” When she first stops in Wales, at the end of her detour, she thinks of him because
she sensed how vulnerable people are when they have no idea what to do next, how to move forward or back. That a shallow hotel pond can feel like a standstill, like marking time with the bank – no start or end, a circle – as a past, present and unlimited future. And because of that, she also thought she understood him just standing there and not trying to get his head underwater. A standstill.
This comic, troubling image of stasis gives way, as the book progresses, to something like a hectic pace, as Emilie’s husband and parents in the Netherlands come to terms with her disappearance, and take steps to bring her back. This page-turning quality, the low-key eroticism and humour, and unexpected regular appearances from Tesco and Channel 4′s A Place in the Sun, all make this book quite a … variation on what you might expect.
March 7, 2013
How much of our experience of a book comes from expectations? High hopes can either offer artificial buoyancy – at least initially – or make disappointment all the more acute. The human desire for loyalty and continuity must be relevant also: if we liked the author’s other books, we will want to like this one; it streamlines and simplifies things for us. (By us, of course, I mean me.) So it is with J.M. Coetzee, he of the Booker double and the Nobel, a reliable source of reading pleasure if any living author is. His new book seems to plough a pretty familiar furrow, to begin with, and I wondered if I would have dismissed the story as derivative if not for my faith in this man.
The Childhood of Jesus appears to fit into that category of novels where a man arrives in a strange land and struggles to make himself understood. The lack of understanding may be literal and linguistic (Ferenc Karinthy’s Metropole) or emotional and allusive (Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled). Such a premise gives an author opportunities to highlight the human condition unshadowed by familiar geographical settings which might distract the reader: the great risk in setting a story in a known location is that it will seem to be about that location. Better to create a new one. The balancing risk in doing so is that the reader will spend most of the book trying to work out what and where the author is really talking about.
Certainly, the critical consensus so far on The Childhood of Jesus has been to place weight on the title and the numerous biblical analogies which appear in the book. A man and a boy arrive in a Spanish-speaking city called Novilla, having journeyed by boat “from the camp, from Belstar”. They have been assigned names and ages, based on their appearance – the man is Simón, the boy David – and have been “washed clean” of their memories of whatever went before. They are not related (“not my grandson, not my son”) but Simón has assumed responsibility for David, and his self-defined role shifts as the book proceeds: “guardian”, “sort of uncle”, even “godfather”. His main aim – his quest – is to locate the boy’s mother, but it soon becomes clear that this means finding a woman who can be placed in the role, rather than the one who previously held it. The boy asks him “Why are we here?”
‘You are here to find your mother. I am here to help you.’
‘But after we find her, what are we here for?’
‘I don’t know what to say. We are here for the same reason everyone else is. We have been given a chance to live and we have accepted that chance. It is a great thing, to live. It is the greatest thing of all.’
This tendency toward allusion, and to render the particular into the philosophical, is present throughout. Simón finds a job as a stevedore at the docks, unloading sacks of grain, and has debates with his colleagues on labour and progress. (“If you were to bring a crane, you could get the unloading done in a tenth of the time.” “You could, but what would be the point? What would be the point in getting things done in a tenth of the time? It is not as if there is an emergency, a food shortage, for example.”) He grows close to a woman, Elena, who challenges his presumption of mutual attraction between the sexes (“As a tribute to me – an offering, not an insult – you want to grip me tight and push a part of your body into me. As a tribute, you claim. I am baffled”), and to whom he protests about Novilla’s desire to curb “appetites” (“When we have annihilated our hunger, you say, we will have proved we can adapt, and we can then be happy for ever after. But I don’t want to starve the dog of hunger! I want to feed it!”). He argues even with the boy, in simultaneously logical and illogical ways, trying to impose his fading memories of how life used to work (others in Novilla consider memories to be things we “suffer from”), even directing the boy’s reading of Don Quixote to his own understanding. But his love for David, although oddly expressed, is honest and true, and is his only compass in this strange new place, which might be not just another country, but another world, another life. “What good is a new life if we are not transformed by it?”
Simón is something of a fool, pitiable in his inability to let go of the past and of his irrational beliefs, such as his conviction that a woman he sees playing tennis is the mother for David that he has been searching for. He follows through on his beliefs without regard to how they will affect others; or rather, in the belief that all will be for the best because he believes it so strongly. No need to look too hard for religious allegory here, nor as the book proceeds and David acquires what can only be described as Christ-like traits, and biblical references bubble across the pages. But the title, The Childhood of Jesus, can also speak of something about which we know nothing (or almost nothing: a dozen verses in the gospel of Luke). So Coetzee’s novel is also a deliberate empty space, cleared of context to enable the ideas and thoughts – the hopes we invest in children, and how much of ourselves we put in them, for example, just as we put our own ideas into Coetzee’s story - to be seen clearly. There are knotty concerns here on reading, on order and chaos, on political engagement, on almost anything you can think of. But, “you think too much,” Elena says to Simón. “This has nothing to do with thinking.”
Simón wishes for “some saviour” to “descend from the skies and wave a magic wand and say, Behold, read this book and all your questions will be answered.” What Coetzee has given us is a book not of answers but of questions. To use James Wood’s formulation (writing about Thomas Pynchon), it is an allegory which refuses to allegorise. Indeed, a distant resemblance for me was Magnus Mills’ Three to See the King, which, like The Childhood of Jesus, is rich in religious reference but resists reduction to one neat analogy. I was going to say “like Three to See the King without the jokes”, but that’s not really true. Coetzee is often seen as a gloomy, humourless writer (though those two words are not synonyms), probably helped by things like his reaction to Geoff Dyer telling a joke at a festival in 2010. But like many writers with a reputation for miserablism, Coetzee’s work does have comedy, most obviously seen here in Simón’s attempts to complete an application form for membership of a brothel (“Which is not to say that I am not a man, with a man’s needs”), and a dialogue with David and his ‘mother’ Ines, about a blocked toilet.
‘It’s my poo,’ he says. ‘I want to stay!’
‘It was your poo. But you evacuated it. You got rid of it. It’s not yours any more. You no longer have a right to it.’
Ines gives a snort and retires to the kitchen.
‘Once it gets into the sewer pipes it is no one’s poo,’ he goes on. ‘In the sewer it joins all the other people’s poo and becomes general poo.’
These are not the only straightforward pleasures in the book: Coetzee’s prose is clean and efficient, driving the reader on through the mazy stasis of life in Novilla. There is plenty of what, to avoid a cliche, we might call Kafkaish stuff. “He remembers asking Alvaró once why there was never any news on the radio. ‘News of what?’ inquired Alvaró. ‘News of what is going on in the world,’ he replied. ‘Oh,’ said Alvaró, ‘is something going on?’” This intellectual incuriosity provokes the opposite in the reader. The story itself is intriguing – bewildering, puzzling, frustrating, say others - though it’s disappointing that the blurb on my UK edition outlines the plot up to page 260. (The book has 277 pages.) These qualities, combined with the enjoyable and unaccustomed exercise of thinking about the book – wanting to think about it – all the way through, meant that in a strange sense, The Childhood of Jesus is the most fun I’ve had with a novel in ages.
February 25, 2013
My already limited rate of reviewing books here seems to have slumped almost to a stop. From labouring under the sense, a few years ago, that I had to write about everything I read – that my experience with a book was in some way not finished, not processed, otherwise – I am now coming to understand that reading and running (as Salinger put it) is a reliable pleasure in itself. Nonetheless, occasionally I read a new book which I want to share, and that urge is compounded when the book comes after a run of duds. The more I read, and the older I get, the fewer qualms I have in chucking aside a book which isn’t pleasing me, and in particular which isn’t special or different or new. There are risks in this, of course – occasionally comes along a “masterpiece” which even some of its supporters say doesn’t really get going until the second half – but more often, the answer to the question “Does it turn into Tolstoy at page 205?” is pretty clear. So, having begun and abandoned a chain of much-touted new releases – a serial literary love-rat – I settled on this innocuous-looking collection. It turned out to be that rarest of pleasures: a book I loved, and could recommend to almost anyone.
The Examined Life carries a manifesto in its title: if, as Socrates said, the unexamined life is not worth living, then examining a life must give it meaning – or return meaning to it. This examination, I presume, is how Grosz sees his profession as a psychoanalyst. I knew nothing about psychoanalysis before reading this book, and when I finished I bought Janet Malcolm’s Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, but The Examined Life is a pretty good jargon-free primer in itself. There is plenty of respect for Freud, father of the discipline, and clear support for the psychoanalytical belief that childhood events are the engine of our development.
It is not a self-help book, or not explicitly. It is closest in form to one of those books – David Eagleman’s Sum, Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, and above all Italo Calvino‘s Invisible Cities – which interrogates a subject (death, time, place) from different angles, producing a polyphonic song from the slenderest of individual notes. Here the subject is human life: its unhappinesses, blockages and limitations. Grosz has taken more than thirty cases from his decades of practice – this debut author is 60 years old – and condensed them to their psychoanalytical, and human, essence. Each story is a quest, a detective investigation, where the key to the success of the analysis (“the listening cure”), the answer to the question, comes less from the analyst’s words than from the patient’s*. “Our job,” says Grosz, “is to try to find a useful question.”
Grosz has the knack, which derives not from experience only but also literary skill, of boiling down a problem to its essence. Here is an extreme example:
Mrs C., who owned and operated a small restaurant with her husband … was a mother of three. She wanted help because she felt anxious and suffered panic attacks. In our first meeting she said that she found it ‘difficult to relate honestly’, but it was only after several months of therapy that she told me she was having an affair with her children’s nanny, a woman who had been working for the family for the past seven years, since shortly after the birth of their first child. Now – contrary to an agreement with her husband – Mrs C. was secretly trying to get pregnant because she could not bear the thought of losing her nanny.
The subtitle of The Examined Life is How We Lose and Find Ourselves. This suggests that for each problem reported, there will be a solution. In a sense this is true, but the solution is not a plan of action; it is simply the discovery, acknowledgement and understanding of the nature of the problem. With Grosz’s voice – patient, paternal, wise – this becomes a seductive pattern, and after each account I was torn between the urge to guzzle another or – following Mavis Gallant’s advice not to read more than one story per day by the same writer – allow it to settle and mature before moving on.
It is difficult to sum up the force and formal perfection of the pieces here without extracting one in full. Most contain something that felt to me like a punch in the gut, perhaps because so many link back to the patient’s childhood. One woman recalls a miserable time at boarding school, and payphone calls to her parents: “I was crying hysterically, ‘Please can I come home, please can I come home?’ and being told, ‘No, you can’t come home.’” A man who, as a boy, could not remember being alone with his busy mother, developed a bedwetting habit (“a private conversation – something only they shared”), and didn’t grow out of it until she died. Another as a child lived in fear of his father’s “sudden rages” and felt that “he couldn’t wait to get away from me.” All this was profoundly affecting to me, as someone to whom parenthood is still a novelty, and most definitely still a challenge: I feared seeing elements of myself, not in the children, but in the fathers. The feeling of discovering something momentous was enhanced when I read the chapter on ‘How praise can cause a loss of confidence,’ where Grosz argues convincingly that the easy praise we scatter over our children these days is more harmful than beneficial. “If we do it to avoid thinking about our child and her world, and about what our child feels, then praise, just like criticism, is ultimately expressing our indifference.” More than this, I thought of how easy it is to drift into semi-engagement when supervising my four-year-old son’s play. “Being present,” says Grosz, “builds a child’s confidence because it lets the child know that she is worth thinking about.”
Without this, a child might come to believe that her activity is just a means to gain praise, rather than an end in itself. How can we expect a child to be attentive, if we’ve not been attentive to her?
Being present, whether with children, with friends, or even with oneself, is always hard work. But isn’t this attentiveness – the feeling that someone is trying to think about us – something we want more than praise?
These explanations – how obvious they seem! – felt life-changing to me, and the pleasure I took in this book went far beyond the literary. It is full of revelations to the uninitiated, such as the many ways the human mind has of deceiving us. We learn about ‘splitting’ – the unconscious strategy that places aspects of ourselves that we find shameful into another person or group (think of an evangelical preacher found cottaging, or indeed Sir Hugo Coal in Patrick McGrath‘s novel The Grotesque) – and about paranoia coming from the deep-rooted fear that nobody cares about us. There is, after all, only one thing worse than being talked about.
There is a risk of Grosz coming over like Robbie Coltrane in Cracker, the superman who sees intuitively what nobody else does. But it is experience and interest in his subjects that gains him the key to each story – and not all the stories have a key – and they take time to find. Midway through one account, my eyebrows peaked at the line “One Monday, during her second year of psychoanalysis,” particularly as Grosz has already told us that many patients will be seen five days a week. Another, a man living with HIV, sleeps through most sessions for three years. This is a time-consuming – and presumably expensive – quest.
Not incidentally, one of the pleasures of The Examined Life is Grosz’s literary understanding: he brings relevant writing to bear on the subjects, from Beckett’s Endgame to Melville’s Bartleby. It’s fitting that Grosz’s agent said in his letter submitting the book to publishers, “Think Carver, Cheever, Calvino, not Freud, Lacan, Jung.” If it is not quite true to say that literature has a civilising influence, then at least we know it can provide signposts through the thickets, with a little help from one who knows.
* strictly, the term is analysand. Let’s stick with patient.
January 28, 2013
Here is my review in the Guardian of Chloe Hooper’s new novel, The Engagement. It is “a sleek and sly two-hander, a thriller almost, which sets everything out clearly for the reader and yet remains filled with uncertainty.”