April 1, 2014
Often, I think, we retain a special affection for the first book we read by an author. Certainly that’s true for me with Gerard Woodward, whose second novel I’ll Go to Bed at Noon, the keystone in his Jones family trilogy, still floats high above his others. Recently I read the third volume, A Curious Earth, which I’d been holding off as I’d been told it was almost unreadably grim and sad – I was surprised (and a little disappointed) to find that it was more funny than sad, though sometimes a bit of both. But it was his gift of humour that I had in mind when I started his new novel, his fifth and, at 500 pages, his longest yet.
Vanishing in parts exhibits Woodward’s comic gift at its best. For most of its first half it felt like reading William Boyd’s The New Confessions scripted by David Renwick – and that, I had better explain, is a double compliment. Like Boyd’s book (his best in my opinion), it tells the story, more or less, of a man’s life, within a wartime frame; like David (One Foot in the Grave, Love Soup, etc) Renwick’s best work, it has an absurd eye and a beautiful way of bringing together unlikely details. The man whose life we get is Kenneth Brill, and it comes within the framing device of his arrest and court martial during the second world war on suspicion of aiding the enemy. Brill is a painter – or “failed artist” as he put on his army registration form – and he maintains that he was painting fields near his family home to preserve them before the government paves them over for an airfield. This is around the hamlet where he grew up: Heathrow, in Middlesex. One of the aims of Woodward’s book – and one of its great successes – is to give back Heathrow to a culture where it means nothing more than a hell-on-earth airport. Heathrow’s development as a military airfield was begun in 1944; by the time it was completed, the war had finished. We presume Woodward’s aim was to create a sort of memorial to the place from the final words in the book (in his acknowledgements):
The hamlet of Heathrow was destroyed by a disgraceful misuse of wartime powers by the British government; that it was allowed to happen shames us all.
And the portrait of a vanishing place is one of the most satisfying aspects of Vanishing. This is dispensed in Brill’s memories of his childhood in Heathrow, where his father had an array of jobs including stage illusionist and prosthetic limbs supplier, though “in 1936 his business went up in flames. He took all his arms and legs out into the orchard, arranged them in a heap and set fire to them.” Most notably, his father had land which he farmed, in bitter rivalry with his half-brother Tiberius Joy, and the most entertaining parts of the book describe this battle, from a terrible burial suffered by Brill’s mother (pure Renwick, this) to a surprising discovery about sludgecake. Throughout, Woodward’s eye for imagery gives a freshness to scenes such as one where Brill plays doctor with his father’s medical supplies:
Countless times I had put a stethoscope to my sister Pru’s pale chest and listened to the slamming doors of her heart, or the sudden blasts of turbulence, the vortices and hurricanoes of her breath, or the belfry and breaking-glass clatter of her laughter.
There is much more of Woodward’s off-kilter invention and comic (and sometimes tragic) imagination throughout the first half of the book: the fate of Roddy, Tiberius Joy’s son; stripping with on-off best friend Marcus Boone; and all-male ballroom dancing in a Jewish school. Brill keeps moving schools – keeps vanishing – because of absurd developments and misunderstandings. Like his father’s interests – did I mention palmistry? – sometimes these seem random, chosen for their own sake and the delight they give Woodward to explore rather than for any intrinsic necessity to the story. (Woodward has spoken of an earlier draft of the book, where Brill had “a disrobing disorder, which meant he unconsciously lost his clothes at certain key moments.”) But the story is of a life, and you could reasonably say that a life is random and contains no overarching theme. Some of the elements – the aforementioned fate of Roddy Joy, or the excellent scenes involving a Polish art teacher – seem spirited away too suddenly, not fully explored or exploited. (But again, life, etc.)
But although this is the story of a life – a life so far – it is not chronological. As well as the framing device (and Brill’s subsequent court martial for espionage gives us an entirely unexpected but fitting conclusion), the scenes switch between his childhood in Heathrow and at school, and his wartime experiences as a camouflage artist: making things vanish. People arrive, unexplained – why is there tension between Brill and his colleague Somarco? – and allegiances seem to switch as the story jumps from between time and time. There is an uncanny representation of how memory works, with occasional repetitions or echoes of things mentioned before, as though Brill really is telling his story just as he remembers it. Yet as the story moves on, and we get to Brill’s time in art school and subsequently as a teacher, it seemed to lose some life for me, and certainly seemed to lose the comic touch that gave me so much pleasure in the book’s first half. We learn plenty about Brill through his activities and sexual relationships but there is something schematic about the emotional core of the character – though it does occur to me that this might represent a weakness on my part for traditionally explored characterisation. How many of us, after all, analyse our own personalities as cleanly as the novelist typically does for their characters? How realistic is it to do so? The second half the book seemed less vital to me, less surprising – perhaps inevitably as the story must stop opening up and begin to close down – but that I finished it at all, and with a fair amount of satisfaction, speaks of Woodward’s ability to sustain interest. In a way Vanishing, with its rejections of traditional time structure, of representation of character, of clean causation, is more novel than its frequently comforting qualities make it appear. There are strange things hidden in the countryside.
March 24, 2014
Last week I wrote that Jenny Offill’s second novel Dept. of Speculation was probably my favourite new book of the year so far. It doesn’t seem to have attracted the attention of other UK reviewers yet, and amazingly, the Baileys Women’s Prize judging panel hasn’t resigned in embarrassment at leaving it off its recently-announced longlist. Doubtless the Booker and Folio judges will get it right, but in the meantime, I took the opportunity to ask Offill some questions about the book and her work generally.
Dept. of Speculation deals with everyday life but is unusual in its form and content. (“She acts as if writing has no rules.”) Can you tell us something of how the book came about?
I had written a more conventional novel about a student who had an affair with her professor and later married him. The book was from the POV of the second wife and of her stepdaughter. I worked on it for years, but there was always something leaden about it. What I wanted to write was something darker and stranger, something that spoke more directly to the collision of art and life. Eventually, I screwed up my nerve and dismantled that original novel, keeping only a few tiny things.
I read a lot of poetry and non-traditional fiction and for a long time I’d wanted to write in a more experimental vein. Dept. of Speculation was the result of finally writing exactly the way I wanted to without worrying about whether anyone else would like it. (That anyone did was a thrilling surprise.)
The book’s appearance is also unusual: paragraphs appear as separate sections surrounded by white space (you describe it as “maddeningly formatted”). Each paragraph has a stand-alone, aphoristic quality. Was it important to tell the story in this way?
The white spaces in the novel are meant to be resting places for the reader, stop-offs before the wife wheels off in another direction. I thought it would be overwhelming to be in her head in a linear, uninterrupted way.
The aphoristic quality developed because of that constraint, but I liked it and decided to heighten the effect. One of the things I was interested in was making the seemingly trivial domestic moments have the same weight as the more obviously philosophical ones. The aphoristic style helped me to put the mundane and the sublime fragments on the same plane.
Your first novel Last Things was busy and bustling. Dept. of Speculation is much more pared down; it reads like the skeleton of a much larger book. Was it whittled away from a greater mass of material?
Once I found the form for Dept. of Speculation I wrote the narrative sections in a very pared down way, just as they are in the finished book. But the form took me a long long time to find. At first, I didn’t understand why I kept moving back and forth between first and third person POVs. But then I realized that the shifts in authorial distance exactly mirror the distance that the narrator feels from her husband at any given point in the story. After that, I understood how it fit together.
What I did whittle down was pages and pages of trivia on artic explorers, cosmonauts, obscure mystics etc. I threw away any that seemed too obviously symbolic and looked for others that felt quieter to me.
The portrayal of the demands of early parenthood in the novel is painfully recognisable. One character says to the narrator, “I think I must have missed your second book,” to which she replies, “No; there isn’t one.” Does this explain the fifteen year gap between your first novel and your second?
Nothing really explains it. All I can say is that I couldn’t write fiction at all in the beginning and then for a while I could, but not very well. The demands of early parenthood have an urgency to them that is hard to ignore. It feels strange to go hole up alone in a room and write even if you could slip away to do so.
I discovered Robert Walser’s work nearly twenty years ago and it was hugely influential to me. One of his stories ends with this line “We don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much.” That really stayed with me. I guess I took it to mean what if everything is interesting? What if nothing is beneath notice?
Part of my fascination with Buddhist thought is that it teaches that this is indeed the case, that the entire spectrum of human feeling and experience is meant to be delved into. (I do think we miss out on a lot of interesting moments when we hope only for happiness. )
Another big influence for me was the New York School of poetry. I particularly love those Frank O’Hara “I did this. I did that” poems that suddenly swing out into these strange ecstatic reveries. I’m also influenced by comedians. Maria Bamford and her brilliant standup routines about anxiety and depression in particular.
You have written three books for children as well as two adult novels. Is it harder to write for adults or for children? Do you find writing easy or difficult generally?
I find writing fiction for adults ridiculously difficult. My reach always exceeds my grasp. But the kids’ books are different. They are more like writing jokes or little fables. Timing and reversals are the key to them. I tried them as a lark to make money to support the glacial pace of my novel writing and they turned out to be fun and to keep me afloat.
Can you recommend an overlooked book or author to readers of this blog?
I am reading The Collected Poems of Ron Padgett and it is taking the top of my head off. Two other books I’ve read this year and really liked were Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle and Duplex by Kathryn Davis. All of these are put out by small presses so I’m not sure if they’ve made it over to England yet.
March 17, 2014
Here is my review in the Guardian of Jenny Offill’s miraculous novel, Dept. of Speculation. It is perhaps my favourite new book of the year so far, and the list of books Offill cites as influences for it – including those by Jean Rhys, Denis Johnson, Robert Walser and Richard Yates – is pretty thrilling too.
March 13, 2014
I wrote about Lorrie Moore a couple of years ago, after having mixed feelings about the few stories of hers that I’d read. Now she has a new collection, her first in 16 years, though it’s pretty skimpy at eight stories in 160 pages. More than that, four of these stories were in her 2008 Collected Stories (you can read one of them here), so what Moore’s fans will get is four new stories in 80 pages. Only one of these four is entirely new, as three previously appeared in magazines: Harper’s, The Paris Review and The New Yorker.
Bark is an interesting reading experience straight after Mavis Gallant. I wrote that some of Gallant’s stories made my eyes glaze over: this never happens in Bark. Moore works very hard to give the reader a really good time. Her stories are stuffed with smart observations, clever ways of seeing and zingy jokes – and that is the only difficulty I have with them. They are so stuffed with novelty and display, that moments which might resonate beautifully within plainer prose, tend to get lost in the noise. In the first story, ‘Debarking’, a reference to the central character receiving “a divorce petition mailed from a motel” is nicely understated and suggestive, but struggles to make itself heard amid less subtle stuff, like a gag a few lines earlier about middle-aged dating being “a planet of the apings!” The story tells us about Ira, trying to get back in the game after his divorce. He is trying also to balance the fact that the two most important females in his life now are a woman, Zora, he barely knows but hopes to get to know better, and his daughter Bekka, of whom he has shared custody, with all the mess that that entails. With Zora, he is unsure whether he really thinks things about her or just wants to (“She had written her phone number and signed off with a swashbuckling Z – as in Zorro. That was cute, he supposed. He guessed. Who knew”). With Bekka we get observations that, if they come from life, would probably have been best left as Facebook status updates. “[Bekka] had once, in a bathtime reverie, named her five favourite people, four of whom were dogs. The fifth was her own blue bike.” (That’s cute, I suppose. I guess. Who knows.) ‘Debarking’ captures well the grimness of desperation dating, and the way participants detect the worst in one another without thinking of how they might themselves be coming across. This is exemplified in a genuinely funny and surprising phone call between Ira and Zora, which seems to justify his thinking earlier:
Oh, the beautiful smiles of the insane. Soon, he was sure, there would be a study that showed that the mentally ill were actually more attractive than other people. Dating proved it!
Ira’s uncertainties reminded me of Abe Simpson courting Bea Simmons (“Well, I was wondering if you and I you know, might go to the same place at the same time and… Jeez! You’d think this would get easier with time!”). Moore has a knack of filling her characters with these very recognisable weaknesses. In the story ‘The Juniper Tree’, a woman is happy to be persuaded by her own excuses for not visiting her terminally ill friend. When a mutual friend rings to say that she has died, our narrator breaks down. “‘I feel terrible,’ I cried, as if this were what mattered.” The story goes in interesting directions after that – of the cannot-be-disclosed-here variety – and provides a surprising depiction of guilt and grief.
The subject matter of Moore’s stories tends to be from a range of big things: illness, break-ups, death. The third story in Bark, ‘Paper Losses’, takes us back to divorce, with our lead, Kit, finding in the courtroom that “the county owned her marriage and that the county was now taking it back like a chicken franchise she had made a muck of.” That’s a nice simile, but Moore extends it over the following lines until it has, to coin a phrase, irretrievably broken down. She knows how to detonate a phrase though: Kit, on holiday, gets up early to watch turtles hatching on the beach but the guide keeps them there all morning to enable as many tourists as possible to see them. “He took them over to the water’s edge and let them go, hours too late, to make their own way into the sea. And one by one a frigate bird swooped in, plucked them from the silver waves, and ate them for breakfast.” Elsewhere, the effect is more slick than rich, and Moore sometimes reminds me of an American sitcom where the the humour comes not from the setting and the people but from characters saying witty things to one another. On the same page as the passage above, Kit’s friend says, “Soon you, like me, in your next life, like me, will want them old and rich, on their deathbed, really, and with no sudden rallyings in the hospice.”
This frantic waving from author to reader starts to seem gauche. Perhaps Moore could turn it down, but would these stories exist in toned-down prose? The slightly hysterical style is intrinsic to the mindset of the characters, which is itself a cause for concern. Many authors could be accused of sameness – seventy years ago, did jumped-up bloggers complain that Greene wrote too much about Catholicism? – but with Moore, not only do subjects recur, but characters sound too similar also. They all seem to respond to stress with wisecracks, and the effect is to make all the stories seem to take place in a parallel world where people are chipper and desperate at the same time, and exchange pithy dialogue with their partners. Over the length of a book, this becomes such a self-contained world – Lorrieland – that it jars and barks the shins when real world elements creep in, as they frequently do: 9/11, Abu Ghraib, Obama’s election, “the new economic downturn”. (Scanning the original publication dates for the stories that include these elements provides reassurance that they were headline news at the time of writing.) Those previously-listed subjects of the stories – illness, divorce, death – end up seeming like shop-bought ballast to counter the hectic drollery. (When I mentioned Moore’s compulsive joking on Twitter, someone responded, “I sort of love her, but worry that she thinks puns reveal hidden truths.”) The worst offender in this respect is the final story, ‘Thank You For Having Me’, which is the only previously unpublished piece in the book. The penultimate story, ‘Subject to Search’, regains its feet after some terrible jokes (a sign-language mishap is referred to as “a Freudian slip of the dumb”) by showing, horribly, a life where the only way of achieving a happy ending is to cut back into the past. (“He clasped her hand: electricity burst into it then vanished as he let go.”)
What this leads to is the best story in the book: ‘Referential’ doesn’t try to be funny, or not for long, anyway. It is about a mother and her “deranged son”, and her visits to him in a hospital or institution. When Moore writes about how “there was still sweetness in his eyes, the sweetness he was born with”, and then that “once her son had only wanted a distracting pain, but then soon he had wanted to tear a hole in himself and flee through it,” I think of my own sons, still mostly sweetness, and find it terrifying. This unleavened bitterness is bracing after all the stings and rimshots in the other stories. I realise I am making it sound as though I don’t like Moore’s work at all. I do: she is never boring and always entertaining. But the wit which for others intensifies the pleasure in her stories, for me dilutes their force.
March 4, 2014
Mavis Gallant died on 18 February 2014 – a couple of weeks ago. She had been on my radar for many years: I’d managed to acquire four collections of her stories, without ever reading them. Death is a great catalyst. Why hadn’t I opened them before? Because I have a completist impulse, partly from the desire to write about books I’ve read; to write about a book you have to read it completely. And collections of stories often aren’t suited to being read in their entirety – or not (another reason for me) at the same pace as a novel of equivalent length. Gallant herself had something to say about this, in the afterword to the selection Paris Stories:
There is something I keep wanting to say about reading short stories. I am doing it now, because I may never have another occasion. Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.
‘Now’ was 2002, when Gallant was 80 years old, so you can see why she thought she may not have another occasion. Indeed, after this she published two more selections of old stories but no more new collections. The last of her new books, as far as I can tell, was Across the Bridge, published in 1993. My copy, published as a beautiful small hardback by Bloomsbury Classics in the UK, was, according to the inscription, a gift to me on my 22nd birthday. I will be 41 next month, so it has taken me 19 years to get around to this book. That is probably a record, even by my dilatory standards.
Across the Bridge contains eleven stories, nine of which were previously published in The New Yorker. If you have a preconception of a New Yorker type of story, then Gallant’s work probably fits it: finely written, alive with detail, light on plot and formally straightforward. That description, however, leaches all the life out of them. The titles of two of her volumes of selected stories – Paris Stories and Varieties of Exile – gives a clue to what unites much of her work. Gallant was born in Montreal but lived in Paris for many years, and these two places provide the settings for almost all the stories here.
The first four stories concern the Carette family, Montrealers whose lives we follow for 50 years in as many pages, from the 1930s to the 1980s. In the first story, ’1933′, Mme. Carette and her daughters Berthe and Marie are in reduced circumstances following the death of M. Carette. The story is a good introduction to Gallant because it shows her careful balance of sympathy for her characters, who are often in unwelcome predicaments, and her wry eye for the details that describe them. Here, Mme. Carette saves face, if only to herself, in discovering that after moving by necessity to a smaller flat, “by walking a few extra minutes, [she] could patronize the same butcher and grocer as before.” She soon faces the shame-inducing realities of becoming a woman who must now earn a living. In their new flat, the Carettes live above M. and Mme. Grosjean and their Airedale, Arno. This too brings a sharp mix of tenderness and cynicism, as Mme Carette breaks down in tears after expressing unkind – envious – thoughts about her neighbours (“We shall see what happens to the marriage after Arno dies”), while M. Grosjean is blissfully unaware that “all the female creatures in his house were frightened and lonely, calling and weeping.” He has taken Arno out for a walk, though “he made it a point never to say where he was going: he did not think it a good idea to let women know much.”
The next story, ‘The Chosen Husband’, jumps on to the time when Marie, a growing woman, is being courted. Mme. Carette is concerned again with social status, and that theirs cannot match that of Marie’s latest suitor, Louis Driscoll, though she reflects that the Carettes “were related to families for whom bridges were named.” She is presented not as emptily snobbish, but as ambitious, even if that ambition is directed only towards getting her daughter the right man. She rejects one young man, a Greek, for his own lack of ambition. “In the life of a penniless unmarried young woman, there was no room for a man merely in love. He ought to have presented himself as something: Marie’s future.” Again comes that delicate balance, as Gallant switches to tell us that Marie’s sister, Berthe, has had her own trouble with men, largely through her deep and broad appeal to them. In Berthe’s workplace, “Mr Macfarlane had left a lewd poem on her desk, then a note of apology, then a poem even worse than the first.” Men, you will note, are not coming out of these stories terribly well. The third Carette story, ‘From Cloud to Cloud’, affirms this. Now Marie has married, become a parent, and her son Raymond, 18, is the centre of the story. He will be a let-down to his family. The way in which time skips on in these stories is notable. They were published individually, so there is a need to set the scene anew each time, but they also run consecutively in this book, like a novella about one family, and they reinforce one another. In ‘From Cloud to Cloud’, what could be a clunky nod to get the reader to know that the year is 1969, becomes dextrous in Gallant’s hands: “It was the summer of the moon walk. Raymond’s mother still mentions this, as though it had exerted a tidal influence on her affairs.” Echoing the opening story, here Raymond’s father has just died, and he is drifting, and may never be still. There are some moments in this story which show clearly why Gallant is so highly regarded. As Raymond grows, Marie and Berthe get used to not seeing him.
They had his voice over the telephone, calling from different American places (they thought of Vietnam as an American place) with a gradually altered accent. His French filled up with English, as with a deposit of pebbles and sand…
This is a beautifully compressed sequence, squeezing in so much about history and politics, the direction of the story, and the characters referred to, without seeming overstuffed. Later, a description of Marie shows Gallant’s dedication to le mot juste even in lighter passages. “She fainted easily; it was her understanding that the blood in her arms and legs congealed, leaving her brain unattended.” That unattended is just perfect. But amid the levity, again comes the stab, as Marie reflects on the disappointing Raymond, and “wonders about other mothers and sons, and whether children feel any of the pain they inflict.” Let’s consider that a rhetorical question. The final Carette story, ‘Florida’, shows Berthe inheriting her mother’s airs, as she goes out for dinner with a colleague: “She suggested the Ritz-Carlton – she had been there once before, and had a favourite table.” The men are still misbehaving, too: Berthe’s colleague over dinner tells her: ‘”I like the way you think,” he said. “If only you had been a man, Miss Carette, with your intellect, and your powers of synthesis, you might have gone…” and he pointed to the glass bowl of blueberry trifle on the dessert trolley, as if to say, “even farther.”‘
By now, reading these stories, I was entirely taken by the frivolous, serious, realistic Carettes, and the cumulative effect of their tales was not unlike the sequential stories about the Derdons in Maeve Brennan’s brilliant The Springs of Affection (though Brennan gets closer in among her characters’ emotions). I could have done with a whole book of them, so it was something of a wrench to be dropped among new characters. Typically, the other stories are also set among families, such as the long title story, where the narrator, Sylvie, and her mother are involved in trying to get Sylvie married. Her parents want her to marry Julien, the son of her father’s cousin Gaston: “My marrying Julien was a thought my parents and Cousin Gaston had enjoyed. In some way, we would have remained their children forever.” Sylvie prefers Arnaud, but her mother is not to be deflected: she “was a born coaxer and wheedler; avoided confrontation, preferred to move to a different terrain and beckon, smiling.” In other stories, where families do not feature strongly, there is nonetheless something like family, a question of belonging and possession. In ‘Forain’, the eponymous character is the literary executor for author Adam Tremski, a man who epitomises a sort of bohemian type, who “had shambled around Paris looking as though he slept under restaurant tables, on a bed of cigarette ashes and crumbs.” The retrospective portrait of Tremski is affecting, both for its vision of advancing age – the mourners at his funeral “had migrated to high-rise apartments in the outer suburbs, to deeper loneliness but cheaper rents” – and for a world where nobody ever really cared about books or the people who created them. “It was remarkable, Tremski had said, the way literate people, reasonably well travelled and educated, comfortably off, could live adequate lives without wanting to know what had gone before or happened elsewhere.”
Belonging is a theme too in the funniest story in Across the Bridge, ‘Kingdom Come’. It is nicely summed up in the opening paragraph:
After having spent twenty-four years in the Republic of Saltnatek, where he established the first modern university, recorded the vocabulary and structure of the Saltnatek tongue, and discovered in a remote village an allophylian language unknown except to its speakers, Dr. Dominic Missierna returned to Europe to find that nobody cared.
Missierna is another man, like Tremski, who feels under-appreciated by an ignorant world. “He still hoped that at least one conclusion might be named for him, so that his grandchildren, coming across his name in a textbook, could say, ‘So this is what he was like – modest, creative.’” Grandchildren requires children, and Missierna has them, but they too are unappreciative: like all children, everywhere. Anyway “he had been a featherweight on his children; he had scarcely gone near them.” Instead, “Saltnatek had been like a child, and he had stayed with it longer than any other, had seen it into maturity, and it had used and rejected him, as children do, as it is their right.”
My cheerful admiration for the stories detailed above – you must read Gallant, is the essence – didn’t apply to all of the book. This was an original collection of stories, so we might expect it to contain the odd runt, with a lower hit rate than a selected edition. In addition, it was the last new collection Gallant published, in her seventies, when you might be expected to have your best work behind you. In any event, it was some of the longer stories here that I struggled with. I thought occasionally of Alice Munro, whose impregnably praised stories more often than not make my eyes glaze over. Some of Gallant’s stories here – ‘The Fenton Child’ to name one – had a similar effect. It might be something to do with the density of detail Gallant brings – her stories are not quick hits but slow draws, pared novellas. Even when there is dialogue, the reader cannot skip lightly through it: constant attention must be paid. Characters come in thickets, and I would found myself halfway down a page, wondering how we got here. I am happy to accept that it is my error, but it is nonetheless a true response. Happily it applied to only a few of the stories here.
Gallant did not always assist readers who wanted to dive deeper into her methods of working and her intentions. In an interview in Granta in 2009, extracted here by Charles Boyle of CB Editions, Gallant repeatedly thwarted the well-intentioned questions by Jhumpa Lahiri: “I can’t tell you.” “I don’t know.” “If I knew that, I wouldn’t bother writing.” She was a little more effusive in her Paris Review Art of Fiction interview ten years earlier, at least on the scope of her career (Will there ever be a complete collected stories? “You wouldn’t be able to pick it up”), but maintained a resistance to literary-critical introspection. “I wish I could persuade you to believe me when I say that I don’t analyse my own work.” But her limited level of self-regard, boiled down, produced as sensible a manifesto as we could ask for in the end. “I want a story to be perfectly clear and I don’t want it to be boring. C’est tout.”
March 2, 2014
Here, as promised, is my review in the Independent on Sunday of Agota Kristof’s The Illiterate, a sort of companion to her masterpiece The Notebook. You can buy it here (and The Notebook here).
February 28, 2014
Jill Dawson is one of the most frequently-reviewed authors on this blog. Her books seem to me to epitomise the best of what might be called traditional literary fiction. There is always a strong story, and clear characters, but there is a sharpness and darkness to her work, and some element of novelty – not to say control of narrative voice – which sets it apart from the pack.
The Tell-Tale Heart has a concept which is summed up by one blurb like this: “a thought-provoking tale of a man who has a heart transplant and finds his feelings – and capacity for love – seem mysteriously to have changed.” This is an almost archetypal elevator pitch, and one which had me sucking air in over my teeth, like a disappointed mechanic. If the book hadn’t been by Dawson, I might have gone no further – but predictably, she has done unpredictable things with this high concept.
The story is told, to begin with, by Patrick, a 52-year-old university professor. He is a bracingly unsympathetic narrator – though his refusal to ingratiate himself with the reader is itself quite an appealing characteristic. He resents being made to feel bad: “I hate tears. Tears make you the villain and the unfeeling one, regardless of what you feel, simply because you can’t produce them yourself.” He is a womaniser, with two children to two women, and a recently ended affair with a student which has thrown his future of his career into doubt. Indeed, his future generally is not what it was and he has recently been given a heart transplant in a new type of surgery: ‘beating-heart’ surgery, where the transplant organ is kept alive during the operation. Typically enough, Patrick becomes interested in the donor of his heart, and typically enough (not much story without it), he finds out who this is when his post-transplant counsellor Maureen accidentally spills the beans (this is a work of fiction). And did I mention that incorrigible Patrick thinks Maureen has a thing for him? The story then switches between here and now, and … elsewhere, elsewhen.
Throughout Patrick’s story, the heart is centre stage, both his own heart – his own hearts, old and new (“I feel an ache in my chest, a pain so severe it’s like something thrashing in there”) – and the heart in history and culture. “Like Thomas Hardy; wasn’t he, horribly, buried without his heart? Some dim memory of a story about a biscuit tin. The dog eating the heart, which had been kept in a biscuit tin…” His daughter visits him in hospital – he’s never been much of a dad either – and, gripped by the expected lifefulness that would naturally follow near-death surgery, the emotional lability, he begins to think he is undergoing a personality change. “I have a curious, powerful certainty: my old self won’t have me.” He walks a fine line between unreformed and capable of change: when he gets a letter from the family of his donor, and his first response is to comment on the “cheap paper” and “old-fashioned writing,” it’s hard to tell whether he’s sneering or sympathetic.
As well as Patrick, we hear from Willie Beamiss, a young man involved in the Littleport riots of 1816 (“I was quite in the suds about Politics”); those involved were punished harshly as a warning to others (“Now launched into all eternity”). As well as having contemporary parallels with the increased sentences handed out to rioters in England in 2011, Beamiss’s story introduces the questions explored in the rest of The Tell-Tale Heart: where is the seat of emotion and thought? What divides them, brings them together, gives one power over the other? This takes us back to Patrick’s story, and that of a third narrator, as they both make us think about the heart as historically considered responsible for both lust and love, when these feelings are now attributed to organs that run in opposite directions from the heart. These, more or less, are what the two parts of the story are driven by: the things men do, and arrange to have done to them, to satisfy these wants or needs.
What it becomes is a book about sex and power, told in two ways. (Patrick self-justifyingly says that the two mothers of his children “shouldn’t have put up with me, given me that glimpse of power”). In this The Tell-Tale Heart seems to me to be a companion piece to Dawson’s 2006 novel Watch Me Disappear, with its clear-eyed look at childhood sexuality. Here, as there, the book is riddled with suggestion and refuses easy answers, though there is a hint of where Patrick’s disdain for women comes from. Like all Dawson’s books, it’s busy – it whispered things in my ear all the way through. It is wide-ranging but retains a strong hold on its story – which might explain why I find it so difficult to write about satisfactorily. Patrick, made increasingly reflective by recent events, recalls that his mother told him “There’s more to life than winning things, you know. Just be a good man, that’s all I ask.” “Oh Mam,” thinks Patrick, now. “Why did you set the bar so high?”
February 18, 2014
CB Editions is well known to readers of this blog. Its practice to date has been to publish new books, particularly those which might struggle to find a place elsewhere – through not lack of quality, but lack of mass appeal. Here, however, we have its first reissue, of a novel last in print in the UK almost 20 years ago. That made me think this must really be a book worth reading. Praise from Slavoj Zizek (“a book through which I discovered what kind of a person I really want to be”) added texture, and the deal was sealed by Gabriel Josipovici’s comment that reading The Notebook for the first time was one of those rare occasions “when you know immediately you are in the company of greatness.”
The Notebook (Le Grand Cahier, 1986; tr. 1989 by Alan Sheridan) was Kristof’s first novel (and the first of a trilogy), though previously she had written poems and plays. Her memoir The Illiterate (L’Analphabète), which I’ll review next month, tells how The Notebook began life as “short texts based on my childhood memories.” Short they are: no chapter here is more than three pages long. In her real childhood, Kristof was separated from her brother; in fiction, she reunites them, in fact reinvents them as twin brothers. This is the one false note in the book, or perhaps it was a false note in my reading, as I was unable to hear the narrative in a male voice. It sounded simply like Kristof to me.
But that should not be surprising. Kristof fled her native Hungary for Switzerland, and lived there for years before learning to write in French. When she did, she consciously adopted a stripped and plain voice, one which resists easy attribution to a gender. The translator of her memoir, Nina Bogin, describes it as rendering “words as if they were being used for the first time, stripped of embellishment or metaphor or excess of meaning.” The brothers – who narrate in first person plural throughout – go further:
We have a very simple rule: the composition must be true. We must describe what is, what we see, what we hear, what we do.
For example, it is forbidden to write: ‘Grandmother is like a witch’, but we are allowed to write: ‘People call Grandmother the Witch.’
Words that define feelings are very vague; it is better to avoid using them and to stick to the description of objects, human beings and oneself; that is to say, to the faithful description of facts.
And so they do. At the beginning of The Notebook, the boys are evacuated from the Big Town to the Little Town for the duration of the war. (There are no places or times mentioned in the book, but we presume it to be Hungary during the Second World War.) They live with Grandmother, their mother’s mother, who is indeed known as the Witch. “Sons of a bitch!” she calls them, and beats them. In response, the brothers “decide to toughen our bodies in order to be able to bear pain without crying. We start by hitting and then punching one another.” They decide to toughen their minds too:
Looking each other in the eyes, we say more and more terrible words. One of us says:
The other one says:
We go on like this until the words no longer reach our brains, no longer reach even our ears.
Only then do they realise that they must also reduce the pain of other words, words their mother used to say to them: ‘My darlings! My loves! My joy! My adorable little babies!’ “By repeating them we make these words gradually lose their meaning and the pain that they carry in them is reduced.” They engage in other exercises, to get used to hunger, to cruelty. (“We Extend Our Repertoire”, one chapter is titled.)
And so, conditioned and hardened, the brothers embark upon life in the Little Town. They encounter comic figures, like the shopkeeper from whom they try to buy writing materials, and grotesque ones, like Harelip, a girl who allows herself to be fucked by a dog. (“The dog places his front paws on Harelip’s back. His back legs begin to shake.”) With their hearts and minds toughened, the brothers gain a reputation. “You’ve the makings of murderers,” says the postman. Yet for the reader, the brothers never do anything more or less than what is necessary to survive. And to survive together: they are a sort of gestalt entity, and when they are briefly separated in school, they fall ill. The connection between them, their indivisibility, is the strength they draw on and that they use to support themselves in dire circumstances. They empower each other: they use a priest’s secrets to make him pay money to Harelip and her mother.
‘It’s monstrous. Have you any idea what you are doing?’
‘Yes, sir. Blackmail.’
They encounter a masochistic army officer, who makes good use of their learned cruelty. All in all they become notorious, unassailable, but remain sympathetic and even vulnerable. Their story is rendered unemotionally but is fully engaged and engaging. The sheer range of the book, all coming from that plain language, makes you see what Josipovici meant when he spoke of “greatness”. What happens at the end is stated simply but echoes with the cumulative force of everything that has come before, and is devastating. In its odd, memorable, unique way, The Notebook is a masterpiece.
January 24, 2014
(This post is part of my Mooreathon, a project to read all of Belfast-born author Brian Moore’s novels in order of publication.)
After The Great Victorian Collection, Brian Moore quickly published The Doctor’s Wife – just a year later. The speed was a result not of writing the book quickly but of a delay in the publication of the previous novel. It brought him acclaim previously unknown: it did well critically and commercially (“On this book, unlike others, I have finally tasted the smell of riches which most successful authors must sense,” he said), and gave him his first Booker Prize shortlisting. It didn’t win, reportedly because one of the judges, poet and prime minister’s wife Mary Wilson, vetoed it due to its explicit sex. (She also vetoed Julian Rathbone’s King Fisher Lives: “I couldn’t be party to giving the prize to a book about cannibalism.” The prize went to David Storey’s Saville.)
The Doctor’s Wife (1976), Moore’s eleventh novel, also holds a special place in my reading history: it is the only novel that my wife (who reads very little fiction) and I both loved. We raced through it consecutively, and that’s a tribute to Moore’s unfussy style and storytelling ability. The plot is simple: a woman travels to France and falls in love with a man ten years younger than her. In other words, this is another of Moore’s novels – like, to degrees, his first seven – which examines one life at a time of crisis. The woman is Sheila Redden, 37, married to a doctor and living in Belfast. She is interested in books and is attractive to many men, “like Pat Lawlor down at Mullen’s Garage who, when she drove in for petrol, would pull a comb out of his overalls and arrange his hair over his bald spot. Or the young butcher at Kennedy and McCourt’s who would bully his other customers to make up their minds so that he could get over to serve her.” Her husband, Kevin, is portrayed as staid and stuck, and it has taken a couple of years for Sheila to persuade him to revisit their honeymoon resort in the south of France. When we meet her in the book, she has just arrived in France, alone – Kevin has some last-minute surgery work to do and will join her in a day. “All of her life, it seemed, he had forced her to wait.”
Throughout the book, the narrative refers to Sheila only as “Mrs Redden”. She is identified by her marital status and husband’s name, just as in the title it is her marital status and husband’s occupation. It reflects how she is perceived by the society at the time (and Moore had previously played with questions of how name informs identity in I am Mary Dunne). This fits with the slightly formal style of her story and the presentation of her thoughts. It seems more 1950s than 1970s – more Judith Hearne than Sheila Redden – but it fits the social conservatism of Northern Ireland, where the old joke when arriving by air – “Please set your watches back 30 years” – still has some currency.
What makes it clear that this formality is a deliberate presentation by Moore rather than his own limitations as a writer – and he is no stylistic experimenter – is the frank portrayal of sex in The Doctor’s Wife. Sheila and her lover, American student Tom, are at it frequently and graphically. More interestingly, we get a little of it when Sheila is recalling her early days with her husband.
Kevin was the one, whenever we’d come up to this room to change, the wine in us, the minute I’d take my dress off, he’d be pulling down my knickers, with a big cockstand on him, always wanting.
It’s poignant (the occasional ridiculous word notwithcockstanding), because it reminds us that Kevin and Sheila once had a vital sex life, perhaps one as good as she now has with Tom – and that this new one too will likely decline, and indeed that this sort of entropy is a common feature in human relations.
I have said very little about the plot of The Doctor’s Wife so far. There isn’t much, really, other than the affair and its consequences, though there are a few dramatic moments and reversals, not least bang in the middle of the book. This gives it a unity and force that drives the reader on. There is some background unrelated to the characters: this was Moore’s first novel with a (part) Northern Irish setting since the beginning of the Troubles, and they feature here as static interference. “‘They done Divis Street last night,’ Mrs Milligan said. ‘A big bomb. They say it was the UDF.’” It feels tacked on, however, and Moore may himself have realised that he could do better on the subject, which he did with his 1990 novel (and third Booker shortlisting) Lies of Silence. The book also exhibits Moore’s trademark psychological insight. A quote on the back cover of my edition says “No other male writer, I swear (and precious few females), knows so much about women.” I am in no position to judge that (though Moore at the time of writing this book had had practice at perfecting his female viewpoint, from Judith Hearne to Mary Dunne), but he certainly has people down pat. He gets the semi-logical way of thinking, how we justify things to ourselves, how we cope with things we can’t accept, how ideas and desires creep in from the fringes of our consciousness and eventually become unignorably central.
I’ve noted previously that Moore’s books explore the death of God in Northern Ireland (at least for some people: see link earlier) and how the resulting void is filled. Sheila Redden fills it not with sexual satisfaction per se, but with what it teaches her about living in the moment: “there is no past, there is this, just this.” She imagines what could happen if she could “forget my past forever. My past, that small story which is my life.” Not easy, when it involves not just a husband but a fifteen-year-old son. “My son. He is what I did in life.” So there is no guarantee of happiness, or even peace. The question is whether Sheila will stay with her lover, or return home. If she does, she will be reminded that Schadenfreude could be an Irish word. “As the old women in Donegal used to say of a pregnant unmarried girl, ‘Now she’s crying the laugh she had last year.’”
So The Doctor’s Wife is, in its way, a blast and a breeze. Its weakness is that it is never surprising: not in plot but in structure and form. Moore is so expert, and so courteous to the reader, that we know the only shocks will be the elegantly detonated ones we are expecting from the beginning. He is writing to his strengths, which is why The Doctor’s Wife is one of his best books. But where The Great Victorian Collection was (it seemed to me) in part about his limitations as a writer, here there is just the odd reference to the other end of contemporary literature. Sheila, early in her holiday, picks up a book by Muriel Spark that she has brought with her. “She had read a good review of this book, but after a few pages she put it aside: these new novels were strange, not like the early ones.”
January 7, 2014
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.
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.”
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).
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?