Month: January 2007

Max Frisch: Homo Faber

It’s hard not to be intimidated by a book where none of the words in the title or author’s name seem to make sense. And so although I bought Homo Faber last year in the middle of a flurry of Penguin Modern Classicquisition, I’d put off reading it until now, and it was with more a “to get it over with” intention than anything more honourable. Certainly the cover, showing a still from the 1991 movie starring Sam Shepard and Julie Delpy (also referred to as Voyager or The Voyager), sets a new aesthetic low for these normally handsome paperbacks.

So I was pleasantly surprised to find the book rather enjoyable for the first 40 or 50 pages. Subtitled “A Report by Max Frisch” (pretension alert?), Homo Faber, first published in 1957, is narrated by Walter Faber, an engineer who deals only in the hard and real, and eschews emotion and feeling. “I can only report what I know.” So we get long paragraphs of animated description, broken by single lines of stark statements set alone, which could be immensely irritating but doesn’t affect the flow significantly. We also get some amusing (or not so amusing) examples of his autistic hyper-maleness:

Her supposition that I was melancholy because I was alone put me out of humour. I’m used to travelling alone. I live, like every real man, in my work. On the contrary, that’s the way I like it and I think myself lucky to live alone, in my view this is the only possible condition for men, I enjoy waking up and not having to say a word. Where is the woman who can understand that?

The book opens with Faber in an aeroplane which carries out an emergency landing in the Mexican desert. After that everything becomes somewhat nebulous, and I was never really clear from that point on how much of the narrative was happening thereafter, how much was memory, and how much was hallucination. Certainly there are few markings (and no chapter breaks) to distinguish time and place, and increasingly as the novel proceeds, Faber becomes obsessed with the three women in his life: lovers Hanna and Ivy, and his daughter Elisabeth, known as Sabeth. He dwells on love lost and seems to find love with his own daughter – but then again whether this was all really happening was quite unclear to me.

Some reviews on Amazon suggest it’s a story of a cold man thawing, a sort of This Book Will Save Your Life: but I found it much more introspective and gloomy, with more or less no humour in it, despite claims by some Frisch readers of his wonderful “irony.” I found it, after an interesting and even exciting opening, obtuse and impenetrable, ponderous and unsatisfying. So close to min points for Max.

William Boyd: Restless

After giving up on a proof copy of Restless last year, about one-third through, I found my interest in it reinvigorated by all the positive reviews, the Richard & Judy listing, the Costa Novel Award, and of course the half price offer on Amazon…

The story is by now quite well-known: a young English woman discovers that her elderly mother is not a travel writer at all but an alien from a planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse: or at least a Russian emigré spy who worked for the British secret service during the second world war. I wasn’t hooked from the start – which is probably why I gave up on it before – but I was hooked from about halfway through. It’s all very traditional in a way, which could mean humdrum but Boyd manages to pull off a very interesting story. Like much of his stuff, it’s the immensity of detail and aspect which impressed me in Restless: all aspects of the characters’ lives are explored, and points of narrative interest abound, from the double-historic time frame (2006 novel set in 1976 with flashbacks to 1939-42), the mix of fact and fiction (did the British secret service really work undercover to bluff the Americans into the second world war?), and the simple novelty (for me) of a female protagonist – or two – in a spy story.

The central ‘twist’ is not terribly surprising because it’s so clearly foreshadowed, and the tension of whether Eva Delectorskaya will survive the war is obviously discharged by the knowledge that she is still alive in 1976, but the story still grips and the settings (of the long hot summer in 1976, of wartime Britain when people really didn’t know if their country would survive, and of America at the same time when nobody really cared what was going on across the pond) are well realised. Boyd does not suit all tastes, but for me he’s a reliable source of pleasure.

A.M. Homes: This Book Will Save Your Life

On the penultimate page of A.M. Homes’s novel This Book Will Save Your Life, the protagonist Richard Novak thinks about a story he has been told and wonders:

Was there some larger meaning – was it a parable, an allegory, or just a story?

It’s clearly intended to apply to the novel itself, which is quite one of the strangest things I’ve read in some time. On the one hand, all the events are dealt in a deadpan, somewhat blank prose, so there’s a benevolent straightforwardness to it all. On the other hand, many of the events are highly implausible, and it is only the style which keeps it from seeming either forced or – the dreaded – ‘quirky.’ For example at one point Novak finds himself on the television news helping a movie star to rescue a horse from a subsiding hole in the ground outside his Los Angeles home. Ah, his home:

Above and below, a chain of houses climbs the canyon wall: a social chain, an economic chain, a food chain. The goal is to be on top, king of the hill – to win. Each person looks down on the next, thinking they somehow have it better, but there is always someone else either pressing up from below or looking down from above. There is no way to win.

And it must be this realisation which has jolted Novak’s body out of its routine, and broken him away from his controlled, orderly and efficient life as a market trader (“placing his bets, going long and short, seeing how far up or down he can go, riding an invisible electronic wave”) to fill him with an excruciating physical pain. This is how the novel begins: with the sudden crushing pain – never diagnosed – which sends Novak to the emergency room and out into the world, into the mess and fuss of humanity, for the first time in years.

On the way home he breaks his strictly balanced diet to buy donuts, and befriends the shop owner. He talks to a crying woman in the supermarket. He reignites an uneasy relationship with his son. In short, he re-enters the human race.

And this, really, is all that happens. There is a tremendous amount of detail, for the best part of 400 pages, and an awful lot goes on. But it would be perfectly possible to read the book as fundamentally whimsical and inconsequential. Or to view its story of one man’s “dramatic emotional thaw” as superficial and sentimental. And this is how I began thinking of it: me, with my innate tendency to view pretty much anything featuring simple happiness as somehow sentimental. However Homes cleverly avoids these accusations, by the uninflected blankness of the prose and what seems an almost bold and perverse determination to tell a straight story, and so I was forced to look beyond my handy (lazy) dismissal and find a surprisingly moving, heartfelt tale, which is simple without being simplistic.

Its curious mix of the banal and the bizarre reminded me somewhat of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, and even of Haruki Murakami. It’s a bold choice for the Richard & Judy list this year because it will divide opinion, and a wise choice too for that very reason – everyone who reads it, I imagine, will get something different from it.

Richard Yates: Disturbing the Peace

It was with a strange and sad feeling that I realised, while reading Disturbing the Peace (1975), that this was the last time I would read a work of fiction by Richard Yates anew. Methuen have now reissued all his novels in the UK, and the cupboard is bare. And this novel, his third, has a weak reputation, and was the runt of Methuen’s litter. Was it worth it?

The answer is yes. Some of it contains Yates’s most vivid and immersive writing, not least the 40-page second chapter where the protagonist, John Wilder, spends a long (long) weekend in a psychiatric unit, the Bellevue, after being signed in by his best friend. With friends like that, you might think, but where we join the book it is clear that Wilder has for a long time been skirting the lip of a full nervous breakdown, largely fuelled by alcohol dependency. We can only presume that the Bellevue scene, like the utterly destructive alcoholism Wilder suffers, comes from Yates’s own experience, in which case it’s all the more remarkable that he even left us with this many complete works.

Disturbing the Peace also has a pithiness in much of the dialogue and narrative that some of his later work seems to lack, and lovely careful use of specific words, like the “probably” in the scene where Wilder renounces his lover and returns to his wife, and a paragraph of renewed marital love and happiness ends with the thought:

This was probably where he really belonged.

However. Just as the book is racing along at a tremendous lick – miserable alco-ad-man, desperate housewife, inscrutably sad kid, all the fun of the fair – there is a switch halfway through which seems to fall somewhere between hazardous and disastrous. It’s a reflexive and self-referential bit of narrative sleight of hand which seems quite out of keeping with Yates’s usual pinpoint realism, almost postmodern by his standards, and threatens to derail the whole thing. And the sudden changes which follow this (I kept skipping back going, How did we get here again?) suggest reams of unproductive prose hacked out by an editor – or Yates the morning after.

Gradually, though, this bizarre bit of fancy is assimilated into the story and begins to make more sense as the story goes on. In Yates’s biography, Blake Bailey suggests that the book is intended in part as a satire on modern values of sanity and insanity, but it’s hard to detect this among the usual – and brilliant – Yates miserablism. The ending is more satisfying than (and as bleak as) many of this others, giving a circular sense of completeness to the story.

Having read all of Yates’s novels now, I would provisionally rank them as listed below. It seems to me that much of his best work came toward the end of his life, which makes his early (ish: 66) death a greater loss yet. He had also begun producing books more swiftly as the years went on – fifteen years for his first three, ten years for the next four. His loss to literature is immeasurable, but seven kinds of loneliness are better than none.

1. Young Hearts Crying (1986)
2. Revolutionary Road (1961)
3. Cold Spring Harbor (1984)
4. The Easter Parade (1976)
5. Disturbing the Peace (1975)
6. A Good School (1979)
7. A Special Providence (1969)

Paul Auster: The Brooklyn Follies

About halfway through The Brooklyn Follies, the narrator Nathan Glass asks:

Why do I linger over these trivial details? Because the truth of the story lies in the details, and I have no choice but to tell the story exactly as it happened.

It could be a manifesto for Auster’s fiction. Often his novels seem to be almost randomly written, made up as he goes along – and as has been observed before, his endings can be so weak they are better termed stoppings. It is his strength and weakness, but in my experience, as you work through Auster’s output, it’s something you’re more and more willing to make allowances for, and eventually even to relish.

In The Brooklyn Follies, which for the paperback Faber have issued in an out-of-sync cover, all bright and eager for a Richard & Judy sticker, this habit reaches a sort of apotheosis. On the one hand it’s more grounded than a lot of his stuff – no sentient dogs, no future dystopias, and most of all absolutely no postmodern paddywhackery – but on the other hand the web of coincidence and chance that ties together the story strands and characters is more tenuous than ever before. This is a story of religious cults, art forgery, abandoned children, blackmail, unrequited love and everything else (it seems) that Auster had lying around in his latest red notebook. At just about any plot hinge in the book, one could reasonably shout out in protest at the implausibility.

And yet for those softened up into Auster’s ways, it has a bizarre charm, an almost soothing quality. It is the ‘trivial details’ of storytelling itself that is being celebrated here, and – it occurred to me for the first time – the reason why endings are unimportant in Auster’s fiction is because the ending is outside the story, and the perpetual present of the story is what matters. Or as Glass (another monosyllable surname, one first seen I think in The New York Trilogy, but with a friend called Wood to balance it out this time) in the book says:

When a person is lucky enough to live inside a story, to live inside an imaginary world, the pains of this world disappear. For as long as the story goes on, reality no longer exists.

And it’s for this reason – charming and paper-thin, engrossing and ridiculous, serious but disposable – that The Brooklyn Follies is almost impossible to rate, and could equally appal or appeal depending on one’s mood. But I’ll rank it on the basis that while it’s in some ways quintessential Auster – and a book which has helped me understand his whole output – it’s not a good place to start. And that balances the reader with the author – who never seems to find a good place to end.

Gore Vidal: Point to Point Navigation

If ever your life feels a little thin or uneventful, blame Gore Vidal. He’s had enough event and diversion in his life for five or six of us, and he keeps making us feel even worse by not only telling us about them in superbly written memoirs, but looking out of the cover at us all handsome and assured, both in youth and old age:

First there was Palimpsest (1995), dealing with his early life, which Martin Amis called “a tremendous read, down and dirty from start to finish. It is also a proud and serious and truthful book.” Now Vidal gives us Point to Point Navigation, subtitled A Memoir 1964 – 2006.

And it is full of everything we have come to expect. Strange stories of all the great and good of the American twentieth century, from the very very famous to the known-in-certain-circles. Vidal’s life has been not just more eventful than most, but lived at a more rarefied level; he was brought up among the renowned and the ruling classes, and so the line for him between the personal and the political has always been a thin one.

During the next quarter century I re-dreamed the Republic’s history, which I have always regarded as a family affair. But what was I to do with characters that were – are – not only famous but even preposterous? When my mother was asked why, after three famous marriages, she did not try for a fourth, she observed, “My first husband had three balls. My second, two. My third, one. Even I know enough not to press my luck.”

There, he is talking – initially – about his series of novels, Washington, D.C., Burr, 1876, Lincoln, Hollywood and The Golden Age, ‘factional’ accounts of the USA, which he refers to collectively as ‘Narratives of Empire’ but which his publishers keep insisting on branding as ‘Narratives of a Golden Age.’ Throughout Point to Point Navigation, Vidal is at pains to mention his fictional output at every opportunity, making a vain (in both senses) attempt to mark his patch in literary history as a novelist, rather than wit, essayist and polymath. But he can hardly be dissatisfied by how he is already remembered.

And there is a good reason for his interest in remembrance, and how he will be viewed in retrospect. Vidal is now 81 years old, and the spectre of death shadows most of the book. There will not, we suspect, be a third volume. He is writing in “the awful year 2005,” after his first full year spent without his partner of 53 years, Howard Auster, and making the move for health reasons back to LA and away from his beloved La Rondinaia, the extraordinary home on the cliffs of Ravello on the Amalfi coast in Italy, where he and Auster had lived since 1963.

The memoir is less structured than Palimpsest, taking almost a diaristic form as he reflects both on the things that happen to him during 2005, the events in the world, and the people he knew whose deaths invoke a flurry of anecdotes. If the book had been more orderly, there is no doubt that Vidal would have left the strongest material to the end, instead of one-third in where it now appears. This is his report of the death of his partner Howard Auster in November 2003: the long struggle from illness to illness, the childlike reduction in his life, and most movingly, an extraordinary account of how Vidal looked into Auster’s still-alert eyes after his heart stopped and held his gaze as he watched life ebb away from him. It is worth, as they say, the price of admission alone and if it doesn’t move you to weeping then you should have your tear ducts checked by a qualified professional.

So strong is the feeling of mortality throughout the book (assisted by the black cover) that it almost feels like a posthumous publication. Vidal is still vital however, and the effortless quality of his prose reminds us that although he is “moving, graciously, I hope, toward the door marked exit,” he is still fully with us.

And I do not want to suggest that the book is overwhelmingly gloomy or morbid. There is plenty of Vidal’s wit in evidence, and his contempt for the current (and most past) American administration, and his country’s cultural mores.

A current pejorative term is narcissistic. Generally, a narcissist is anyone better looking than you are, but lately the adjective is often applied to those “liberals” who prefer to improve the lives of others rather than exploit them. Apparently, a concern for others is self-love at its least attractive, while greed is now a sign of the highest altruism. But then to reverse, periodically, the meaning of words is a very small price to pay for our vast freedom not only to conform but to consume.

Despite the occasional stretches where he mistakes his intimate knowledge of some lesser-known folk with our interest in them, the overall feeling of gratitude and what Martin Amis called “a transfusion from above” when reading Point to Point Navigation, means I can offer it only the highest praise. It is a perfect valediction for Vidal.

Rohinton Mistry: Family Matters

Family Matters took me almost a full week – a long reading for me – to get through its 500-page length. It’s a very curious book, not least because anything else this long and detailed would automatically feel like an epic. Mistry’s story, however, remains intimate, and restricts itself to the immediate members of a family.

Nariman Vakeel is 79 years old and suffers from Parkinson’s disease. He lives with his stepson Jal and stepdaughter Coomy in the not entirely aptly named Chateau Felicity apartment block in Bombay. (Or is it Mumbai? One subplot of the book concerns the strongarm efforts by Shiv Sena Hindu nationalists to force inhabitants to stop using the anglicised form of the city’s name.) Jal and Coomy are protective of their stepfather, who tries to maintain his independence. One day when out alone Nariman falls, breaking his ankle, and for recuperation is sent to stay with his biological daughter Roxana and her husband Yezad. Coomy, glad to be rid of the burden, does everything she can to prevent Nariman from returning. This is despite the financial strains being put on Yezad and Roxana in supporting him, which leads to both Yezad and his son drifting into lawlessness to raise money, and ultimately to tragedy.

Despite the book’s recounting of often miserable events and lives, the tone is kept fairly light and almost in a stereotypical vain of Indian literature by English-speaking authors: a certain density and musicality of prose which never becomes turgid or unreadable. The characters are beautifully outlined, not least the secondary figures like Yezad’s employer Mr Kapur, and the disastrously bad handyman in the flat below Jal and Coomy.

But there’s something missing from Family Matters. Mistry’s attention to detail is sometimes akin to an inability to see the wood for the trees: the details are all beautifully done, and well worked out, and pleasing to read, but the story suffers. It’s sluggish and frequently seems inconsequential. Nothing very much happens other than what the blurb tells us – and then, suddenly and without warning, as though he recognised the need to shake things up a bit, around page 400 Mistry kills off five characters in quick succession. This has the effect of making everything afterwards seem like an epilogue – though there are still a hundred pages to go – and of letting the air in, and miraculously the book becomes much more alive from then on, despite an implausible lack of grief by the bereaved. But even so, at the end, when one character is veering toward religious fundamentalism, it feels as though there is much more to say and the ending seems arbitrary.

So Family Matters is a puzzle: grim but not depressing, long but not big, beautifully written but somewhat dull, and frequently admirable but rarely lovable.