Month: March 2007

Ian McEwan: On Chesil Beach

Ian McEwan has reached the status of a British John Updike or Philip Roth, where the publication of each new book is a notable event.  It is an appropriate accolade for a writer who has matured from enfant terrible to elder statesman: from edgy stories of sexual irregularity and dramatic violence, to richer investigations of the social and psychological makeup of a people.

Chesil Beach in Dorset is famous to any geography student as being an example of the phenomenon of longshore drift, and drift of a sort is what McEwan’s new book is about.  It tells the story of Edward and Florence, and their first night of marriage in July 1962 (the year before “sexual intercourse began,” as Philip Larkin told us), staying in a hotel near “Chesil Beach with its infinite shingle.”

Both are virgins: Edward has first night nerves, and Florence worries that by marrying him she has brought on the physical intimacy she most fears.  What McEwan does terribly well is to invigorate old staples that we thought we knew, such as Edward’s reciting of political analysis to (as Alan Partridge would put it) ‘keep the wolf from the door,’ which seems both fresh and funny.

Less successful are the pieces of the couple’s past which McEwan gives us: the scenes set before they met seem particularly unnecessary, and have the air of having been spliced in later to fill the book out from story to novella.  And there is a danger of imbalance, when the meticulously detailed account in the first nine-tenths of the book suddenly switches pace and rushes to a conclusion.  Overall, On Chesil Beach is more Amsterdam than Atonement.

But at its best, McEwan’s great achievement, here as in Saturday, is to make the reader feel that nothing could be more important, or urgent, right now than to read about whatever his chosen subject happens to be.  In this case, he makes a vital cause out of a transitional period, for two anonymous young people, for a generation, and for a country; the era when “to be young was a social encumbrance, a mark of irrelevance, a faintly embarrassing condition for which marriage was the beginning of the cure,” the time when “being childlike was not yet honourable, or in fashion.”

Yukio Mishima: The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea

In an ideal world, a book could be read without your knowledge of the author influencing the experience.  But when the About the Author blurb ends with “On the day he completed his last novel, Mishima committed ritual suicide by disembowelment,” it can’t help but add a certain … frisson.

And Yukio Mishima’s life and personality is all over The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, the story of a thirteen-year-old boy who takes exception to his mother’s new lover and exacts a terrible revenge.  Wikipedia says, “Mishima’s sexual orientation remains a matter of debate.”  That is one way of putting it.  In the book, one might not be perturbed to see the male body (“His broad shoulders were square as the beams in a temple roof, his chest strained against a thick mat of hair, knotted muscle like twists of sisal hemp bulged all over his body”) described just as lovingly as the female (“Her haughty breasts inclined sharply away from her body; and when she kneaded them with her hands, the rosy nipples danced apart.  He saw the trembling belly”).  More surprising is the fact that the last description is the teenager, Noboru, spying on his mother.  And when we factor in the explicit connections made in the book between sex and death, and of “contempt” characters feel for those whose suicide attempts have failed, the picture of a ‘debatable’ sexuality is pretty much complete.

Not that this is surprising.  The other Mishima novel I have read, Confessions of a Mask, was a similarly humid, troubled tale, all nihilism and misanthropy, although The Sailor… has a much more straightforward plot.  The sailor of the title is Ryuji, who meets Noboru’s widowed mother on shore leave and has an affair with her (while continuing his love-hate relationship with a life at sea).  Noboru, however, is a self-regarding young man who associates with a gang of youths who share his hardline beliefs:

At thirteen, Noboru was convinced of his own genius (each of the others in the gang felt the same way) and certain that life consisted of a few simple signals and decisions; that death took root at the moment of birth and man’s only recourse thereafter was to water and tend it; that propagation was a fiction; consequently, society was a fiction too: that fathers and teachers, by virtue of being fathers and teachers, were guilty of a grievous sin.  Therefore, his own father’s death, when he was eight, had been a happy incident, something to be proud of.

That Mishima allows Noboru’s beliefs to remain unchallenged, and even to prevail, suggests that this sort of solipsism reflected his own views.  And knowing what we do of his life, that seems a reasonable conclusion.

The Sailor… is then a genuinely perverse book, and worth reading because of the insight it gives into a mindset that is alien to most of us.  Those who are looking for empathetic characterisation will be disappointed, and cat lovers will be nauseated, but there are some fine turns of phrase to be found, like “the darkly heaping sea.”

Brian Moore: The Luck of Ginger Coffey

Brian Moore, who died in 1999, was one of the few twentieth century novelists from Northern Ireland of real stature. He is sometimes referred to, inaccurately, as under-rated (in fact he’s highly rated, but woefully under-read); and as a writer’s writer, which is only true if the writer in question is Graham Greene, who considered Moore “my favourite living novelist.” In fact Moore is a reader’s writer through and through, marrying a real skill at storytelling with social insight and a giddy diversity of subject matter. All he needs is the readers.

The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1960) is saddled with a bulky title but turns out to be one of the very finest among the dozen or so books of his that I’ve read. To begin with, it is far lighter in tone than much of his work, from his earlier personality-driven pieces like The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne or I am Mary Dunne to the later taut Booker-shortlisted thrillers The Colour of Blood and Lies of Silence.

The humour comes from the central figure of James Francis ‘Ginger’ Coffey, a fool and dreamer who has emigrated from Ireland to Canada (as Moore himself did in 1948). He tries to scam his way into jobs, he daydreams of a better life, he tries the patience of his long-suffering wife Veronica and daughter Paulie. When he loses a job:

[h]e economized by giving up their flat and moving to this cheap dump of a duplex. But he did not tell Veronica. For two weeks he sat in his rented office, searching the want ads in the newspapers, dodging out from time-to-time for half-hearted enquiries about jobs. But the trouble was, what his trouble always was. He had not finished his BA, the army years were wasted years, the jobs at Kylemore and Coomb-Na-Baun had not qualified him for any others. In six months he would be forty.

It’s difficult to explain what makes this novel so appealing. There is no fancy prose, no outlandish occurrences, no sense of boundaries stretched. And yet this is what makes it a success: it is an intimate story, perfectly done. It is full and satisfying by the end, and the only flaws I could detect were a couple of unsurprising plot developments. It is entertaining and page-turning but also rich in character: not only the central figures (and if there was any justice, the term ‘Walter Mitty character’ would by now have its own subset, the ‘Ginger Coffey character’) but the teeming hordes of minor figures who remain memorable despite their brief appearances. And Moore is adept at turning the mood to intense poignancy, such as when Coffey learns how much his fourteen year old daughter has grown up, when she threatens to leave home to live with her boyfriend:

He felt dizzy. He backed away from the door and sat down in the first chair his hand touched. In his mind, a child’s voice spoke: Do you like big elephants best of all, or do you like horses best of all? He remembered her asking that. Or: why do my dolly’s eyes stay open when she sleeps? Conversations which ended with him telling her something she did not know. Now, she had told him something he did not know.

I should add that it’s possible I got a further layer of pleasure from the feel of the Irish vernacular – not just the words, but the way they are delivered – which others might not share.  Nonetheless, with The Luck of Ginger Coffey, Brian Moore has proved again his protean brilliance, and shown that a practically unknown book by a virtually unheard-of novelist can hit harder than the best loved and most well known. Only around a third of his twenty novels are in print in the UK, which in a better world would be close to a national scandal. Get them while they’re here.

Warwick Collins: The Rationalist

I was delighted by Warwick Collins’ slim novel Gents recently, and so I leapt at the chance to discover some of his more substantial fare. Prominent among these are the two novels in his unfinished trilogy set in his home town of Lymington at the close of the 18th century, The Rationalist (1993) and The Marriage of Souls (1999). My general low tolerance for historical fiction meant I approached The Rationalist with fingers crossed in trust.

It concerns Dr Silas Grange, an ascetic man of reason and controlled appetites. He treats his patients, he lives comfortably with the assistance of his housekeeper Mrs Thompson, he gazes out over the Solent to the Isle of Wight beyond. His life is orderly, like the calm and quiet Hampshire landscape on which the story rests. A man of the Enlightenment through and through, he is (as he puts it) ‘not devout’ – or to put it another way, his polemic on religion would put Richard Dawkins to shame:

‘Reason does not proceed by confirmation, but by contradiction. We know nothing of our arguments until we have heard the opposite. That is, sir, where I disagree with the religionists, who in the main are infuriated by any statement which is the opposite of what they themselves choose to believe. If I may draw a difference between myself and them, it is not simply a case of my believing something else, but the methods I use to ascertain the truth of what I believe.’

(And the relevance today of references to the battle between reason and religion can hardly be missed, perhaps even more so than in the fourteen years since the novel was published.)

But Dr Grange is about to find that when it comes to reason against emotion, the body has a mind of its own. This is achieved through the medium of Mrs Celia Quill, a lady of ‘grace’ and ‘very fine intelligence’ who has recently moved to the area. The extraordinary transformation in Grange’s behaviour which she not so much persuades as seduces him to undertake, cannot be revealed without spoiling the story, though fans of Alan Bennett will have seen his Miss Fozzard experience a similar awakening in Talking Heads.

There are two features of The Rationalist which particularly impress. First, Collins eschews the usual pastiche of language of the period, preferring a plain style which better reflects both the serene beauty of the ever-present landscape, and the calm expansiveness of Grange’s mind. And yet what’s remarkable is that this detached and cool prose twists its way into the reader’s soul with almost embarrassing ease. The early scene of crude surgery will have you clenching the pages in tightened fists, and when Grange sat down to his meal of ‘rich bloody beef’ with his colleague Hargood, I had a piercing hunger by the end of their gluttonous feast.

Hargood is the second outstanding quality of the book, or rather his combative relationship with Grange is. The two are fast friends, and sworn foes on philosophy, ethics and even branches of medicine. And it is their long conversations, inevitably over those endless banquets of blood-dripping meat, which provide the greatest intellectual food of the novel. They balance one another out:

‘Think of it, Hargood, to conduct one’s life by means of logic, rather than the emotions. If that were only possible. To be driven by the intellect, rather than the senses.’

‘But without the senses, there is no intellect. That is the mistake of those revolutionaries on the other side of the Channel. The intellect alone is a loose gun. It ends up by destroying those who would deploy it.’

I could easily have devoured another book’s worth of this fine combination of ideas and energy. And, with The Marriage of Souls awaiting, I hope I shall have the chance to do so very soon.

Hilary Mantel: Fludd

The critical success of Hilary Mantel’s recent novel, the bizarre psychic comedy Beyond Black, invigorated her publisher to dust down her back catalogue and give them a no-expenses-spent rejacketing.

Fludd was first published in 1989 but is set – and styled – in the 1950s. Indeed, while Mantel cites Beryl Bainbridge as an influence (and the book certainly shares her idiosyncratic air), it reads most of all like the early novels of Muriel Spark. However, where Spark had a tendency to toy mischievously not only with her characters but with her readers, Mantel is a more traditional storyteller.

Which is not to say that Fludd is a run-of-the-mill novel. It’s a witty and offbeat exploration of various aspects of religious experience, all dealt in a coolly detached authorial voice. The style is best represented by the prologue, describing a painting of the raising of Lazarus from the dead:

His grave-clothes are draped like a towel over his head, and people lean towards him, and seem to confer; what he most resembles is a boxer in his corner. The expressions of those around are puzzled, mildly censorious. Here – in the very act of extricating his right leg from a knot of the shroud – one feels his troubles are about to begin again. A woman – Mary, or maybe Martha – is whispering behind her hand. Christ points to the revenant, and holds up his other hand, fingers outstretched: so many rounds down, five to go.

It’s a perfect introduction to a novel which takes a sly, questioning look at the traditions of faith, and asks us to consider the merits of seeking to apply theological (in this case Catholic) doctrine to all aspects of modern life. (“Lenten regulations,” asks one character to the priest, “and Fridays throughout the year. Does dripping count as meat? Or does it count as butter?”)

All of this is within the following context. In the northern town of Fetherhoughton, the priest is being challenged by his bishop to make his church more ‘relevant’ and ‘real’, not only by changing the mass into English (the subject of Brian Moore’s slim, piercing Catholics), but by removing the statues of saints from the church. The priest balks at this, and places his trust in his housekeeper and in Fludd, a mysterious curate who has arrived unannounced. Fludd, who moves in mysterious ways, will be at the heart of the transformation that occurs in the church and its inhabitants, including the personal journey of a disillusioned nun which takes the ecstasies of Black Narcissus a step or two further. The story also builds to an impressive pace at the end without ever losing its poise.

All of this is not only entertaining, but fascinating to a reader like me who has no religious affiliations but an abiding interest in the subject of faith. Graham Greene with jokes would be not unfair but not adequate either. In its weaker moments however, the humour seems needless and cruel, as in Mantel’s caricaturing of the inhabitants of the village as all chip fat and shared lavatories, a place where “to wash would have been thought an affectation.” But at the same time her ability shines through when she pulls off effortlessly descriptive flourishes like “in recent years her face had fallen softly, like a piece of light cotton folding into a box.” Fludd is awash with such brilliance.

On the poorly reproduced author photograph in the “P.S.” section at the back of this new edition, Hilary Mantel looks startled, as though surprised to be enjoying this revival of interest. She really shouldn’t be.

James Salter: Light Years

Before now, James Salter was known to me only as the author of the slim novel A Sport and a Pastime which, in one of those odd cross-pollinations, came to my attention through being praised by a character in a John Irving novel (maybe A Son of the Circus). A Sport and a Pastime had the reputation of being ‘erotic,’ and if erotic comprises memorable phrases such as “he comes like a bull,” then it had that. But I recall not much more of it, and it was less Salter’s reputation than my feeble addiction to Penguin Modern Classics that made me pick up his 1975 novel Light Years when it was reissued this month.

Midway through the book the female lead, Nedra, who reads biographies of great achievers, reflects that “the power to change one’s life comes from a paragraph, a lone remark.”

The lines that penetrate us are slender, like the flukes that live in river water and enter the bodies of swimmers. She was excited, filled with strength. The polished sentences had arrived, it seemed, like so many other things, at just the right time. How can we imagine what our lives should be without the illumination of the lives of others?

And while reading Light Years may not be a life-changing event (but then again), illumination of the lives of others is precisely its achievement. The light of the title is present everywhere, and few chapters open without a reference to the light: of Rome, of New York, of Paris (“In the morning the light came in silence” … “The room filled with light” … “the river is spilling light”). And Salter illuminates the lives of his characters, the happily-unhappily married Viri and Nedra, with astonishing stylistic brilliance.

Viri and Nedra, prosperous and envied, are not faithful to one another, and their move from marital bliss to domestic blitz and beyond carries echoes of Yates (and has his ultimate tragedy), with prose less plain than his but equally unflinching and honest. The characters are not always sympathetic but when an author can set them wriggling on a pin like this, who cares? So relentlessly seductive is Light Years that each time I returned to it I felt like a teenage suitor: giggling, nervous, hot-faced with intimidation.

Salter’s ability to despatch a character in a few lines is extraordinary. Here he is (through Nedra’s biographies again) on Barcelona’s celebrated architect Gaudi, “who lived to that old age which is sainthood”:

In the end he was struck by a streetcar and left unattended. In the bareness and odor of the charity ward amid the children and poor relations a single eccentric life was ending, a life that was more clamorous than the sea, an everlasting life, a life which was easy to abandon since it was only a husk; it had already metamorphosed, escaped into buildings, cathedrals, legend.

Elsewhere, the writing put me in mind of Updike or Bellow without that restless density which can make their stuff a chore at times. However beautiful Salter’s flexuous prose (and it pretty much always is), the story remains open and fluent, full of air – and light. The narrative proceeds in jumps, impressionistically: a scene here, a set piece there, covering twenty years. Salter seems keen to show what he can do, demonstrating his wit early on with an exchange between Viri and a bespoke shirtmaker, then switching to reflective mood, social satire, and making some scenes impressively erotic without being explicit (particularly in Viri’s horribly realistic obsession with his sometime mistress, Kaya Doutreau).

Most impressive of all, perhaps, is a scene where a character’s father dies in a wrenching and arduous two-page stretch. It puts the tin hat on any questions about Salter’s ability and virtuosic brilliance, or about this being my book of the year so far. It begins like this.

It took a long time, it took forever; days and nights, the smell of antiseptic, the hush of rubber wheels. This frail engine, we think, and yet what murder is needed to take it down. The heart is in darkness, unknowing, like those animals in mines that have never seen the day. It has no loyalties, no hopes; it has its task.

Russell Hoban: Linger Awhile

Russell Hoban, who published his first adult novel in 1973 at the age of 48, has enjoyed an extraordinary late flowering. Of his fourteen novels, eight were published since 1996 (with another due later this year). I’ll have what he’s having. And yet after enjoying some of his earlier novels, I found that his later ones seemed to be developing not quite a formula – a writer as unpredictable as Hoban could never be accused of that – but what Detective Inspector Hunter in Linger Awhile might call “certain similarities.” Older men and younger women; cultural esoterica; technology and sex; and modern day London. So it was with hope and trepidation that I approached Hoban’s latest.

Hoban describes it as a “vampire farce” and that pretty much sums it up. The great revelation is that it tells a much more linear and straightforward story than most of his books – though ‘straightforward’ might not be precisely the word for a novel where a group of three middle-aged to elderly men conjure up a dead star of Hollywood Westerns out of the electronic ether and she sets about a little light bloodsucking. Or as one character puts it to himself: “Nothing would be simple from now on, and I was wondering if I mightn’t be too old for reactivating dead women from videotapes.”

But it combines these welcome qualities with Hoban’s usual charm and likeability – even when he’s being a little too whimsical, you can’t help enjoying yourself – and produces dialogue that one would never have expected to see in a piece of modern literary fiction, such as this exchange when the man who brought actress Justine Trimble back from the dead tries to persuade his friend to join the conspiracy:

‘If you want to join the Justine club you’ll have to give her some of what it takes. As the fellow said, “The blood is the life”.’

‘And in return?’

‘You get what you’ve been craving for. Justine is a treat to look at when she’s been haematologically refreshed and she’ll be very affectionate, I promise you.’

‘My God, you’re pimping for her.’

‘Needs must when the Devil drives. You can take the moral high ground or you can follow your heart.’

‘My heart, for Christ’s sake!’

‘Or whatever part is leading you. We’re talking pragmatism here.’

If this all sounds a little silly, well, it is, but the book is also littered with Hoban’s deep literary intelligence, and gives us plenty on frustration, loss, late regrets and growing old disgracefully. It has a magical, winning tone which sets Hoban apart from pretty much anyone else now writing, and it seems truly rare – and almost guilt-inducing – for such a beautifully executed literary achievement to be as much fun as this.

Douglas Adams, writing about P.G. Wodehouse’s unfinished novel Sunset at Blandings, commented that “At the age of ninety-three, I think you’re entitled to have your best work behind you.” Maybe so: but Russell Hoban, eleven years younger, is still producing his best books.