Month: July 2007

Patrick McGrath: Dr Haggard’s Disease

If you believe that literature – as the narrator of Patrick McGrath’s 1993 novel Dr Haggard’s Disease says about love – “should not reassure, should not attempt to soothe, or give comfort, but should, rather, excite,” then this is the book for you. It’s certainly the book for me: I’ve read it four times before now, and my admiration for its artistry, strange beauty and creative brilliance only has me drumming my heels in merriment more each time.

(If you buy a copy now – second hand, of course, as shamefully it’s out of print – it might not look like the above, but I love this cover and now I’ve worked out how to use my scanner, there’s no stopping me.)

On the surface – the “roiling … churning” surface – Dr Haggard’s Disease is a story of love lost: a doctor in 1930s and 40s England recounts the story of his lost lover to her son.

I was in Elgin, upstairs in my study, gazing at the sea and reflecting, I remember, on a line of Goethe when Mrs Gregor tapped at the door that Saturday and said there was a young man in the surgery to see me, a pilot. You know how she talks. “A pilot, Mrs Gregor?” I murmured. I hate being disturbed on my Saturday afternoons, especially if Spike is playing up, as he was that day, but of course I limped out on to the landing and made my way downstairs. And you know what that looks like – pathetic bloody display that is, first the good leg, then the bad leg, then the stick, good leg, bad leg, stick, but down I came, down the stairs, old beyond my years and my skin a grey so cachectic it must have suggested even to you that I was in pain, chronic pain, but oh dear boy not pain like yours, just wait now and we’ll make it all – go – away –

But as always with McGrath, the story and the way the story is told are two different but linked elements. Already, in the opening paragraph above, there is much to tease us. Who or what is Spike? What’s with the bad leg? Why does he trail off so oddly? And as the pages pass, there are more ominous clues to the circumstances in which Haggard is telling us – or rather James, the son of his lover – his story (“Don’t move, darling boy. Don’t fight it”), and the story-behind-the-story which to begin with is only hinted at but sets our suspicions soaring (“dear boy you’ve undressed behind those screens yourself!”).

Early in the book, Haggard is told by another man, “Wife died ten years ago, never quite saw the point of things after that.” This concise appraisal reflects Haggard’s own preoccupation: he doesn’t see the point of things after losing his lover, but rather than dwindle and decline, he creates a sort of religion of his own overblown suffering, with fully biblical expression (his father was a rector and Haggard was expected to follow him into the church). We learn that no more than a year passed (1937-8) between his time of grand passion and his retirement to the south coast of England, where he chooses a grand gothic (but worn out) house, reflective of his “broken body and spirit” which nonetheless contains “the restlessness of a wild and changeful heart.” What can have happened in such a short time to account for such a change? That, and the terrible aftermath, is the essence of Dr Haggard’s disease.

McGrath’s handling of the air of wartime England and of the atmosphere between the principal players, is masterly. Here is the first flirtatious exchange between Haggard and his lover. (The names are positively Dickensian in McGrath’s novels. Here we have ravaged Haggard, overbearing husband Ratcliff, and the woman torn between them: Fanny. So he does jokes too.) Haggard has declared his intention to give himself over “to a life of pleasure.”

“I’d have thought pleasure was a worn-out idea, given the times, wouldn’t you?” …

“But tell me an idea that isn’t worn out.”

“Passion,” she said.

“Passion?” I was something of a stranger to that idea! “I should have thought that passion, at least, was about pleasure -?”

“Oh no,” she said quickly, “it’s not about pleasure at all. Passion is very serious. I know you take it lightly, but you’ll learn one day what a serious responsibility it is. It’s the best we’re capable of, civilized human beings.”

Civilized human beings. How strange I would find it, later, to recall a time before I heard her say those words, express that ideal – there seems a curious weightlessness to it now, as though all existence prior to your mother was just a form of floating, a fantastic, ethereal, childlike condition that did end, yes, with the gravity of the responsibility of passion – but all of that was yet to come. “The best?” I said.

“What better?”

“But passion always dies,” I said.

“Spoken like a medical man,” she said, as our plates were removed. “For you, passion is a disease. It causes suffering, comes to a crisis, and dies.”

The story is both creative and destructive as told by Haggard, whose mind “played tricks on me” even as it was able to “see the larger patterns, the higher truths.” Elgin, the house by the sea which he takes over, becomes an extension of himself, “something massive that has lain inert and dormant for years, being roused, shuffling to life again” and powered by “a huge monster heart, pumping and thumping through the shuddering, flickering structure in which I sat.”

The question that must be asked then is whether this soaringly perverse tale has any universality, or whether it’s art for art’s sake (and there’s nothing wrong with that). What it does is reflect normality through what Dr Haggard is not, as well as presenting moments where his humanity, in moments when he is not consumed by his own feelings, can show through: such as when he encounters an elderly patient who has her pain relieved with morphine:

I prepared a needle and asked the dying woman whether she wanted it now. “Yes,” she murmured, “yes I do. I won’t be going out just yet, Marjorie, I haven’t finished with the injections.”

On our way downstairs Marjorie Hale-Newton asked me what I thought her mother meant. I knew only too well. “She means,” I said, “that she’s at least getting pleasure from the morphia.”

“Oh I know she is,” said Marjorie. “She gets very impatient with me if I make her wait.”

“Don’t make her wait,” I said. “Let her have it when she wants it.”

But even this simple expression of humanity may have another explanation. And if only Dr Haggard could note his colleague’s advice, as a doctor, that “vast majority of people who’ll come to you, doctor, vast majority, have ailments that fall well within the scope of the body’s healing powers. Immense capacity to heal itself, the body, but it’s got to be persuaded.” Dr Haggard will not be persuaded that his dead love affair requires healing.

As you can see, I could talk about this book for hours (and almost have done). The only way to experience it, to complete the story, and to discover the terrible and brilliant ending, which remains for me one of the strongest and most grotesquely tender images I have ever read, is to read it yourself. It is a masterpiece that, although certain to disappoint after this introduction, is the richest and strangest thing I have seen all year, even fifth time around.

Brian Moore: The Feast of Lupercal

Here in the UK, Waterstone’s booksellers have a slogan on their carrier bags which reminds us that “Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.” Well, they’ve obviously never read Wuthering Heights. Anyway, many of Brian Moore’s novels fall into the first category. Having raved this year already about his first novel The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne and his third novel The Luck of Ginger Coffey, I thought I would fill in the gap with his second, The Feast of Lupercal (1958). It’s so out-of-print (but widely available second-hand on Amazon etc…) that I couldn’t even find a decent cover image online, and had to scan in my own copy. Can you tell it’s not a recent publication?

For an author renowned for never writing the same type of book twice, The Feast of Lupercal doesn’t half have a lot in common with Judith Hearne. Again we have a stunted, sheltered protagonist approaching middle age in the coldly religious world of 1950s Belfast. But it is far from a retread. Here Diarmuid Devine, 37, is a teacher in Ardath College, a Catholic school run by priests. He is happy to be a part of the school’s brutal culture, caning boys at the slightest excuse (“hearing the same excuse one day later in a senior class, Mr Devine realised it had become usable currency. If he accepted it again, he would be imposed upon”) and without mercy (“Deegan doubled over in pain. At Ardath, stoicism is regarded as folly. Stoics made a master think he had missed”).

Devine is single and sexually inexperienced, and when he overhears a colleague refer to him as “that old woman!”, he recognises that his life is slipping away from him. This too separates him from Judith Hearne, who was less educated and intelligent than Devine, and had little insight into how others saw her. Nonetheless, Devine is not above making a fool of himself, and when he goes to a colleague’s house party, he meets his pretty young niece, Una Clarke. After a brief exchange of smalltalk – they swap names and professions – Devine is already making us cringe:

He was glad he had worn his best suit. He looked at her hands and saw they were slightly reddened. Chilblains? Any ring? She was too young, of course. But by jingo, here he was, flirting with a girl. It was pleasant, was it not? Very.

To begin with I thought that The Feast of Lupercal was less focused than Judith Hearne, and gave us too much in the way of extraneous details about school life in Ardath. But then we realise that what Moore is giving us is the beginning and the end of life under the dead hand of Northern Ireland religion in the 1950s, the cause and the effect, for Devine himself “had been a boarder at this very school, shut off from girls until he was almost a grown man.” (The school scenes too were a form of catharsis for Moore.) The misadventures which follow for Devine with Una Clarke are appalling (“He approached the bed like a man condemned”), but somehow borderline comic, which is more than you can say for the conflict that arises with his colleagues as a result. This brings in with full weight the case against church-run education, or what we would now call faith schools.

The book builds in force and has some breathtaking scenes toward the close, and the end is not at all what I expected (though it fits in with his later novel of an illicit affair, the superb The Doctor’s Wife). It was a pleasant curiosity for me, too, to see Belfast depicted in a real work of literature, even if unflatteringly, full of “small, red-brick houses, their bay windows thrust out to repel the stranger” and where school bells go “echoing across wet playing fields to die in the faraway mists over Belfast Lough.”

Pat Barker: Life Class

Pat Barker is one of those writers I’ve been aware of for ages – well, since she won the Booker Prize in 1995 with The Ghost Road, the final volume in her First World War trilogy – without ever getting up the interest to sit down and read her. Not that that puts her in an exclusive club, for we all have must-read writers we never quite get around to. So when she returned to the Great War with her new novel Life Class, and it was received as a return to form in the press, and – crucially – the publishers gave it a nice retro cover which put me in mind of Peter Ho Davies’s wonderful The Welsh Girl – well, I finally fell.

And it is an assured performance, clearly the work of a writer who – for want of a better way of putting it – knows what she’s doing. Life Class brings together art and war, idealism and realism, and sets them in conflict with a cast of plausible characters. In 1914, Paul Tarrant is a young working-class man studying to become a painter, but feels he lacks the talent of his friends Elinor Brooke and Kit Neville. Messy love affairs follow, and when war breaks out Paul joins the Belgian Red Cross. This takes us to halfway through the book, but the cover flap gives all this away and more, so don’t write in.

The scenes in the London art world before the war are firmly drawn but Barker seems to be entering her element when the blood starts flowing. She never flinches at grisly description (“Shrapnel had come through from the back and severed the penis at the base”) and brings an appropriately visual sense to the occasional moments of drama:

But even as she spoke there was another crash and everything on the table did a little jump in the air. The light bulb was swinging at the end of its flex, sending shadows from side to side. All the people in the room seemed to be clinging from the clapper of a bell. The electric light flickered again, only it was more than a flicker now. A long, fierce, edge-of-darkness buzzing and then the lights went out. The candles, which were really no more than ornaments, wobbled but kept going, giving just enough light to show people’s faces and hands. What Elinor remembered afterwards was the inertia. Nobody moved. They couldn’t believe it had happened; they didn’t want to abandon their nice meals and their bottles of wine, and so they all just sat there, staring at each other, until another thud, closer, brought with it the sound of breaking glass.

The chapters become more cumulatively more powerful, and the differing status levels of the characters bring out interesting ideas about whether great times of crisis render art frivolous, or all the more necessary (and can even improve it). And there is an unsentimental handling of love.

However the book retains a reserve or calmness for much of its length which seems not entirely apt for the passions and devastations under consideration. It’s the sort of read which will polarise opinion – some will think its controlled observation of history and solid handling of ‘issues’ to be the very essence of proper literature; others will find it old-fashioned and ponderous, a sort of literature-by-numbers. I fell somewhere in the middle. Amid all the steady prose there is the occasional clanger of a phrase which jolted me out of the story. “You know how a poppy looks when you peel the outer green casing back too early?” Well. No.

Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart

I keep telling authors that if they want me to read their fifty-year-old classic novels, all they have to do is win an international literary award for a lifetime’s achievement. Fortunately Chinua Achebe recently saw the sense in this policy and won the second Man Booker International Prize, so I’ve responded by finally getting around to reading his 1958 debut novel, Things Fall Apart. (Now Doris Lessing, get your finger out for god’s sake, and don’t make me come over there.)

The book gives us, say the blurb and reviews I’ve read, an insight into white colonisation of Africa from the native’s perspective (Achebe has been critical of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness). But in fact this only happens in the last 50 pages of the book: though as the novel is only 150 pages long, that accounts for a third of it.

Before that the book is divided in two. The first third or so is dedicated to Okonkwo, a warrior and clansman of the Ibo people in Nigeria (Achebe’s own origins). Okonkwo is a larger-than-life character, and not always a likeable one. He “had no patience with unsuccessful men” and believes that “to show affection was a sign of weakness; the only thing worth demonstrating was strength.” All this he owes to his father:

Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. … It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father. Even as a little boy he had resented his father’s failure and weakness, and even now he still remembered how he had suffered when a playmate told him that his father was agbala. That was how Okonkwo first came to know that agbala was not only another name for a woman, it could also mean a man who had taken no title. And so Okonkwo was ruled by one passion – to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved. One of those things was gentleness and another was idleness.

All this is amply demonstrated when Okonkwo takes the flimsiest opportunity to beat one of his wives, and Achebe neatly compounds our horror by having the villagers complain about this only because “it was unheard of to beat somebody during the sacred week.” He also plays with our expectations of ‘primitive’ behaviour (“On great occasions such as the funeral of a village celebrity he drank his palm-wine from his first human head”).

Okonkwo’s savagery can come to no good, and he lives to regret his bloody ways when he does something terrible even by his own standards because “he was afraid of being thought weak.” However it’s at this crucial point where the steam suddenly runs out of the story, and Achebe spends the middle third of the book illustrating various Ibo mores such as marriage customs and funeral rites. It robs the book of its narrative pull.

Only when the white missionaries arrive, as mentioned above, do things pick up again. We are given a tantalising psychological conflict, and it’s fascinating to observe the slow development of the inevitable. If we didn’t already know it, Achebe makes us aware that one supernatural belief system is the equal of any other, and emphasises again how a white, Western point of view is just one among many. The closing paragraph, not incidentally, is one of the finest I have ever read.

Roddy Doyle: Paula Spencer

Ten years ago I read Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, and immediately thought it was his best novel to date. It described the life of Paula Spencer, a Dublin woman married to brutal thug Charlo. They had been the subject of his little-seen TV series Family, but Paula gained new depth on the page. Now Doyle has revisited her life, ten years on, in Paula Spencer.

The book describes a year of Paula’s long journey away from being “a woman stopping madness by meeting it halfway.” She is an alcoholic (off the sauce for four months now), working cash in hand and living hand to mouth, with four kids presenting various problems and occasional joys. Eldest daughter Nicola is prosperous and attentive (“Their fridge … a present from Nicola. It takes up half the kitchen. It’s one of those big silver, two-door jobs. She opens it the way film stars open the curtains. Daylight! Ta-dah! Empty. What was Nicola thinking of? The stupid bitch. How to make a poor woman feel poorer. Buy her a big fridge. Fill that, loser. The stupid bitch. What was she thinking?”). Son John Paul is a recovering heroin addict, living across town and married to Star, with whom Paula doesn’t get on. Younger son Jack is still at home, and is the one in whom Paula places most hope. Also at home is Leanne: Paula fears that she is following in her alcoholic footsteps:

There are so many Leannes. She sees and feels hundreds of her, every day – it’s no exaggeration. The little girl clutching Paula’s leg. The teenager painting nail varnish onto bleeding skin. The baby crying while her mammy tries to crawl under the cot. The wreck on the couch. The young woman hobbling to work. The little girl who never sits still, who makes everyone laugh. The little girl who wets the bed. The teenager who wets the bed. The woman who wets the bed. They’re all there, every day. The young woman she’ll see tomorrow morning. The skinny monster she might see tomorrow morning. The girl who hugs her. The woman who hit her.

All her children are recovering from Paula’s alcoholism, just as she is, and Doyle brings out brilliantly their differing responses: the over-watchful, the unforgiving, the jointly damaged. And he does this in remarkably spare language, which at first seems unnaturally staccato and repetitive, but soon takes on a laconic poetry. The work the reader must do for all the adjectives and purple prose Doyle leaves out, gives an added richness to Paula’s relationships with her children and her siblings. Some simple passages, such as the one where Paula intensively makes all the beds in the house largely to keep herself busy and distract her mind from wanting another drink, are powerfully affecting.

There is also, amid the unsentimental portrayal, some of the humour Doyle displayed in the Barrytown trilogy:

Where would she wear a good coat? She doesn’t go out anywhere. She doesn’t go to Mass. She doesn’t go to the pictures. She’s never been in a theatre. Work and the shops – that’s it. Her sisters have given up on her. Her last text from Carmel was ages ago and it wasn’t a party invitation. She was offering Paula a chicken. Spare chkn. Wnt? Paula didn’t answer.

Shve it up yr arse.

The book also reflects the changes in Ireland in the last ten or fifteen years, the growth in wealth, political development and influx of foreign workers into a formerly monoethnic society.  But it is as a character-driven story, which makes you hope the best for its main players (urging Paula not to give in and have another drink each time she is tempted), where it excels.

Maeve Brennan: The Visitor

I don’t often look too closely at my Amazon recommendations. They are usually along the lines of: We see you bought Book X by Author Y. Why not try every other book by Author Y in multiple editions? But recently they came up with this title: based on what, I’ve no idea. Maeve Brennan? Never heard of her. It turns out she was an Irish writer who lived most of her life in the USA and wrote for The New Yorker magazine. Collections of her stories are available in the US but not in the UK. The Visitor was discovered in typescript form in a university archive after her death, and was written sometime in the 1940s, making it her earliest known work of fiction. And it is a tremendous discovery: for the world of literature via the University of Notre Dame … and for me via Amazon.

The Visitor tells the story of 22-year-old Anastasia King’s return to Dublin after her mother’s death.  She and her mother had lived in Paris following her parents’ separation.

Her thoughts went back to Paris; dwindling uncertain pictures formed in her mind.  Again she was saying goodbye to her father.  There he was in miniature, and she also, in a clear cold miniature room.  He turned and faded out through the hotel door that opened inward.  He looked a bit like a tortoise, all bent and curving in on himself, carrying his hat in his hand.  For the first time she had wanted to say she was sorry, at last to say how sorry she was, but he was already down the corridor and around the corner and gone.

Anastasia goes to stay with her grandmother Mrs King in Dublin: she believes she is going to live there now her mother is dead, but Mrs King makes it clear she is only a visitor, for spiteful reasons.  (“It might have been different, maybe, if you’d been with me when he died.  But you weren’t here.”)  Brennan creates the old grudgeful woman brilliantly, illuminating her character in brief slipped-in lines – “She smiled in anger” – while giving Anastasia’s experience of Dublin and memories of Paris an almost lyrical feel.

Mrs King sees nobody in her house, except another visitor Miss Kilbride, a Havisham-like figure who like Anastasia, nursed her mother until death and whose existence since then provides a warning to the younger woman.  She entrusts Anastasia with a task, the outcome of which had me gasping despite its low-key status, thanks to Brennan’s control of the tension and atmosphere of the house and the city.

The Visitor is published in the UK by Phoenix, but the one I picked up and which I recommend is a dinky little edition from Irish publishers New Island.  It’s small enough to slip in any pocket, and contains a fascinating introduction and editor’s note, giving details of Brennan’s life and the discovery of the typescript of The Visitor after her death.  Both are readily available from Amazon.  I owe them one, after all.

Stefan Zweig: The Invisible Collection / Buchmendel

As promised previously, I have finally picked up some of Stefan Zweig’s stories as published by Pushkin Press in their handsome little squarish editions, and the first of these was The Invisible Collection / Buchmendel.

This slim volume comprises two stories, 26 pages and 56 pages respectively, and you might think this is not very good value at the price of a normal paperback. You might be right – there is another volume of Zweig pairs, Twilight / Moonbeam Alley, not much longer. Would it have killed Pushkin to bundle them together in one 200-page book? On the other hand, they are bringing us great fiction, and these beautifully stitched and printed volumes can’t be cheap to make.

Anyway. The Invisible Collection, first published in 1926, has the usual Zweig framing device of a man telling us a story about a story told to him by another man. This time it’s a dealer in rare books and prints in Germany, during its period of hyperinflation in the 1920s, when goods rose in price daily and most money literally wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on. The book dealer decides to look up some old buyers, to see if they are willing to sell back their purchases in these straitened times. What he discovers with one old man shocks him, and provides Zweig not only with the opportunity to fit a story within the story, but to produce a satisfying and accessible tale reflecting (as he points out) Goethe’s maxim that “Collectors are happy creatures.” It put me a little in mind of Raymond Carver’s story ‘Cathedral,’ or one of Roald Dahl’s adult stories without the glib desire for a twist.

Buchmendel, dating from 1929, introduces us to the story of Mendel, an unassuming young man who has

a titanic memory, wherein, behind a dirty and undistinguished-looking forehead, was indelibly recorded a picture of the title page of every book that had been printed. No matter whether it had issued from the press yesterday or hundreds of years ago, he knew its place of publication, its author’s name, and its price. From his mind, as if from the printed page, he could read off the contents, could reproduce the illustrations; could visualise, not only what he had actually held in his hands, but also what he had glanced at in a bookseller’s window; could see it with the same vividness as an artist sees the creations of fancy which he has not yet reproduced upon canvas.

This takes us into a story with some similarities to Zweig’s Chess / The Royal Game, and it’s a feature of these short stories (the pages are small as well as few) that I can’t really say any more without spoiling part of the fun. And reading Zweig is fun. He reminds us in Buchmendel that “one only makes books in order to keep in touch with one’s fellows after one has ceased to breathe, and thus to defend oneself against the inexorable fate of all that lives – transitoriness and oblivion.” Thanks to Pushkin Press, Zweig’s mission is accomplished.