Month: August 2007

Leo Tolstoy: The Kreutzer Sonata

Tolstoy is the man for when you’re in recovery mode from reading a dozen new novels in a row and want to make sure that what you tackle next is Definitely Literature. (Even if you enjoyed most of the dozen new novels and suspect some of them of being Probably Literature.) My skirmishes with him so far have neatly avoided the daddy of them all, War & Peace, but I can claim Anna Karenina under my belt, which I enjoyed reading but not as much as I enjoyed the fact of having read it, and The Death of Ivan Ilyich, which was quite phenomenally brilliant and (don’t hate me) even more phenomenally short. And now Penguin have reissued a story of his, The Kreutzer Sonata (1889), in their handsome new Great Loves series.

And it’s as spiky and as bloody as that cover suggests. It has that format so endearing to the 19th century writer, the story-within-a-story: I wonder why it was considered plausible then for a man on a train to tell a stranger his life story over 120 pages, and why the writer didn’t cut out the middleman and just give us a direct first person narrative from him. In this case, our narrator meets Pozdnyshev on a train, and learns about his marriage in direct terms: or, as Pozdnyshev introduces the subject, “I ended up murdering my wife.”  The tease.

We already know he has uncompromising views on love and sex from an earlier exchange in the train:

‘Loving the same man or woman all your life – why, that’s like supposing the same candle could last you all your life.’

‘But you’re just talking about physical love. Wouldn’t you admit that there can be a love that’s founded on shared ideals, on spiritual affinity?’

‘Spiritual affinity? Shared ideals? There’s not much point in going to bed together if that’s what you’re after (excuse the plain language). Do people go to bed together because of shared ideals?’ he said, laughing nervously.

He doesn’t get any more conciliatory. He tells how before marriage, he lived a life of “debauchery – the sort of life all men do.” And worse: “My God! I recoil in horror from the memory of all my filthy acts!” So when it comes to marriage, it’s easy to see how his judgement is corrupted: “I was wallowing in the slime of debauchery, and at the same time looking for girls who might be pure enough to be worthy of me!”

Pozdnyshev’s story is filled with this sort of self-loathing, which leaks into a generalised misanthropy. It’s bracingly bleak stuff, like a sharp and bitterly cold wind. He goes on to describe the immediate disillusionment he felt when marriage did come around. Relations between him and his bride were quickly brought low:

Our amorous feelings for one another had been drained by the gratification of our senses, and we were now left facing each other in our true relation, as two egotists who had nothing whatever in common except our desire to use each other to obtain the maximum amount of pleasure.

But a little directness goes a long way, and soon I felt that despite the atmospheric account, and the brilliant portrayal of sexual jealousy as a form of self-perpetuating anxiety, I would have been keen for Pozdnyshev to think something he didn’t say. Or do I mean Tolstoy? Because when reading around the story, I found first that Tolstoy’s wife was appalled that he had drawn on their own experiences together in writing the story. And also that he later published an addendum to the story, explaining that his views and intentions were more or less the same as Pozdnyshev’s, whereas I had thought the latter to be a deliberately appalling character supposed to highlight through absurdity everything that was wrong in what he said.

Nonetheless the story is readable and at the closing scenes, highly dramatic.  It’s also admirably and surprisingly direct on the subject of sex in the 19th century, and it’s not surprising that it was suppressed by the Russian authorities on publication. The US government agreed, and banned its publication in newspapers. Sex: then as now, the moral majority’s great leveller.

Jeanette Winterson: The Stone Gods

I don’t pretend any impartiality when reading a new book by Jeanette Winterson: I’ve been a fan for fifteen years or more.  But I’ve only been a fan because the books were so good.  I say were because for every work of dazzling brilliance in her early career, such as Sexing the Cherry or Written on the Body, there’s been a mid-period borderline clunker like Gut Symmetries or The Powerbook.  Winterson attracts extreme reactions, which is probably down to which of her books you read first.  But her last novel Lighthousekeeping was a real return to form, so my heart is in my mouth on the edge of my seat over her new book The Stone Gods.

The Stone Gods is Winterson’s most fun to read book probably since 1989’s Sexing the Cherry.  It’s a satire, a dystopian vision, and an historical reimagining.  All her novels since 1992’s Written on the Body have celebrated love as humankind’s greatest achievement; The Stone Gods goes further, celebrating it as robotkind’s greatest achievement too.

We open with the news, sometime in the future, that a new world has been discovered – Planet Blue – which is ideal for humans to occupy: “But everything is trial-size … Sardines that would take two men to land them … mushrooms soft and small as a mouse ear.  A crack like a cut, and inside a million million microbes wondering what to do next.  Spores that wait for the wind and never look back.  Moss that is concentrating on being green.”  People, who have not been concentrating on being green, have used up Earth (or Orbus as it’s known in the book) and Planet Blue is an ideal opportunity for a fresh start.

And boy does this world need a fresh start.  Winterson assembles an over-the-top hyperbolic version of reality, full of strongly drawn archetypes in a world obsessed with celebrity, youthful sex and law enforcement.  The western world, run by corporations, is known as the Central Power, a thinly disguised USA, and everyone can be ‘Fixed’ to look how they want and to prevent ageing:

Making everyone young and beautiful also made us all bored to death with sex.  All men are hung like whales.  All women are tight as clams below and inflated like lifebuoys above.  Jaws are square, skin is tanned, muscles are toned, and no one gets turned on.  It’s a global crisis.  At least, it’s a crisis among the cities of the Central Power.  The Eastern Caliphate has banned genetic fixing, and the SinoMosco Pact does not make it available to all its citizens, only to members of the ruling party and their favourites.  That way the leaders look like star gods and the rest look like shit-shovellers.  They never claimed to be a democracy.

The Central Power is a democracy.   We look alike, except for rich people and celebrities, who look better.  That’s what you’d expect in a democracy.

There is full-blooded and passion-driven broad satire on everything from sexualisation of youth (“Now that everyone is young and beautiful, a lot of men are chasing girls who are just kids.  They want something different when everything has become the same”) to charity (“I make a voluntary donation to this month’s charity, which is Apes in the Wild.  ‘There isn’t any Wild,’ I say.  ‘Exactly so,’ says Tasha.  ‘The money is to create a strip of Wild, and then put Apes in it'”).

The narrator is Billie Crusoe, who works in Enhancement (“It’s my job in Enhancement to explain to people that they really do want to live their lives in a way that is good for them and good for the Community. Enforcement steps in when it doesn’t quite work out”) but her heart isn’t quite in it.  She’s about to fall in love with a living robot called Spike, and some of her thoughts about the proposed colonization of Planet Blue are not very on-message:

She needs us like a bed needs bedbugs.  ‘I’m sorry,’ I say to the planet that can’t hear me.  And I wish she could sail through space, unfurling her white clouds to solar winds, and find a new orbit, empty of direction, where we cannot go, and where we can never find her, and where the sea, clean as a beginning, will wash away any trace of humankind.

After a breakneck first half, where the jokes turn to high drama, the book suddenly switches to another mode, goes all Cloud Atlas on us, and just as we’re settling in to that, we go back into what seems to be Billie and Spike’s past, which is only a little way into our future.  Winterson fits so much into 200 pages that I kept checking back to ensure the book was numbered properly.  Even when she’s hectoring us, providing too-neat allegories, or devolving at the end into a drawn-out eulogy on love (familiar to readers of any of her last four or five books), her lyrical gift, always her greatest strength (“hostile atmospheres, captured in jars and swirling like genies”), is so immense that I found it impossible not to drum my heels in merriment more or less throughout.

In the later sections of the book, Winterson also reinvents her childhood and adoption, most famously visited by her before in her debut Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, and shows that the love she writes most effectively about is not from lover to beloved, but from parent to child:

My mother came home from the mill and made a detour round the gasworks to the Adoption Society.  She found a foothold in the back wall and hauled herself up, goat-style, to stand on top of the coping slabs and look in through the window.  There were several cots, high-sided and severe.

She stood like a lighthouse, like a pulsar, and I was a radio telescope that caught the signal.  There she is, a star the size of a city, pulsing through the universe with burned-out energy.  I know you’re there, I know where you are, I can track you because we are the same stuff.

The Stone Gods achieved early notice in the news when the manuscript was left on a train platform earlier this year.  Winterson shows there are no hard feelings by seeming to make neat references to this in the book.  She also preempts criticisms of the ending by having a character say, “The book isn’t finished, but this is as far as I could go.”  I didn’t mind.  I just wanted to turn to the beginning and start again.

Pierre Péju: Clara’s Tale

Geeky students of publishing houses, like me, will know that Harvill Secker in its various forms has been quietly putting out superior fiction in translation for many years, as well as being responsible for unearthing great English language writers like Raymond Carver and Richard Ford.  Their books too are beautifully produced, so the only question that arises is, how to choose from all these foreign writers we’ve never heard of?  Well, here’s one to begin with.

Pierre Péju’s The Girl from the Chartreuse was acclaimed when published in the UK a couple of years ago, and now another of his novels has been brought to us.  It was called The Ogre’s Laugh (Le Rire de l’Ogre) in its original form – referring to a horrific fairytale which opens and closes the book, and has allegories throughout – but for the English tranlsation they have gone for the more anodyne Clara’s Tale.  But there’s nothing insipid about this story.

It begins with our narrator, Paul Marleau, a teenager in 1963, visiting the German lake town of Kehlstein where he encounters Clara Lafontaine, a girl with “intense translucent blue eyes” who is dressed in black and who “even at a distance … appears both very relaxed and as if she has recently arrived from another country, from a far-off city, or sprung from some strange book.”  That she proceeds to strip naked and swim off through the lake (“her white flesh soon lost among the shimmering reflections of the water”) can’t have harmed the fixing of her in Paul’s adolescent mind: or in mine, come to that.

The story of Paul’s tentative relations with Clara (a “marvellous storm”) then takes alternating chapters with the experiences of Clara’s father as a German doctor on the Russian front in the second world war.  There are some terrible sights recounted by Dr Lafontaine and his colleagues (“His cartridge clip is empty, his memory full”), and it’s to Péju’s credit that the good-man-in-an-evil-regime element seems as clear and unsentimental as the potentially hackneyed horrors described.

The story all seems to be about ways of seeing and interpreting (and shielding ourselves from) the world: through Clara’s ever-present camera, through the sculpture which Paul turns to as a career, through the memories of others; and Péju is unafraid of attacking our own perceived sophistication, as when Paul finds himself uncomfortable at the innocent village celebrations in Kehlstein:

As for me, I’m feeling rather empty-headed and old-fashioned, all of a sudden embarrassed by so much conviction.  …  Were one to display the tiniest bit of irony, or look in any way puzzled or aloof, it would be like dropping ink stains on a young girl’s pristine blouse.

Clara’s Tale goes much further than this, however, both in setting and scope.  In the second half of the book, Paul’s narrative takes over completely, jumping through the decades to chart his continuing obsession with Clara, and Péju manages to breathe life into other well-worn fictional subjects such as the 1968 student riots in Paris:

Something is happening at last.  … All around me, in the air that smells of burning, of wet sand, of petrol, of sewers and pollen, there’s an uneasy atmosphere, a seething mass of restless bodies, and a long chain of black hands pulling up the cobblestones until the streets become vertical.  … I acquired one of those heavy cast-iron grills that surround the roots of the trees in the Boulevard St Michel.  And I used it as a sledgehammer to break up the asphalt, then as a pickaxe and a lever to wrench the teeth from the rotting jaws of the streets.

This part of the book takes in family life, the difficulties of the artist, and the progress of age, and it seems almost miraculous that Péju has managed to fit all this into 300 pages, and still leave room for a few French essentials such as a full complement of black roll-neck sweaters and a charismatic philosophy professor.  Pierre Peju himself is a philosophy professor, but fortunately in his author’s photograph has opted for an open-neck shirt.

Michael Ondaatje: Divisadero

It’s hard to remember what to expect of an author when he takes seven or eight years between books. But with Michael Ondaatje, I always get the impression that it was time productively spent, as he brings his poet’s skills to the novel, without sacrificing storytelling or character. And so seven years after Anil’s Ghost (which itself was eight years after his Booker-winning breakthrough The English Patient), we have Divisadero. I hope his publishers had a stiff drink handy when he told them the title.

Anyway, it was worth the wait: Divisadero goes placidly amid the noise and haste of contemporary fiction and ploughs its own furrow. It is a book to savour slowly and become immersed in, and only occasionally does it drift from artful to artificial, such as when Ondaatje takes time to explain the title (“Divisadero, from the Spanish word for ‘division’ … Or it might derive from the word ‘divisar,’ meaning ‘to gaze at something from a distance'”).

Most of the book is taken up with the stories of Anna, Coop and Claire. Anna and Claire are daughters of a man who lost his wife in childbirth, one born and one adopted (“to put it brutally, they owed him a wife, they owed him something”), and Coop the hired hand a few years older than the girls. When the father discovers Anna and Coop in bed together, he inflicts a terrible punishment which, Anna later says, “set fire to the rest of my life.” The scene is so well done that it is brutal and beautiful at the same time.

Then Ondaatje flips between the three, showing us not only that “we simply respond, go this way or that by accident, survive or improve by the luck of the draw” but also that “there is the hidden presence of others in us, even those we have known briefly. We contain them for the rest of our lives, at every border that we cross.” To fulfil this promise, Ondaatje ensures that every character is intricate and identifiable: even characters who appear for only a few pages are vivid. One, in the scenes where Coop learns how to become “an undiscovered cardsharp,” is “The Dauphin, so named because he had been seen reading a European novel.” Another is “in sandals and beads, flash-frozen in the sixties.” The attention to detail extends to passing settings: a military base “like a suburb of the moon.”

The settings vary from Las Vegas casinos to a French writer’s retreat. Anna, Coop and Claire may be apart, but “their lives, surely, remained linked, wherever they were.” The themes come thick and fast, or rather thick and slow, and Ondaatje crams a good deal into each short scene, on subjects that illuminate ideas (loyalty, creativity, family) just as they illustrate the characters:

In the past Rafael had travelled from village to village, argued a salary, invented melodies, stolen chords, slashed the legs off an old song to use just the torso – but he had come to love now most of all the playing of music with no one there. Could you waste your life on a gift? If you did not use your gift, was it a betrayal?

The biggest surprise is when Ondaatje leaves his main trio of characters behind for most of the last third of the novel, instead writing about and around someone who until then has been an offstage presence. It shouldn’t be a surprise since previously we have had reference to “a three-panelled Japanese screen, each one self-sufficient, but revealing different qualities or tones when placed beside the others.” This section brings new resonances to the subjects of, among others, fatherhood and the discovery by parents of their childrens’ “adult needs,” and the final pages bring to Divisadero an almost symphonic close. Nonetheless I missed Anna, Coop and Claire, which is a measure of how well Ondaatje had made me enjoy their company until then.

Nicola Barker: Darkmans

So here it is, the Booker biggie. Much has been written about Darkmans, mainly for its 838-page length, and my concern was for that as well as for Barker’s previous form. My dislike of random ‘quirkiness’ in fiction is so intense as to practically constitute an allergy, and my previous encounters with Barker’s books – the prize-winning Wide Open and Five Miles from Outer Hope – had been poisoned by whimsy. Indeed the latter, at about 160 pages, I didn’t even manage to finish, so what hope for this epic?

There is unquestionably quirkiness here (“‘So let me get this straight,’ Dory finally murmured, ‘I have a disabled dog living in my home which I am both watering and feeding. It travels around on a small cart, and apparently it belongs to no one'”), but somehow Barker gets away with it. Maybe all it required was an open mind, because by halfway through the book I found myself unable to dislike a book which starts one section like this:



And although it’s very long, Darkmans feels like a much lighter thing, probably because Barker herself is not taking it too seriously. Along the way she breaks most ‘rules of good writing’ – happy with cliches, overdosing on adverbs, and no line of dialogue ever said when it can be sneered, expostulated, wondered, murmured (and those four from just one page picked at random) – and yet, again, somehow she pulls it off. Similarly with the odd presentation: bright white pages, a sans serif typeface, and paragraphs sometimes indented and sometimes not, with no pattern that I could see.

The humour and charm is cumulative, so it’s a risky business to take an extract and show it out of context, but this is the sort of thing you get, when a chiropodist character is introduced:

Elen liked the clean (very much – of course she did – she had to), but she absolutely loved the dirty: the malformation, the bump, the crust, the fungus. To Elen a foot was like a city, an infection was the bad within, and she was its ombudsman; making arrangements, sorting out problems, instituting rules, offering warnings.

On a good day she was a Superman or Wonderwoman, doggedly fighting foot-crime and the causes of foot-crime (usually, when all was said and done, the ill-fitting shoe… Okay, so it was hardly The Riddler, or The Penguin, but in a serious head-to-head between a violent encounter with either one of these two comic-book baddies and an eight-hour, minimum-wage shift behind the bar of a ‘happening’ Ashford night-spot with a corn the size of a quail’s egg throbbing away under the strappy section of your brand-new, knock-off Manolo Blahniks… Well… it’d be a pretty close call).

Elen is one of the central characters in Darkmans, along with her husband Dory (who may or may not be German) and son Fleet, either of whom may be channelling a spirit from the 16th century. Mixing it up with them are father and son Kane and Beede, a salad-fearing Kurd, and the various Broads, who were my favourite characters in the book, including Keith Talent-like builder Harvey, and Kelly, who likes her humour nice and vulgar (the punchline I’m thinking of is, “Good Lord! So that’s where Brian’s been parking the Audi!” and you’ll have to read the book to find the rest of it).  My main regret was that Harvey Broad disappears for most of the book after his first appearance, only to reappear briefly at the end.  But there’s a lot of that in Darkmans, not just with people but with scenes too (the dinner party, the encounter between Elen and Charles Bartlett) which are among the most promising but seem to lead up a cul de sac.

Darkmans is a loose, baggy book, and seems shorter than its huge page count. As to what it all means, other than the ever-present notion that history is ever-present, and the matters discussed directly by the characters including personal relationships, family, and bizarrely detailed explanatory speeches which would earn Dan Brown a black mark (and no exchange of dialogue in the book goes on for fewer than about ten pages), I haven’t a clue. But it doesn’t really matter, as Darkmans has a style and aplomb all its own, and is the most bizarrely charming book on the Booker Prize longlist by some way.

A.N. Wilson: Winnie and Wolf

A.N. Wilson is to me a curiously unknowable writer (perhaps intentionally, given his decision to be known by his initials): the author of twenty novels none of which I’ve heard of, and an all-round literary figure who hasn’t been sparing in his criticism of others’ books.  He was reportedly surprised that Richard Adams, author of Watership Down, was upset by a bad review Wilson had given him: “I thought it was possibly the worst thing I had ever read.  … Most critics will not tell you that the vast majority of books published are crap.”

Most recently he was in the news for falling victim to a prank by a rival biographer.  Wilson had criticised Bevis Hillier’s biography of John Betjeman (“a hopeless mishmash of a book”) and wrote his own, which prompted Hillier to fake a letter from ‘Eve de Harben’ (anag. ever been had) containing a supposed love letter to Betjeman, the initial letters of which spelled out A.N. Wilson is a shit.  Wilson was taken in and put it in his biography.

So will Winnie and Wolf have Wilson’s detractors rubbing their hands in glee?  Probably not, as its longlisting for the Booker Prize has assured it some success already.  I suspect, however, that it will be one of the least loved titles on the list.

It tells the story of a relationship between Adolf Hitler and Winifred Wagner, daughter-in-law of German composer Richard Wagner.  This in itself, whether true or not, might not seem particularly novel news: Hitler’s love for Wagner’s operas is well-known, so he might be expected to have associated with his descendants, and Wagner himself more than flirted with anti-Semitism.

In fact this central relationship doesn’t feature very strongly for much of the novel, which is more concerned with Wagner and his family and admirers, and the operas themselves.  Wilson treads a line between filling in the background for the ignorant (such as me) and flooding us with unfamiliar names and an accumulation of detail.  For much of the time, despite its quasi-gossipy and anecdotal tone in places, Winnie and Wolf seems more like an essay than a novel.

Nonetheless there are effective moments of drama, such as the account of people in Beyreuth stopping the destruction of a synagogue during Kristallnacht, or a scene between a Nazi and a Jew on a bus, and the overall depiction of the slow strangulation of the Jews in Germany is well done.  Wilson also gives us a human and sometimes ridiculous Hitler (or ‘Wolf’ as he is mostly referred to), with a full complement of fear of flying, sexual peccadilloes and uncontrollable flatulence:

With each phrase proceeding from the orator’s mouth, a phrase which moved the crowd below to an ever-greater sense of patriotism, his body gave a jerk, and the buttocks let out the quickfire whumps and cracks that accompanied the volleys firing from the mouth, and the room gradually filled with a gaseous sulphur odour.

There is also interesting discussion on how “all the terrible qualities … praised as quintessentially German were aspects, the worst aspects, of Britain.  …  We Germans never had an Indian empire and we never put down uprisings with the brutal severity used by the British in their Indian mutiny in which they fired human beings out of cannons and even slow-roasted them on fires.  It was the British who invented racism and, in South Africa, concentration camps.”

There is much impressive erudition on display, though the difficulty for a reader who knows little of European philosophy and less of Wagner’s life and works, it’s impossible to know how much of it is real and how much invention.  The narrative lacks tension because we know as much about the main thrust at the beginning as we do by the end, and the narrator adopts an uneasy position somewhere between impartial observer and active agent in the drama.

It’s safe to say that of the twelve Booker longlist titles I’ve read so far, Winnie and Wolf is the one I’d be least likely to finish if I’d read it on my own initiative.  As a novelist then, A.N. Wilson isn’t as bad as Bevis Hillier’s assessment, but he’s not quite a hit either.

Michael Redhill: Consolation

Michael Redhill’s second novel Consolation has been longlisted for the Booker Prize but, like Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People, as far as I can tell it was not reviewed in any of the national newspapers when it came out.  So did they once again miss out on a great thing?  And should we be grateful to the Booker judges for bringing it to our attention?

The answer for me, perhaps unhelpfully, is yes and no.  The most notable feature to me was that Consolation read very much like the work of another Michael: Cunningham, author of The Hours and Specimen Days.  I wouldn’t say the likeness was so uncanny that I kept flipping back to the front cover to double check; but it shared his intricate care for interior life, his bold juxtaposition of different worlds, and – frankly – his tendency toward gloomy characters.

The gloomy characters in Consolation are in the present day, or at least in 1997, in Toronto.  David Hollis teaches something called forensic geology and batters his wife Marianne, daughter Bridget and her fiancé John with his interest in a particular case.  He believes that the site of a new sports stadium in the city hides some sunken photographic records of Toronto when it was a new city in the 1850s.  But David is dying, of a wasting disease (standing up, “everything shook as he did it, his spine and legs a tower of teacups”), and it looks as though his family will be left to deal with the developers.

The parallel story is of where these missing records came from: J.G. Hallam comes to Canada from England in 1855 to make his fortune as a chemist, but finds business difficult.  There are gripping scenes, such as those between Hallam and his rival apothecaries, the Cockburn family, and his initial dealings with a photographer called Samuel Ennis who will play a large part in his life.  It was because of this that I began to drum my heels in merriment every time we returned to the 19th century scenes, and to stamp my feet in frustration when these characters were offstage.

All of this is buoyed up by some tremendously vivid writing.  Here is a suicide:

When they cut him down the blood had pooled in his feet and frozen solid and his leather shoes had burst from the pressure like overripe gourds.

Or the interior of the Cockburns’ successful business:

The inside of the shop was clean and bright, as if the sun had twisted past all celestial obstacles just to find this one little place.

Which is not to say that the modern day scenes are not well-written too: the ‘tower of teacups’ line quoted above is so perfect that I suspect will stay with me forever, and even lesser observations are beautifully done, like the container for David’s pills which when full “sounded like an African rainstick.”  But much of the writing in the modern sections is given over to inter-family bickering and recriminations, so much so that eventually I lost all interest in whether they stopped the stadium being built or not.  Which isn’t to say that it doesn’t contain nuggets of truth:

When had this talent for taking everything the wrong way emerged in her?  …  He reran the conversation in his mind, trying to find the one place in it where he could have turned, where he would have made her happy, where she’d have been comforted.  But he could not find it.

Consolation then really is a book of two halves, which I found in equal parts delightful and frustrating.  Its portrait of the settler’s difficulty, of finding our way forward by trial and error, is exemplary.  And not incidentally, the hardback is bound in floppy paper which sits open on the table without having to hold the pages down with your hands.  Well, these things matter when you’re nearing the end of a Bookerthon…