Month: September 2007

Ron Butlin: The Sound of My Voice

Ron Butlin! What kind of name is that? I had to check around before understanding that he wasn’t a fictional character himself, a Keith Talent-type wide boy in some broad satire that’s slipped out of print. But no: Butlin has a hi-de-high pedigree as a playwright, poet and opera librettist: and he’s written a few novels in his spare time too. The Sound of My Voice (1987) was his first.

It’s a stiletto of a novel, slim and piercing. Butlin gives us an intricate and intimate portrayal of Morris Magellan, a biscuit company executive whose life is not as clear and calm as it might seem. His risk is to do this in the second person, which makes the descriptions of Magellan’s life seem at the same time accusatory and excusing, and certainly stark (“You are thirty-four years old and already two-thirds destroyed”). His problem?

Every day, every moment almost, you must begin the struggle over again – the struggle to be yourself. You keep trying, like an actor learning his lines, in the belief that eventually, if you work hard enough, you will play the part of ‘Morris Magellan’ convincingly. In time you hope to convince even yourself.

Butlin doesn’t mess about with the cause of Magellan’s instability that leaves him “trembling like a compass needle about to settle.” In the opening chapter we see Magellan’s father: a man who sits in his armchair while the young Morris is “terrified to enter the room he was in – and yet quite unable to go away;” a man who “any affection you showed, he withdrew from. Any love you expressed, he crushed utterly.”

And so Morris Magellan turns to alcohol – “for you, alcohol is not the problem – it’s the solution: dissolving all the separate parts into one. A universal solvent. An ocean.” He gatecrashes three parties a night; he drinks his way through lunchtime meetings; he is woken in the morning on the lawn by his young daughter (“Elise was staring down at you. Outdoors. In the daylight. In the garden. The sky above her”).

Butlin uses his poet’s skills of observation and concision in every line, from the conversations with his wife and children (or “the accusations”) which are more like shattered monologues, to a casual afternoon’s drink driving:

A brandy-coda and you’re ready for a walk to the car park. Goodbye to the open-plan, the lift, the potted plants and low tables. The plate-glass doors, a breath of fresh air, the car park, the sea-green car with its sticky lock. Unstick it. Unlocking the seat-cover smell, the heat smell. Opening the window and switching on. First time. Anchors aweigh and, smoothly, faultlessly, sliding out of port despite an awkward kerb-nudge. Steady as she goes. Saluting the harbour master, then bearing hard to starboard into the main lane of a three-lane stretch, watching the centre lane marker buoys, the lighthouse beacons, the badly parked rocks and reefbanks.

As well as the grisly, skinned-knuckle sensitivity of the Yatesian honesty of Magellan’s story, there’s an almost unbearable optimism at the start of each chapter, as he wakes happy and hopeful, lasting literally minutes before he feels “inside you … the mud rising.  You drink to keep it down, to stop from choking.  You drink to gain another breath…  Sometimes you wake already choking in mud.  But not always, not yet.”  And the ending, where the voice gains a new dimension, is desperately moving.

The Sound of My Voice is an extraordinary portrayal of a mind which – thankfully – mostly – is not like your own.  And despite the cover photo, Magellan never in the course of the book sets foot in a pub.  Cunning, these alcoholics.

Brian Moore: An Answer from Limbo

The fourth book in what I will inevitably come to refer to as my Moore-athon is also his fourth: An Answer from Limbo (1962). It’s not clear why his first novel Judith Hearne and third novel Ginger Coffey should be in print, while his second, The Feast of Lupercal, and this, should not. Or perhaps it is clear: the better known books have a more immediate appeal, and a more singular protagonist, but all four share qualities that make them linger longer in the memory after reading than most other novels I’ve read this year.

Like The Luck of Ginger Coffey, An Answer from Limbo deals with ambition (a subject I find fascinating) in an Irish emigrant in north America, but the approach and the outcome are very different. This time it’s Brendan Tierney, a man who left Ireland to live with his wife in New York, and who at the age of fourteen hoped “that I would become a great poet, that I would devote my life to the composition of a masterpiece and that, at the age of thirty, coughing blood in a last consumptive frenzy, I hoped to die, my gift still clear and unmuddied.” Now he has almost reached 30, and his masterpiece – a novel rather than a poem – is not yet complete. He is consumed with drive, mainly via his feelings for his friend Max, whose book has been accepted for publication:

How many works of the imagination have been goaded into life by envy of an untalented contemporary’s success? More, I would wager, than by any sight of talent rewarded.

The main problem is the ‘pram in the hallway’ – Tierney has a wife and children to support, and has to hold down a job to keep them in their apartment in Riverside Drive, “once an elegant address but now running down.” So, when he receives word from back home that the money he is sending his mother is not enough, he hits on the bright idea of bringing his mother over to New York to look after their children, so that his wife Jane can go out to work and he can be freed to work on the magnum opus.

The story that follows is told from the points of view of all the people whose lives unravel around Tierney as a result of his selfishness. His mother (“the stranger who is my parent”) does not conform to her son and daughter-in-law’s godless ways. His wife Jane dreams of “dark-haired ravishers.” He puts his own needs before his children (“But they have their whole lives ahead of them. This is my one chance”). The new family unit does not thrive:

Brendan said something harmless. The talk staggered up on its feet and went on in weary pilgrimage, talk about the flight, talk about the children, talk about New York, talk that was like the meeting of three strangers in a dentist’s waiting room, talk to pass the time until they could decently get free of each other.

And that’s to say nothing of the downturn in Tierney’s sexual relationship with his wife (“What’s the matter?” I said. “Nothing.” “Well, come on, then, take your dress off”). Tierney begins to see everyone in life as either with him – and his novel – or against him (“What enemy could I strike dumb with this tale?”).

Moore’s ability to keep all the plates spinning is impressive, and the story moves on with his usual smoothness. Nonetheless I felt that the dozen or more characters whose minds he inhabits were a handful too many, and the book would have had more force and directness if it came from the points of view of just the central characters. There is drama throughout, and like Judith Hearne and The Feast of Lupercal, it builds to highly charged scenes toward the end.

We also see the substitution of religion which was to become a theme in Moore’s fiction (as in The Doctor’s Wife). “My book for me,” says Tierney, “is the belief that replaces belief.” He denounces his mother’s traditional faith – “a performance of deeds in the expectation of praise” – while seeing that this describes his own writing perfectly.  For me, my belief in Moore is unshaken, even if this is not his finest book.  I have faith in this man.

Philip Roth: Zuckerman Unbound

(This is the second book in the Zuckerman series. See also The Ghost Writer, The Anatomy Lesson, The Prague Orgy and Exit Ghost.)

Warm on the heels of The Ghost Writer, I’ve bolted down the second of in Roth’s Zuckerman Bound trilogy, confusingly titled Zuckerman Unbound (1981, two years after The Ghost Writer).

Now Nathan Zuckerman is a successful novelist, his novel Carnovsky acting as an analogue (I presume) for Roth’s own Portnoy’s Complaint, a similarly sexual comedy which made him as much of a household name as real writers ever get to be these days. “Gone were the days when Zuckerman had only to worry about Zuckerman making money: henceforth he would have to worry about his money making money.” But is he happy?

All this, this luck – what did it mean? Coming so suddenly, and on such a scale, it was as baffling as a misfortune.

So Roth gives us the downsides of success with both barrels: but, to sweeten the pill, still makes it (mostly) a comedy. As he goes about his business, Zuckerman faces the leeches and walking wounded which any famous figure attracts, including Alvin Pepler, a former game show contestant who now wants Zuckerman to help him publish an expose of the corrupt world of the US gameshow (or as he puts it, “the decline of every decent American thing into liars and lies”). He faces reams of correspondence from those who probably shouldn’t be allowed anything sharp:

The only letters at all tempting were those marked “Photo Do Not Bend,” and there was none in this batch. He had received five so far, the most intriguing still the first, from a young New Jersey secretary who had enclosed a colour snapshot of herself, reclining in black underwear on her back lawn in Livingston, reading a novel by John Updike. An overturned tricycle in the corner of the picture seemed to belie the single status she claimed for herself in the attached curriculum vitae. However, investigation with his Compact Oxford English Dictionary magnifying glass revealed no sign on the body that it had borne a child, or the least little care in the world. Could it be that the owner of the tricycle had just happened to be pedaling by and dismounted in haste when summoned to snap the picture? Zuckerman studied the photo on and off for the better part of a morning, before forwarding it to Massachusetts, along with a note asking if Updike would be good enough to reroute photographs of Zuckerman readers sent mistakenly to him.

There is more fun to be had, when Zuckerman briefly dates a starlet, and the light tone remains even when his unsolicited phone calls turn threatening. It’s surprising then that the book should take a different turn in the final section, dealing with mortality, and returning to the family crosstalk so richly mined in The Ghost Writer. Mainly because of my mood, I really could have done with continued laughs, but I shall look forward with enthusiasm still to part three of the trilogy, The Anatomy Lesson (and with appropriate apprehension to the new Zuckerman book, Exit Ghost, which like all Roth these days seems to be about death).

Glenn Patterson: The Third Party

A small distinction which makes Glenn Patterson unique among contemporary novelists – and I’m not saying it’s something he’ll be putting on his CV – is that he lives round my way. Sadly I won’t be making money from Heat magazine for candid snaps anytime soon as Patterson hasn’t quite reached the same level of renown as his friend Robert McLiam Wilson, who was named one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists in 2003. Silence clearly impresses, as Wilson hasn’t published anything since 1996’s Eureka Street, whereas in the same time Patterson has published four novels and a collection of non-fiction. That’s the Protestant work ethic for you.

The Third Party invites immediate comparison with fashionable writers like David Mitchell and Haruki Murakami by being set in Japan, but the essence seems more Lost in Translation (which the book explicitly acknowledges at one point) than number9dream. Our unnamed narrator is a fortysomething executive for a plastics company which has developed an ‘exciting new storage solution’ – “clingfilm would soon be consigned to the pedal bin of history.” He is staying in a hotel in Hiroshima for a conference with clients.

And so the story progresses in a slow and elliptical fashion, as he meets various fellow travellers and visits tourist attractions both on and off the beaten track. Among the people he meets is a fellow Northern Irish writer, referred to as ‘Ike,’ and some of whose details may be catharsis on Patterson’s part (“Actually I’m a writer.”  “Anything I would have heard of?”  “Tell me the novels you’ve heard of and I’ll stop you when you get to one of mine”):

After our first meeting I had checked him out on Amazon: dot-co-dot-uk, not dot-com.  Two novels, ranked ninety- and a hundred-and-fifty-something thousand.  I read the publisher’s descriptions.  They sounded like the sort of thing I would normally run a mile from, ie they featured the words Northern and Ireland in close proximity. … There were six more titles, some of them listed more than once, none of them currently able to be offered.

Ninety- and a hundred-and-fifty-something thousand.  What was that?  Hopeless?  So-so?  Not half bad?

On his travels in Hiroshima, through culture shock and problems of scale (“To look up at the ribs of that roof was to see the whale from the plankton’s point of view”) our narrator also visits the A-Bomb Museum, where “it was impossible to pass through any part without your conscience or compassion snagging on something,” such as a video of a tethered dog when “that spot became precisely the worst place on earth. … The dog leapt and twisted in the nuclear-test wind.  If it could have reached the lead it would have bitten through it.  If it could have reached its own neck it would have bitten through that.”  The reasons for the narrator’s particular interest in evidence and expressions of holocaust-scale guilt are later apparent.

Although I normally share the narrator’s horror of novels about Northern Ireland, one of the strongest passages in the book is when ‘Ike’ is giving a reading from a new novel set back home:

She noticed every speck of dirt on the ground.  She was angry that they hadn’t had the decency to clean the street for him, neither the police nor the men who had decided that, due to a congruence of historical and political circumstance to which only they were privy, this was where his life would end, and who had hung around in the darkness – because they were reasonable like that, they didn’t mind waiting – to deliver the news.

And I was enjoying the curious and rootless journey so much that I was somewhat disappointed when the narrator’s past was explicitly revealed near the end; the mood of uncertainty and foreignness was so well judged that it almost seemed superfluous.  But it does tie together the strands of the story, and make it worth considering an early re-read, just so I can catch the significance of what I missed first time round: and have some questions ready for Patterson when I next see him.

Paul Auster: Travels in the Scriptorium

Something told me that after the ‘vanilla’ Auster of The Brooklyn Follies, old austere Paul wouldn’t be able to resist turning back on himself, and possibly up his own fundament, with his next project.  And with Travels in the Scriptorium, he hasn’t disappointed.  By which I mean he has.

The elegant, luminous cover conceals a story which, although plainly told as ever, is about as self-regarding as Auster gets, and that’s plenty self-regarding.  Mr Blank (the name neatly describing his master’s voice) sits in a room pretty much like that we see in the picture.  A bed, a desk, piles of papers, and not much else.  He is – possibly – being held captive, though he can’t quite bring himself to try the door or window and make sure.

Perhaps he has always been here; perhaps this is where he has lived since the day he was born.  What he knows is that his heart is filled with an implacable sense of guilt.  At the same time, he can’t escape the feeling that he is the victim of a terrible injustice.

Trapped like this by himself or others, “lost in a fogland of ghost-like beings and broken memories,” Mr Blank awaits visits by various people.  There is Anna, whom some will recognise as the central character from Auster’s early novel In the Country of Last Things.  Anna bathes Mr Blank, helps him to the toilet, and performs more intimate duties – which means that if Mr Blank represents Auster (and there’s little doubt about that), then this is intellectual masturbation of a very special kind.

Other characters from Auster’s earlier works run through the pages, either in person or in reference, from Benjamin Sachs (Leviathan) to Marco Fogg (Mr Vertigo).  There is a feeling that Mr Blank is being punished by them for ‘sending them out’ into the world as his fictional creations.  This is the sort of solipsistic storytelling that would have caused me endless delight about ten or fifteen years ago, but which now seems somewhat pointless self-indulgence, particularly when it hardly has as much to say about the relationship between creator and creation as, say, Frankenstein does.

Nonetheless there are moments of interest, and an oddly touching acknowledgement of the writer’s mortality and hopes for immortality in one of the closing pages:

Without him, we are nothing, but the paradox is that we, the figments of another mind, will outlive the mind that made us, for once we are thrown into the world, we continue to exist forever, and our stories go on being told, even after we are dead.

Travels in the Scriptorium may please some Auster fans but is likely to be offputting to anyone new to his stuff.  For them a good starting point would be The Book of Illusions, which I think shows the best of his storytelling virtuosity, and packs an emotional punch too.

J.M. Coetzee: Diary of a Bad Year

When in the space of four years, you’ve become the first writer to win the Booker Prize twice (1999) and won the Nobel Prize for Literature (2003), where do you go from there? Judging by J.M. Coetzee’s example – and I imagine we’ll wait some time for another one – you quietly give up on fiction without telling anyone. After all, in the words of Bobby Charlton in 1966, what is there to win now?

His first novel since the Booker-winning Disgrace contained essays in a fictional surround: Elizabeth Costello even used some ‘lectures’ Coetzee had previously published. Now he goes further with Diary of a Bad Year, where the vast majority of the text is in the form of essays written by a South African novelist with the initials JC…

Many of the early essays, on subjects like the birth of the state, anarchy, and terrorism, are rigorous and interesting, but also lucid and accessible.

Every account of the origins of the state starts from the premise that “we” – not we the readers but some generic we so wide as to exclude no one – participate in its coming into being.  But the fact is that the only “we” we know – ourselves and the people close to us – are born into the state; and our forebears too were born into the state as far back as we can trace.  The state is always there before we are.

If the essays have an overall theme it is of power and powerlessness: citizens subject to politicians; animals subject to humans.  But Coetzee spreads his net wider as the book goes on and veers into topics such as music and narrative fiction; it’s when he goes further, into numbers and probability, that the strain begins to show, and some of the final pieces (“On ageing,” “On children”) hardly do their subjects justice at only a few lines long.

Meanwhile each page is divided in three.  The essay takes up the first part, then we have the narrative of the ‘author,’ JC, describing his growing infatuation with a beautiful young girl called Anya who lives in his block of flats.  He employs her as his secretary for the essays, to try to get closer to her.  His accounts are frank if not always edifying:

A week passed before I saw her again – in a well-designed apartment block like this, tracking one’s neighbours is not easy – and then only fleetingly as she passed through the front door in a pair of white slacks that showed off a derriere so near to perfect as to be angelic.  God, grant me one wish before I die, I whispered; but then was overtaken with shame at the specificity of the wish, and withdrew it.

The third section of each page describes Anya’s thoughts, and her conversations with her ruthless financier partner, Alan, who becomes suspicious of JC’s interest in Anya and plans a curious revenge.

The fictional narrative of JC and Anya takes up perhaps a quarter of the word-count of the book.  The story is well told but not enthralling, and when the character JC mentions at one point that at his age, “sketching stories seems to have become a substitute for writing them,” we know what he means.

And be warned if, like me, you still haven’t got around to watching that DVD of The Seven Samurai that you’ve had for years.  Coetzee gives away the entire plot on page 6.

Stefan Zweig: Twilight / Moonbeam Alley

In the past week I have begun, and failed to click with, four different books. I began to think I was losing my mind. So I needed something short, something addictive, something beautifully written, and ideally also something about someone else losing their mind to make me feel better. I found them all in one hundred pages in Stefan Zweig’s Twilight/Moonbeam Alley.

Twilight (first published 1910) is one of the finest stories I have ever read. (The second story Moonbeam Alley is enjoyable but not a patch on Twilight, so I will restrict myself to talking about the main feature.) Oddly, I’d flicked through this volume when browsing my Zweigs and had been put off by the opening lines of the blurb: ‘Twilight, based on the real life of Madame de Prie…’ – I got no further before silently thinking Boring! Who wants to read a fictionalised account of the life of an 18th century French aristocrat? Well, shame on me.

Madame de Prie is a favourite of the King at the Palace of Versailles, with almost no qualities whatsoever, or at least no positive ones – she is vain, shallow, self-centred and a mistress of self-deception. So long has she been lying to herself and to others for her own amusement (“Deception, the delight of her life, opened up her heart again”) that she no longer knows what is important to her.

When she falls from favour, and is exiled to a country estate, she is lost but confident:

Her exile couldn’t last for more than a few days, until tempers had calmed down, and then her friends would make sure she was recalled. In her mind, she was already looking forward to her revenge, and soothed her anger with that idea.

Writing a letter to stay in touch with her true – that is, her truly false – friends back at Versailles, she “hoped not to stay in the country long, she said, although she liked it here very well. She didn’t even notice that she was lying to him.” She tries to find ways to amuse herself in her new life, including her dealings with a local peasant:

It made her feel quite cheerful. For the first time she felt the old relish, mingled with slight contempt, of seeing a human being powerless before her. It revived the desire to toy with others which had become a necessity of life to her during her years of power.

Zweig skewers Madame de Prie until she is pinned and wriggling on the wall, her terrible behaviour and turmoil awful to read about but impossible to tear yourself away from. To say any more would spoil it, but I could quote dozens more extracts. His bleak and ironic telling finds time for cool wit even in the darkness of the last pages, when he offers us his usual summation of the theme. It’s a testament to Zweig’s ability that this ‘moral of the tale’ ending does not seem superfluous, but rather tops the whole thing off beautifully. Why Zweig isn’t spoken of in the same revered tones as Chekhov is a mystery.