Month: March 2008

W. Somerset Maugham: Up at the Villa

One of the consequences of my inability-to-settle-down-with-a-book-recently (I told you we need a word for that) was that I read a few shorties to get back into the flow of things. Last year I had enjoyed Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil, so it was predictable that when I was shopping around for some more I would go not for one of his most famous – say, Cakes and Ale, or The Moon and Sixpence – but the one with the nicest cover. And this really is just about the finest and most elegant of the old Vintage Classics designs, which are now being replaced with something altogether more ill-advised (more of that in due course). That it’s only 120 pages too is just a happy coincidence.

Up at the Villa

Up at the Villa was published in 1941, when it would probably be agreed that Maugham had his best work behind him (of the four further novels he published, only The Razor’s Edge would join the list of Major Works). Sure enough it’s a slight thing both in length and substance, made up as much of featherweight entertainment as of the social insight Maugham is known for.

A brief digression: Anton Chekhov, in a letter in 1889, said “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” This idea of ‘Chekhov’s gun’ is that only the essential elements should be included in a story or a play. But the corollary is that if a gun does appear in the first act, it’s pretty obvious to the viewer that someone is later going to be shot. It becomes less a device of authorial concision than of plot predictability.

Maugham in Up at the Villa takes Chekhov’s advice literally. At the end of the first chapter, there are three separate times when we are told that the heroine is bringing a gun with her. The heroine is Mary Panton, a young woman living in a sixteenth century villa with “a magnificent view of Florence.” She doesn’t own it, but has been loaned this dream home for a time by its English owners: “though the rooms were large and lofty, it was of no great size and she managed very well with the three servants they had left her.” Mary is privileged in other ways too: she is beautiful and much desired, and at the opening scene receives a marriage proposal from Edgar Swift, a family friend twenty years her senior but whom she has known and loved since childhood, and who was particularly ‘kind’ and ‘understanding’ when Mary’s husband died suddenly at a young age.

Mary is also pursued by another man, the roguish handsome Rowley Flint, who is much more her age but not quite her class. It is her desire to do the best for everyone, and to use her gifts to benefit the less fortunate, that leads to trouble. She tips a restaurant musician heavily: “That’s why I gave it. It’ll mean so much to him. It may make all the difference to his life.” This could be marked with the symbol of a clanging bell in the margin for its obvious foreshadowing, just as much as the gun at the end of chapter one (don’t tell me you’d forgotten it!). She expands on this:

“I’ve sometimes thought that if I ever ran across someone who was poor, alone and unhappy, who’d never had any pleasure in life, who’d never known any of the good things money can buy – and if I could give him a unique experience, an hour of absolute happiness, something that he’d never dreamt of and that would never be repeated, then I’d give him gladly everything I had to give.”

Well: be careful what you wish for. What follows could, aptly enough, be expressed in a play as easily as a novella, because almost everything comes from what the characters say and do, and much of that is, if not outright predictable, at least reasonably foreseeable. But it’s a fine and entertaining diversion, and it’s got guns in, and sometimes that’s all we need.

Brian Moore: Fergus

In a recent bout of being unable to decide what book to read next, starting and abandoning several in quick succession – we need a name for that – I plumped for the reliable, though I hope not comfortable, Brian Moore, and the next book in my chronological Mooreathon, his seventh novel Fergus (1971). The cover below in fact is not the edition I read, but as the copy I have is a montage design (UK Vintage 1992, fellow publishing geeks) even messier than that below, and doesn’t even have a pert bottom on it by way of compensation, who’s complaining?


What’s particularly rewarding about reading a novelist’s work in order of publication is that – at the risk of stating the obvious – you get to see the progression of his themes and style, and indeed the recurrence of motifs and subjects as the writer tackles them from different angles. “The perspective is like a shadow moving across a lawn,” to quote myself quoting someone else. In Fergus, we have what seems to be a culmination of several of Moore’s themes: the investigation into identity (previously seen in I am Mary Dunne); the writer’s work and its conflicts with ‘real life’ (from An Answer from Limbo); and the emigrant’s – the everyman’s – difficulty in escaping his roots (in pretty much everything from Ginger Coffey to the two already mentioned).

In Fergus, Fergus Fadden is an Irishman who has become a writer and whose success with his first two novels has attracted the attention of a Hollywood producer, who has now employed to write a script for his next film. Very Mooreish, because it was Brian Moore’s second novel The Feast of Lupercal which caught the eye of Alfred Hitchcock, who then employed him to script Torn Curtain (an experience Moore famously described as “awful, like washing floors”). Hitchcock is said to be the inspiration for the character of Bernard Boweri in Fergus, although Boweri is a producer rather than a director. It’s an unkind portrait anyway:

They entered a large library. Fergus noticed a beautifully bound set of the Harvard Classics just inside the entrance and stopped, momentarily, to look at the book spines. ‘I like sets of books,’ Boweri said. ‘Look over there. That’s the entire Modern Library. When a new book comes out in the series, Bennett Cerf just sends it along. And look. That’s every fiction selection of the Book of the Month Club, since World War Two. A year ago, I look a rapid reading course. I liked it so much that for kicks I bought the company that sells the course. I put some money in, and since then it’s doubled its growth rate. I like to do things that are worthwhile. Cultural things, you know?’

In the course of the book, Fergus is anxiously awaiting Boweri’s decision on whether he is going to have to rewrite the script – again. He is also worried about his relationship with his girlfriend, Dani (like Moore, Fergus’s first marriage has ended by this time). But the living are the least of his worries. The bulk of Fergus is made up of literal hauntings from ghosts in Fergus’s past, who keep coming back as not so blithe spirits – his family, his friends – to confront him. These scenes are well done, managing to be human and not ridiculous – though the “high comedy” identified in the book by Moore’s biographer Patricia Craig didn’t seem all that evident to me, other than in snatches:

How like his father to appear, then disappear again without giving him a chance to say a word. That had been his father’s style right up his final vanishing trick, the night of his sudden death in the downstairs bedroom in Hampden Street in Belfast, his father’s heartbeat stopping at the precise moment that Fergus, all unknowing, had begun to masturbate in his own bed, one floor above.

All the sins the ghostly visitors chastise him for are, of course, in Fergus’s mind, like the ghosts themselves. He is tortured by the idea that his fine words (as a writer) are not enough to make up for moving on to a new life: his realisation when confronted with an old schoolfriend that “he had not thought of him since” leads to the feeling that “forgetting is the most terrible thing that can happen to a person. … Remembering, that’s what counts.” The repeated refrain is

A man is what he does, not what he says he does.

That Moore’s protagonist should be racked by old-fashioned Catholic guilt makes a change, as before the one thing all his emigres have had in common is that they know they don’t regret leaving the old country. Here the association – and conflict – between character and author is clearer than ever before, as Moore plays with notions of creation and authenticity. Moore is creating a character based on himself, who in turn is creating characters both on the screenplay page and in his memories, again based on himself (and therefore, to some extent, on Moore); the layers never smudge or blur. Fergus comments on the apartment where a friend lives:

Everything in these apartments is made of some type of synthetic material, which, if possible, is designed to look like the natural material it replaces. And these materials repel wear and tear. Stains wash off. I could live here for a year and leave no mark on anything. My presence would count for nothing.

This also works as a comment on the superficial and disposable nature of Hollywood life (and the ‘underappreciated’ role of the writer in the film industry in particular), as well as the artist’s yearning for a continuing existence beyond death through the survival of his work. What’s remarkable is that Moore has taken elements from his life and contemporary frustrations, which could have given rise to a boring rant of a book, and through some alchemy has made the ideas timeless and relevant.

Carson McCullers: The Member of the Wedding

Carson McCullers: another in the long line of writers I’ve heard so much about that I feel I’ve read them. My sight-unseen impression of McCullers is a sort of gentler Flannery O’Connor: Southern Gothic, loners, absurdity, not so many gorings. What better opportunity to test my ignorance than with the reissue of three of her novels in Penguin Modern Classics this month: her most famous, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, her least famous (to me anyway), Clock Without Hands, and … this one.

The Member of the Wedding

The Member of the Wedding (1946) was McCullers’ third novel, and she was still only 29. I shan’t envy her that though, as by then she was half-paralysed from a series of strokes, and would die at the age of 50. Her sense of being an outsider, her simultaneous connection to and distance from her Southern homeland, and the blurring of sexuality which was epitomised in her choice of her genderless middle name as her professional title (her forename was Lula), are all present in this book.

Indeed much of it is there in the opening sentences:

It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old. This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member. She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world.

I was surprised to recognise these lines, or maybe they just have that instant familiarity of greatness. The tone is reprised later (“This was the summer when Frankie was sick and tired of being Frankie” … “It was the year when Frankie thought about the world. And she did not see it as a round school globe, with the countries neat and different-coloured. She thought of the world as huge and cracked and loose and turning a thousand miles an hour”), so that it becomes almost mythic.

In fact Frankie does belong – she has a family, and she is part of a trio along with the housekeeper Berenice and her friend John Henry – but in a very human way, she wants the belonging that she cannot have: to be part of the wedding of her brother and his fiancée which is to take place the next day, and not just of the wedding but of the marriage. It is her sense of what she feels she lacks that defines her, and this is another sense in which she belongs with her two companions. Berenice shows both that some people at that time – black people, like her – really know what it’s like not to belong; and also that the marriage which Frankie longs to belong to can be a source of pain as much as pleasure. Berenice has been married several times:

Ludie Freeman was a brickmason, making a grand and regular salary, and he was the man of all her husbands that Berenice had loved.

‘Sometimes I almost wish I had never knew Ludie at all,’ said Berenice. ‘It spoils you too much. It leaves you too lonesome afterward. When you walk home in the evening on the way from work, it makes a little lonesome quinch come in you. And you take up with too many sorry men to try to get over the feeling. … I loved Ludie and he was the first man I loved. Therefore, I had to go and copy myself forever afterward. What I did was to marry off little pieces of Ludie whenever I come across them. It was just my misfortune they all turned out to be the wrong pieces.’

Berenice is a voice of experience and understanding throughout the book, and the long conversations which she, John Henry and Frankie meander through on the long summer afternoon illuminate the themes of the book.

‘We all of us somehow caught. We born this way or what way and we don’t know why. But we caught anyhow. I born Berenice. You born Frankie. John Henry born John Henry. And maybe we wants to widen and bust free. But no matter what we do we still caught. Me is me and you is you and he is he. We each one of us somehow caught all by ourself.’

The Member of the Wedding presents itself too as a coming-of-age novel, though really that’s the least of it, but Frankie does try to accelerate her development into womanhood by beginning to refer to herself as “F. Jasmine Addams” as the story progresses. As mentioned above, the vexed question of womanhood is also in Frankie’s mind, and it’s not always clear whether she is in love with the idea of marriage as a place of belonging, or with her brother’s bride, or with the couple both. According to Ali Smith’s excellent introduction – a 25-page essay on McCullers and her books [edit: expired link removed] – McCullers herself was unclear on the issue. It is these ambiguities – along with everything else – which help the book resonate in the mind deliciously.

Smith’s introduction – included here with a separate chronology of McCullers’ life (all modern classics should be like this!) – also tells us that “she drank all day, from breakfast onwards, for most of her adult years.” This reminded me of Patrick Hamilton, who at his creative peak was getting through three bottles of whisky a day (how did he find the time to write?). McCullers shares with Hamilton a sense of place so acute – he inhabited London, she the American South – that after reading her, the locations will be forever viewed through the prism of her literature. Which is as transfiguring, and a lot less problematic, than viewing it through the bottom of a glass.

Charles Lambert Interview

Charles Lambert’s debut novel Little Monsters was published earlier this month, and when I wrote about it on this blog it struck me with its assurance and aplomb, and seemed to me quite the best debut I’d read since Peter Ho Davies’ The Welsh Girl (with which it has some other passing similarities). I decided I would like to ask him a few questions about the book and his writing generally, and I am pleased that he agreed to do so. Charles Lambert was born in England and lives in Italy, and has a blog of his own here.

Charles Lambert, by Patrizia Casamiira

I’ve already unkindly referred to your age in my review of Little Monsters. Is writing something you’ve come to relatively late, or have you stacks of unpublished novels on your hard drive? And do you think it’s harder for a middle-aged novelist to get a break with publishers than younger ones?

I didn’t see it as unkind at all, which just goes to show how wonderfully mature I am.

I wrote my first sonnet at thirteen (about John Calvin!) and my first completed novel as a student, well before hard drives were invented. I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, although I saw myself primarily as a poet until the early 1980s, when I realised that my audience had dwindled to single figures. Since then, I’ve written dozens of short stories and six and a half novels, the fifth being Little Monsters; I’ve also had three agents, my current one being the wonderful Isobel Dixon, and a depressing (or – with hindsight – encouraging) number of very near misses.

As far as breaks with publishers go, I can only say that I was rejected, frequently, in my thirties and accepted, finally, in my fifties; I’m not sure what kind of general rule, if any, might be extrapolated from this. I’m certainly aware that age, like race and beauty and celebrity, can play its role in the purchase of a manuscript, but – perhaps naively – feel that a good book will find its editor on its own strengths. I probably wouldn’t feel this, of course, if Picador hadn’t made an offer. I would probably be bitter and have needles and a wax effigy of Wayne Rooney beside my bed.

Where did the first impulse for Little Monsters come from, and how much work was involved in getting it to its finished structure and shape?

The original impulse was the opening sentence, which came to me in bed one night and was scribbled down on my notepad (beside the Wayne Rooney effigy I don’t have. Honestly). The real work began the following day. I normally have some notion of a theme, or central idea, when I start to write, however often this might be thrown out as the work progresses; but this wasn’t the case with Little Monsters. It wasn’t until I’d written the first few chapters, though, and had some notion of who my narrating voice, Carol, really was (I hadn’t even realised to begin with that she was a woman) that the novel took off.

When I’d finished I had around 130,000 words, three distinct time threads and a decidedly top-heavy structure, back-stories, the lot. This was whittled down in an increasingly ruthless, and ultimately pleasurable, way and an awful lot of credit for the final draft goes to my editor at Picador, Sam Humphreys, whose suggestions were always pertinent, always tactful, and almost always right.

[Charles Lambert has written more about why he wrote Little Monsters on the Picador blog here.]

Aunt Margot in the novel is a great literary monster in her own way. Was it more enjoyable to write her than some of the more agreeable characters?

I certainly enjoyed it, and more than once had to stop myself from making her even more appalling than she is, though I also wanted a sense to break through every now and again that she wasn’t all bad – or that her behaviour was, at least partly, justified. But I have to say, rather cheesily, that I enjoyed writing all the characters, without exception; I hope that no one, in other words, is simply there for the exigencies of plot.

It’s actually far easier to portray monsters than saints, and getting Jozef, who is saintly in many ways, to ring true was also both a challenge and a joy. Even Nicholas, who wasn’t originally intended to be a major player at all, gave me great pleasure as his sorry tale unfolded.

Little Monsters

Without going into details, Carol’s relationship with Uncle Jozef is one of the remarkable features of Little Monsters, but we’re left to fill in the gaps ourselves. Is it difficult as a novelist to get the balance right of how much to tell the reader, and how much to leave out?

Well, the short answer is yes. As I’ve said, the earlier drafts of the novel were far longer and much of what’s been excised had to do with the relationship between Carol and Jozef. I think it was good for me to work all that out and write it all down, because the fact that I knew what had been going on meant that I could avoid anachronisms in terms of both character and plot, but I wasn’t finally convinced that the reader needed it; it slowed the whole narrative down, whatever its local interest. I also came to like the idea that the emotional diffidence of the two main characters – the separate product of their separate pasts – should be reflected by the gaps you mention, as though, like so much else, what had actually united them couldn’t be expressed. One of the books that played strongly into the writing of Little Monsters was The Good Listener, by Neil Belton, which talks, among other things, about the way trauma generates a sort of emotional autism, a gap in the narrative of the life.

And that’s the longer answer.

The book is set in England, in the past, and Italy, in the present – a reflection of your own life. Do you feel part of either literary tradition, both, or neither? Is there a sense of detachment when your novel is published in the UK and you’ve made your home elsewhere?

I absolutely feel part of an English language tradition, though not necessarily a mainstream one. This is partly a question of maintaining balance; I spend so much time in Italian, at work and in my private life, that my serious reading, particularly fiction, is almost entirely of English. I’m slightly ashamed of this, and make an effort to read Italian fiction every now and again, but I always feel – and I’m slightly ashamed of this as well – that I’m wasting valuable time I could spend on, say, Cormac McCarthy or Sybille Bedford. Objectively, and despite the recent success at home and elsewhere of writers like Ammaniti and Vinci, I’m not sure that Italian fiction is particularly florid at the moment; it’s certainly true that the Italian cultural scene, perhaps knee-jerkingly, worships McEwan and Auster and McGrath far more than it does any home-grown talent.

Having said this, I do read a lot of European writers in translation – both English and Italian – and novelists like, say, Marias, Saramago, Perec and Bernhard have had far more influence on me – in terms of showing me what fiction can do – than many English writers. It’s also true that the net, as you well know, blurs national barriers to the point of virtual obliteration, so I don’t feel that far away from anywhere, including the UK, where I continue, in any case, to spend a fair amount of time.

The corollary of all this is that the last thing I feel is detached. I feel desperately, twitchingly involved! But I also look forward very much to selling the Italian rights so that all my Italian friends, and primarily my partner, can read what I do. Take note, Feltrinelli!

The modern day sections of the book address the very topical issue (in Britain at least) of distrust of refugees or immigrants: though that might also be regarded as a universal, all-time issue. Was this something you consciously wanted to write about, or did it arise from the characters and story?

It was there as a central interest by the first chapter, even though the novel addresses the topic more obliquely in the section set in Britain in the 60s, so I’d answer yes to both questions. All three main characters are deprived of their homes and cultural contexts in one way or another and the main concern of the novel, finally, is to see what they do with this, how they react to a displacement that denies them much of what they are. The first version (and title) of the novel cited a line from one of the history plays: “We have the receipt of fern seed/We walk invisible”, and the idea of invisibility as both a secure place and a self-negating place was greatly in my mind as I wrote. I also wanted to contrast the Daily Mail attitude of scrounging foreigners with something more ambiguous, nuanced and, I hope, generous. One of the better aspects of life (and much of the media) in Italy is the widespread conviction that the people who arrive here as refugees are deserving of pity, although this doesn’t necessarily extend to offers of material assistance.

Loving Monsters

Finally the Desert Island Books question. If you could press copies of a favourite neglected book on every reader of this blog, which would it be and why?

Two books. The first is Loving Monsters by James Hamilton-Paterson, to my mind a writer who knocks many far more visible prize-winning novelists into a series of cocked hats. Quite apart from its title’s subliminal – and entirely unintentional – reference to my own novel, the book is thoughtful, playful, intriguing, beautifully written and even better than his shamefully out of print collection of stories, The View from Mount Dog. If you’ve only read his last two novels, seek these out. Take note, Faber!

The second is The White Bone, by Barbara Gowdy. Gowdy’s notorious for penetrating unlikely skins (necrophiliacs, deformed children, Siamese twins, etc.), but this time she manages to inhabit, and make utterly real, three generations of elephants. It’s a wonderful book, and needs to be read.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Green Zone / Imperial Life in the Emerald City

I don’t read very much non-fiction – two in a row must be almost a record – and certainly didn’t anticipate breaching that limitation just to find out what I reckoned I already knew about the war in Iraq. But Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s debut was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, and then went on to win the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. Bloomsbury have seen fit to celebrate this by adhering a hideous sticker to the front cover of the paperback, which fortunately can be peeled off (though not off the image below; I tried). Nonetheless I was sold.

Imperial Life in the Emerald City

On approaching Imperial Life in the Emerald City, an account not of the war but of the American post-occupation ‘rebuilding’ of Iraq, it’s not hard to see the author’s angle from the title down. Imperial suggests the presence of a domineering empire, and Emerald City brings to mind an analogy of the Americans in Iraq with the Wizard of Oz: omnipotent but incompetent. In fact, as the subtitle suggests, the book is about life in the fortified Green Zone, known to the US civilian workforce as the ‘Emerald City’, and Imperial relates to Saddam’s old palace where they were based.

The palace was the headquarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the American occupation administration in Iraq. From April 2003 to June 2004, the CPA ran Iraq’s government – it enacted laws, printed currency, collected taxes, deployed police, and spent oil revenue.

Not that this means Chandrasekaran isn’t editorialising with the title, but it’s safe to assume that he’s singing to the choir. The central charge is one made innumerable times in the last five years: that the US had a plan for the war, but none for the peace. As Chandrasekaran discovers, this isn’t quite true: they did have a plan; it just wasn’t very good. Oh, and they forgot to tell a lot of their staff what it was.

The main problem was that the CPA tried to do too much: their aim effectively was to build a new country from the bottom up. Or rather, from the top down, as it was their appointments to the interim posts which would determine the course of the program. Often these were people with little experience in the relevant area, and they were replacing people who did know what they were doing. The process of “De-Baathification of Iraq Society” was intended to remove Saddam sidekicks from government, but they failed to take account of the fact that many people were in the Baath party through coercion and not choice, and the day after the order was announced, the Health Ministry lost a third of its staff, and some schools in Sunni dominated areas were left with just one or two teachers: one US army engineer at that point was running five ministries.

This decree was the work of Paul ‘Jerry’ Bremer, the US official who was effective head of government in Iraq until handover of power in 2004. Another of his ideas was to dismantle the security forces. Thousands of soldiers protested against this, on the grounds that they were loyal to Iraq, not to Saddam. Chandrasekaran caught up with a former soldier later in 2003:

“What happened to everyone?” I asked. “Did they join the new army?”

He laughed.

“They’re all insurgents now,” he said. “Bremer lost his chance.”

This is one of the rare mentions of the insurgency in the book, which for much of the time takes a more blackly humorous look at the occupation. It’s like Catch-22 in there. There were serious problems with electricity supply, healthcare, policing and other basics of life, but the US had its eye on the long game:

There was $4 million to create a nationwide system of area codes and telephone numbers, $9 million for a national ZIP code project, $19 million for a wireless internet service, and $20 million for “catch-up business training” that would “develop and train a cadre of entrepreneurs in business fundamentals and concepts that were missing in the former Iraqi regime.”

Another official in the CPA “urged the Health Ministry to mount an anti-smoking campaign,” while members of his team argued that their limited resources “would be better used raising awareness about how to prevent childhood diarrhoea and other fatal maladies.” The man charged with creating a new traffic law for Iraq found inspiration by cutting and pasting sections from the State of Maryland motor vehicle code.

A team from the State University of New York at Stony Brook won a $4 million grant to “modernize curricula in archaeology” at four of Iraq’s largest universities – schools where students were sitting on the floor because they lacked desks and chairs.

Chandrasekaran occasionally suffers from Michael Moore syndrome, in making out that life in Iraq under Saddam was pretty idyllic (“If you weren’t a dissident, Iraq’s capital was one of the world’s safest cities”), and exhibits true American surprise at the extent of pre-war Iraq’s subsidised (or “socialist”) state: “Education, even college, was free. So was health care.” Whoever heard of such madness? The US was even more horrified by this, and set about not repairing the country as they found it, but trying to create a neo-conservative capitalist country from scratch, whatever its history or circumstances.

One way of reducing subsidies was to cancel all state-owned companies’ bank balances, whether credit or debit, and let them start again as private companies from scratch (really this was a ‘virtue’ born of necessity: there wasn’t enough money to pay the deposits and the US feared a run on the state bank). This clean slate approach meant, as one US official pointed out, that:

the very companies that were the dogs you got to take out back and shoot, benefited the most. Who owes a bunch of money? Weak companies. Who had a bunch of money? Strong companies. So we just reversed that. It was the exact opposite of what we were trying to achieve.

The names of US personnel come and go through the book, but they fall into two broad categories: those who see the real world problems, and those who occupied an ideological bubble. Sadly the latter were in charge, from the Oval Office right on down:

A week after arriving, Foley told a contractor from BearingPoint that he intended to privatize all of Iraq’s state-owned enterprises within thirty days.

“There are a couple of problems with that,” the contractor said. “The first is an international law that prevents the sale of assets by an occupation government.”

“I don’t care about any of that stuff,” Foley told the contractor… “I don’t give a shit about international law. I made a commitment to the president that I’d privatize Iraq’s businesses.”

The picture overall is of an administration which took a country as its own playground and allowed it to deteriorate into a war zone. Chandrasekaran’s book may be partial – who knows how many interviewees he left out who thought the Americans were doing a bang-up job? – but it looks certain to become the first draft of history on this tiny part of an enormous and ongoing subject.

J.G. Ballard: Miracles of Life

I may have been a bit disappointed by High-Rise, but that didn’t put me off wanting to read J.G. Ballard’s autobiography, which has been pretty widely acclaimed since its publication last month. I also wasn’t put off – not precisely – when a trusted source read it and pronounced it disappointing; in fact, this may have been crucial in my experience of it, for as a result I approached Miracles of Life with a mixture of trepidation and obligation. Would it have seemed quite so wonderful if I had higher expectations? Who knows? (Who cares?)

J.G. Ballard: Miracles of Life

The subtitle of Miracles of Life is Shanghai to Shepperton, and those who have both read Ballard and read around him will know the central role these two places have played in his writing. Ballard, born in 1930, grew up the son of an English businessman in Shanghai, and after the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, life changed. Gone was Shanghai as “the media city before its time, celebrated as the Paris of the Orient and the ‘wickedest city in the world'”, and in 1943 the Ballard family were moved along with other westerners into the Lunghua Camp holding centre, where Ballard witnessed Japanese brutality against the Chinese, but managed to tackle even the more grotesque elements of life in wartime with a child’s insouciance:

In the last eighteen months of the war our rations fell steeply. As we sat at the card table in our room one day, pushing what my mother called ‘the weevils’ to the rims of our plates of congee, my father decided that from then on we should eat the weevils – we needed the protein. They were small white slugs, and perhaps were maggots, a word my mother preferred to avoid. It must have irritated my mother when I regularly counted them before tucking in lustily – a hundred or so was my usual score, forming a double perimeter around my plate and visibly reducing my portion of boiled rice.

Life in the camp also taught Ballard an intimacy with others he had never known before – his parents were of a generation and a class that lived almost separate lives from their children, even when they were all crammed together in a room for two and a half years (“I remember my own parents in the camp, unable to warn, chide, praise or promise … I regret the estrangement, and realise how much I have missed”). This also contributed to what Ballard expresses most enthusiasm for in the book: not his work, but his children, who he raised as a single father from the age of 33 after his wife’s sudden death.  The emotional coldness of Ballard’s parents – representatives of a whole stratum of the English middle class – extended to his later professional life:

I went on my own way, ignoring [my father] when he strongly urged me against becoming a writer.  I had spent five years learning to decode the strange, introverted world of English life, while he was happiest dealing with professional colleagues in Switzerland and America.  He telephoned me to congratulate me on my first novel, The Drowned World, pointing out one or two minor errors that I was careful not to correct.  My mother never showed the slightest interest in my career until Empire of the Sun, which she thought was about her.

The “strange, introverted world of English life” came as a culture shock to Ballard when he came to England after the war at the age of 16.   “The whole nation seemed to me deeply depressed … It is hard to imagine how conditions could have been worse if we had lost the war.”  It is here that he realises that his upbringing in Shanghai was closeted and cocooned, and suddenly “it was clear to me from the start that the English class system, which I was meeting for the first time, was an instrument of social control, not a picturesque social relic.”

Here then is the genesis of Ballard’s fiction, and the reader comes to realise that even when he spends 100 pages recounting life in wartime Shanghai, almost everything on these pages goes in some way to explaining his often bizarre fiction.  It comes from his experience of the swift breakdown of normal social codes during wartime – as paralleled in many of his novels where self-contained settlements become savage – and his feeling in England of being a “lifelong outside and maverick.  It probably steered me towards becoming a writer devoted to predicting and, if possible, provoking change.”  The direction he needed (“most English novelists were far too ‘English’) was provided by “Freud and the surrealists, a stick of bombs that fell in front of me and destroyed all the bridges I was hesitating to cross.”

There is no denying that Ballard knows what he likes, and it is on the subject of literature that the tone goes occasionally from avuncular to curmudgeonly.  He – historically at least – dismissed much modernism and formalist experiment as easily as he did poetry (“a sad little cult”), literary fiction (“too earnest”), popular fiction (“too popular”) and his contemporaries in the 1960s (“most of them were still locked into a literary sensibility that would have been out of date in the 1920s”).  In the end he settled for his style on science fiction – “the true literature of the 20th century” – with a particular emphasis on “inner-space, in effect the psychological space apparent in surrealist painting, the short stories of Kafka, noir films at their most intense, and the strange, almost mentalised world of science labs and research institutes.”

The book ends on a somber and generous note – explaining why the press release announced it as Ballard’s “last book” – and the whole, for me, succeeds in making me want to scuttle off and reconsider even those novels of Ballard’s that I have recently half-dismissed, better than any review could.  But first: Empire of the Sun.

André Gide: Strait is the Gate

I read Gide for French A-level – La Symphonie Pastorale – and liked it better than the other two set texts (Mauriac’s Thérèse Desqueyroux and Sartre’s Les Jeux Sont Faits). Since then I’ve been meaning to read more of him; and it only took me 17 years.

Strait is the Gate

Strait is the Gate (1909) was his first novel: not that he was any spring chicken, at 40, when he wrote it. The first thought I had about it was that the title is in serious need of retranslation. The original title, La Porte Étroite, has the internal resonance which the translation tries for without the asinine rhyme. And what sort of a word is strait anyway? Has it ever been in normal use as a plain adjective in the 99 years since the book was published? I mean, I get it, mainly by back formation from Straits of Gibraltar etc – it means narrow but also implies difficult or arduous – but it’s a fairly dire choice, even if it is a lift from a Bible passage. Not that I have an immediately better alternative.

Anyway, Strait is the Gate/La Porte Étroite is a love story about Jerome, the narrator, and his cousin Alissa. There’s an immediate appeal to me – much as in J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country – from the mere setting of memories of youth in the blissful countryside. However Alissa, traumatised by her mother’s whorish ways (she drunkenly flaunts her lover before her children), turns in on herself and dedicates her life to God. Now we’re in trouble, because Jerome himself (sharing a name with the ‘author’ of the Vulgate, the 5th century translation of the Bible into Latin) is no wild thing. “Self-control was as natural to me as self-indulgence to others.” Even his poor mother, widowed while Jerome was a child and “always dressed in mourning”, isn’t spared his ostentatious sobriety:

One day – it was a good long time, I think, after my father’s death – my mother changed the black ribbon in her morning cap for a mauve one.

‘Oh mamma!’ I cried. ‘That colour doesn’t suit you at all.’ The next morning the black ribbon was back again.

His dedication to this way of thinking is confirmed by the “peculiar discomfort” he feels when in the company of his aunt Lucile, Alissa’s mother, who brings out feelings Jerome would rather not face:

‘Sailor collars are worn much more open,’ she said, undoing a button of my shirt. ‘There, see if that doesn’t look better!’ and taking out her little mirror, she drew my face down to hers, passed her bare arm around my neck, put her hand into my shirt, asked me laughingly if I was ticklish – went on – further … I started so violently that my shirt tore across and with a flaming face I fled…

He has a kindred spirit then in Alissa, who similarly rejects her mother’s sexual expressiveness, and in Jerome’s mind all this conspires to make “the very idea of laughter and joy [become] an offence and an outrage … the hateful exaggeration of sin!”

Alissa declares happiness secondary to holiness, and she and Jerome both strive to be one of the “few” who “enter ye in at the strait gate,” according to Luke’s gospel: “because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”

The reader already can sense that this firm dedication to the narrow, difficult way, with resistance to temptation, can as easily become a matter for pride and piety as humility and holiness. Jerome and Alissa in their youth and idealism lack such self-awareness, however, and there follows a prolonged (seeming longer, indeed, than the punchy 128 page extent of the novel) to and fro between them, where Jerome states and restates his love for Alissa, and she ebbs and flows, declaring her dedication to him by letter when they’re apart, and going cold on him when they’re together.

It’s both frustrating and enjoyable for the reader, not least because Gide acknowledges the fictional status of the tale and the reader’s dual role: first as an innocent story-follower who wants some progress, and second as a reader of a literary text where we acknowledge the need to follow certain conventions and suspend our disbelief of implausibilities in order to extract the goodness. He tips a wink in the opening line (“Some people might have made a book out of it…”), setting up a sly contract between author and reader, and restates it later when the narrator reflects on his friend Abel’s over-dramatic expression of love: “the slight strain of literary affectation which I felt in it jarred in me not a little…”

The ending is foreseeable but there’s a reversal of viewpoint in the last dozen pages which shakes things up a little. The obvious message of the dangers of piety is pretty clear too. I am now re-fired with enthusiasm for Gide, and am all geared up to read the other book of his I have to hand, The Immoralist, apparently as interested in innocent perversity as La Porte Etroite is in perversely pursued innocence. I hope it will give me even more pleasure. But what was it Alissa said? – “Oh Lord! Preserve me from a happiness which I might too easily attain!” I’ll give it another few weeks then.