Philip Hensher: The Northern Clemency

Philip Hensher’s The Northern Clemency is the longest and, for me, the last of the Man Booker Prize 2008 wronglist longlist. Reading eleven novels in a row which I wouldn’t otherwise have chosen to read has taught me that, whatever I think of the judges’ choices, I don’t envy them their task, which involved reading over one hundred such books. Hensher himself was a judge in 2001, and found the task no struggle at all, pointing out that he always reads five books a week: “It was just my six months’ normal reading.” The linked article is worth a look for a wider insight into the Booker judging process. Who can doubt the sincerity of Adam Mars-Jones, a judge in 1995, when he acknowledges that “It was great to find a book so inept you could chuck it aside and get on to the next one.” And so – changing the subject completely – back to The Northern Clemency.

Looking at the Also By page, I see that I have read all but one of Hensher’s previous five novels, without ever really feeling myself to be a strong admirer of his fiction. What I remember best of them is the wonderful opening scene in Pleasured (1998), with two people dancing in the snow of no-man’s-land in divided Berlin. Otherwise Hensher is better known as a columnist and critic, and for me the author of the most brilliantly insulting pay-off in book reviewing history, in his piece on James Thackara’s 2000 novel The Book of Kings. He warms up with some mild words: “a book of gigantic, hopeless awfulness. You read it to a constant, internal muttering of ‘Oh – God – Thackara – please, don’t – no – oh, God, just listen to this rubbish’. It’s so awful, it’s not even funny.” And he concludes:

The awful thing is that Thackara … is utterly sincere and will probably be admired by people who believe that sincerity, rather than art, is the basis of a great novel. He is probably a nice man. He obviously cares deeply about these great historical movements and has done a great deal of research – my God, he has researched and researched and researched. But on the evidence of The Book of Kings, he could not write ‘Bum’ on a wall.

I wonder if any cunning literary editor has despatched a copy of The Northern Clemency to James Thackara to review? If they did, I hope they put enough postage on it, because this is one mammoth volume. A view of it in three-dimensional glory is really required to see what a doorstep of a book this is.

The Northern Clemency is set mostly in northern England, and it begins in the 1970s. Here I am reminded of another pointed piece by Hensher. Earlier this year – coinciding with publication of his novel – he wrote an article in Prospect magazine highlighting the weaknesses of many period-set ‘state of the nation’ novels, such as Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters’ Club. For example, “Large public events enter into the action awkwardly and obtrusively.” Such as this, perhaps, on page 69 of The Northern Clemency?

At eleven, Malcolm got up, switched the television off, unplugged it, remarking that it was a relief all those power-cuts had stopped at last.

He is also critical (and rightly so) of the use of easy cultural references to pin a story in time, particularly pop music: “a lazy, easily-researched way to evoke a particular moment”. How true, and so unlike other cultural “hey, it’s the 70s!” touchstones like Coronation Chicken, green bamboo-pattern wallpaper, car-key parties (very Ice Storm) and TV shows such as Why Don’t You? , all of which feature in the first 50 pages of The Northern Clemency. Hensher refrains from using pop music as his reference points: “I was a teenager when the Clash are reported by Coe as playing in Fulham. I wouldn’t have cared. At the time, my records were mostly of Mahler, Schoenberg and Boulez.”

The Northern Clemency, briefly put, is a story of two families in Sheffield. The Glovers are long-time residents of Rayfield Avenue, and the Sellerses have just moved up from London. Over the next twenty years they will experience a few dramatic life events and an awful lot of extremely humdrum ones, all narrated with extraordinary attention to detail. Hensher has the ability to turn a fine phrase (“he ate with his elbows out, as if always demolishing a pie in a crowded pub”, or describing a washing machine, whose “cycle went into passages of immense fury”) but they aren’t half few and far between.

There is every reason to praise many of the characters and events in The Northern Clemency for their realism. But it is this very act of recognition in the unexceptional nature of their concerns which damages the book in parts: our own lives, most of the time, would not past muster as the subject of a 740-page novel. It has a connection with Adam Mars-Jones’s Pilcrow, if not quite as heroic in its carefully intricate analysis of quotidian concerns, and in fact is a weaker book as a result. Where Mars-Jones had the guts to make his novel, as it were, beautifully boring, Hensher gives us a middle-class Coronation Street.

Even in this meticulous recreation of life, plausibility does sometimes fail. Hensher offers no acknowledgements at the end of the book: a refreshing change, in fact, to the habit now for authors to give three pages of thanks. He wrote it all by himself – hallelujah! Perhaps he was keen to avoid the trap of James Thackara, as Hensher does not seem to have “researched and researched and researched” – but then you don’t need to be a lawyer to know that in a criminal trial, the defendant isn’t cross-examined by the prosecution before he gives evidence to his own barrister.

There are strong set pieces, such as (implausibility notwithstanding) the criminal trial which takes place two-thirds of the way through, some affecting scenes in a hospital, and some decent tension near the very end as a past collides with a present. Hensher is also very good on family conflict, particularly between socialist-anarchist Tim and his father Malcolm (recalling the long bitter exchanges in Roth’s American Pastoral), and on the lurch of change for children trying to make new friends when they move schools. There is a scene which could have been hackneyed but which becomes very moving, where Malcolm and Katherine Glover view their lives reduced to a series of fading snapshots. Nonetheless there is an awful lot of trough between these peaks, and even when Hensher is pinpointing the thoughts of teenagers or housewives with considerable confidence and honesty, there never seems to be much that is surprising or novel in what he has to say. Some characters, such as Katherine Glover, are well drawn, while others, like her son Tim, seem half-hearted (bit weird, Marxist, obsessive … er, that’s it).

The inside flap of The Northern Clemency claims that it was inspired by “the great nineteenth-century Russian novels,” but the debt seemed to me to be less to Dostoevsky than to Desperate Housewives. It is immensely long and hysterically dull. What it does prove is that no one will ever reasonably subject Hensher to the sort of pasting which he gave James Thackara. The Northern Clemency, weighty in all the wrong ways, proves not that Hensher could not write ‘Bum’ on a wall, but that he can write soap on a brick.


  1. I hate Desperate Housewives and I truly loved Northern Clemency. I don’t try to analyze these things. I disliked From A to X and didn’t finish it. I appear to be a true philistine, perhaps in being American. Who knows the reason, but I could not put Clemency down and I found it anything but boring. Thanks for the link which might help explain how Booker choices work. As for me, I think I will go back to waiting for the winner. Of the six I have read so far only three were finished and only two enjoyed.

  2. Well it takes all sorts, Candy, and you’re in good company with dovegreyreader who loved it too. I did wonder if the fact that I was so fed up with the Booker list influenced my opinion of Clemency, but I believe not as I had tried reading it earlier in the year, enthusiastic and keen, and gave up with boredom by page 300. Incidentally I like Desperate Housewives, but it was the only soap-type serial I could think of that began with D to alliterate with Dostoevsky…

    He he he. Soap on a brick. That’s made my morning. How relieved are you, now that your Bookerthon is over John?

    Thanks William. Very relieved. Just the serendipity of choosing books for myself again has given some pleasure back to my reading. And for added contrast, later in the week I’ll be writing about my favourite book of the year so far.

  3. John, I started this book before the weekend began and have now set it down – for good. It’s the only book that will be reviewed on my blog without my having finished it, but there it is. I think the weight of both the 12 longlist books I read (never got ahold of Arnold, never will) and the 700+ pages of The Northern Clemency combined to make me nearly die with anxiety each time I picked up the book and saw the other books I’ve been longing to read. When I put it down and said “No! No more!” I felt such a sense of release!

    I’m not sure what my reaction to this book would have been like had I read it first – I hope at least fair – but as it is I’m just relieved. I’ll be pointing people to you and dovegreyreader for reviews they can have confidence in!

    I’m off to greener pastures (and anxious to see what your favorite book of the year is)!

  4. John, I have never read any of Mr Hensher’s work, but I would like to take issue with your designation of his examination of The Book of Kings as having the greatest last line of a book review ever. I’d still give the title to Philip Hensher; only for his take on Adam Thirlwell’s Miss Herbert. It goes thus:

    “As a translation, oo la la, it stinks. Cor chase my aunt Fanny round a mulberry bush, what a corker in the annals of cock-ups.”

    I’m sure you’ll agree that’s rather delightful. You can read the enjoyable review in full here.

    I must admit I take sadistic pleasure in reading it because I can’t stand the posturing preening pompous man of shallow talents Adam Thirlwell, but hey, I’m not afraid to admit to my dark side.

    As for The Northern Clemency, if it wasn’t so long I might put it on my list, but I notice that one of his previous novels is set in 1839 in Afghanistan, and seems to be a rip roaring historical adventure about British colonials and Afghan warriors. I think that’s what is called range, Yorkshire kitchen sink territory to that, not bad, I like him in the superficial way you often like writers whose work you’ve never read, and you’ve got to admit re: his reviews; he knows how to wield a knife, and is not afraid to use it.

  5. As usual, John, a most generous and fair review. It has not caused me to pick up the book for a second read to discover what I missed the first time. I can’t disagree with any of your conclusions (actually, I totally support them.) I am happy to see that some people do like this book since I would hate to see the paper used to produce it totally wasted. I will admit I am not one of them.

  6. Yes Kevin, when you started to get bogged down in this book on the Man Booker site, I wanted to disagree with you. But in the end I could not.

    Trevor, you were wise to give up. I only continued the second time out of sheer bloodymindedness (though some of the best scenes in the book are in the last couple of hundred pages).

    Paul, I rather liked Miss Herbert, though probably despite rather than because of Thirlwell’s over-chummy and (yes) preening prose. I used it as a sort of mail order catalogue of writers I need to read. (One down – Robert Walser – several dozen to go.) Adam Mars-Jones, however, whom I have already linked to Hensher in this post, also trashed Miss Herbert. He wields the knife with almost as much relish as Hensher.

    I do find Hensher’s happy use of insult (for want of a better word) in his reviews a bit unsettling, however much fun they are to read. There’s something supercilious about his dismissals – also in his serene comments above about being a Booker judge and his teenage music preferences – and it was this that surprised me most about The Northern Clemency. I couldn’t get it out of my head that Hensher would be looking down his nose at readers enjoying this solid but unremarkable tale of family lives, as though it were a colossal joke (which I am sure it was not).

    I quite liked The Mulberry Empire, which at 500 or so pages, was therefore about 33% better than The Northern Clemency. Hensher wrote it,apparently, after A.S. Byatt challenged him to write something on a bigger scale than his previous novels. The length of time it took, however, didn’t please his partner, and so Hensher’s next novel, The Fit had its first draft written in a month (I think) as a bet. Unfortunately it showed. History does not so far record who dared him to write The Northern Clemency.

  7. Interesting comments John, thanks for the reply. I just read your review of Pilcrow, and along with other things I have read and heard about that novel, it is tempting me too.

    Interesting that Thirlwell is like Mars Jones and Hensher a novelist-critic. My allergy to Thirlwell derives from his stupid first novel, and a ten page hatchet job on the poet Daljit Nagra published in his house journal Arrete which led me to wonder how anyone with his qualifications could be so stupid. Maybe when novelist-critics see each other, they attack, hence Henser and Jones antipathy to his work, but my own prejudice suggests they just recognise something deeply flawed.

    You have a great back catalogue of reviews here, I’ll probably spend time mooching around them in the coming weeks.

  8. Pilcrow is an interesting one, Paul, and I’ll be very keen to hear your thoughts if you do read it. I read it in a proof copy which I scrounged off the publisher, so keen was I to have it as soon as possible, and ended with mixed feelings: the book is full of good things, but it almost dares the reader to get bored with its superhuman attachment to minutiae. The proof I read was tatty by the end, so I passed it on to a friend and didn’t want it back.

    However in the six months or so since, Pilcrow has remained prominent in my mind, helped by things like James Wood’s piece in the LRB. His experience of the book was similar to mine:

    Pilcrow gets nowhere very elegantly. … [It] is not only very long; it measures its length in such tiny units that at times you feel that a version of Zeno’s paradox will stop you from ever reaching its end.

    But he hits the nail on the head here:

    So the novel displays an amusing self-consciousness about the sluggishness of its project; time and again, Mars-Jones seems to be nudging us to laugh at Pilcrow. Look at the delighted way John describes his grandmother making scrambled eggs: ‘Nothing seemed to happen, and it kept on not happening for a very long time . . . Her activity seemed designed in fact to protect the contents of the pan from any changes that might be brought about by cooking.’ This is a funny description of watching eggs not cook, and an even funnier description of watching a novel not cook.

    It only remains to confirm that Pilcrow, as I suspected when I wrote my post on it, is indeed (at 500 pages) the first volume of a three-part novel. Volume two is published next September, I believe. And so perversely interested did this make me in the book all over again that I finally bought a proper copy last week. Well, it is a very handsome hardback.

    As to Daljit Nagra, I have his collection Look We Have Coming to Dover! and have enjoyed what I’ve read of it. Yeah, nuts to Thirlwell then.

  9. Well done for getting through the longlist, John! I appreciate all the effort that goes into your reviews – if they’re as difficult to write as they are entertaining to read, then you have my sympathies! And I very much hope you’ll change your mind about not reviewing the entire longlist come next year.

    I find Hensher’s more snarky reviews a bit tiresome. I love a good take-down as much as anyone, but I find negative reviews much more interesting (and enlightening) when I get a sense that the critic is angry at the book because it’s offended some deep moral conviction that they hold about literature and The Novel. I suppose I just think that when a novel disappoints Hensher, it disappoints him comically, but the better critics are the ones who are disappointed seriously.

    James Wood would be one such ‘serious’ critic, and (while we’re talking about good put-downs) the opening few words of his critique of Rushdie’s ‘Fury’ always make me snicker: ”Fury’, a novel that exhausts negative superlatives…’ Rushdie said in an interview recently that he only skim-reads reviews looking for a general thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Well, he wouldn’t have to have skim-read that one for very long before he saw two-fingers staring back at him.

    Tom Deveson is another such critic, I think. I’ve linked below his evisceration of Jeffrey Archer (an easy target – but it is funnily done), and his review of Roddy Doyle’s ‘Paula Spencer’ – that last line had to hurt, especially as Doyle had said in an interview once that he thought ‘Ulysses’ overrated.

    Paul, I’m going to try and get hold of that Nagra review you mention. I really enjoyed the collection, so it would be good to read Thirlwell’s take on it. Even if he does act and sound like a total tit.

    (Apologies for veering so far away from the discussion of ‘The Northern Clemency’.)

  10. No need for apologies, Sam – as you can see, my last comment has moved on from Hensher entirely. Incidentally your comment was delayed going up because there are links in it (this happened to Paul earlier also) – this means my spam filter automatically puts it in a queue, so don’t worry if this happens in future. It will get through in the end.

    The Tom Deveson piece on Paula Spencer is interesting. I very much enjoyed the book, though I agree with him that to begin with, the staccato style is what a Doyle character might call ‘a pain in the hole’. I think he’s right in some criticisms of it, but for me the core of the book is in the way it depicts Paula’s relationships with her children. It’s rare enough to read a book with one distinctive relationship between parent and child, but Doyle goes for four and I think he pulls it off.

    An aside. The opening of Deveson’s review suggests (though I might be wrong) that he read The Woman Who Walked into Doors and didn’t like it – at least this is what I infer from his comment about “a silly American critic” who praised the book. (Indeed as Paula Spencer is a direct sequel, it wouldn’t make much sense for him to review it without knowing the earlier book.) If that’s the case, is it entirely reasonable for the literary editor to assign him to review the book, knowing he didn’t like the earlier volume? Certainly, nobody in punter-land who disliked The Woman Who Walked into Doors is going to be reading Paula Spencer.

    It might be a bit rich of me to make that point, given that I read at least one Booker longlister with a fair idea I wouldn’t like it, but it does seem to me to be a general point worth raising. Something similar arose when the Observer gave Adam Mars-Jones a Paulo Coelho novel to review, with predictable (and, yes, amusing) results: “There is more depth in Calvin Klein’s Obsession than in Paulo Coelho’s Zahir.” Of course, Coelho is a desperate chancer who deserves every hatchet job he gets, so I don’t complain too loudly about that one.

    And yes, Doyle’s stance on Ulysses is idiotic.

  11. OK John your link to the James Wood review of Pilcrow decides it then, I’ll add it to the list and let you know my thoughts when I’ve read it.

    It will be months away though, the pile of books on my table is being attended to but it includes the Patrick Hamilton trilogy that I purchased after seeing your review and am really looking forward to reading before the end of the year. I’ll let you know my thoughts on that too when I finish it.

  12. I’ve not read ‘Paula Spencer’ – just the reviews, which put me off, and with my reading of ‘Paddy Clarke…’ which was… well, to steal a phrase from Mars-Jones’s review of Doyle’s ‘Rory and Ita’: ha ha ha? no no no. ‘Paula Spencer’ does sound a bit grim.

    I’m not sure what to make of critics reviewing books by writers they’ve disliked in the past. On the one hand, the critic might just be a bit of expert on that writer’s work and would bring to the task of reviewing the book a huge amount of knowledge; on the other hand, if they’ve hated the writer’s output for quite some time but continue to review their work, then it can start to look like a vendetta of some description, and the reader of the review may find it difficult to take the criticisms seriously. I think Peter Kemp in ‘The Sunday Times’ has trashed the last four Rushdie novels, predictably proclaiming each one ‘the worst thing he has ever written…’ or variations thereof. How can any reader continue to take such ranting seriously? And why does the Chief Fiction Critic of the Sunday Times continue to let Peter Kemp review Rushdie’s books? Oh, that’s right. Peter Kemp *is* the Chief Fiction…

    In fact, reviewing books that he was predisposed to dislike was a criticism the many people levelled at James Wood. He seems to have listened, for since he moved to ‘The New Yorker’ I don’t think he’s written an out-and-out negative piece yet.

    As for James Wood and Adam Mars-Jones, you get the feeling that they both know that the best way to needle the other is to criticise their facility of the English language. I thought it was funny how some of James Wood’s criticisms of ‘Pilcrow’ (‘making only phrases, threads rather than webs’) were similar to those that Mars-Jones made of Wood’s novel ‘The Book Against God’ (‘hard to be engaged by a novelist so awkward with figurative language’). I feel like asking them to shake hands and make up.

  13. John Updike’s ‘rules’ for writing book reviews might be worth reproducing here:

    1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

    2. Give him enough direct quotation–at least one extended passage–of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.

    3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.

    4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending. (How astounded and indignant was I, when innocent, to find reviewers blabbing, and with the sublime inaccuracy of drunken lords reporting on a peasants’ revolt, all the turns of my suspenseful and surpriseful narrative! Most ironically, the only readers who approach a book as the author intends, unpolluted by pre-knowledge of the plot, are the detested reviewers themselves. And then, years later, the blessed fool who picks the volume at random from a library shelf.)

    5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

    To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an idealogical battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author “in his place,” making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

    I know what you mean, Sam, about Mars-Jones. His review of Richard Kelly’s Crusaders critiqued it almost entirely at the sentence level. Having said that, I was quite relieved to find a bad review of that enormous book so I could excuse my not reading it.

    As to Doyle generally, I haven’t really read that much of him. A couple of the Barrytown novels, which are fun but forgettable, and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, which I didn’t like and couldn’t finish.

    Paul, hope you enjoy Pilcrow and the Hamilton. The trilogy is not his best work – I think that’s Hangover Square or The Slaves of Solitude – but well worth a read.

  14. When Amazon first launched, with its reader reviews, one girl, who had done The Great Gatsby at school, gave her one sentence verdict:

    ‘I found this book kinda poorly written.’

  15. The Lord of the Rings (1954)
    Author: J.R.R. Tolkien

    “The book is not readable because of the overuse of adverbs.”


  16. You have discovered my inspiration for my MB stream review of Child 44: “A truly terrible book.” Updike’s guidelines are excellent, but sometimes it just is not worth going back to find the quotes.

  17. “Where Mars-Jones had the guts to make his novel, as it were, beautifully boring, Hensher gives us a middle-class Coronation Street.” Great sentence!

    I hate to admit it, but I kind of like Coronation Street. Also, I just finished “To Serve Them All My Days” by Delderfield, which is bloody dull yet fascinating at the same time. It sounds like this novel is similar in some respects.

    I think I’ll read a few more reviews before I reach a decision about reading this one.

  18. I liked To Serve Them All My Days when I read it a few years ago. It’s a bit pedestrian I suppose, but it has a real cumulative power. I’ve never watched Coronation Street but I’m sure it’s very good at being what it is … what it wouldn’t be very good at however is a 700-page Booker longlisted novel!

  19. Well, John, my review/non-review of The Northern Clemency goes up in about a half an hour.

    I have to keep coming back to your review in order to feel good about my decision to stop reading it. I feel a bit guilty, that by putting it down I was actually just trying to move away from the Booker longlist and not The Northern Clemency. Thanks to your insights I feel good about my decision – and good books have already found me!

  20. dovegreyreader left a comment somewhere about this book that sort of went “maybe you had to be there” to like this book. Certainly her review (which is quite good) is about the only positive one that I read. I suspect she makes a good point and maybe this is a book that just doesn’t travel very well, either for younger readers who weren’t adults during the 1970s and those of us who were geographically removed. I don’t normally get into conspiracy theories but if I accept DGR’s premise (and it makes some sense), I do see the hand of Chairman Portillo in this one being on the shortlist. I usually try to reread all the shortlist books — I don’t think I will be taking this one on again.

  21. I just read your review and really enjoyed it. I found TNC totally compulsive and rather unsatisfying, both for the reasons you mentioned – the popular culture detail (Things that Make me Go Hmmmm…) and the general slowness of the “troughs” – and also because the style was just so very, very simple. I kept thinking “I’d like to read this story, these events, this dialogue, just written by someone else”…

    But I really wanted to like the book! And I wanted to like it because I just LOVE Philip Hensher’s reviewing. Even when he is sharp and nasty – he’s always so on the money.

    Anyway there were some great bits in that book – the new school is done so incredibly well, as is the moving in day. Amazing. Just – inconsistent, I think.

    PS re: “you had to be there”, Rachel Cooke reviewed the book fairly critically for the Observer and she went to the same school in Sheffield as PH.

  22. I’m not surprised it’s been shortlisted, at the risk of sounding snobbish it seems a determinedly middlebrow list this year, though there seem to be a few exceptions. From what I’ve read here and elsewhere I’m hoping Linda Grant takes the prize, it’s one of the very few I have any interest in reading so far.

    I’ve only read Kitchen Venom by Hensher, it was alright, but not good enough that I ever wanted to read another particularly. I’m expecting to cull a few books from the shelves shortly, and I don’t expect that one to survive the cull (and it’s only stuff I think I’ll almost certainly never reread that will go, which is very little thankfully).

    As a critic he feels to me an embodiment of that saying about those who live in glass houses. He can also be remarkably self-satisfied, the comment about reading five novels a week seems more calculated to tell everyone how clever he is than anything more. I recollect him once boasting of how much he was enjoying an Italian translation of Proust, he often smacks to me of showiness and I don’t think his work justifies his pretension.

    But, I’ve only read one work of his and that his first, so I may be being unfair. This review does not however tempt me to give him a second chance, I must admit.

  23. Very kind of you Sam; indeed I’d just read your review and followed your link back here! I think you make a fascinating point in yours about the fogginess of emotion as against concrete details (this should really go as a comment to your review, but I have endless trouble logging into the Guardian blogs) – though I’m not sure I agree. To me, a particular song, foodstuff or item of popular culture can actually bring emotions as well as memories back strongly. (The music that was playing when you had your first shag/break-up, say.) Something like Proust’s madeleine. Perhaps.

  24. Ah indeed… The madeleine escaped me when making the point…And yes, you’re right… I’m not sure I entirely agree either… Certainly objects can bring back emotions… I don’t think Hensher is so unsubtle as to suggest that they don’t do that too… What I do think is that Hensher does something interesting in making the comparison and using the device in this way… If I’d had more space I’d have talked about that excellent scene where Katherine and Malcolm go through the photograph album late on in the book… And what that says about how the outward view of a moment can be frozen in time… but the inner is always in flux… Or something…

  25. ‘Oh – God – Hensher – please, don’t – no – oh, God, just listen to this rubbish – The Mulberry Empire was duller than a 1am OU geometry lecture – The Northern Clemency is the desperate flounderings of a journalist that thinks the prosaic can borrow gravitas by virtue of mere length – if only it was a patch on Coe – tedious, tedious, boooooooooooooooring’.

    I could’ve been reading the National Book Award shortlist instead, like I told Trevor I would. Sorry Trevor! You know how it is!

  26. I know exactly how it is, Lee. Fortunately, thanks to John and Kevin, after the first hundred of so pages of The Northern Clemency I skipped it. I don’t know if you’ve looked at the comments on the National Book Award page on my blog or not, Lee, but there are probably some worth skipping there too.

  27. Lee,

    I hesitate to say it but when I was slogging my way through Shadow Country I did keep thinking about The Northern Clemency. There is no doubt that Matthiessen deals with more substantial themes, but — alas — the books do share other characteristics. Particularly a relentless pursuit of a not very rewarding story. As my comments on Trevor’s blog indicate, I don’t think you missed anything by avoiding the NBAs — except for Telex from Cuba, I don’t think there was much there.

  28. I have nothing to add to anything you guys have said above – except to apologise to Kevin for his new avatar looking quite so spaced-out. (And Lee, yours is rather thuggish.) It’s an image generated algorithmically from your email address. Perhaps I should return to the geometric ones.

  29. I rather like my new avatar — although I think it probably only works when I have critical comments. I suspect if I ever rave about a book people are going to look at the graphic and say “yeah, he’s just sticking his tongue out at us.” Having said that, it is fitting that it shows up in The Northern Clemency discussion — that is just about exactly how I felt and looked at page 120 with only several hundred more to go.

  30. My avatar is boss, man – it even looks a bit like me when I’m in a stern frame of mind (it looks like a snapshot of my fizzog as I closed The Northern Clemency, in fact). And if that represents a zip on my mouth, some would say not before time…

    Well, Kevin, Telex From Cuba is the one I was going to start off with, at least, and I may get round to it when all the hoo-haa has dwindled, though I appreciate your generous tolerance of my procrastination on that score, Trevor! I’m going to check out your National Book blog right now and make my indolence feel justified with vicarious hindsight…

  31. Hensher writes in the Independent today about book reviews and book bloggers:

    The best literary blogs, such as, are clearly as good as anything written in the paper press, expert and disinterested. Others, frankly, are self-publicists who know very little, and who may, as far as anyone knows, be serving an agenda. Every author knows the obsessively hostile blogger or online reviewer who turns out to be a slighted participant on a creative writing course…

    I’m pleased to see dovegreyreader get a little deserved publicity, and I’m sure it’s entirely coincidental that he singled her out for praise when she’s one of the few prominent book bloggers who liked The Northern Clemency.

  32. I particularly note the way he (subtly? ominously?) introduces the notion of “serving an agenda”. The old copy editor in me would have sent that back to the writer with a suggestion that the agenda should be identified — although I guess the explanation of “slighted participant on a creative writing course” may have turned out to be the explanation. There certainly were a lot of slighted participants commenting on the Man Booker blog.

  33. Hensher is a precious dullard so I think his comments can be ignored (check out some of his interviews; why, exactly, are all the worst writers the most ardent and irritating self-publicists?). I suppose when you spend that long on such a huge book you can be forgiven for failing to countenance ridicule as it may sting a wee bit too much so soon after it has been published. I’d be none too happy at such a door-stopper getting a battering, but I’d leave well alone. Once you’ve written it, it’s no longer yours. You send it out there, and just as much as you might be desperate for plaudits and wary of a kicking, it’s ridiculous to victimise those that don’t like your work. You end up looking like a bit of an idiot. Hensher is probably, deep down, well aware that he isn’t (and never will be) as good a writer as he imagines, something we all know after frittering our time on his novel. He’s a decent writer; his talent simply doesn’t stretch that far. He needs to stick to journalism and slight novels about slight matters. A roman a clef, perhaps? It’s good to know he trawls the web looking for the kind of advocacy that surely only his parents have ever doled out. Philip, Philip…you’re not going to find it.

  34. Great review, John, although I have to admit I liked the book a lot for all the reasons you disliked it. It did feel like a soap opera to me, but an engrossing one, and I thought he handled the mundane events of everyday lives with aplomb. There were a few aspects of it which jarred such as the ending, but for the most part, I enjoyed it greatly.

    In contrast, I thought one of his earlier novels, The Fit, really did get bogged down in the tediously dull, mainly because the somewhat odd narrator gave free rein to his witterings which I felt were often not entertaining or interesting. (My review of The Fit is on my facebook profile page.)

    I love the example of Hensher’s delicious bitchiness to Thackara in his review of Thackara’s book. Hee hee. I didn’t realize while I was reading The Fit that there was an equally snide dig at another person Hensher has little time for in the form of the mono-eyebrowed, loud, plain, talentless conceptual artist character. I only became aware of who it was when I read a few reviews of The Fit after writing my own review. Interestingly, I thought the character was a ridiculously exaggerated parody of a conceptual artist when reading the book, but when I found out who it was based on, it dawned that it wasn’t really exaggerated since the real life character is a pretty good parody of herself 🙂

    My favourite Hensher is The Mulberry Empire. He’s certainly versatile, being able to tackle weighty issues as well as trivia.

  35. Thanks Leyla. I think I’d agree that The Mulberry Empire is his best, though I do also have an affection for Pleasured, even though I can’t remember much about it other than the brilliant opening scenes.

    Now I will have to go off and investigate monobrowed conceptual artists, though one name does immediately spring to mind…

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