Month: December 2008

Twelve from the Shelves: My Books of 2008

A slightly different approach to this space-filler essential roundup this year. My aim is to try to shine a pencil torch of attention on books that might otherwise be overlooked, whether old books deserving new attention, new books which lost out to undeserving rivals in prize lists, or titles that might be left to languish in genre hell. So I’ll be leaving out the bigger names: no Philip Roth (even though his Patrimony and The Prague Orgy would easily have qualified) or James Kelman (whose extraordinary How Late It Was, How Late hardly needs my imprimatur, fourteen years and a Booker Prize later). My guiding principle has been to pick the books which have stayed with me most strongly this year, even if they weren’t the ones I immediately loved at the time. I’m also detecting in myself a growing taste for books which aren’t quite as neat and clear as the ones I typically favour, so no Patrick McGrath (Trauma) or David Park (The Truth Commissioner), even though I loved both. It seems with this introduction that I am gradually working my list up into the twenties, so I’ll say no more. The list below is in alphabetical order by author and is not ranked. And yes, there are thirteen. Sorry, couldn’t cut it any further.

Andrew Crumey, Sputnik Caledonia : “gives a new dimension to Crumey’s writing: this master of making our heads spin has found out how to hit the heart.”

Geoff Dyer, The Missing of the Somme : “a substantial book despite its page count … the ‘narrative’ looks meandering or random but in fact is highly wrought and tightly structured.”

Damon Galgut, The Impostor : “a magnificent achievement … feel free to picture me sighing and smiling in pleasure at the mere memory of it as I type this.”

Patrick Hamilton, Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky : “all the mystery, beauty, grotesquerie, humour, sadness and terror you could wish for, all in a perfect minor key.”

W.F. Hermans, Beyond Sleep : “a rich and strange book … both funny and deeply serious: it has that odd combination of weighty themes and borderline slapstick humour that we (or I) only see in fiction in translation.”

Imre Kertesz, The Pathseeker : “both nebulous and forceful, obstructive and direct, which leaves room for the reader’s own responses while directing them artfully along Kertész’s chosen path.”

Emanuel Litvinoff, Journey Through a Small Planet : “the very essence of what publishers of ‘modern classics’ should be doing … gives me hope for mainstream publishing.”

Bernard Malamud, The Assistant : “He writes … with an agility that gives pleasure akin to humour even when it isn’t actually funny. And it isn’t funny: what happens to these people is mostly terrible. But oh my, it’s thrilling to read it.”

Adam Mars-Jones, Pilcrow : “an odd book, an extraordinary one in many ways [with] peaks of brilliant wit.”

Patrik Ourednik, Europeana : “hypnotic, dizzying, funny and disturbing … a book which should appeal to – and surprise – almost anyone who goes near it.”

Cynthia Ozick, The Shawl : “pitched perfectly from start to finish … [proves] that a great writer can mine new things from the most heavily-subscribed of topics.” (See also The Puttermesser Papers)

Richard Price, Lush Life : “seems entirely miraculous … I fell for the reviewerly cliché of really wanting the book to last much longer than it did, so I could remain in this immaculately created and fully imagined world for as long as possible.”

Tobias Wolff, Our Story Begins : “there really is more brains, heart and soul in one story by Tobias Wolff – in one page – than some of this year’s Booker longlisters manage in their entire length.”

Please share your own favourites of the year below.

Adalbert Stifter: Rock Crystal

Adalbert Stifter’s unusual Christmas story, Rock Crystal, comes freighted with expectation. Republished earlier this year in a beautiful new edition by NYRB Classics, it was named by Gabriel Josipovici as one of his top ten novellas, alongside pretty heady companions such as The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Bartleby the Scrivener, and Metamorphosis. It has been praised already by blogs as diverse as Booklit and Vertigo, and Stifter influenced writers as renowned as Kafka and Sebald. So what is there for me to add?

Rock Crystal was published in German as Bergkristall – an altogether crunchier, wintrier title – in 1845, and translated into English a century later by Elizabeth Mayer and the poet Marianne Moore.

Stifter begins the story as a meditation on and celebration of the Christian myth and the Christmas festival, with “the church rising from the heart of the village” and on Christmas morning “the Christ-child … returning home after visiting children everywhere and bringing to each, a wondrous gift,” bringing too an end to “the cheerless expanse of desolate night.” And “after this, the long winter departs; spring comes, then lingering summer.”

The parallels this has for the rest of the book will become clear, but the way Stifter brings us there is ingenious and delightful. The narrative begins in widescreen, with a cultural tradition, then selects a mountainous landscape, draws down to a pair of neighbouring villages, and finally closes in on its handful of characters. The villages are Millsdorf and Gschaid, and the shoemaker of Gschaid wins the heart of the daughter of the dyer from Millsdorf. But the villages, though indistinguishable, maintain a certain rivalry:

so it came about that after the beautiful daughter of the dyer of Millsdorf married the shoemaker of Gschaid she was still regarded by the people of Gschaid as a stranger.

“That’s the way it was,” Stifter tells us, “and no use talking about it.” Similarly, when the couple have children, “like their mother who had always been treated as a stranger in Gschaid, the children became strangers too; and were hardly Gschaid children, but belonged half to Millsdorf.”

The children is what it comes down to, Conrad and Sanna, and their journey from their grandmother’s home in Millsdorf back home to Gschaid; but it is winter, Christmas Eve, and the sun is just a “dull reddish ball” low in the sky. What comes next is not entirely surprising, and eventually

on every side was nothing but a blinding whiteness, white everywhere that nonetheless drew its ever narrowing circle about them, paling beyond into fog that came down in waves, devouring and shrouding everything till there was nothing but the voracious snow.

W.H. Auden in the introduction (actually his 1945 review of the book from the New York Time Book Review) speaks of the story’s “breathtaking risks of appalling banalities”, and it’s easy to see what he means. On one reading, this is a charming but straightforward folk tale; but nonetheless it seems more wide-ranging and stranger than that, in its structure, cultural grounding, and the scene when the children find themselves in a magical, sinister cavern of ice, “bluer than anything on earth, a blue deeper and finer than the vault of heaven itself.” It has warmth in the midst of the coldest setting, like a glowing fire on a frosty Christmas morning.

Richard Yates: Revolutionary Road

It’s rare enough that I have time to re-read books these days, so for Revolutionary Road to earn the rarest accolade – a third read! – it must be pretty special, right? With Yates’s star so firmly in the ascendant, it’s hard to believe that less than ten years ago, he was forgotten and out of print on both sides of the Atlantic. Novelist Stewart O’Nan’s 1999 essay ‘The Lost World of Richard Yates’ helped sow the seeds for the Yates revival, which in the UK began in 2001 with the reissue of Revolutionary Road. An Amazon review I posted suggests I read it about a year later, by which time (according to my copy) it was already in its fourth printing: clearly the Yates resurrection was already gathering pace. I loved the book, thought it a blinding wonder, and was encouraged to read all his other books – which I’d just finished doing when I began this blog. I re-read it in 2006, and found it somewhat diminished. I was inspired to make a third visit because the Yates revival is itself enjoying a revival, and nothing succeeds like success; plus, I wanted one final chance to fix Frank and April Wheeler in my mind before they are forever rendered into Winslet and DiCaprio.

Revolutionary Road (1961) was Yates’s first novel and is widely considered to be his best. I’m not so sure of that, though it does have a unity of direction and quality of invention that many of his later novels lacked. In particular, here there is a compelling storyline where his other novels tend to comprise scenes from a (rotten) life; and, uniquely I think among his novels, there is no character very obviously based on Yates’s drunken mother. In other respects it has the flaws of a first novel: Yates seems unable to keep his thumb off the scale, with an insistence on telling us everything his characters think and feel, and on explaining all. I would like sometimes to work it out for myself – or, even better, to remain puzzled. And the relentless belittling of the characters and places in the book looks a lot less fresh as a Yates stalwart than when reading him new.

What Yates does have, however, is significant. The word most often used in praise of his writing is “honesty” – and he has that, of the most brutal kind, in spades. He is clear-eyed and unsentimental with all his characters – though at times I sensed a reverse sentimentality in his willingness to do them down so readily – and in particular with the runts of his litter, Frank and April Wheeler. Even the aforesaid tendency never to be silent about what his characters are thinking is often to good effect; when April and Frank have an argument at the beginning of the book – a sign of underlying tensions which will break out devastatingly as the story progresses – Frank’s observes April “out of the car and running away in the headlights, quick and graceful, a little too wide in the hips.” His accounts of domestic bust-ups are painfully true. “He couldn’t even tell whether he was angry or contrite, whether it was forgiveness he wanted or the power to forgive.” He never turns away to avoid the characters’ – or the reader’s – blushes.

Indeed, if honesty is Yates’s best policy, it is April and Frank’s unwillingness to accommodate one another’s feelings with the everyday compromises of marriage which contains the roots of their downfall. They are so worried about ending up “face to face, in total darkness, with the knowledge that you didn’t know who you were” that they are determined to direct their own lives. It’s the 1950s, and they live comfortably on the suburban east coast of America, but April in particular is set on moving to Europe. She tells Frank:

You’ll be finding yourself. You’ll be reading and studying and taking long walks and thinking. You’ll have time. For the first time in your life you’ll have time to find out what it is you want to do.

Frank is “instantly frightened” by the plan – what if it turns out that there’s nothing he’s good at? April assures him: “It’s got nothing to do with definite, measurable talents – it’s your very essence that’s being stifled here.” So their lives are frozen in a classic stasis: unable to stay, unwilling to leave. Equally trapped are their neighbours, the Campbells and the Givings, on whom Yates wastes no sympathy:

[Mrs Givings] cried because she was fifty-six years old and her feet were ugly and swollen and horrible; she cried because none of the girls had liked her at school and none of the boys had liked her later; she cried because Howard Givings was the only man who’d ever asked her to marry him, and because she’d done it, and because her only child was insane.

The territory here is the existential horror of stable prosperity, of the working life, and in particular of post-war malaise. (See also Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955), Joseph Heller’s Something Happened (1974), or even Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt (1922; different war) – all of which I highly recommend). For Frank, his happiest time was during and the aftermath of the war, where he fought in Germany. “For the first time in his life he was admired, and the fact that girls could actually want to go to bed with him was only slightly more remarkable than his other concurrent discovery – that men, and intelligent men at that, could actually want to listen to him talk.” Now that life has stopped rising and has reached a plateau, Frank struggles to cope. It happens to everyone (if they’re lucky), but few would react so self-destructively as Frank and April do, talking themselves into circles, through bad decisions and out the other side. Their hope that moving to Europe means that “they would be new and better people from now on” is futile, as wherever they go, they bring themselves along.

What a reread of Revolutionary Road reveals, as well as a relentless negativity in the (solipsistic) authorial voice that is much less bracing second and third time around, are some clever details such a foreshadowing in literary terms near the beginning – which cannot be mentioned for fear of spoiling it. If the book is about the ups and downs of honesty with others and with ourselves, and the terrifying compulsion for change (Annie Proulx’s “if you can’t fix it, you’ve got to stand it” might not have been bad advice to the Wheelers), it is also about the ups and downs of Yates’s commitment to honesty, and how it can be irritating in one paragraph and heartbreaking in the next. To me, Revolutionary Road is best judged as a gateway drug to the world of Yates, which contains work no less great such as Cold Spring Harbor, The Easter Parade and Young Hearts Crying – and indeed many of his stories – rather than as a stand-alone masterpiece without equal or sequel.

Charles Lambert: The Scent of Cinnamon

We’re always being told how hard it is to sell books of short stories, so a hardback collection from a small publisher and a debut novelist must be some sort of gold standard of a tough sell – a challenge for the next series of The Apprentice. Salt Publishing, however, have two valuable tools at their disposal. The first is their system of virtual book tours, Cyclone, whereby authors make guest appearances at blogs to get online airtime for their books. The second is Charles Lambert, author of the excellent novel Little Monsters which I enjoyed earlier this year. His collection of stories, I felt, must be worth a look.

The Scent of Cinnamon opens with the title story, which is easily the most attention-grabbing in the book, right from the opening paragraph:

Dear Mrs Payne

I have been given your name by the Reverend Ware, vicar of the English community here. I am a blunt man, and I shall come straight to the point. Ware tells me that you have recently lost your husband and are without means. He has suggested to me that you may be interested in marriage with a man who can provide you with the security and affection you require. He has indicated to me that I may be such a man.

It also cries out for a high-concept single-sentence description, though it’s impossible to do so without spoiling it. Others have suggested that ‘The Scent of Cinnamon’ is the best in the book. I’m not so sure of that – it is terrific, though I think there are others which may be even better – but it does set the tone for a book full of dissatisfied relationships, varied settings, and occasional sinisterness.

It was this last quality that pleased me most about Lambert’s stories. The likes of ‘Girlie’ and ‘Beacon’ or the coda-like closer ‘The Growing’ have an otherworldly creepiness to them where the truth is revealed to the reader gradually and then suddenly. It would be no insult to consider these deeper and richer counterparts to the underrated adult stories of Roald Dahl (though, ironically, the most powerful tend to be narrated by children). Yet, as with ‘Moving the Needle Towards the Thread’ – an unsettling account of the worst holiday with a Donald since Don’t Look Now – what makes them excel is Lambert’s understanding of the darkness that exists within the human heart, the horror that comes from within rather than from above or below.

For this reason I was disappointed by the more garish ‘The Number Worm’, which seemed too arbitrary, while a story like ‘Air’ showed that even in a straight(ish) story of a relationship, Lambert knows what he’s doing. My overall concern, however, is a perverse one: like Alvy Singer’s women who thought the food was terrible and the portions too small, I liked nearly all of the stories in The Scent of Cinnamon but thought it too long. 300 pages is a lot of stories, like one of those CDs that has 16 tracks and lasts an hour and a quarter. This may be why I felt the book to be ‘front-loaded’: I may not have given the later stories the same attention as the early ones. But for anyone without a mad completion impulse, who can read a story here or there with calmness aforethought, The Scent of Cinnamon is a very interesting, and even exciting, collection.


I am delighted to be part of Charles Lambert’s virtual tour for The Scent of Cinnamon. My Q&A session with him is as follows.

Several of the stories in The Scent of Cinnamon have either ‘twist’ endings or withhold information from the reader so that by the end, early events are seen in a new light. Is this a conscious policy, and does it reflect your own taste in stories?

The first short story I ever wrote – I must have been about thirteen – described the arrival of a group of rather seedy, provincial types in a draughty room above a shop. They’re there to conduct a séance of some kind with the aim of summoning a spirit. They go through the usual rigmarole, not really expecting anything to happen, when, to their horror, they hear footsteps on the stairs outside the room. Except that they aren’t footsteps. What they hear is the sound of cloven hooves on wood…

I mention this to show that, while other people were reading Hemingway and would soon be moving onto Carver and all those dirty realists, I was devouring the Pan anthologies of horror stories, Saki and Somerset Maugham. It was a feature, I think, of horror stories in those more innocent days that they saved their nastiness for the end – now they’re more likely to have gore from page one on – and Saki’s stories, which I still love, exist purely to provide a context for the final twist. These clearly had a lasting influence on me.

The next short story writer to blow me away was Kafka, but I’d more or less stopped writing prose fiction by that time (I was fifteen and a full-blown poet!). Obviously, this doesn’t mean that a piece like ‘In the Penal Colony’, with its wickedly gradual horror, didn’t stay with me and make a difference to how I write stories, and much else besides. And then, as I’ve said before, there was M.R. James…

I think that this kind of background – along with the fact that I’ve never studied creative writing in a formal sense – made me fairly immune to the influence of stories I started to read much later on, stories I now find, as a reader, far more rewarding – I’m thinking of people like Alice Munro (obviously) and Tobias Wolff and Lorrie Moore. Margaret Atwood, though, showed me a kind of writing that seemed to bring together the neatness of the stories I used to admire and the rawer more authentic sense of life being lived that the other writers have, and I’d recognise her as someone who’s affected the way I approach writing a story.

I think that some of the stories in the book occupy a kind of middle ground between these two approaches. ‘Moving the Needle Towards the Thread’, for example, certainly has a twist and, in many ways, looks like the decayed heir to a Maugham-like heritage, but it also has an ending that is, I think, ambiguous in a very un-Maugham-like fashion. Soap is another story that plays with, and then against, the reader’s original impressions, but I hope it’s a long way from the glibness that twist-in-the-tail implies.

Some of the strongest stories in the collection are written from the viewpoint of a child – as (in a way) was your novel Little Monsters. At their best, these are combined with unsettling and threatening elements, as in ‘Girlie’, ‘Beacons’ or ‘The Growing’. Why does this approach appeal to you?

What’s interesting about this question, John, is that I wasn’t aware that these three stories – and, as you say, Little Monsters – shared an approach at all. Talk about the unexamined life! It wasn’t until you mentioned it, that I thought, well, yes, of course. How fascinating! I was aware that ‘Beacons’ and ‘All Gone’ were both written from the viewpoint of the same rather anxious, thoughtful, Stephen-Spenderish little boy because, well, he’s basically me, or I’m him, with all the provisos and sleights of hand that story-telling involves. But I hadn’t thought about the other two having anything in common with each other or with anything else I’d written.

Looking at them now, as a group, it’s clear that one of the things I’m doing when I choose to use children as the channel through which the narrative is seen is what Henry James did with Maisie; I’m exploiting their clear-sightedness and innocence. Children see everything, but don’t necessarily understand any of it. Whether they’re protagonists or witnesses, they tend to be one step behind – or to one side of – the attentive adult reader, which sets up an interesting narrative gap through which the unsettling elements can squeeze. In ‘Girlie’, for example, the real story is about the dead twin and how the survivor compensates, but the little boy doesn’t know this and probably never will. In ‘The Growing’, I’d expect a reader to start wondering about the nature of the mask long before the girl makes her doomed attempt to see what lies beneath. And so on.

I’d also say that having no children myself means that I’ve never fully grown up. I’m at the age where many of my friends are wondering why hostile, sulky delinquents from outer space have occupied their teenage children’s bodies. And what do I do? Easy, I side with the kids. I remind their mothers and fathers of compromising photographs from their own pasts. Basically, I can’t grasp the crisis from the parent’s viewpoint, however hard I try. So children are not only, as I’ve just said, unreliable narrators; they may also, paradoxically, be the ones I relate to – and trust – most.

Later stories in the book foreground gay relationships. Did you deliberately withhold these from the first half, to avoid being labelled a ‘gay writer’ – and to what extent do you define your work like that anyway?

Yes, I did hold them back, and I think it’s partly, as you say, because I didn’t want to be labelled, although what was uppermost in my mind was, first, to open the collection with the story I thought most likely to appeal to the largest number of readers and, second, not to scare off people who’d only read Little Monsters by plunging them into scenes of explicit gay sex before they’d had a chance to find their feet. As I said a couple of weeks ago, though, when I visited Jim at Jockohomo, I am uncomfortable about the label ‘gay writer’ in a general sense, and certainly when it’s applied to myself. Apart from issues of marginalisation, which can affect writers as different and as respected as, say, Alan Hollinghurst and Edmund White, I think this discomfort has to do with a more intangible personal sense of not really wanting to belong. As a gay man in a long-term relationship, I’m keenly aware of the need to fight for equality and I’m more than happy to stand up and be counted, and so on, and my blog is sometimes, I think, almost unhealthily obsessed with the homophobic ramblings of Ratzinger et al. But at the same time I’ve never had an authentic sense of extended gay community that wasn’t induced by drugs, alcohol and hi-energy dance music, nor sought it, and the unhappiest holiday of my life was spent on Mykonos, feeling that I wasn’t really up to scratch. This is part of my general resistance to groups; I cringe if I’m presumed to belong to a putative ex-pat community, and I don’t have much sympathy with the idea of writers’ communities either. This doesn’t mean I don’t have gay friends (as they say), but, as a writer at least, I think I see my sexuality as a resource to be drawn on rather than as something that defines what I do.

James Kelman: How Late It Was, How Late

Despite my recent cynicism toward the Booker Prize, I still have some implicit faith in the older winners (perhaps simply because they’re the older ones and I haven’t read them yet).  For example I never doubted that the 1994 winner, James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late was worthwhile.  This may have come largely from the belief that my enemy’s enemy is my friend: on its victory, the most common response to the book from the UK newspapers was to complain about the amount of swearing (one columnist counted 348 swear words, about one per page).  Another commentator called the result “literary vandalism,” and even one of the judges left the panel when the book won, declaring it to be “frankly … crap.”  Indeed, with all this appeal, it was only the book’s reportedly ‘difficult’ nature that kept me from reading it before now.

And it is difficult, if you are looking for a book with a page-turning plot.  Indeed, if you are looking for that sort of book, it’s not only difficult but impossible, because it is not that sort of book.  It is a long internal monologue in the third person (rather like Roddy Doyle’s Paula Spencer) by Glaswegian Sammy, as he struggles to come to terms with sudden blindness.  It is ‘gritty’ (a word used by liberal newspapers to describe something with lots of swearing), it is implausible, almost nothing happens, and it took me longer to read than any other book this year.

He wasnay feeling so hot.  Before he had been good.  Now he wasnay.  There was things out his control.  There was things in his control but there were other things out, they were out his control, he had put them out his control.

You can say that again.  Sammy has been lifted by the police (“the sodjers”), gets a beating from them, and finds himself blind.  “Folk take a battering but, they do; they get born and they get brought up and they get fuckt.”  Sammy’s used to it (“what does it matter.  Who gives a fuck.  Life’s a dawdle if ye give it a chance”), which may explain why he doesn’t immediately seek medical attention for his blindness.  Instead he goes home, and to the pub, and to the government office to register a claim for social security.  There, he faces a wall of bureaucratic obfuscation and doublespeak (“sightloss”, “Dysfunctional Benefit,” “Community Gratuity”).

Now: hold that thought.  Bureaucracy?  Circular conversations?  The little man against the monolith?  Sammy is later held for a crime he doesn’t know anything about, or even the precise nature of.  We’re in literal Kafkaesque territory here.  (There even appears to be a reference to ‘The Hunger Artist’.)  There’s a clear debt to aspects of Beckett too.

Ach it was hopeless.  That was what ye felt.  These bastards.  What can ye do but.  Except start again so he started again.  That was what he did he started again.  …ye just plough on, ye plough on, ye just fucking plough on … ye just fucking push ahead, ye get fucking on with it.

And more and more details as I read the book – his name appears to be Samuel Samuels; the blindness is never plausibly explained – made it clearer than ever that How Late It Was, How Late, for all its social down-to-earth setting, is as far removed from a realistic work of fiction as one could wish it to be; and all the better for it.

Which is not to deny that at the heart of the story burns a undimmable passion for equality and justice, for the underdog of the ‘underclass’ – but Kelman’s great achievement is to render the book universal precisely as a result of this grounded and specific setting.  Sammy’s blindness, too, enables him to address the very matter of reality and existence.  Sammy relies on non-visual stimuli to make sense of the world, but the reader has only sight to rely on, which leads to the strange feeling of ‘seeing’ things in the sightless mind of Sammy more vividly than we would when looking up from the page into the real world.  The reader needn’t like Sammy – he’s a cantankerous so-and-so and an unrepentant jailbird (“all in all he had done eleven years.  They rolled off the tongue”) – but it’s impossible not to identify with him.  As Sammy points out to Ally, a self-appointed ‘rep’ to handle Sammy’s interests in his social security claim, that’s not quite enough:

Aye well you’re no me. There’s a difference between repping somebody and fucking being somebody; know what I’m talking about, being somebody?

We don’t even know if Ally is real – if any of it is real – even though it is meticulously realistic (and equally intended not to be).  It is a book of paradox.  In the middle of the savagery of life on the Glasgow streets – of life generally – there is unexpected humour.

It’s just I was upset, I liked the guy, he was harmless.

Naybody’s harmless Sammy.

Some guys are.

Well I never meet them.

Kelman maintains a highly imagined account of the ancillary difficulties of everyday blindness (keeping place in a queue, finding a seat on a bus, selecting clothes for a white wash) while keeping his voice sufficiently expressive for more abstract thinking.

Waiting rooms.  Ye go into this room where ye wait.  Hoping’s the same.  One of these days the cunts’ll build entire fucking buildings just for that.  Official hoping rooms, where ye just go in and hope for whatever the fuck ye feel like hoping for.  One on every corner.  Course they had them already – boozers. Ye go in to hope and they sell ye a drink to help pass the time.  Ye see these cunts sitting there.  What’re they there for?  They’re hoping.  They’re hoping for something.  The telly’s rotten.  So they go out hoping for something better.  I’m just away out for a pint, hen, be back in an hour.  You hoping the football’ll come on soon?  Aye.  I hope ye’ll no be too long.  I’ll no be; no unless I meet some cunt – I hope I don’t!

How Late It Was, How Late is one of those rare books which could, at a casual glance, appear to have nothing, but in fact contains everything.  There is no bad language here: only beautiful, rhythmic, transcendental language.  And a story to tell too.

Ah fuck it man stories, stories, life’s full of stories, they’re there to help ye out, when ye’re in trouble, deep shit, they come to the rescue, and one thing ye learn in life is stories.

W. Somerset Maugham: The Moon and Sixpence

Having read and enjoyed a couple of Somerset Maugham’s less celebrated novels, I thought it was time to turn to the more famous ones. The author blurb on these new Vintage Classics editions of his works tell us that “with the publication in 1919 of The Moon and Sixpence, [Maugham’s] reputation as a novelist was established.” The only other thing I knew about it was that it was inspired by the life of Paul Gauguin, and that the story as described on the back cover seems reminiscent of Philip Larkin’s ‘Poetry of Departures’ (“He chucked up everything / And just cleared off“), a theme which Maugham would return in his last major novel, The Razor’s Edge.

One of the attractions of Maugham for me is his position as a sort of literary guilty pleasure: his books are comforting in their conformity to traditional literary form, a sort of dilute – or at least less bleak – essence of Graham Greene. However, The Moon and Sixpence is a little more daring in its structure than we might expect.

The story is told by a narrator who, to all purposes, is Maugham himself: a writer, a watcher and an occasional agent of intervention. He makes no attempt to endear himself to the reader, revelling in the sort of sexism which, whether or not deliberate, emphasises Maugham – writer or character – as just as ‘old-fashioned’ as I had thought his books to be. “I do not suppose she had ever really cared for her husband,” he says of one character, “and what I had taken for love was no more than the feminine response to caresses and comfort which in the minds of most women passes for it.”

Women in the book feature only in the context of their relationships to men. First among these is Mrs Strickland (she gets no name of her own), who wants to become part of cultural society by hosting soirées for literary and artistic figures, including ‘Maugham’. He is not surprised that she wants to stretch her social circle, for her husband, Charles Strickland, a stockbroker, is

just a good, dull, honest, plain man. One would admire his excellent qualities, but avoid his company. He was null. He was probably a worthy member of society, a good husband and father, an honest broker; but there was no reason to waste one’s time over him.

Strickland, however, is about to surprise even our world-weary narrator when in his forties he chucks up everything, and just clears off to Paris – not for a woman, but to become a painter. “To my mind,” says Maugham (I’ll dispense with the inverted commas but let’s imagine they’re there) at the beginning of the story, “the most interesting thing in art is the personality of the artist; and if that is singular, I am willing to excuse a thousand faults.” There are a number of artists’ personalities in this book, but the one we learn most of is that of Maugham himself, and the writer’s willingness to cannibalise the tragedies of others for their own muse. When Strickland leaves his wife and children, our narrator arranges to go and see her:

I was torn between the fear of hurting a nice woman’s feelings and the fear of being in the way. I felt she must be suffering, and I did not want to see a pain which I could not help; but in my heart was a desire, that I felt a little ashamed of, to see how she was taking it.

In the end Maugham’s writer-as-vulture instincts win out, and to compound his cynical use of her, Mrs Strickland fades into the background as he discovers the infinitely more fascinating personality of her husband to write about. Strickland, whose talent as an artist is assumed from the first page, but never satisfactorily demonstrated to the narrator or the reader, has no qualms about abandoning his family. “The absurd little man enjoys doing things for other people. That’s his life.” Maugham (without inverted commas this time, the author not the character) succeeds in getting across the charisma of what we might call the single-minded bastard. Maugham the character, however, struggles to come to terms with what we would probably now call a psychopathic personality.

It was impossible to make him understand that one might be outraged by his callous selfishness. I longed to pierce his armour of complete indifference. I knew also that in the end there was truth in what he said. Unconsciously, perhaps, we treasure the power we have over people by their regard for our opinion of them, and we hate those upon whom we have no such influence.

Alongside Strickland appears the character of Dirk Stroeve, an artist who is the first to recognise Strickland’s greatness – but his tragedy (or his first tragedy – there are more to come) is that his ability to perceive and process beauty is not attached to an ability to produce it: he himself is a lousy artist. In the end Maugham’s attempt to understand Strickland comes undone, because there is nothing of him to understand beyond his paintings and his effect on those whose trust and love he has abused.

He cared nothing for those things which with most people make life gracious and beautiful. He was indifferent to money. He cared nothing about fame. You cannot praise him because he resisted the temptation to make any of those compromises with the world which most of us yield to. He had no such temptation.

What’s refreshing about The Moon and Sixpence is that Maugham himself never succumbs to the obvious temptation, to seek to explain Strickland’s actions in abandoning his family and career. He tells us, with a wink, that “if I were writing a novel, rather than narrating such facts as I know of a curious personality, I should have invented much to account for this change of heart.” By then, two-thirds of the way through the book, Strickland has made his final appearance in Maugham’s story, and there is no denying that the remainder of the story, set in Tahiti and relying on third-hand accounts of Strickland, is less compelling for his absence.  But if Strickland’s decisions seem alternately brave, foolhardy and selfish, Maugham’s decision – to write a novel which pretends not to be a novel, which begins at the ending and ends in the middle – is entirely justified.

Penelope Fitzgerald: The Beginning of Spring

When I read Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop earlier this year, I enjoyed it but was not overwhelmed by it. I was overwhelmed, however, with the range of enthusiasm for Fitzgerald in the comments to my post; I became so caught up in it myself that in the months since, I’ve picked up three more of her novels, including The Blue Flower (her last, and many say her best) and The Gate of Angels. But where better to begin than here, now, as winter sets in, with The Beginning of Spring?

It is apparent from the start that this an altogether more ambitious prospect than the two inches of irony which constituted The Bookshop. It ticks many of the boxes one might expect of literary-fiction-by-numbers: a foreign setting, an historical setting, swathes of characters sweeping through its pages. But it has a laconic expressiveness, and a sense of mute control, which makes it memorable and unusual, and which belies its appearance as a nice, respectable Booker shortlistee. I am drawn to the response which Jan Morris gave to it:

For the life of me I can’t decide how properly to respond to this book. Whether it contains a latent moral or allegorical message, or whether it is simply a tour de force of craft and imagination I have not the faintest idea. I only know that it is one of the most skilful and utterly fascinating novels I have read for years. I cannot imagine any kind of reader who would not get a thrill from this gloriously peculiar book.

Let’s begin with the title. The Beginning of Spring – one of those titles with perfect internal rhythm which Martin Amis called “almost a guarantor of minor work” (I’ve never been able to work out if he intended that as insult or praise) – makes it clear that in the book we are on the edge of things, with change imminent. We are: the setting is Russia, 1913, with a world at war, and a country in revolution, not far off.

The central characters, though, are British. Frank Reid, who has taken over a printing firm from his father, comes home one day to find that his wife, Nellie, has left with their three children. “Possibly when Nellie signed her passport it had put ideas in her head. But when had Nellie ever allowed ideas to be put in her head?” When Frank wooed Nellie, “it was a brilliant day” of “bright green grass, clipped green hedges, alert sparrows, stained glass windows washed to the brilliance of jewels, barometers waiting to be tapped.” Now he is alone in an inhospitable Moscow.

[T]he sky seemed to fume with a warning of frost … The waiters who had to serve the tables outside the café were wearing their overcoats over their long aprons. In two weeks the statues in the gardens would be wrapped in straw against the cold, all doors would be shut and all windows would be impenetrably sealed up until next spring.

Frank discovers, or remembers, the utter foreignness of Russia – “the magnificent and ramshackle country whose history, since he was born, had been his history” – and its incompatibility with his English heart as he struggles to come to terms with the sudden change in his life. Changes run throughout the book – “It’s still winter,” says one character; “It’s nearly spring,” responds another – and “the tilt of the year” as the seasons change matches the tilt of the country and the people in it, like Frank, struggling to stand upright as it moves beneath them.

Frank turns to the Russians he knows – employees, family friends – for assistance and guidance, and finds them unknowable in their own ways, from an assistant who is guided by the works of Tolstoy, to the family of a business colleague who “out of sheer tenderness of heart … liked every emergency to go on as long as possible.” There are sleek and evocative portraits of Moscow society, “a city which in its sluggish, maternal way cared, as well as for the rich, for the poorest of the poor. Bring me your broken shoes, your worn-out mattresses, your legless chairs, your headless beds, and in some basement workshop or hole in the wall, I will make them serviceable, at least for a few months or so. They will be fit to use, or at least fit to take to the pawnbroker’s.” Fitzgerald’s ability to portray a Russia which is simultaneously home to Frank, and unknowable to him – familiar but foreign – is isolated in scenes involving a burglar-assassin, a housekeeper, or a performing bear.

First it shifted a little from foot to foot, as though to put them down was painful, then it gave, after a good deal of prompting, what was said to be an imitation first of a Cossack dance, then of an old peasant carrying a heavy load and falling down on the ground, then, as it was led out of the room, of an English governess simpering and looking round over her shoulder at the men. The fur under its collar was worn away, perhaps from doing this particular trick so often. Sometimes it was rewarded with an orange, but, as a joke, the bear-man would take the orange away so that everyone could enjoy its disappointment.

The Beginning of Spring is one of those books which simmers on in your mind and continues to release its flavours for some time after completion. Despite its mastery of place and personalities, it doesn’t stint on plot, and the storyline winds back and forth to the very last line of the last page (so, no skipping ahead: which also explains why I’ve said so little about the events of the book, including the very strange scene near the end which ties in with the UK cover illustration at the top). Early on, one character tells Frank, “Life makes its own corrections.” Surely it does: just nine months ago, I thought I was through with Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels. Now I think I want to read them all.