Month: June 2009

Marilynne Robinson: Housekeeping

In 2003, when the Observer newspaper compiled a list of “the 100 greatest novels of all time,” one title – Housekeeping – stood out. What? It was the only one from the last century that I hadn’t heard of. Who? Marilynne Robinson sounded like a new Harper Lee: one bang a quarter of a century ago and then silence. Now, six years later, she needs no introduction: two more novels in quick succession, a Pulitzer, a Bessie, and overall as much orgiastic praise as you can eat. I’ve read Gilead but not Home, but was pleased recently when a book swap project landed me with a copy of that (suddenly reprinted) debut.

Marilynne Robinson: Housekeeping

My recollection of Gilead – perhaps distorted – is that a heavy religiosity pervaded each page, so I approached Housekeeping (1981) with doubts. There is a hymnal, if not quite biblical, quality to the prose: solid but lyrical, Southern without gothic. It sometimes overreaches (for a death we have “my grandmother one winter morning eschewed awakening”), but mostly it is what politicians would call fit for purpose. The first third of the book takes its time unpacking the opening paragraph:

My name is Ruth. I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs. Sylvia Foster, and when she died, of her sisters-in-law, Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled, of her daughter, Mrs. Sylvia Fisher.

The aim, I suppose, is that the reader should itch to know what became of their mother and why they passed through so many hands. In creating this need, and then satisfying it, Robinson proves herself to be adept in aspects of literary magic. As well as providing aesthetic pleasure in her prose, the sort that begs to be rolled around in the mouth before swallowing, she sketches brilliant set pieces a page or two in length, little essences of storytelling – as when a train slides into the lake.

The lake is central to the story, and to Ruth and Lucille’s lives in the town of Fingerbone (the name so effortfully evocative that it’s almost comical). Unanchored to a fixed family, as the figures surrounding them change, the sisters develop an attachment to the landscape instead. The lake is “a place of distinctly domestic disorder”, surrounded by “uncountable mountains.” It seems from the outset destined to bring tragedy, but isn’t that what lakes do in literature?

Lake, woods, place: it can all seem a little literary-fiction-by-numbers, but that is not to deny the power of the telling. “Fact explains nothing,” we are told, so it’s a book of impressions and memories, informal but not unreliable. Robinson continues to display her best writerly skills, surprising us with comedy, as when the sisters-in-law Lily and Nona Foster first meet Sylvia, who they hope can take over care for the girls:

So when Lily said, with a glance at Nona, “What a lovely dress,” it was as if to say, “She seems rather sane! She seems rather normal!” And when Nona said, “You look very well,” it was as if to say, “Perhaps she’ll do! Perhaps she can stay and we can go!”

As that opening paragraph told us, she does stay; they do go.  There is a fine touch too of character sketching in the traditional sense, witty and not too wordy:

Bernice, who lived below us, was our only visitor. She had lavender lips and orange hair, and arched eyebrows each drawn in a single brown line, a contest between practice and palsy which sometimes ended at her ear. She was an old woman, but managed to look like a young woman with a ravaging disease. She stood any number of hours in our doorway, her long back arched and her arms folded on her spherical belly, telling scandalous stories in a voice hushed in deference to the fact that Lucille and I should not be hearing them.

The accumulation of all these elements is impressive, because the writing remains low-key enough for it not to look like showing off. (Though perhaps such literary coquettishness is itself a form of showing off.) When the people and the town are associated so closely, it’s obvious that Robinson is pulling out another literary trick – foreshadowing – as when Ruth tells us, “There was not a soul there but knew how shallow-rooted the whole town was. It flooded yearly, and had burned once.”

What that leads to is a pretty dramatic last few scenes, particularly so for a book others have described as one where not much happens. One might say that the way events accumulate in the story is the same way that Housekeeping became a modern classic: gradually, and then suddenly.

Rex Warner: The Aerodrome

When Vintage Books relaunched their previously elegant Classics line a couple of years ago, they adopted the asinine branding practice of replacing the author’s forename on the cover with the word Vintage. Irritating yes, but also baffling when applied to writers who aren’t household (sur)names, such as Rex Warner. The Aerodrome was one of the first titles they issued in the new design, which by some form of logic I presumed that meant they thought it was one of the very best. Certainly it has its followers: Anthony Burgess named it as one of the 99 best novels written between 1939 and 1984.

Rex Warner: The Aerodrome

The Aerodrome (1941) is subtitled A Love Story, though if one had to define it, sci-fi and dystopia would come to mind sooner. It’s set in a parallel England in the mid-20th century, where the war is not between the Nazis and the British but is internal, between order and chaos. It’s a singular book, an odd one, and about the best I can say for it is that I’m glad I read it because now I don’t need to wonder what it’s like any more.

Few, I think, would suggest that The Aerodrome is elegantly written. The first quarter of the book features three dramatic developments, each dispatched about as implausibly as could be: if you’ve had enough of master criminals detailing their plans by soliloquy, how about Warner’s variation, where a rector delivers a twelve-page murder confession to God, handily in earshot of his wife and adopted son? (Later, another character expires while making a deathbed revelation.) Aside from this carefree approach to credibility, there is sheer clumsiness (“I had been taking things very much too much for granted”) and a muddy willingness to use one sentence where two or three would be more welcome:

It was not until the end of the meal that there was made to me by those whom, up to now, I had assumed to be my parents a disclosure important enough to unsettle the whole basis of my thoughts and feelings; and it was the Flight-Lieutenant who, more than any other of those present, had seemed to understand how important to me this disclosure was, even though all his views on the subject were, I could see at once, wholly different from my own.

Nonetheless there is a canniness at work, as Warner confounds the reader’s expectations by introducing us to a seemingly typical English village, and only later making references to the aerodrome which will take over the villagers’ lives, with its “large hangars at the top of the hill curved in a way so like the natural roundness of this land, and yet in its perfect regularity so unlike.” There is a wonderful scene where the Air Vice-Marshal of the air force behaves abominably at a funeral, but the narrator, Roy, nonetheless joins the air force largely as a replacement for the security he has lost with the death of his father.

Yet it remains a curious and uneven book, where the muddy prose tends to block out any sense of development, and then the narrator Roy switches allegiances with head-spinning speed. The only evidence we have for Roy’s sudden conversion to the cause of the aerodrome are the rambling rants by the Air Vice-Marshal, who claims the air force and its cleanliness and purity as an evolutionary step ahead of the village it seeks to occupy and correct:

Please put [your parents and your homes] out of your minds directly. For good or evil you are yourselves, poised for a brief and dazzling flash of time between two annihilations. Reflect, please, that “parenthood”, “ownership”, “locality” are the words of those who stick in the mud of the past to form the fresh deposit of the future. And so is “marriage”. Those words are without wings. I do not care to hear an airman use them.

The threat from the aerodrome remains undefined, bar one or two shocking incidents. This nebulous sense of peril is apt enough – the reader can read into it at will – but it also feels like a lack of nerve on Warner’s part. He claims Kafka as an influence (a common claim: who doesn’t?) but, as Michael Moorcock points out in his introduction, there’s not much evidence of this in The Aerodrome. The analogy of the story is with fascism: the sloppy, deceptive, incestuous village is to be preferred to the clinical, orderly, dictatorial aerodrome, “designed to stifle life which, however misused, was richer in everything but determination.”

Moorcock’s introduction – more interesting to me than the novel itself – emphasises that The Aerodrome is “very evidently a novel of ideas” (though I’m not sure where he gets the plural from), and if that means there is not much consideration given to characters or story, then he’s got that spot on. There are plot points set up to engage the reader, and they are resolved, but the impression given is that Warner didn’t set much store by them, that they are little more than bait. I was put in mind of the fascinatingly sterile novels of J.G. Ballard – by no coincidence a Warner fan, according to the back cover of this edition. It has that same sense of promise, originality, frustration and disappointment. Moorcock also describes The Aerodrome as “Warner’s masterpiece” – bloody hell, are you sure? Not so much Vintage Warner, then, as Corked.

Stefan Zweig: Amok and other stories

Hard to believe that it’s almost a year since I last read a Stefan Zweig. He’s one of those writers, like Richard Yates, who was invisible for years and is suddenly – if you’re looking for him – everywhere. The admirable and unpredictable Pushkin Press are reissuing his stories in English, with two volumes this year already (Journey into the Past, and Wondrak and other stories). That made me realise that it’s about time I read an earlier volume of his I’d bought, Amok and other stories. This edition was published in 2007, translated by Anthea Bell, but the stories within date from throughout Zweig’s career (including his busy posthumous period).

Stefan Zweig: Amok and other stories

Amok (1922) was one of Zweig’s best-known novellas in his lifetime. At the time of publication, the word amok was not in common use, and was a term used specifically in Malaysian culture, when ‘running amok’ was thought to be a sudden rage or passion induced by drugs or other intoxication. Typically it would involve a killing spree and other consequences, which can’t be revealed without spoiling the story. Here, however, there is no killing spree but a western doctor working in the Dutch East Indies, torn between duty and desire and driven mad – sent amok – by his feelings. His story is told, as Zweig so often does, through the framing device of another’s account: here, a man who meets the doctor on board ship.

“Odd psychological states have a positively disquieting power over me,” says our narrator, and he’s come to the right place. The doctor tells of how he was visited in the colony by a woman, who requests something of him. Her coolness and hauteur lead the doctor to become – almost literally – possessed by what appears to be a combination of power and lust, leading him to refuse the woman’s request but to long for her in pretty frank terms:

From that moment on, I felt I could see her naked body through her dress … from that moment on I lived for nothing but the idea of taking her, forcing a groan from her hard lips, feeling this cold, arrogant woman a prey to desire like anyone else. […] it wasn’t desire, the rutting instinct, nothing sexual, I swear it wasn’t, I can vouch for it … just a wish to break her pride, dominate her as a man.

The woman disappears and he runs amok, helpfully defining the term as “a sort of human rabies, an attack of murderous, pointless monomania” – and you can see why Zweig, with his love of characters in heightened states of emotion, was attracted to the concept.

It can’t end well, for the doctor or the protagonist in the other three stories here, ‘The Star above the Forest’, ‘Leporella’ and ‘Incident at Lake Geneva’. In each one, Zweig shows someone overcome by irrational passion or obsession, and seems less interested in showing how they got there (it’s irrational, after all) than in giving us a meticulous account of how it leads to their downfall. “You don’t run amok for long with impunity, you’re bound to be struck down in the end, and I hope it will soon all be over for me.”

There are moments of imaginative distinction and cruel brilliance here. ‘The Star above the Forest’ twists the old cliché about distanced lovers watching the same stars above them, and brings together lover and beloved in a grotesque ending. (“…the rails beneath his head were already beginning to vibrate and sing faintly”). ‘Leporella’ shows an ugly household servant become infatuated with her master, and the only possible end of that. ‘Incident on Lake Geneva’, a small miracle, creates a tragedy from the despair of a Russian prisoner of war learning, in 1918, that his homeland has changed irretrievably.

These four stories, from ten to seventy pages, show Zweig at his best. Such is the answering hunger they evoke, that the reader can only feel like a luckier version of one of Zweig’s protagonists: a story barely known a moment ago becomes a sudden obsession, dragging one through in a passion of discovery right to the bitter end.

Eric Ambler: Journey into Fear

I always feel a little uncomfortable when I read a review which calls a book (something like) “not great literature, but a good thriller.” I’ve probably done it myself. Why the defensiveness? Hardly anything is great literature, and we can judge everything else on how well it meets its intentions, or surpasses its limitations. In addition, thinking a book might be ‘just a good thriller’ can helpfully lower expectations. So it was when I read Eric Ambler’s Journey into Fear (1940), recently reissued by Penguin Modern Classics along with four other early novels, to coincide with the centenary last month of Ambler’s birth.

Eric Ambler: Journey into Fear

Journey into Fear seems almost a self-parodic title for a thriller, but it’s perfectly apt: the first two-thirds of the book is all about the fear rather than the facts. Mr Graham, an engineer for an armaments manufacturer, is about to return to England from Turkey when he is injured. Returning to his hotel room, he finds an intruder, who fires shots at him as he escapes, grazing Graham’s hand.

He felt only as if he had lost something valuable. In fact, he had lost nothing of any value but a sliver of skin and cartilage from the back of his right hand. All that had happened to him was that he had discovered the fear of death.

Graham is informed by the local intelligence chief that this was no botched burglary, but an attempt to kill him: he is told that the Germans want him dead so that his company’s work on Turkish army equipment will be delayed. Graham is incredulous (he has “the growing conviction that he was involved in a nightmare and that he would presently wake up to find himself at his dentist’s”) – as is the reader. Is there a threat to Graham’s life or not?

He told himself that he was behaving like a schoolboy. A man had fired three shots at him. What difference did it make whether the man had been a thief or an intending murderer? He had fired three shots, and that was that. But all the same, it did somehow make a difference…

This was my favourite aspect of the book – the acute understanding of how awareness conditions our response to a situation.  (To quote Terry Pratchett, perhaps for the only time on this blog: “One problem is that I’ve got Alzheimer’s.  The other problem is that I know I’ve got Alzheimer’s.”)  Graham, as the archetypal ‘man caught up in’, is inactive and reactive until forced to do otherwise.  Ultimately the effect of the fear is almost as dramatic as any physical threat to him, though the latter does surface more directly in the last third of the book, when the plot and more traditional thriller elements take over.  In some cases what seem to be conventions of the genre were newly-minted when Ambler presented them here.

Beside this, Journey into Fear has some bold – given the year of its publication – anti-establishment views fed through characters, from a prescient retort to the high status of bankers and financial institutions, to unexpected sentiments for wartime such as “when a ruling class wishes a people to do something which that people does not want to do, it appeals to patriotism. And of course, one of the things that people most dislike is allowing themselves to be killed.”  Ambler even has room for some unexpectedly nihilistic words when Graham is under immediate threat:

To suppose that the lopping of thirty years or so from a normal span of life was a disaster was to pretend to an importance which no man possessed. Living wasn’t even so very pleasant. Mostly it was a matter of getting from the cradle to the grave with the least possible discomfort, of satisfying the body’s needs, and of slowing down the process of its decay. Why make such a fuss about abandoning so dreary a business? Why, indeed! And yet you did make a fuss…

Journey into Fear is both satisfying as a thriller and surprising enough to draw in readers – like me – who didn’t know they liked that kind of thing.  Penguin have reissued four other Amblers from the late 1930s: Uncommon Danger, Epitaph for a Spy, Cause for Alarm, and The Mask of Dimitrios (US title A Coffin for Dimitrios, and said by some to be his finest novel).  A decent gap before revisiting is probably called for, but I will definitely be returning to Amblerland.

Guy de Maupassant: The Horla

After reading three books in a row that I had mixed feelings about (and one or two more that I didn’t even finish), I needed a palate cleanser. Melville House came to the rescue with their ‘Art of the Novella’ reissue of Guy de Maupassant’s astonishing The Horla: a wonder in a few dozen pages.

Guy de Maupassant: The Horla
This volume contains three stories: two versions of ‘The Horla’ from 1886 and 1887, and ‘Letter from a Madman’, first published in 1885. The two earlier stories work at the themes but only in the final version of ‘The Horla’ – presented here first – does Maupassant achieve a thoroughly satisfying telling.

Our unnamed narrator begins with unexplained mood swings: “Where do these mysterious influences come from that change our happiness into despondency and our confidence into distress?”

I wake up full of joy, with songs welling up in my throat. Why? I go down to the water; and suddenly, after a short walk, I come back disheartened, as if some misfortune were awaiting me at home. Why?

It is his desire to find an explanation – for what we might otherwise call the affliction of being human – that drives him to further anxiety and despair. He begins to believe that another being is accompanying him and influencing his existence (“My nights are eating up my days … Last night, I felt someone squatting over me, who, with his mouth over mine, was drinking in my life through my lips”). He sees sinister occurrences in displays of hypnotism, and even in nothing at all: when he arrives home, filled with premonitions of horror, “there was nothing there, yet I was more surprised and anxious than if I had had another fantastic vision.”

It is a perfect exploration of human irrationality. Lack of evidence makes the narrator more fearful still: knowing the limitations of our senses, he wonders what else is happening which could only be judged by senses we do not have. He imagines otherworldly beings:

What do the sentient beings in those distant universes know, more than we do? What more are they capable of doing than we? What do they see that we have not the least knowledge of? Some day or other, won’t one of them, crossing space, appear on our earth to conquer it, just as long ago the Normans crossed the seas to subjugate people who were weaker?

We are so infirm, so helpless, so ignorant, so small, we others, on this spinning grain of mud mixed with a drop of water.

(This passage, particularly with its ending on “a drop of water,” seems such a proto-H.G. Wells idea – so close in spirit to the opening of The War of the Worlds, published a dozen years later, that it cannot be coincidence. Did Wells read ‘The Horla’?) The whole story is a perfectly judged crescendo of fear’s cannibalism. “After mankind, the Horla”:

Oh my God! My God! Is there a God? If there is, set me free, save me! Help me! Forgive me! Have pity on me! Mercy! Save me! Save me from this suffering – this torture – this horror!

Charlotte Mandell, whose translation reads faultlessly, suggests that Maupassant was “haunted by his own dementia” and reminds us that he died in a private asylum a few years after completing ‘The Horla’. If it is true that Maupassant took his own suffering and made art from it, then what greater gift can a writer leave us?

Released from Captivity: Hugo Wilcken’s Colony

Two weeks ago I wrote about Hugo Wilcken’s second novel Colony, and was surprised and delighted by it. It’s a book of high literary ambition – fully achieved – but also with a compelling story. To me that meant it should appeal to a wide audience, rather than the audience of hardly anyone that it actually reached on publication in August 2007. I was delighted to see so many people buying copies after my review went up (and slightly alarmed that for once my recommendations will be held to account). If you’re one of those people, look away now, because I’ve just snaffled a handful of copies of Colony to give away.


If you would like a copy of Colony, say so in the comments box below by Monday 15 June. The offer is open to readers anywhere in the world, and as usual all you have to do is read it and say what you thought: here, on your own blog, on Amazon, in the pub or anywhere else. If you don’t, you will be sent to a penal colony in French Guiana without supper.

Roundup: Nigel Balchin, Elizabeth Hardwick, Gerard Woodward

I read – consecutively – three books recently which didn’t thrill me enough to devote a whole post to each, but I wanted to cover them briefly nonetheless.

Nigel Balchin: The Small Back Room

Nigel Balchin: The Small Back Room
The Small Back Room
(1943) is best known as the source of a film by the great Powell & Pressburger, though one of their minor works. I picked up a cheap copy of the recently reissued (and even more recently remaindered) Cassell Military Paperbacks edition, the cover of which is less handsome than that shown above. It is not as good in my opinion as Darkness Falls from the Air, which I enjoyed last year. The narrator, Sammy Rice, has the same sort of brittle wit as Bill Sarratt in Darkness, and there’s a cracking opening line:

In 1928 my foot was hurting all the time, so they took it off and gave me an aluminium one that only hurt about three-quarters of the time.

What’s interesting is that this is rarely mentioned in the rest of the book, other than an occasional reference to Sammy’s limping gait. Similarly, his alcoholism, a major thread in the film (there is an – unintentionally, I think – hilarious visual metaphor of him being crushed against the wall by a giant whisky bottle), is only explicitly addressed once or twice. This is thoroughly admirable, as someone with ongoing problems doesn’t necessarily dwell on them all the time, though it did leave the book with a lopsided feel for those, like me, who saw the film first.

The content of the book is mostly Sammy’s struggles with the bureaucracy of the government department he works for, developing scientific ideas which might help in the war effort. There’s a good deal of office politics and the trouble with politicians (as there was in Darkness). This has the ambiguous effect of faithfully representing the nausea-inducing boredom of committees, demarcation and internal power struggles while being occasionally boring itself.

The book ends with a tense bomb-defusing scene, which is less tense than the filmed version, and the story thereafter sort of peters out. The thing that The Small Back Room brought home to me is that, while a book composed mainly of dialogue might seem an easy option, it can actually make for a tougher read than a more narrative novel. Balchin does well to progress the story largely through dialogue, but the end result is only moderately interesting.

Sleepless Nights

Elizabeth Hardwick: Sleepless Nights
I bought Sleepless Nights some time ago after seeing it recommended by Colm Tóibín in one of those end-of-year roundups. It’s a quite singular book in that I ‘enjoyed’ it hardly at all, yet think it so fascinating and full of good things that it should be more widely known. First published in 1979, it’s not hard to see why it had fallen out of print until NYRB Classics reissued it: it’s a difficult book, and a tricky one too which by its brevity leads the reader to expect plain sailing. (In fact it reads something like a 300-page book compressed to 128 pages.) Difficulty, in this context, means nothing more than that the reader should pay attention – hardly an arduous challenge – but also that we should admit there may be structure in apparent chaos (and not be too hung up if we can’t find it). The prose, certainly, is beautiful:

More or less settled in this handsome house. Flowered curtains made to measure, rugs cut for the stairs, bookshelves, wood for the fireplace. Climbing up and down the four floors gives you a sense of ownership – perhaps. It may be yours, but the house, the furniture, strain toward the universal and it will soon read like a stage direction: Setting—Boston. The law will be obeyed. Chests, tables, dishes, domestic habits fall into line.

Sleepless Nights is a book of “transformed and even distorted memory”: but “if only one knew what to remember or pretend to remember.” What the narrator does remember is a series of splinters from a life, often very like the life of Elizabeth Hardwick (whose name she shares too). That is, the reader is encouraged to confuse the book with a fractured memoir. In his introduction, Geoffrey O’Brien observes that

Sleepless Nights might be taken as an exploration of the problem of genre, the problem of distinguishing fiction from what is so coarsely described as ‘nonfiction’, except that the book is more like a demonstration that the problem is illusory.

The spot-memories which the book explores are intense through brevity. Real figures, such as Billie Holiday, come and go along with old flatmates such as ‘J.’, who barely appeared on the page before he died in a traffic accident, when a car “rushed into an ecstatic terrorism against J.’s neat, clerkly life at the curb.” Time passes and repasses, back and forward, “a decade falling like snow on top of another, soundless.” It is a bold, admirable work which I found quite impossible to appreciate fully – or to write about adequately. To redress the balance, I offer you a helpful contemporary review of Sleepless Nights, which compares it with Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.

Gerard Woodward: August

Gerard Woodward: August
If, as Alan Bennett says, “all families have a secret: they’re not like other families,” then Gerard Woodward’s Joneses top the table for idiosyncratic individuality, with a glue-sniffing mother and a psychopathic pianist son, and everyone else (and those two as well) an alcoholic. Ever since reading, and loving, I’ll Go to Bed at Noon a couple of years ago, I’ve been eager to read August (2001), the first volume in the trilogy. Eager but reluctant, for fear that it might disappoint.

It disappointed. It didn’t strike me as being near the high standard of I’ll Go to Bed at Noon – but then, what is? Indeed, if I had read August first, as intended by Woodward, I don’t know that I would have gone on to read the second volume.

This is not to say that it’s bad. It’s well-written, with the peculiar and seductive mixture of compassion and wit that Woodward does so well. Perhaps part of the problem was the structure, which loosely describes the family’s camping holiday in Wales each summer during the 1960s. Really, however, the meat of each section is in the flashbacks, which means there’s a lot of dense rehearsing rather than getting on with it: not something I object to in itself, but it did slow the reading down a lot for me.

As with I’ll Go to Bed at Noon, the central characters for me were Colette, the glue-sniffing mum, and her son Janus, a fascinating and frightening figure whose great giftedness for music we are never really given much evidence for. It’s horrible to read his taunting of the other family members, but impossible to tear yourself away.

‘I’d like to know why you did it.’

‘Did what?’

‘I’d like to know,’ Janus lowered his binoculars, the eyepieces having left a pair of red pince-nez on his nose, ‘why you were intimate with my father.’

Janus’s eyes looked stupidly small. Colette bent forward with incredulous laughter and repeated the word ‘intimate’ to rehear its quaintness.

‘Am I embarrassing you?’ said Janus.

‘You’re embarrassing yourself.’

‘Am I causing you pain?’

‘Only of laughter.’

‘Sometimes I feel it is my vocation to cause you pain to counterbalance the pleasure you had in conceiving me.’

It’s all downhill from here, and knowing where the story is leading probably did not help. My fault perhaps, as much as Woodward’s. I will certainly read A Curious Earth, the third volume of the trilogy, but with a lot less urgency and excitement than that with which I approached August.