Month: March 2010

Jocelyn Brooke: The Image of a Drawn Sword

I would never have heard of Jocelyn Brooke’s “only true novel” if it hadn’t been for a fleeting mention (“unbelievably fabulous”) in The Midnight Bell in December 2007. There, Sean predicted “over the next couple of years … republication by C&R or NYRB Classics or someone.” Well, I have no idea what C&R is, and NYRB haven’t taken up the gauntlet, but Faber have, and several of Brooke’s books are now available in their unfortunately hideous Faber Finds print-on-demand series. I read it in a 1983 King Penguin edition, with a valuable introduction by Anthony Powell.

The Image of a Drawn Sword (1950) is a fascinating curiosity – and more than that – which blends seemingly incompatible elements (and brings to mind disparate authors, from Kafka to Cheever) in the creation of a unique fable.

At the beginning of the story, village bank clerk Reynard Langrish is feeling a sort of ennui, “an inexplicable dread … it was as though he were living in a glass bell,” and as he walks home from work, his only succour is the knowledge that he “belonged to this countryside, was united to it.” When he gets home, the usual quiet evening in with his mother is interrupted by a chance caller, whose arrival is described in messianic terms:

The light streamed out through the open doorway, [in] which stood the tall figure of a young man: framed in the narrow doorway, he seemed immense, larger than life – a visionary being conjured out of the night’s wildness.

This portentous visitation is Roy Archer, a young man who quickly befriends Reynard. He introduces him to “the life of the body” – a boxing club, physical activity, army training, challenges to Reynard’s mental stasis. It is here that we first see the unveiled homoeroticism which is threaded through the book, and by the time Roy teaches him bare-knuckle fighting (“the dimmed car lamps made a little world of brightness in the surrounding dark, a world in which their two naked bodies were the sole inhabitants”), it’s not so much an undertone as an overture, augmented by the innocent appearance, in 1940s meanings, of words like cock, spunk and queer.

It’s not just cause for ironically raised eyebrows. Roy initiates Reynard into a mysterious world, where he must join the Army to play his part in ‘the Emergency’. The state of affairs is never adequately explained to Reynard (“But is there a war on, sir, or what?” “A war? I’m afraid you’re rather simplifying the issue, aren’t you?”) and it is a world which seems to exist in the same fields and pathways as Reynard’s old world, but which runs parallel to it. In his first encounter with Roy, Reynard can hear the sound of bugles coming from “the mysterious region known as Clambercrown,” even though there is no army camp there. The whole English countryside, to which Reynard feels intimately connected (“his totem, the fox”) seems part of a conspiracy to confuse and disorient him.

Nothing in this high remote place seemed earthly or substantial: sound merged with sight, the blown grasses were an emanation of the wind itself, trees hung cloud-like above the horizon.

As Reynard pursues his secret assignations with Roy and the training camp, about which his mother and bank colleagues know nothing, their relations seem like an analogue of another kind of affair. “During his working-hours not a word escaped him as to his friendship with Roy; and when Roy himself paid one of his frequent visits to the bank, no slightest word or gesture on either side betrayed the close bond which united them. Reynard, indeed, adopted a brusque, almost discourteous tone towards Roy, and would sometimes silently criticise his friend for appearing too friendly.” Reynard’s desire for a different life seems to hint at a dreamed-of world – still decades away when the book was published – where men could publicly be more than just friends.  It is raised again, in a touching scene where Reynard, having been forced to share sleeping quarters with a tramp, wakes to find that his companion has robbed him during the night.

The trust, even the affection, had been genuine; of this Reynard was still profoundly convinced; yet they had not been able to survive the night; dawn had brought corruption, the precocious flower had withered in the bud.

With this spoiled dream of more open sexuality, the book might almost, like Forster’s Maurice, be “dedicated to a happier year.”  And dreams, or rather imagination, could account for much of what happens in The Image of a Drawn Sword. Roy is as likely to blank him in the street as he is to greet him like an old pal. Time seems to pass more quickly for others (“Funny how time goes”) than it does for Reynard: Roy climbs the greasy pole silently – Captain, Major, Colonel – in what seems to Reynard to be only a matter of weeks, while he is conscripted without warning. As Reynard battles the Army bureaucracy to find out what is going on (“That’s what we’d all like to know, mate”), it’s easy to see why the back cover of my edition applies the rank adjective Kafkaesque to the book. (What they really mean, I suppose, is Trialesque.) The more introspective he gets, the unhappier he becomes. Only when he accepts “the knowledge that the whole affair was … out of his hands” does he achieve “a curious, passive contentment.” That is not to prepare him for the heartstoppingly effective (if not entirely unforeseeable) ending, which is what moved The Image of a Drawn Sword up a rung for me, from curio to keeper.

Dave Eggers: Zeitoun

Dave Eggers is such a one-man industry – editor, publisher, founder of various good causes – that it’s easy to forget that he’s primarily a writer, and one who can write well, at that.  This busybody status probably explains some of the criticism he attracts, but I’ve enjoyed to varying degrees whatever work of his I’ve read.  One of the good causes, the Voice of Witness, is a series of books of oral history aimed at highlighting humanitarian causes around the world.  It was a voice in one of these which bloomed into Zeitoun.

Zeitoun is a book named after a man: Abdulrahman Zeitoun, American businessman, celebrated painter, building contractor and property developer/landlord (but the good kind: you know, like a tart with a heart of gold) of New Orleans, Syrian-born and married to Kathy.  August 2005 should be like any busy summer month – “with so many people leaving, fleeing the swamp heat … the work and worry never ended” – but the reader knows what lies in store, for Zeitoun is not a novel but an uninflected representation of its real protagonist’s real thoughts and experiences.  Eggers has effaced himself from the prose (no bad thing for those who found the self-satisfaction of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius hard to take), but presumably directed the narrative, such as giving us cute snapshots of family life, to show how the Zeitouns – Zeitoun, his wife Kathy, their four children – are the perfect American family.

When she was five, Zeitoun came home from work for lunch one day and found Nademah playing on the floor.  She looked up at him and declared, “Daddy, I want to be a dancer.”  Zeitoun took off his shoes and sat on the couch.  “We have too many dancers in the city,” he said, rubbing his feet.  “We need doctors, we need lawyers, we need teachers.  I want you to be a doctor so you can take care of me.”  Nademah thought about this for a moment and said, “Okay, then, I’ll be a doctor.”  She went back to her coloring.  A minute later, Kathy came downstairs, having just seen the wreck of Nademah’s bedroom.  “Clean up your room, Demah,” she said.  Nademah didn’t miss a beat, nor did she look up from her coloring book.  “Not me, mama, I’m going to be a doctor, and doctors don’t clean.”

Even the gaucheness of the anecdote – the ‘didn’t miss a beat’, the whole Kids Say the Funniest Things-ness of it – give it authenticity, as coming from Zeitoun’s lips and not Eggers’.  Similarly, the foreshadowing of the disaster to come – “Neither of them [Zeitoun and Kathy] could operate their home, their company, their lives or days without the other” – is like the sunny preamble to an episode of Casualty.

The clearness of the prose, the concealed art, makes for a suspense more intense than a thriller.  The reader knows approximately what happens but not exactly how, and is driven partly by a perverse interest in seeing how bad things will get for Zeitoun.  The answer is very bad indeed (like, sorry to spoil it for you).  This is in part because of Zeitoun’s stubbornness, “his unwillingness to bow before any force, natural or otherwise”, his insistence on remaining in New Orleans even as Hurricane Katrina is upgraded and the city authorities recommend evacuation.  His family leaves but he doesn’t.

Zeitoun would not be a dramatic, disturbing book if its focus was simply on the natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina, or even on the scale of the devastation, “homes burning and sinking into the obsidian sea that had swallowed the city.”  Its real aim is to illuminate and outrage on the subject of how the authorities did and did not respond to the disaster.  Eggers says:

It’s at the intersection of so many issues in recent American life: the debacle of the government response to Katrina, the struggles facing even the most successful immigrants; a judicial system in need of repair; the problem of wrongful conviction; the paranoia wrought by the war on terror, widespread Islamophobia . . .

The last is present in Kathy’s conversion to Islam, some years before she meets Zeitoun.  Although her conversion is ultimately spurred by personalities rather than dogma, she finds both openness and revelation in Islam that she didn’t expect.  “She had no idea, for example, that the Qu’ran was filled with the same people as the Bible – Moses, Mary, Abraham, Pharaoh, even Jesus.  She hadn’t known that Muslims consider the Qu’ran the fourth book of God to His messengers, after the Old Testament, the Psalms, and the New Testament.  … The fact that the Qu’ran repeatedly reaches out to the other, related faiths knocked her flat.”  She does not experience much reaching out toward her by her fellow townspeople after she adopts traditional Islamic dress.

This is a book of witness, a voice edited and professionally presented.  Inevitably, therefore, Zeitoun is portrayed more or less angelically, and the authorities who deal with him are not.  How accurate is this?  I felt it would be interesting – albeit the job of a different book – to read an account from the viewpoint of the soldiers and government workers, trained and cultured by fear of terror, and fear of otherness, into robbing people of their humanity because they believe them to be their enemies.  They are in their own way victims too.

The word “Zeitoun”, before reading the book, is an unknowable sound; while reading the book, it is the name of a man; after reading the book, it becomes a sound again, a signifier, a two-syllable yell of frustration representing what is wrong not just with one administration in one country, but with aspects of our civilization.  It shows with clear eyes and plain talk that the agents of government could commit human rights abuses not ‘just’ in Abu Ghraib, not ‘just’ against “enemy combatants”, but on American soil, and against their own people.

Keith Ridgway: Horses

Keith Ridgway’s Animals has stuck with me, in the three years since I read it, so firmly and so fondly that it’s a wonder I didn’t saddle it with the meaningless privilege of being one of my books of the year 2007. It’s a wonder too that it took me so long to revisit him, and that I did so only after finding a copy of his first book Horses in a secondhand shop while on holiday last summer.

I say ‘his first book’, which is both true and misleading. In fact Horses was published in 1997 as part of a Faber anthology of new authors (in their First Fiction: Introductions series). After Ridgway established a medium-sized name for himself with bigger, standalone works (two novels The Long Falling and The Parts, and a story collection Standard Time), Horses was reissued in a slim solo edition – 80 pages long – in 2003.

Animals was a more or less indescribable thing – perm three from unreliable narrator, psychological horror, Kafkaesque, black comedy, existential, absurdist – and having now read Ridgway’s earliest and latest published fiction, I can see just how far he’s come. But Horses remains a good book, and indeed with potentially wider appeal than Animals. It’s clearly the work of a young writer: how else to explain this perfectly polished, showpiece opening?

In the broad spaces of the streets near the square, Mathew stood and watched for the secrets which the rain reveals. In the air around the mountains he could see the clouds begin to form, to gather themselves like skirts held in, to muster and breathe deep and peer down the slopes to the place where people live, and plot a route. He saw them set off then with a tiny roll, and saw them pick up speed and press a silence out in front of them, and pick up speed again and canter quietly, billowing, and roll on into a gallop like a charge of black and ghostly horses, their hooves turning in the air, churning up a grey dust against the sun.

It’s prose with rhythm, timing, drive, perfect pitch and a few clever touches: the nod to the title, and the beginning of a subtle sleight of hand on the reader as to who, or what, Mathew is. As the first paragraph of a first publication, not half bad.

But it’s silly to damn such beauty as being indicative of immaturity: Ridgway can really write, that’s all. If struggling to find fault, one would do better to latch onto Julian Gough’s criticism of his Irish contemporaries, for “copying the very great John McGahern, in the 21st century.” Sure enough, Horses has McGahern qualities: the rural setting, the close-knit community, the febrile relationships, the broodings – resentment, regret, revenge – at the heart of many motivations.

Even then, Horses stands on its own four feet, not least because the violence and bloodletting which seeps through it would never have suited McGahern’s low-key style, or at least would not be put on the page so splashily. Here, things happen not only in the past but in the present too. Mathew Doyle (“unsuited for the world”) is believed to be responsible for a series of arson attacks on local buildings, including one which killed the horses so beloved of Dr Brooks’ daughter Helen:

Her hair fell over her eyes in wet ropes and she felt a pain in her heart, or where she thought her heart might be, or where it had been, for it was gone now, dead, smoke against the sky, with Poppy and Gepetto and Mountain Star.

As well as Mathew and Helen and her father, the remaining cast does not extend much beyond Garda Sweeney and Father Devoy (yes, yes, I told you), and the short, explosive nature of the story, with a lot of conversation and a little action too, makes it read at times like a play on the page. Alongside the reasoning adult minds of the doctor, the priest and the policeman, the heart of the story pits two unworldly souls against one another: Helen, who is distracted with grief (“[she] wondered whether you could be struck by lightning and swallow the power that had hit you and make it yours, so that your life would be electric bright and burning to the touch”), and Mathew, an innocent (“Terror sorry for the horses. Terror sorry”).

The tight, claustrophobic drama of Horses portends terrible things to come before its end – and great things to come from its author after that.

Stephen Vizinczey: In Praise of Older Women

Here is further proof that the books which tend to delight me most are not new titles but reissued editions of lesser-spotted works.  As with Emanuel Litvinoff’s Journey Through a Small Planet, here we have a skinny book with a funny name, a title I didn’t know by an author I’d never heard of, which turns out to be just wonderful.  This book, Vizinczey’s first novel, was initially self-published, but went on to become such a success that when it was first translated into French in 2001, it stayed in the bestseller charts for over a year – but hey, let’s not be put off.  Maybe the French have better taste than we do.

In Praise of Older Women (1965) begins, “This book is addressed to young men and dedicated to older women — and the connection between the two is my proposition.”  It is subtitled The Amorous Recollections of András Vajda, though the background details of the narrator’s childhood in Hungary match Vizinczey’s own.

Given than Vajda’s interest in women seems to begin “at the age of three or four,” it’s perhaps inevitable that they were always destined to be older.  One of his earliest memories at this age is of refusing to go to bed while family members were visiting.  The relatives came to his room while his mother put him to bed, and “she smacked my bottom and kissed it, and promised that they would all kiss it if I would go to sleep afterwards without any more fuss.”

I still remember lying on my stomach and looking over my shoulder to see all those grownups lined up waiting their turn to kiss my bottom.

All this may account for the fact that I became an open-hearted and affectionate boy and a conceited brat.  Taking it for granted that everyone would love me, I found it natural to love and admire everyone I met or heard about.

Vajda’s interest in women is, it seems, entirely open-hearted: not only does he love them, but he also loves them.  It is an early involvement in the church — “I already viewed myself as a great saint, temporarily stranded in childhood” — which “taught me to experience elation and awe.”  To this he attributes his sense and love of “elusive mystery — an inclination that women are born with and men may acquire, if they are lucky.”

In Praise of Older Women therefore walks a fine line between the twin risks of sentimentality and misogynist objectification.  It avoids both not least through the clear, calm prose and the sheer charm which Vizinczey manages to pull off in the telling.  He – or Vajda – also warns readers that “although I hope this memoir will be instructive, I have to confess that it won’t help you to make women more attracted to you than you are to them.  If deep down you hate them, if you dream of humiliating them, if you enjoy ordering them around, then you are likely to be paid back in kind.”

In fact before Vajda can become a lover of older women (“I knew!  I knew you were a nibbler!”) he arranges it for others, becoming “a whoremaster for the American army before my twelfth birthday”.  Respectable women were reduced to approaching Vajda, where “they would ask me – blushing, but often in front of their silent husbands and children – whether the soldiers had venereal disease and what they had to offer.”  But Vajda himself remained uninvolved in the transactions, “a virgin pimp”, however much he wished otherwise.  He attempted in vain to seduce a Countess who “would only go with an officer, and only for two or three times the usual rate.”

The mentions of the American army remind the reader that Hungary in the early 20th century was at the centre of world events, and the book digresses from time to time to address the political background.  Parties at Vajda’s school (where he failed to succeed with girls his own age) “were sponsored not only by the PTA but by the Communist Youth Organisation.  Our modern gym was decorated for the dance not only with crêpe paper and balloons but with huge pictures of Marx, Lenin and Stalin, who glared down at us from the top of the climbing ropes.”  Vizinczey doesn’t seek to draw parallels between the central thread of the book and the political ruminations (“The worst thing about this whole rotten colonial police state isn’t what they do to you but what they might do if only they happen to think of it!”).  Instead he emphasises that throughout upheaval and revolution, life, lust and love go on.

Vajda, encouraged by French and Russian novelists that “women were often attracted by a young man’s awkwardness and inexperience,” eventually breaks his duck and embarks upon his erotic journey, initially with a neighbour’s wife.  “Trying to make love with someone who is as unskilled as you are seems to me about as sensible as going into deep water with a person who doesn’t know how to swim either.”  He finds compatibility with older women, but some differences too.  One tells him: “It’s wonderful that you can still feel sorry for yourself.  It means that you’re still at the stage where you think you deserve to be happy.”  Another brings home to him the truth of his serial attachments: “This idea that you can only love one person is the reason why most people live in confusion.”  It’s a maxim that Vajda will ultimately adopt as his own:

We hang on to the hope of eternal love by denying even its temporary validity.  It’s less painful to think ‘I’m shallow’, ‘She’s self-centred’, ‘We couldn’t communicate’, ‘It was all just physical’, than to accept the simple fact that love is a passing sensation, for reasons beyond our control and even beyond our personalities.

But even this pessimistic – or realistic – conclusion doesn’t tarnish the gleam of Vizinczey’s little gem.  It’s rare enough to find a book which pursues its subject matter with such single-mindedness, rarer still to find one which executes it so well.  Really, with my fetish for titles from revivalist imprints such as Penguin Modern Classics, NYRB Classics and Pushkin Press, perhaps this blog should be renamed In Praise of Older Books.