Month: September 2010

Bernard Malamud: The Magic Barrel

I have raved about Bernard Malamud’s novels here (well, one of them), but it never occurred to me to try his stories until I was on holiday and picked up a copy of this book in a second-hand bookshop in Kenmare, Co Kerry. Anyone who has been on holiday with an infant will know, in any event, that a book of stories averaging twelve pages apiece is the perfect occupation.

The Magic Barrel (1958) was Malamud’s first collection and contains stories which are, not to muck about, stunning. Together, they create a portrait of Jewish immigrant life in post-war America which, if not quite Dubliners, is coherent and complete.

Many elements recur in these stories: the characters are either penniless or heading there. The highest social station they can attain is to run their own small business: a store (as with his novel The Assistant), or a shoemender’s. Such is the role of Feld in ‘The First Seven Years’, who reacts with horror (“You are crazy. She will never marry a man as old and ugly as you”) when his assistant Sobel tells him that he wants to marry Feld’s daughter Miriam:

Then he realized that what he called ugly was not Sobel but Miriam’s life if she married him. He felt for his daughter a strange and gripping sorrow, as if she were already Sobel’s bride, the wife, after all, of a shoemaker, and had in her life no more than her mother had had. And all his dreams for her – why he had slaved and destroyed his heart with anxiety and labor – all these dreams of a better life were dead.

In ‘Angel Levine’, the small businessman is Manischevitz, a tailor, who has “suffered many reverses and indignities.” Like most of these characters, he is at the end of his rope. When an episode of divine intervention seems to relieve his backache for a few days, he is disappointed when it returns. “He had hoped for a longer interval of easement, long enough to have some thought other than of himself and his troubles.” He resents the pain not just because it is pain but for richer reasons too.

Who, after all, was Manischewitz that he had been given so much to suffer? A tailor. Certainly not a man of talent. Upon him suffering was largely wasted. It went nowhere, into nothing: into more suffering.

We might observe that, if Malamud is speaking from experience, either his own or that of his contemporaries, then the suffering did not go into nothing. Anyway these stories, for their grim detail, are not for a moment colourless. Malamud has black humour by the bucket and, linked to this, a mastery of insight into his characters’ worst impulses. In ‘The Girl of My Dreams’, a frustrated writer, Mitka, meets a woman with whom he has struck up a correspondence, and ends up more frustrated still. “The irony of it – immured for months in a rat hole, to come forth for this. He’d go back now and entomb himself forever.” How much lower can he go? “He was wondering, what after this? Where would he drag that dead cat, his soul?”

As well as recurring settings – I’m guessing too that Malamud spent time in Italy when young – there is a universal current of desire (or need) in the stories in The Magic Barrel. I remember, years ago, reading Kurt Vonnegut’s guidelines for story writing. The third was “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” This seemed to me laughably unsophisticated (though if these were rules by which Vonnegut wrote the stories in Welcome to the Monkey-House, I couldn’t much complain about the results). Well, to prove me wrong again, Malamud makes an art out of making his characters want something. Often this is, or appears to the character to be, selfless, something they want for others rather than themselves: Feld’s wishes for his daughter’s future in ‘The First Seven Years’; Rosen’s urgent desire to help a widow financially in the extraordinary ‘Take Pity’ (one of those stories where the last few lines make you recast everything that has gone before). A couple of times, in ‘Behold the Key’ and ‘The Magic Barrel’, the want runs so deep that Malamud gives us a comedy of multiple attempts to get something right: an apartment, a bride. But his characters are destined not to get things right, though Malamud’s compassionate eye means we feel nothing but sympathy for them.

So here is a chance encounter that thrilled me as much as any book this year. Great writing in capsule form, Malamud’s Magic Barrel is a bran tub of delights.

Jonathan Franzen: Freedom

Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom sweeps into the UK on a supporting thermal of wild praise from the US – and a very funny video review by Ron Charles of the Washington Post (“The New York Times ran their first review of Freedom back in 1834″). I read The Corrections in 2001 when it swept in on a supporting thermal of etc. but can’t remember much about it, or even whether I liked it. Perhaps that should have been a warning for how much, or little, Freedom would move me.

(A word about the covers. Franzen’s UK and US publishers seem to be battling to produce the weakest cover design. For me, the US edition just takes it with its Microsoft WordArt-inspired monstrosity – see below – over the UK edition’s set-square-and-ruler look. Either way, I suppose each achieves its aim of being highly distinctive in the bookstores.)

Freedom starts well, with an idiosyncratic and multi-viewpoint portrayal of Walter and Patty Berglund as seen by their neighbours and themselves. “There had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds. … [They] were the super-guilty sort of liberals who needed to forgive everybody so their own good fortune could be forgiven; who lacked the courage of their privilege.” This last observation is by Seth Paulsen, and the persisting belief among some that liberalism ought to be the preserve of the unprivileged, that a limitless commitment to personal liberty is the American way, is a recurring theme of the book (as the title trumpets).

This short overture gives way to a long opening movement, a 160-page memoir by Patty Berglund (“Composed at Her Therapist’s Suggestion”) cutely titled ‘Mistakes Were Made’. Books within books are always a risk, but the opening scenes of Patty’s story are excellent. They read like self-contained, award-winning set pieces: the one about the prom date; the one about the obsessive friend. These sections, not incidentally, introduce one of Franzen’s greatest strengths – his representation of the passive-aggressive dialogues between growing children and their parents. It’s a quality which remains a highlight of the book throughout.

Through what happens in the early parts of the memoir (and the obsessive friend Eliza is a great creation, gripping and dangerous like the damaged Anna in Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room), Patty comes to learn that “there was something congenitally undefended about [her] heart”. Here it is that the great wrenching agony of her life will begin: choosing between the proper, intellectual Walter, and his roommate (and sometime lover of Eliza) Richard, who is a musician and “6’4″ and heavy-shouldered and as dark-complected as Walter was light”. Patty is a sportswoman, and her natural affinity – her lust – is for cool, beautiful Richard, but her close friendship with Eliza has softened her up for an unlikely alliance between “a poet and a jock”. Anyway, we know who she chooses, since this is all flashback from her married life with Walter, but she vacillates for months (or was it years?), temptations not quashed by Eliza’s vivid description of her and Richard’s lovemaking: “He’s so big, it’s like being rolled over by a neutron star. It’s like being erased with a giant eraser.” (And he reads Thomas Bernhard: ladies, join the queue!) Walter-and-Patty is a nice portrayal of love developing not, in the romcom style, either at first sight or from initial hatred, but from indifference.

However this will-she-won’t-she stuff – the memoir section generally (the book generally) – goes on for too long. (It’s repeated later with Patty and Walter’s son, Joey, and his hankerings after the beautiful Jenna.) It’s a fine call to make a judgement on this. Walter and Patty’s relationship is the human heart of the book, and Patty at least feels like a real person; there’s too much of their ups and downs, but without it you have a bunch of environmental speeches and tussles on liberalism v liberty. The former involve mountaintop removal mining and the protection of the cerulean warbler, but more centrally the issue of population growth. While hardly a novel subject for a novel, one might say that now is a pretty good time to bring it up again.

Mainstream economic theory, both Marxist and free-market, Walter said, took for granted that economic growth was always a positive thing. A GDP growth rate of one or two per cent was considered modest, and a population growth rate of one per cent was considered desirable, and yet, he said, if you compounded these rates over a hundred years, the numbers were terrible.

This is all directing the reader to the heart of the book: the American attachment to individual liberty and suspicion of government which is so baffling to many Europeans. Walter is descended from a man who fled to the US from Sweden, a country notable largely for its regular high rankings in quality of life indices. Franzen’s liberal take shows when the narrator, rather than a character, observes that “the American experiment of self-government [was] statistically skewed from the outset, because it wasn’t the people with sociable genes who fled the crowded Old World for the new continent; it was the people who didn’t get along well with others.”

Everyone wants freedom, he seems to say, but look what happens when we get it. The environment goes bang in the noonday sun. Families disintegrate, the responsibilities of parenting seeming to outweigh the prizes, the limitations of being a child viewed as an infringement of rights. Culture atrophies: “There’s never any center, there’s no communal agreement, there’s just a trillion little bits of distracting noise. […] Intellectually and culturally, we just bounce around like random billiard balls, reacting to the latest random stimuli.” Freedom is simultaneously irresistible and unsatisfying, a point Franzen brings home right to the end of the book – an end which, if it didn’t fit in so neatly with the overall theme, would risk looking like a cop-out. “Freedom is a pain in the ass.”

Freedom is not a pain in the ass. It is not a bad book; it is a good book. There is much to see and do, though it drags at times, like a too-long holiday. The characters’ dilemmas are clearly presented and thoroughly explored. But the storytelling is often treated with disdain: Franzen despatches big events – a marriage, a death – almost as asides, as though such compelling human dramas are not worthy of his Big Literature. For the claims of Franzen being a great stylist (made by Ron Charles for one), I rarely found myself taking pure delight in the prose itself. It is a book which demands to be read largely because everyone else seems to be reading it – a quality which, rather than making this a timeless literary (or rather cultural) milestone, actually risks stamping it with a sell-by date. Many will find pleasure in the journey, but those bold enough to take a pass on it may, I feel, not find themselves missing all that much. The paradox is that I had to read it, and had some pleasure myself in doing so, to find that out.

José Saramago: Blindness

I was surprised to see that José Saramago’s Blindness was first published just 15 years ago (13 in English); it seems to have been fast-tracked into the canon. I thought then of an even more recent novel which has sped to modern classic status: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Could one reason be the timelessness of their setting? Each gives us a stripped-down world, a society collapsed, primal fear, and just the smallest homeopathic hint of torturous hope.

Blindness (1995, tr. 1997 by Giovanni Pontiero with Margaret Jull Costa) is a latecomer to the apocalypse genre. I use the word ‘genre’ loosely, since the book despite its familiar theme does not belong clearly in any literary category. This didn’t stop Village Voice from calling it “the year’s most propulsive and profound thriller”. Blindness is not a thriller; although there are varied thrills here, Saramago’s eccentric style (run-on sentences and dialogue in unbroken blocks of text) rejects the simpler tricks of a thriller: the short sentences, paragraphs and chapters that imitate pace.

Yet it clearly has a story model with heritage: there is no shortage of books with the high concept of testing human society by visiting some (un)natural disaster on the population. John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids in particular has superficial similarities: there, almost everyone was blinded by a comet, which was a handy tool to enable Wyndham to render walking plants lethal. Blindness is more purely allegorical, with no specified setting in time or place. Here, people succumb to a mysterious and highly contagious form of blindness, which reduces the victim’s vision to “a milky sea,”

a whiteness so luminous, so total, that it swallowed up rather than absorbed, not just the colours, but the very things and beings, thus making them twice as invisible.

The victims of “the white evil” are rounded up into an asylum and put under armed guard (not for their own protection). Saramago’s points are well made here: the micro-society within the asylum is at first under the control of the authorities outside, unformed itself because it requires no internal discipline. Then, as more and more join the asylum internees, sub-groups form and a hierarchy of power develops within the compound. The blind suffer the worst of all worlds, on the one hand with all the chaos of life without sight, particularly once people stop bothering to look for the toilets (leading to a “carpet of trampled excrement”), but also victims of the subjugation of the fearful larger populace and also their own internal thugs providing a malign sort of order. Blindness shows a world of contradictions: people thrown together through this suffering are more likely to forgive one another’s trespasses, but also become less responsible; they need to work together, but limited provisions make them desperately self-interested. One character who can still see but daren’t admit it, has the benefit of sight but the burden of responsibility.

In case we miss the point, Saramago has a tendency to reinforce his messages with comments from characters (“The whole world is right here” observes one asylum inmate, “This is the stuff we’re made of, half indifference and half malice,” or another, “Perhaps only in a world of the blind will things be as they truly are”) or the nebulous narrator, who counsels readers against

a tendency to make hasty and definitive judgements, a mania which, owing to our exaggerated self-confidence, we shall perhaps never be rid of.

In fact it’s this eccentric narrative voice which frequently provides texture to the book while the reader is wondering when we’re going to get past the stuff described on the back cover blurb of the UK edition (around page 210, it turns out), and wondering if the book is ever going to progress beyond a increasingly squalid struggle for survival. (Spoiler: it doesn’t.) But quibbles about plot or plausibility miss the point of a book like this, which fires off so many thoughts in the brain while reading it that even pages of the most run-of-the-mill activities become impossibly stimulating. There are even jokes (and here is a good example of the thickets of dialogue in Saramago’s narrative, where each capital letter after a comma represents a change of speaker):

That same day, in the late afternoon, the Ministry of Defence contacted the Ministry of Health, Would you like to hear the latest news, that colonel we mentioned earlier has gone blind, It’ll be interesting to see what he thinks of that bright idea of his now, He already thought, he shot himself in the head, Now that’s what I call a consistent attitude, The army is always ready to show an example.

One interpretation of Blindness has it that it – like The Death of Grass, or The Road, or all the others – shows how fragile our civilisation is, and how always close society is to collapse. This is to succumb to the evergreen vanity of believing that things have never been worse than they are now, that one’s own generation will be the last before apocalypse. A more optimistic view might be to point out that in Blindness, it takes an entirely impossible disaster to occur before society breaks down. It could show, in other words, not civilisation’s fragility but its robustness. It also asks whether temporary matters have lasting consequences; and it seems pretty clear that although Saramago is no more, his books will live on, at least for as long as society does.

Gerard Woodward: Nourishment

Gerard Woodward is categorised in my mind as the author who surely would have won the Booker Prize in 2004 if his brilliant novel I’ll Go to Bed at Noon hadn’t been up against such a strong field, including Colm Tóibín’s The Master, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and the eventual winner, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty. It was the second in a series, and now, after completing the Jones family saga with A Curious Earth, Woodward has braved the creation of a whole new fictional world.

Nourishment, however, doesn’t initially seem to stray too far from Woodward’s comfort zone. It is set in 20th century England, is a family story and peopled by one-and-a-half vivid female characters – but do Mrs Head and her daughter Tory have the staying power of Colette Jones?

The period is the second world war, when Victoria ‘Tory’ Pace is alone in London: working in a gelatin factory, with her children evacuated and her husband missing in action presumed dead. As if things weren’t bad enough, her widowed mother decides to come to live with her for the duration, “possessed of an unshakeable belief that her daughter, and London generally, needed her.” But troubles aside, Tory feels that life during wartime is not quite as interesting as it might be. She receives offputting letters from her children (“We are very sorry that father is dead, but we doubt he would have wanted to be part of a world like the one that is taking shape around us”) and struggles to think of anything to tell them in return.

Dear Mama

I refer you to your letter dated 16-1-41, in which you tell us about your work in Farraway’s Gelatin Factory. Your most recent letter (21-3-41) repeats a lot of this information. There is really little point in writing to us unless you have something new to tell.

I have bought a new magnifying glass.

Yours sincerely


The presumption that Tory’s husband Donald is dead irks her mother, Mrs Head. “She dreaded the thought of her daughter becoming a widow – it was a role she cherished for herself alone.” Good news then, when a long-delayed letter from Donald arrives: he has been captured and is being held as a prisoner of war. Mrs Head is pleased – “dead he was rather a disgrace, but captured – that meant there might still be a chance for her family to distinguish itself in the war effort” – and so is Tory, until she gets to the end of his letter (which I reveal here only because the book’s blurb outlines it generally):

Nothing else troubles me apart from not being able to pull your knickers down and give you a good fuck. Instead, could you write me a dirty letter, by return of post? I mean really filthy, full of all the dirtiest words and deeds you can think of? I require this most urgently.

Love to your Ma


In that paragraph, in essence, are the two qualities that distinguish Nourishment: it is continually surprising and frequently funny, and often both at the same time. At times the welter of bizarre developments seems mad, covering protein pills, robots, novels written in public toilets, putative cannibalism, and more.

The first half passes slowly (but reads quickly) and gives time for every development in Tory’s character to seem plausible. (“[Donald’s] implorations for her to be bad made it somehow easier for her to actually be bad.”) This makes it strange when the second half, the post-war years, seems so hasty, with time passing in sudden spurts, and the reader’s pace needing to alter to make the eye-opening developments (some detailed above) seem like the product of a brilliant mind rather than a fevered brain. There are so many moments like this – bouleversé on one page, bingo! on the next – that the novel acquires an almost subversive character, the comedy of the first half less sustained and so all the more discomfiting when it peeks up rudely amid the soap and tragedy of the second.

There was a blue plaque on the first floor of the building above that, according to Harry Wilde, commemorated E.M. Forster getting his leg over, and that was enough to convince themselves that they were now part of literary London.

Much of Nourishment subverts what we might expect from a wartime story. Some consists of what we might call expected surprises, the nuts and bolts of fiction, such as the children’s disappointment when they return home from their evacuation (“‘Is that man our father?’ said Albertina”). Elsewhere, the approaches are more subtle: the correspondence drawn between food and sex are clever and unexpected, providing a story of appetites poorly catered for in wartime, and how they shrink back or swell up to change their owners. There is an unsettling but satisfying comic treatment of developments of the day.

“Well,” said Mrs Head, thoughtfully, “I’ve heard quite good things about lobotomies. Mrs Lippiatt’s brother-in-law had one. She said he used to smash the furniture, but now he just sits in his chair all day, looking at his parakeet, quiet as a mouse.”

The tone is striking, even unique (though it does at times resemble a lighter, fruitier version of the Jones books). Within its seemingly gentle form, it takes risks: a quality I value increasingly above others. What this means is that Nourishment could never be mistaken, or muddled in the memory, for any other book. It succeeds because it is quite unlike anything I’ve read before, and I loved it for that.

Howard Jacobson: The Finkler Question

Before The Finkler Question, I was wondering how much longer I could claim to be a fan of Howard Jacobson’s novels. I’ve read most of them, but with greater attention to his recent ones, from No More Mister Nice Guy (published 1998, and a comic masterpiece) on. I loved The Mighty Walzer (1999) and Who’s Sorry Now? (2002), and while The Making of Henry (2004) had its longueurs, the vim of the opening sections drove me through it with a kind of mad momentum. However, it was with his biggest and most-praised novel, Kalooki Nights (2006), that I finally came unstuck and couldn’t finish the thing. The same with his next, The Act of Love (2008). Frankly, if his new novel hadn’t been longlisted for the Booker Prize, I probably would have avoided it rather than face frustration and disappointment once more.

The Finkler Question, luckily, is a triumph. It is a novel which rounds up its themes and runs them to ground exhaustively (and sometimes exhaustingly). One of those themes is one which will not surprise any admirers of Jacobson. When he published Kalooki Nights, he described it as “the most Jewish novel that has ever been written about anyone, anywhere.” He should have added, “except for the one I’m going to write in a few years’ time.” This needn’t put readers off; after all, some of the finest American writers of the last century – Bellow, Malamud, Roth – restlessly interrogated their own Jewishness. Jacobson does not shirk the challenge.

His central character, Julian Treslove, is not Jewish. He worked for Radio 3 (having “found himself with a degree so unspecific that all he could do with it was accept a graduate traineeship at the BBC”) and, having become disillusioned (“‘Would anyone notice if my programmes weren’t aired?’ he wrote in his letter of resignation. … He received no reply”), now works as a celebrity double. He keeps being mistaken, however, for Jewish stars, and when he is mugged one night in the street, becomes convinced that he – a Gentile – has become the victim of an anti-Semitic attack. It’s just as well, then, that Julian has two Jewish friends with whom he can chew it all over. Sam Finkler, Julian’s middle-aged contemporary, is a philosopher of the de Botton school,

making programmes to show how Schopenhauer could help people with their love lives, Hegel with their holiday arrangements, Wittgenstein with memorising pin numbers.

The other Jewish friend, Libor Sevcik, taught Julian and Sam at school, and so is a generation ahead. Both he and Sam are recently widowed, leading Julian to wonder how “you go on living knowing that you will never again – not ever, ever – see the person you have loved?”

He wanted to ask Libor that. ‘How did you get through the first night of being alone, Libor? Did you sleep? Have you slept since? Or is sleep all that’s left to you?’

Libor, in his ninety-first year, re-enters the dating game, forgetting his etiquette, risking offence to a flat-chested young woman with the “mercantile gesture” of eyeing up her breasts. “The things you had to remember with a woman you hadn’t been married to for half a century! The feelings you had to take into account!” In the end he concludes that “I could use the company but I can’t go through the pain of getting it.”

This “proof [that] everything exacted its price in the end, and perhaps happiness exacted it even more cruelly than its opposite” is all the more powerful to Julian because he seems never likely to experience it himself. He has two sons he barely knows to two women he rarely sees. He envies Libor’s long, uxorious marriage, but not enough to want to have one himself. He struggles to form a relationship with his sons. “He didn’t have much of a grasp on family life but he guessed that a son doesn’t want to hear that about his father.”

These themes of loss and longing are not deadening or dull: everything here is presented with spark and vigour, giving (I can’t improve on this critic’s comment on The Mighty Walzer, so I’ll just repeat it) “a pleasure akin to humour even when it’s not actually being funny.” And most of the time, it is actually being funny, and not just in one-liners (“At a certain age men began to shrink, and yet it was precisely at that age that their trousers became too short for them. Explain that”). Jacobson’s comedy is something that is internal to his writing and impossible to extract while giving full justice: the effect is cumulative. The corollary of this is that if you don’t find it funny to begin with, you’re unlikely to be persuaded through persistence. There’s no gainsaying laughter, or its absence. But Jacobson’s nimble footwork, supple manipulations and layering of character and observation had me drumming my heels with deep satisfaction literally from the first page.

This enhances the feeling when the comedy shrinks back, and leaves us with thoughts like this on Libor’s loss of love after half a century of happy marriage, the riposte to claims of having had ‘a good innings’:

At any age there is future one doesn’t have. Never enough life when you are happy, that was the thing. Never so much bliss that you can’t take a little more.

In all this, I have said nothing of what I suggested above was a central subject of The Finkler Question: Jewishness, and what drives affection for and resentment of Jews, and how Jewish people in Britain today feel about Israel. Jacobson, in his sub-Bellovian way (discursive, digressive, thoughtful, but always pulling back with a joke, such as the scenes of a regretful Jew who keeps a blog recording his attempts to regrow a foreskin), pummels the subject into submission with Julian, Sam and Libor’s exchanges. “You had to be born and brought up a Jew to see the hand of Jews in everything. That or be born and brought up a Nazi.”

However for me, all these “emotional improvisations with a bracing undernote of intellectuality” are a stimulating sideshow to the main event, which is a bitterly funny and thrillingly heartbreaking story of friendship, love and loss. Near the end of the book, Libor reflects on what his wife experienced as she was terminally ill, the terror of waking up every morning to the knowledge of impending death afresh: “The morning was always waiting for her. No matter where they had got to the night before, no matter what quiet almost bearable illusion of living with her dying he believed her to have attained, the morning always dashed it. […] Nothing was ever settled. Nothing ever sealed. The day began again as though the horror had that very moment been borne in on her for the first time. And on him.”

The Finkler Question is the best sort of comedy: that which is not just adjacent to tragedy but fully steeped in it. If there’s one thing better than being funny, it’s being funny and sad at the same time. Of course, Jacobson says it better than I can: “[He] couldn’t keep up with the fluctuations of her feelings. She wasn’t, he realised, going from fear to amusement and back again, she was experiencing both emotions simultaneously. It wasn’t even a matter of reconciling opposites because they were not opposites for her. Each partook of the other.”