Woodward Gerard

Gerard Woodward: Vanishing

Often, I think, we retain a special affection for the first book we read by an author. Certainly that’s true for me with Gerard Woodward, whose second novel I’ll Go to Bed at Noon, the keystone in his Jones family trilogy, still floats high above his others. Recently I read the third volume, A Curious Earth, which I’d been holding off as I’d been told it was almost unreadably grim and sad – I was surprised (and a little disappointed) to find that it was more funny than sad, though sometimes a bit of both. But it was his gift of humour that I had in mind when I started his new novel, his fifth and, at 500 pages, his longest yet.

Gerard Woodward: Vanishing

 

Vanishing in parts exhibits Woodward’s comic gift at its best. For most of its first half it felt like reading William Boyd’s The New Confessions scripted by David Renwick – and that, I had better explain, is a double compliment. Like Boyd’s book (his best in my opinion), it tells the story, more or less, of a man’s life, within a wartime frame; like David (One Foot in the Grave, Love Soup, etc) Renwick’s best work, it has an absurd eye and a beautiful way of bringing together unlikely details. The man whose life we get is Kenneth Brill, and it comes within the framing device of his arrest and court martial during the second world war on suspicion of aiding the enemy. Brill is a painter – or “failed artist” as he put on his army registration form – and he maintains that he was painting fields near his family home to preserve them before the government paves them over for an airfield. This is around the hamlet where he grew up: Heathrow, in Middlesex. One of the aims of Woodward’s book – and one of its great successes – is to give back Heathrow to a culture where it means nothing more than a hell-on-earth airport. Heathrow’s development as a military airfield was begun in 1944; by the time it was completed, the war had finished. We presume Woodward’s aim was to create a sort of memorial to the place from the final words in the book (in his acknowledgements):

The hamlet of Heathrow was destroyed by a disgraceful misuse of wartime powers by the British government; that it was allowed to happen shames us all.

And the portrait of a vanishing place is one of the most satisfying aspects of Vanishing. This is dispensed in Brill’s memories of his childhood in Heathrow, where his father had an array of jobs including stage illusionist and prosthetic limbs supplier, though “in 1936 his business went up in flames. He took all his arms and legs out into the orchard, arranged them in a heap and set fire to them.” Most notably, his father had land which he farmed, in bitter rivalry with his half-brother Tiberius Joy, and the most entertaining parts of the book describe this battle, from a terrible burial suffered by Brill’s mother (pure Renwick, this) to a surprising discovery about sludgecake. Throughout, Woodward’s eye for imagery gives a freshness to scenes such as one where Brill plays doctor with his father’s medical supplies:

Countless times I had put a stethoscope to my sister Pru’s pale chest and listened to the slamming doors of her heart, or the sudden blasts of turbulence, the vortices and hurricanoes of her breath, or the belfry and breaking-glass clatter of her laughter.

There is much more of Woodward’s off-kilter invention and comic (and sometimes tragic) imagination throughout the first half of the book: the fate of Roddy, Tiberius Joy’s son; stripping with on-off best friend Marcus Boone; and all-male ballroom dancing in a Jewish school. Brill keeps moving schools – keeps vanishing – because of absurd developments and misunderstandings. Like his father’s interests – did I mention palmistry? – sometimes these seem random, chosen for their own sake and the delight they give Woodward to explore rather than for any intrinsic necessity to the story. (Woodward has spoken of an earlier draft of the book, where Brill had “a disrobing disorder, which meant he unconsciously lost his clothes at certain key moments.”) But the story is of a life, and you could reasonably say that a life is random and contains no overarching theme. Some of the elements – the aforementioned fate of Roddy Joy, or the excellent scenes involving a Polish art teacher – seem spirited away too suddenly, not fully explored or exploited. (But again, life, etc.)

But although this is the story of a life – a life so far – it is not chronological. As well as the framing device (and Brill’s subsequent court martial for espionage gives us an entirely unexpected but fitting conclusion), the scenes switch between his childhood in Heathrow and at school, and his wartime experiences as a camouflage artist: making things vanish. People arrive, unexplained – why is there tension between Brill and his colleague Somarco? – and allegiances seem to switch as the story jumps from between time and time. There is an uncanny representation of how memory works, with occasional repetitions or echoes of things mentioned before, as though Brill really is telling his story just as he remembers it. Yet as the story moves on, and we get to Brill’s time in art school and subsequently as a teacher, it seemed to lose some life for me, and certainly seemed to lose the comic touch that gave me so much pleasure in the book’s first half. We learn plenty about Brill through his activities and sexual relationships but there is something schematic about the emotional core of the character – though it does occur to me that this might represent a weakness on my part for traditionally explored characterisation. How many of us, after all, analyse our own personalities as cleanly as the novelist typically does for their characters? How realistic is it to do so? The second half the book seemed less vital to me, less surprising – perhaps inevitably as the story must stop opening up and begin to close down – but that I finished it at all, and with a fair amount of satisfaction, speaks of Woodward’s ability to sustain interest. In a way Vanishing, with its rejections of traditional time structure, of representation of character, of clean causation, is more novel than its frequently comforting qualities make it appear. There are strange things hidden in the countryside.

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

Tom

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

Donald

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.

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.

Gerard Woodward: I’ll Go to Bed at Noon

Perhaps on this blog there should be some system to tell people immediately which books I’m really enthusiastic about, a bit like Kurt Vonnegut’s technique in Galapagos, where he placed an asterisk before the name of any character who would shortly die. If I did, there would be one on this post, because Gerard Woodward’s I’ll Go to Bed at Noon (2004) is one of those rare books which leaves no regrets whatsoever: except that I didn’t read it sooner. In my defence, it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in the same year as big hitters like Colm Toibin, David Mitchell and Alan Hollinghurst: how was I to know that Woodward was a match for any of them?

I’ll Go to Bed at Noon is the middle book in a trilogy, but can be fully appreciated (at least I think I did) on its own. It brings us in full colour into the lives of the Jones family in north London from 1974 to 1979. It’s a saga squeezed into 440 pages, but the small type and the precise prose make it breathe as deeply as any epic.

The book opens with a funeral, where Janus Brian, the widower of the deceased, says:

You know, dear, all my life I have been scared of death, but since Mary died I have come to the conclusion that it is life that’s the really frightening thing. … Religion is supposed to make us cope with death, but we need something to make life bearable…

Janus Brian’s opium of choice, as for his brother Lesley (sic), his sister Colette and her son Janus, is alcohol. Colette, making progress from her days – presumably explored in the first Jones novel, August – as a glue-sniffer, favours a tipple of barley wine (“One of those and she was near instantly awake and fresh. A sedative in the evening, a pick-me-up in the morning”). Her son Janus is a beer man (“They would hear, from downstairs, the metallic retching of beer cans being opened. Four or five in quick succession”). Janus Brian himself will make alcohol when he cannot find it (“Cucumber Wine, Cauliflower Champagne, Brussel Sprout Whiskey. That was where all the fruit and vegetables from this extensive kitchen garden went – into the fermentation bins of Janus Brian’s home brewing kits”). Lesley we only see once in detail, and it’s a cruel, squirm-inducing portrait of the retired teacher among his former pupils:

Lesley leant back in his chair so far that he fell backwards onto the floor, arms outstretched, still singing, his mouth gaping with song. The locals poured Old Roger down Lesley’s gaping throat laughing as they did so, ‘Feed me till I want no more.’ They rejoined as Lesley ecstatically gargled and spumed on the cascading beer. The manner in which this event occurred suggested to Colette and Aldous that it was a regular occurrence on Lesley’s visits to the Bricklayers. The reason for his popularity here was his willingness, their former English master, to debase himself so abjectly on the floor of their pub.

They react to it differently too: Colette on the surface seems as functional and well-adjusted as her husband Aldous; Janus is violent; and Janus Brian likely to be found by Colette on a regular visit “semi-naked and semi-conscious on the bed.” Colette and Aldous’s other children, and their partners, must work their way through the behaviours that result.

Though steeped in ethanol, the story seems to be as much about the messiness that accompanies all family life, the unrequited love of parents for their children or “our sorrows that our children are slipping away from us,” and the fine line between cause and effect (“Janus, why couldn’t you just be a normal child, a normal man, why did you have to turn out like this?” “How could I be normal with a mother like you?”).

Woodward has a neat observation for every action, down to daily ablutions (“Aldous shaved, observing the familiar faces he made to make the process easier (the sceptical philosopher, the affronted duchess, the smirking connoisseur)”), but the pace builds as the book goes on, and by the last hundred pages – when the story has just about caught up with the back cover blurb – it’s practically a page-turner. He has a dispassionate, deadpan style which makes the moments of humour and tragedy all the more intense.  He also has a Gordon Burn-style interest in the buildings and structure of cities and the relationship they have with the people who live in them.

I’ll Go to Bed at Noon is also rich in literary references, from the character names to the title, which comes from King Lear and suggests early death. One thing that Woodward shows in this magnificent, beautiful book is that if there’s one thing for a chronic alcoholic and their loved ones that’s worse than dying early, it’s continuing to live through it.