October reading: Eaves, Stead, Comyns, Sudjic, Stanley, The Second Shelf

October began with finishing Will Eaves’s Murmur, his balletic novel-in-prose based on the tragic life and surreal afterlife of Alan Turing. Why novel in prose? Well, because half the time the wonder of it is that it is written in prose at all. It feels like it’s been downshifted into words on the page from some higher dimension. It starts and finishes with putative journal entries from a Turing avatar (Pryor) suffering the chemical castration that drove the scientist to suicide, with, in the middle, a longer run of letters mixed, improbably, with dream narratives. It is at once as weird as that sounds, and absolutely plain and straightforward.

I have long had a problem with novelisations of real people’s lives. It feels like the biographers have done all the hard work: primed the canvas, blocked in the background, worked up the figures, and all that remains for the lazy novelist to do is to dot in a few highlights, idiosyncratic and humane, to ‘bring it to life’. Rather as a mortuary assistant might make up the face of a corpse, you might think.

This book is nothing like that. For a start Eaves has clearly worked incredibly hard on it, thinking through the implications of artificial intelligence on consciousness as assiduously as any critical biographer, quite apart from the nasty effects of the drugs on Turing’s body and mind. And the ‘novelistic’ touches are anything but perfunctory. The journals entries are quite compelling enough, in their view of closeted gay life in 1940s England, and the way it shattered class boundaries, and how it was treated by the establishment. But it is the dreams and letters that take the book definitively out of the realm of the mundanely novelistic.

They move backwards and forwards through aspects of Pryor’s life, from gorgeous, creepy remembered childhood to an imagined future that even goes so far as to include parenthood as part of a heterosexual couple. If this is disorienting, then it is also tangentially illuminating. Is it too much to say that it reads like alternate quantum lives peeling off the central narrative and floating wispily away? Well, yes it is too much, if only because I’m now well outside the limits of my scientific understanding, unlike Eaves’s. If you’ve read his columns in the Brixton Review of Books, or his interviews (like this one, or this one, in which he navigates the TLS 20 questions with greater dexterity than anyone before or since, especially the last 10) then you’ll know he is as at once forbiddingly intelligent and engagingly – mercifully – sympathetic.

It’s a quite brilliant book. I need to read it again. More slowly.

(Aside: it’s odd, isn’t it [no it’s not] that ‘sympathetic’ has turned into such an ambiguous, two-way road of a word. Its original meaning is of someone who is characterised by sympathy, i.e. who is able to reach out and understand the feelings of others, usually in a benign, benevolent way. But it has also come to mean, more simply, nice, attracting the liking of others. It’s almost as if – gasp – we tend to like people who are kind and understanding, and then tend to attribute the fact of that liking to us, rather than them.)

Last month I also read Barbara Comyns’s The Vet’s Daughter, a first of hers for me. Her name is one of those that bounces around a little on Twitter, and turns up on the Backlisted podcast. The Vet’s Daughter is an odd, short novel, that trips between a down-at-heel Edwardian realism and glum Gothic fantasy. I didn’t really enjoy it. There is a horrid bullying father, a dying then dead mother, and a bright daughter who can’t escape the awfulness of her life except, occasionally, by spontaneously levitating into the air. Only, of course, even that offers no escape. It is all very depressing. It is also all rather desultory.

A book that did so much more for me was the long, big, wonderful For Love Alone by Christina Stead, another woman writer in the permanent state of being ‘rediscovered’. Continue reading

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September Reading: Gunaratne, Rooney, Murdoch, le Guin, de Waal, Tokarczuk, Deighton, Eaves

There are some books missing from this photo: Normal People by Sally Rooney, given back to the kind student who lent it to me; The Trick to Time, sat on a shelf in my university office; and In Our Mad and Furious City, donated to the university library – I wanted to get an extract from it straight into the course reader for our undergraduate Writing London module and this was the surest way of doing it.

Let’s start with Guy Gunaratne’s novel. I liked it very much. As with many other readers I was bowled over by the confidence and fluency of its interlocking narrative voices, and the sense that the characters and events, big and small, were coming straight up out of the city and onto the page. It is an easy and impressive read: the individual sections flow swiftly, never getting snarled up, as interior monologues can, and the sense of adjacency between these few characters living out a few days in a north London housing estate matches the theme of frantic, disconnected urban living. We are linked closer than we can know.

I gave it to my 16-year-old son, to try a chapter, just to see how he responded to the writing. Some of the YA fiction he reads is likewise concerned with contemporary social issues: would he buy someone doing the same in a more sophisticated narrative mode, with a wider historical reach? He liked it, though not enough to want to read on right away.

Interestingly, he queried the use of ennet for innit in black British teenager Selvon’s chapters. ‘Why does he do that?’ he asked. It was the right choice, I think: innit is too familiar as a locution, and can seem reductive, even parodic. You want your character to seem ‘street’: you make her or him say “innit,” innit? And Selvon’s ennet is part of his interior monologue; it’s not actually voiced, and in that context it sinks happily into the drift of his thoughts, bobbing up every now and then as a form of semi-digested punctuation.

Gunaratne’s novel was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, but not shortlisted, and it has been shortlisted for the Goldsmith Prize. I’d say that sounds about right. His approach is fresh, and structurally lively – on the surface, at least. By skipping around between five or six narrative voices, he jumps about his environment and orbits his central events rather in the manner of The Matrix’s bullet-time – the novel does feel three-dimensional – but two problems emerge.

Firstly, two of his narrative voices belong to elderly people, both of whose monologues focus almost exclusively on the past – the British civil rights movement of the 1960s, and Northern Ireland during the violence of The Troubles. They are interesting, and show real range in the writing, but all this harking back has a braking effect on the narrative.

Secondly, and more generally, the breadth of these different narrative voices also slows down the novel’s movement. The events it describes take place over 24 or perhaps 48 hours or so (writing from memory) and the lead-up to the quite substantial climactic event is so brief as to largely defuse any sense of drama. It’s like a pocket-sized version of Underworld, and it needs, if not a bigger canvas then certainly a longer timeline to make the impact it might – as a novel. It’s brilliant at set-up, character, the ambient noise of a true dream of life, but it’s less good at acts and scenes.

Normal People was also on the Man Booker longlist and not the shortlist, and again that feels about right to me – though I say this without having read any of the ten other longlisted novels. No particular kudos to them, then, but Normal People feels like a brilliant novel that needed a final twist to make it completely outstanding. I wrote at length about it here, but in short: it does character, and dialogue, and environment just as well as In Our Mad and Furious City – albeit far more restrictedly in terms of its social reach, engaging class and gender relations but not race or ethnicity – and it does time much better than that book, showing how people change, and don’t, over months and years. But it is lacking a novelistic backbone, or skeleton.

Furious City’s novelistic backbone is missing too, which Gunaratne tries to make up for with his rushed climax that feels like nothing. The more I read Normal People, on the other hand, the more I felt like it was about to make a killer statement about the novel form – how life simply doesn’t have a shape like novels do, and so the novel form is a lie – but it never quite did. It doesn’t work like a novel, but doesn’t really find a way of making its meandering narrative form seem like a serious conceptual alternative.

Along with Normal People the highlight to my reading month – and surely one of the highlights of my year – was Iris Murdoch’s The Black Prince, which I picked up for a quid from a charity shop (having thoroughly enjoyed Catherine Taylor’s piece about it in the Brixton Review of Books) and launched into straight away. Continue reading

Sally Rooney and the brilliance of Normal People (and the danger it poses to the novel form)

IMG_1583I wrote recently about my first exposure to Sally Rooney’s writing, and the dilemma I faced, or conjured, as to whether buy her then-Booker-longlisted novel Normal People in hardback or wait for it in paperback – a debate that wasn’t simply down to price. In the end I was saved my deliberations when a kind student lent me a proof copy of the book. I will certainly be buying it in paperback when it comes out, and I may well be putting it on the curriculum at St Mary’s, Twickenham, where I teach.

The usefulness of Rooney to Creative Writing students – and teachers – is something I will discuss below (and this will involve a spoiler near the end: I’ll give you fair warning) but my general response to the novel is a solid continuation of my thoughts about the extract and early version story I had read in Granta and The White Review: this is a great book, that matches a warm, oblique narrative style to a pair of characters who, while immensely likeable (or ‘compelling’, if you quail at the L-word) are also intensely uncertain about the value or depth of their own qualities: the more time they spend poking and probing at their own selves, the further they get from any definite conclusion, and so they rely on each other – on their relationship with each other – to ground themselves, but seeing as they continually misstep, misspeak and misconstrue, they are always finding that solid ground shifting beneath them.

Thus the warm – we like them – and thus the oblique – they are continually struggling to find the perspective that Rooney offers the reader, from which they can be seen as genuinely likeable.

Again, the first thing to love about Normal People is the characters; the second thing to love is the cool narrative style, that dips into each character’s thought processes, and lets them be themselves, up close and personal, for the reader, but also steps away, and allows the reader to see them at an emotional distance. The mix of this is something Rooney gets absolutely right, and people have talked on Twitter about getting very closely involved in this couple as they read the book. I concur.

A brief introduction, then. The couple are Marianne and Connell, who as teenagers in small-town Ireland develop a secret and passionate friendship that crosses class divisions both in the town (Connell’s mother is Marianne’s family’s cleaner) and in school (where Connell is popular and Marianne is ostracised). The novel shifts locus but not focus when Connell follows Marianne to Dublin to study at Trinity, where they are both high-performing students. The novel is essentially one long on-off/will they?-won’t they? narrative as the two of them repeatedly grow close, sleep together, piss each other off, take other partners and then fall back into each other. The reasons for their separate and individual inability to commit, or trust – each other, and themselves – become clear as the novel progresses, but… Well, I’ll get to the but in a moment.

(If you want to get a sense of how cherished this book might become to future generations of romantically-inclined novel readers, there’s a lovely hint halfway through, when Connell is backpacking around Europe in the summer holidays. In his backpack is “a very beaten-up copy of a James Salter novel”. I think we know which James Salter novel that is, right, people? That’s right, it’s A Sport and a Pastime. People will love Normal People as much as people love that book: take my word for it. Continue reading

Sally Rooney and the hardback/paperback dilemma (A Graphic Index Part IV)

I hadn’t read any Sally Rooney until a couple of days ago when I was reminded on Twitter that there was a story in a back issue of The White Review that features the two characters – Marianne and Connell – from Normal People, Rooney’s Booker-longlisted and roundly lauded second novel. (Interestingly, this is from 2016, before the publication of her debut, Conversations with Friends.)

I read it, and loved it.

Then this morning I decided to take the latest Granta magazine (‘Generic Love Story’) into the bath with me for a lazy Sunday morning read, and there she was again, in the form of an actual extract from the book. (You can read it online.)

I read it, and loved it too, and finished with teary eyes.

Although this isn’t the main point of this post, I’ll say briefly that my reasons for loving it are more or less the same reasons other people have mentioned in reviews and online: that Rooney makes you care about the characters, which is perhaps an unfashionable thing; but also she seems utterly contemporary. This comes partly in the depiction of contemporary attitudes – to relationships, to sex – or rather of the contemporary ways of conceptualizing attitudes that themselves are probably as old as the hills; and also partly in the smooth integration of contemporary technology etc into the narrative, but also in the way the prose seems alive to the texture of life today.

One example: in the Granta extract, teenage Connell’s mother puts the kettle on, something that has happened countless times in realist prose fiction since the invention of kettles, or realism, whichever came first, but this time we get this: “She laughed, fixing the kettle into its cradle and hitting the switch.” And I realise that’s the first time I’ve had a writer notice that that’s how kettles work these days. (Perhaps someone else has used it, but I missed it.) And if Rooney is noticing that, then what else is she noticing about modern life? The kettle moment is like a concrete token offered to reader that encourages them to believe that the more intangible things she’s noticing (do young people really think like that about sex?) are credible also.

Now as it happens I’m off out to my local bookshop shortly to buy a book as a present (in fact it may well be a copy of Conversations with Friends) and so I’m asking myself: should I get Normal People? I’m sure I’ll like it. There is also a definite thrill to buying a new book to read straightaway when I’m not exactly short of other books that I either want to read or feel I should.

But… here’s the thing: it’s hardback, and I don’t want to read Normal People in hardback. Nor do I want to have the hardback of Normal People on my shelves.

Why is this?

Well, there are bad and shallow reasons why I might feel this. She’s a female writer is the most obvious one, and I don’t want to accord her the status of hardback author. She’s a paperback writer, to quote George Harrison out of context. Do I think this? I hope not. Or rather: the status thing is true. Not everything is worth buying in hardback. But I hope that my measuring of her worth doesn’t involve sexism.

Let’s take a step back. Continue reading

July and August Reading: Beard, Rentzenbrink, Markson, Ondaatje, Baker, Diski, Postel, Moss, Palmen

Two months of summer reading brought together because, you know, things. Only some of which are books. July started with a fresh attempt – my third, I think – at Richard Beard’s The Day That Went Missing, subtitled A Family Memoir. Why did it take me three goes to get into? Because, frankly, it is a fucking hard book to read. It’s a writer’s response to some ancient family history: the death, by drowning, on a family holiday, of Beard’s younger brother, Nicholas – made more devastating for Richard, eleven years old to Nicholas’s nine, by the fact that he was only the witness, only just managing to save himself from the same deceptive tides on a Cornish beach that swept Nicholas out of his depth.

And made more devastating, over the years, by the decision of Beard’s father to wipe the tragedy out of the family narrative. Over the next forty years Nicholas was barely spoken of, represented by a single photograph in the family home, his few belongings relegated to a box somewhere in the attic. If this sounds like English repression taken to psychotic lengths, try this for size: after returning to Swindon to bury Nicholas, the family drove back to the rented farm house in Cornwall to finish their holiday. It was booked and paid for, after all.

It’s not these awful aspects of the situation that make the book so hard to read, though. They are traits that can be analysed, contextualised, built out from. It is the insistence of Beard on returning again and again to the ‘primal scene’ of the drowning, trying to work out what happened, trying to investigate his own guilt: could he have saved him? If Beard’s father set out to deny this moment as a survival technique, then Beard insists on looking. He insists on us looking too. It’s that that makes the book at times excruciating to read. That and the way the surviving family members (not his father, he died: “I haven’t mourned him, and I didn’t cry at his funeral,” Beard writes… “A lesson he taught me himself”) are actually, eventually, willing to talk about Nicholas, and his death, now, forty years on. Perhaps, you think, all that denial was not needed. Clearly, this was a book that Beard had to write, in some sense (he talks about the dead little brothers that have cropped up in his fiction), but in another sense it was a book that didn’t have to be written at all, or wouldn’t have had to be written, if Beard’s father hadn’t been a particular kind of Englishman.

It’s all dreadfully sad, but am I glad I read it? I’m not sure. I happened to partially reread Cathy Rentzenbrink’s The Last Act of Love at about the same time, for teaching, and it reinforced my general feeling about such memoirs: that I don’t like them, however well they’re written. Perhaps it’s because I have very little close experience of grief. I haven’t had the opportunity to see how mourning can become part of a person: I can’t see it in the people I know who have lost someone. I see only desperate desire to imbue the pages with the presence of the dead person. A desire that can only lead to failure. The specifics of the dead person can never be as meaningful to me as to it is to the writer. Grief memoir is the genre that is doomed to failure.

Following these books I had a few days of feeling really ill (some kind of bug, I can’t remember now) and every book I picked up seemed to hard, the language too complex, the insistence on plot and character too damned demanding. The only book I found I could bear to open was David Markson’s This is Not a Novel. Having read it and kind of enjoyed it, but then read and loved his earlier novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress, I had long wanted to look at again because of it. Continue reading

June Reading: Batuman, Manguso, Teo, Fuller, Milano

I read some good books in June. I’ve already written at length about Annie Ernaux’s The Years in a separate post, so I’ll leave that be. The funniest book I read last month – the funniest book I’ve read in a long time – was Elif Batuman’s The Idiot. I’m talking about regular chuckling out loud on the train, and in bed, enough to annoy anyone travelling alongside me on either vehicle.

It’s half campus novel, half American abroad in Eastern Europe tale – think The Marriage Plot meets Everything is Illuminated, but is better than either of them. Selin, Batuman’s stand-in, turns up to Harvard to study but finds the whole process overwhelming: classes, teachers, roommates, friends, potential boyfriends. The plot doesn’t progress so much as… well, either drift or plod or both. It ends up reading like a Kafka novel leached of moment, as if Selim doesn’t realise she’s supposed to be in a tragedy. And why should she? Unlike a Kafka hero she doesn’t have a goal that she sees herself failing to move towards. Perhaps that’s part of the point of the undergraduate existence: you bundle all personal goals into the uber-goal of getting your degree. Ambition is deferred, dissipated. That sense of life unfolding without trajectory feels accurate.

There’s a funny running gag about an adult education class Selin volunteers at, trying to help people more hopeless than herself with her lessons. She is supposed to be helping Joaquim, a Dominican plumber, with his spoken American.

“The paper is white,” I said, holding up a paper.

He nodded. “El papel es blanco,” he said.

“Right, so repeat after me. The paper is white.”

Papel, es, blanco,” he said, with a serious expression like mine.

“No, repeat the words I’m saying,” I said. “The paper is white.”

After twenty minutes he could say, “Papel iss blonk.” He said it with an expression of great patience and kindness. We moved on to “The pen is blue.” We started with “El boligrafo es azul,” and eventually got to “Ball iss zool.” Then our time was up.

This is the stuff that had me chuckling. (There’s a less good running gag about a Russian-language story Selim has to read in her Russian classes, which I started to skip. This is novel-writing 101. You never expect the reader to put up with more than one of these things.)

Then Selim goes to Hungary for her summer break, volunteering again, to help remote villagers with their American. It’s more of the same: comic characters – which means, essentially, stupid characters – idiots – though treated with greater or lesser degrees of compassion. All comedy is based on cruelty. Even puns have as a butt the hypothetical person who doesn’t know a particular word has two meanings. Batuman is not cruel, however – not needlessly so – and she makes Selim almost as dumb as everyone else.

The mayor thanked us for coming to share our culture and language, and hoped that we would take something away in return. Then he asked whether any of us knew HTML, because his village needed a webpage.

There is cruelty here – as in the ‘papel is blonk’ piece above, and it’s these parts that make me think, anxiously, about Safran Foer’s novel – but there is compassion, too, though it is compassion laced with nostalgia. Once upon a time, we were all a village that needed a webpage. Continue reading

Occasional review: Annie Ernaux’s ‘The Years’

I picked up a couple of Annie Ernaux books last time I was in France. I think The Years (Les années) was a recommendation from someone, possibly a bookseller. I remember starting it (“Toutes les images disparaîtront…”/”All the images will disappear…”) but didn’t read the whole thing until I received this translation, from Fitzcarraldo Editions. It is a stunning piece of work, a memoir of life in France since the second world war drained almost entirely of the personal. Ernaux presents her life as a series of disconnected generalisations – sociological, political and cultural: an election might carry as much weight as a film, or an advertising slogan, or the availability of abortion, or the changing tenor of parenthood or coupledom. She describes her goal at one point as presenting “an existence that is singular but also merged with the movements of a generation”.

The great stylistic trick of the original, of course, is her use of that characteristically French pronoun on, which carries none of the painful elitism of the English one, and in fact Alison L. Strayer often translates on as we.

A pair of underlined paragraphs – of which there are many in my copy – picked at random:

Meanwhile, we studied for our BAs while listening to the transistor. We went to see Cléo from 5 to 7, Last Year at Marienbad, Bergman, Buñuel and Italian films. We loved Léo Ferré, Barbara, Jean Ferrat, Leny Escudero, and Claude Nougaro. We read Hara-Kiri. We felt nothing in common with the yé-yés, who said Hitler, never heard of him, and their ideols, who were even younger than we: girls with pigtails and songs fo rthe school playground; a boy who bellowed and writhed on the floor of the stage. We had the feeling they’d never catch up with us. Next to them, we were old. Perhaps we too would die under de Gaulle.

But we were not adults. Sexual life remained clandestine and rudimentary, haunted by the spectre of ‘an accident’. No one was supposed to have a sex life before marriage. Boys believed their lewd innuendos displayed advanced erotic science, but all they knew how to do was ejaculate on the area of the girl’s body to which she directed him, for the sake of caution. No one knew for sure whether or not they were still virgins.

(As it happens, the first uses on in the original, and the second uses nous.)

The closest Ernaux comes to her own person is a series of descriptions of family photographs in which she features, from childhood to late middle age, but even here she is always she, never I. Dispassionate is the word.

There is an obvious link here to Barthes’ Camera Lucida, but Ernaux is not conceptually or theoretically interested in the idea of photography. In fact, in Barthes’ terms, the photos she gives us are all stadiumand no punctum. She refuses to pick out the single, novelistic detail that, despite its inconsequence, is able to carry the weight of sentiment. Continue reading

May Reading: Heti, Forna, Harris, Chabon – or ‘Autofiction vs the novel’ and ‘Value for money in bookbuying’

img_1130.jpgThis is not my usual monthly reading post. Instead, I’m using four books I read this month as a springboard into a pair of barely-thought-through meander/rants.

Autofiction vs ‘the novel’, followed by Value for money in bookbuying. If you fancy that, please read on:

Here are two interesting novels that seem, to me, to epitomise the two dominant modes of being for the novel at the moment, rather as Netherlandand Remainder did for Zadie Smith in her much-discussed ‘Two Paths for the Novel’ essay, which you can also read in Changing My Mind. For Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, used by Smith to represent the way things used to be, may I suggest Happiness by Aminatta Forna, a writer I’d never read till now, and maybe never would have if I hadn’t been given the book by my parents as a birthday present. Smith set in opposition to O’Neill’s Franzen-esque ‘well-made novel’ Tom McCarty’s Remainder, a more difficult and dicey proposition that, now, I’d be tempted to call ‘neo-postmodern’. In place of that, how about Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, as good a representative of the ‘autofiction’ genre as you can imagine, outside of Rachel Cusk’s Outline/Transit/Kudos trilogy.

I won’t say too much about the Heti, as I have a review of it forthcoming in the excellent Brixton Review of Books, but I will say that, although I am a big fan of autofiction as a genre, I am becoming annoyed with its willingness to play fast and loose with the title ‘novel’ – even if it’s not the writers themselves who do so, but rather than nebulous publishing-promotional-journalistic apparatus that surrounds them. When I think of the books that have most impressed me so far this year, I think of Esther Kinsky’s River, Jessie Greengrass’s Sight and Heti’s Motherhood – and that’s not counting the latest Cusk, which I haven’t read yet, but which if it is as good as Outline and Transit, will certainly be up there too. All of those are books that seem to come under the autofiction bracket – though Kinsky’s blue Fitzcarraldo livery would seem to mark it as fiction rather than non-, and Sight gets called a novel on the blurb.

Now, what I like about autofiction is that it problematises the very notion of what a ‘novel’ is, but what I don’t like is that in doing so it seems to sideline the very worthy, if unfashionable idea of what a novel used to be. It seems at time to equate the view that the line between fiction and non-fiction is blurred, and in fact more of a zone than a linewith a wholesale annexation of the fictional landscape. As if autofiction wants to be what a novel should be. This doubtless reads like some kind of awful exaggeration, but it does seem to suggest to me rather where we headed – which is a place where to write a good old-fashioned novel, with rounded characters, and realist description, and manufactured plots, is, oh dear me yes, something that is beyond the bounds of tastefulness. As if to write a traditional novel is akin to producing ‘likeable’ characters. Continue reading

April Reading: Mukherjee, Spark, Nooteboom, Wieringa, Rulfo, Alyokhina, Jarman


Neel Mukherjee’s A State of Freedom took me two goes to get into. This a novel of parts: there are five numbered sections, told from the points of view of five different characters, who cross each other at most tangentially. The problem was that I found the first character – a wealthy Indian emigre taking his young, more or less American son on a tour of the Taj Mahal and other attractions – essentially uninteresting… or uncompelling… or that taboo word, unlikeable.

Unlikeable. I’m in two minds about this term, which has become something of a shibboleth in the contemporary book world. For some it’s a good thing – essential, if you want to take your readers with you. For others it’s anathema. How gauche, that you need to like the characters you read about! The way I’d think about it is that, however unlikeable a character, you’ve got to like reading about them.

I prefer the term ‘compelling’. It’s active; it describes what an interesting character does, whereas likeable or – ugh! – relatable are passive, indicating only the capacity to be seen in a particular way. You can like them, or relate to them, or not. ‘Relatable’ also strikes me as being analogous to that awful word collectable, as in the kinds of collectable figurines or commemorative plates you used to get advertised in the back of the Radio Times. Listen, mate, you can collect anything; designating something as such is worse than meaningless.

So: the rich man failing to connect with his son in the first section of Mukherjee’s novel did nothing for me. It wasn’t until I read on, however, that I came to understand that I wasn’t supposed to like him. The next section’s character – a British-Indian designer visiting his parents in Bombay, and the only first-person narrator of the five – is more sympathetic, a well-meaning man trying to square his western morals with his parents’ culturally-ingrained treatment of their cook and servant girl. With each section, in fact, we are moving down the social scale: to an unemployed villager who sets himself up in business with a bear cub he teaches to dance; to a young girl sent into service (who ends up in the apartment of the couple in part II); to the brother of the bear-man, who is working on big city construction sites and who impinges on the father and son in part I… you get the idea.

There was a similar structure behind Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, although this feels tighter, harder to recast as a set of ‘interlinked stories’. Perhaps not so much tighter as denser, more deeply attached to its theme. Egan’s book had a superficial subject, the music industry, and an interest in connectedness; Mukherjee’s has that same structural interest, but the connectedness is linked to an investigation into the strata of Indian society as they currently stand and, through that, the subject set out in the title: freedom. Mukherjee digs deep into his characters’ situations; their place in the book feels earned (apart, perhaps, for the father and son, which is more important structurally than thematically). Winningly, the sections are variable in length, as if they are as long as they need to be, rather than as long as the author needs them to be for the sake of the novel’s structure.

The novel belongs with those that attempt to adapt the Nineteenth Century realist novel for postmodern times. It sees the hidden, sometimes ephemeral connections that cross class and caste boundaries, and it wants to tell the story of the age through individual narratives that respect and embody vastly different life experiences – but it doesn’t try to offer the whole social-aesthetic architecture that would build these characters and these connections into a closed, coherent superstructure. Each character is given a narrative that, naturally, grows social context around itself – the embarrassment of the Westerner who imposes himself on his family servants’ lives, the Maoist rebels who drift in and out of the forests around the poorest, most remote villages – but the connective tissue that would be needed to show each character present and correct in a fully embodied structure is cut away, until those connections have almost to be inferred. It’s to Zola as Giacometti is to Rodin.

This month was a month of two Sparks: The Ballad of Peckham Rye, which I have read before, and The Mandelbaum Gate, which I have not. I’m not entirely sure how much I got out of The Ballad…this time around. The style, of course, is perfection, a studied nonchalance with regards to character that makes me think of a grandmaster politely playing a game of chess with a house guest while at the same time filling out their tax return. But how much is going on underneath? The lower-class satire of the factory workers and managers thrown into chaos by a Scottish graduate set on bringing the arts to the unlettered feels dated; it takes too much for granted. Dougal Douglas is no Jean Brodie.

The Mandelbaum Gate is a different matter. Set in Jerusalem in 1961, when the Eichmann trial was in progress, it follows a British half-Jewish Catholic convert (shades of Spark, obviously) who crosses over to the Jordanian-held part of the city as part of a pilgrimage. She falls in with a slightly comical, fusty British diplomat, who persuades her to conduct her pilgrimage in disguise, as her Jewishness could put her in danger, which she does in a full Arabic veil, pretending to be the old maidservant of a young Jordanian woman – who happens to involved in a spy network, and who also happens to fall into a romantic entanglement with Freddy, the diplomat. Although much is made of Spark’s debt to the French nouveau roman, especially in terms of her determinedly ironic attitude to characters, this book is far closer to a Graham Greene entertainment. Characters are given, as the rather archaic saying goes, their head; they are about as credible as Spark characters get. There is tension, and danger, and even the close threat of death – compare to poor Joyce Emily Hammond, from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, whose death in the Spanish Civil War is distant and bathetic rather than tragic. It’s the biggest Spark novel I’ve read, at 300pp, and rather against expectations – I hadn’t expected her to carry it off for so long – one of my favourites. (That said, I’ve got rather a poor track record with rereading Sparks. The Driver’s Seat, Ballad of Peckham Rye, The Public Image: none of these improved particularly on second reading. Only Jean Brodie gets better each time.)

Another writer that I had a hard time with in April was Cees Nooteboom, some of whose books I have loved immensely (The Following Story, Rituals). I took the latter with me on a writing trip to Amsterdam (my next book is set there), together with In The Dutch Mountains, which I’d never read. Dutch Mountains I reallydidn’t like: a strange fable about runaway circus performers with little grip on reality. Worse than this, however, was that I couldn’t get on with Rituals. This is probably the fourth time I’ve read it. Maybe I need to give it a rest.

Also on the Dutch trip I bought a first book, for me, by Tommy Wieringa, A Beautiful Young Wife, a slim novel about a brilliant 40-something biologist (working on cures for bird flu and the like) who has, as the title hints, a wonderful younger wife. The first half of the book, that shows them falling in love, is fine, but then when they have a child, against his wishes, things go off the rails, but in a confusing, unsatisfying way.

A fabular book that I did love was Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, which I read on the recommendation of a student at St Mary’s, Twickenham, where I teach. I wrote about it here.

My best find of the month was Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, which I finally got around to buying after reading her piece ‘The Body That Says I’m Here’. I haven’t read all the stories yet (incidentally, see this, from Mavis Gallant), but what I have read, I love. It’s fiercely intelligent in its formal experimentations, but it bends back and back to the communication of real, or credible, experiences.

And then, at the end of month, I received two quite splendid books: Riot Days by Maria Alyokhina, about her experience as part of Pussy Riot, and Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature, with a lovely evocative introduction by Olivia Lang. I can’t believe I hadn’t read this book of Jarman’s – I’ve read At Your Own Risk and Chroma, as well as Blue – but it’s an absolute beauty, his diaries of Prospect Cottage at Dungeness and of the aftermath of AIDS. It’s a bath book par excellence. A book to dip into, time and time again, and to luxuriate in.

Thanks to Penguin for the copy of Riot Days and to Vintage for the copy of Modern Nature.

March Reading: White, Fuller, Johnson, Power

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I’ve written before about how the reading that gets done in a month doesn’t easily devolve to a simple list of books started and finished. Reading is partial and distracted; non-linear and parallel; speculative, paranoid and proleptic; nostalgic, forgetful and analeptic. (Either that or I’m just badly organised.) Books get flicked through, toyed with, stacked hopefully, reshelved regretfully. It might take weeks to get through a slim volume, with other, bigger books wolfed down in the meantime. And, the month over, it’s hard to know quite what was read.

All of which is perhaps to justify what feels like not many books in March. The books to the side are symbolic of the scattered short story reading I’ve been doing, in part trying to keep up with the welter of great recommendations produced by my A Personal Anthology project. The book at the bottom of the stack is Tony White’s The Fountain in the Forest – bought at his launch in Feb; White is a, shall we say, literary acquaintance. His book, as you may or may not know, is a playful/serious (i.e. postmodern) novel that manages to cross-fertilise the contemporary police procedural with a utopian and winningly romantic coming-of-age narrative, while at the same time giving an insight into various French and English countercultures of the late Twentieth Century and much earlier.

There are a couple of OuLiPoian features (gimmicks) that, for me, don’t really add much to the reading experience – but then I’ve never really been much of a fan of OuLiPo. Of course the placing of constraints on the writer during the creative process is – not just fun, but a natural and essential part of the deal. It happens with every piece of writing, to a greater or lesser extent, just not usually as randomly or fancifully as with Georges Perec and Co. The problem is that the knowledge of the particular constraint applied often adds little or nothing to the reading experience. Oh, you think: the first word of each paragraph goes to make up the lyrics to ‘Papa Don’t Preach’, and the characters’ names are taken from the European Cup-winning Aston Villa team of 1982. Oh, that’s nice. Well done, you. And you shrug, and move on.

So it’s not those elements that I enjoyed in White’s novel – or, if I did, it was because they were balanced out by the more prosaic joys of well-drawn characters, recognisable milieus (down to some useful recommendations for fry-ups, fish and chips and boozers in central London) and intriguing and credible plot developments. None of which I’ll share with you here. I had purposefully not read up on the book beforehand, and I suggest the same for you: its pleasures and surprises will be all the better for it. Continue reading