April reading: Josipovici, Cole, Vila-Matas, Enright, Hardwick

The job of retracing my reading over a month is a strange one, involving pulling out the books from the shelves where – hopefully – they’ve found their way, so as to make room for the current mess. Some of April’s reading I’ve already written about – Enrique Vila-Matas’s wonderful Dublinesque (the best book of his I’ve read so far, and certainly the one you would hope will broaden his English language readership) and Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière’s brassily erudite conversation piece This is not the End of the Book in a blog post here, to which I added a footnote concerning Teju Cole’s quietly, devastatingly manipulative Open City; and Chris Bachelder’s Abbott Awaits, the book all liberal-minded dads should carry slotted down the back of their Baby Bjorns, celebrated here.

Looking back at books over the chasm of a few weeks, rather than writing about them hot off the last page, means interrogating your reading self to see what remains of the experience: Gabriel Josipovici’s Only Joking, for instance, seems now an unforgivable diversion, a modernist skit on the caper movie that evaporates from the page, leaving no real sediment to speak of. It is a comedy, told largely in dialogue, about a series of variously wealthy, artistic, ingenious and criminal types all trying to do each other over for the sake of a Braque painting, or love, or neither. It entertains, but less than Charade, or Len Deighton in Only When I Larf mode.

The other thing that occurred to me over and over again as I read April’s books, is how wonderful it is to read books in tandem, or close enough to each other that it feels like it. The Vila-Matas and the Eco/Carrière, as I blogged, seemed in direct conversation with each other about the vitality of the physical book, but then there’s Teju Cole and WG Sebald, whose Rings of Saturn I am still re-reading, slow-slow-slowly. Cole’s novel is, to my mind, a stern critique of the kind of the reticent, the-owl-of-Athena-flies-at-dusk wisdom of Sebald and Vila-Matas, which seem to make the patient and never-ending forging of links and allusions, and following of threads through literature, history and place a noble undertaking. Open City sets up this premise and then, delicately but definitively, rubbishes it.

The lesson is this: that it is not enough to know about the horrors of history. (The quote on the blackboard from Hal Hartley’s Surviving Desire floats up: “Knowing is not enough”.) The way that Cole’s narrator seems to stumble upon and sadly, knowledgeably, deal with references to every major human disaster of the Twentieth Century – the Holocaust, Yugoslavia, Rwanda – becomes a kind of terrible running gag. The book’s point is that you are saved or lost depending not on what you know, but on how you act, in the world. It’s a book that cannot be honestly discussed with anyone who hasn’t read it. Spoilers? It spoils, that’s what it does.

Then there’s Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz, the first novel of hers I’ve read, after a few stories I admired more than loved, and which swung me this and way and that in my attempt to get a handle on what I thought of it. I was wowed, as you would be, by its psychological acuity – unpacking the home-from-holiday suitcase of the last 15 years, in an Ireland that will do for the UK, too, and deciding what’s clean, what’s dirty and what should never have come home – and I gaped and shivered at the almost offensively cool manner of the astonishing sentences it uses to do this.

When Fiona [the narrator’s sister] hit seven stone my mother brought her to a shrink, who said my sister had stopped eating in order to stop the clock: if she stayed a child, then her father would not have to die. Which was too sad to be useful really. Joan [the mother] went back to wearing her dressing gown all day and Fiona went back to her cottage cheese and there was no food in the fridge anyway – at least not after I had been through it – and then, when the spring came, we discovered boys.

“Which was too sad to be useful really.” What a sentence. What this does, I think, is pull in two different directions. It offers up what seems like a newly apprehended universal truth – that psychotherapy reduces trauma to truism and so defeats its own purpose – but it puts it in the mouth of a narrator so sure of the truth of their own perspective, and yet so glib in their presentation of it, that you can’t but distrust them.

Gina, in The Forgotten Waltz, is an unreliable narrator to match John Dowell in The Good Soldier (and to trump Tony Webster in Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, which I launched into here) but, crucially, there is no one dirty secret she is keeping back, as those two narrators do, that seems to hold and focus and in the end justify their unreliability. She just keeps on being slightly in denial about her own situation, even as she lays it out for us.

This results in a sense, in reading the novel, that I was permanently coming to the realisation of what it was about. First I thought it was about her, then about her lover, then, naturally, about her cuckolded husband. Then, at a certain point, it became clear that it was really about her mother, until that fell away before the undeniable fact that the book was really about her father. Then, towards the end, you realise it wasn’t about any of them, it was all about the girl. The girl she effectively tells you it’s all about in the very first sentence:

If it hadn’t been for the child then none of this might have happened, but the fact that a child was involved made everything that much harder to forgive.

But, thinking still about doublings, during the sections when I thought the novel was ‘about’ the mother, and the father, I was drawn back to thinking about Karl O Knausgaard’s A Death in the Family, which as hopefully everyone knows by now, even if they haven’t read it (which they should), features a long section in which the narrator and his brother clean up the house where their dead, awful, alcoholic father had been living. The situation here is different, but the grappling with the death (not the loss) of a parent is handled with equal raw, careful power. Here is Gina, now living in her mother’s old house.

Halfway down, I step over a version of myself; a girl of four or six, idling or playing in the place most likely to trip people up. This is where children sit, I know this now; how they love doorways, in-between places, the busiest spot. This is where they go vague and start to dream.

A paragraph which wouldn’t exactly slot into the Knausgaard, but which runs happily alongside it, in parallel. And this from a narrator who, a few pages later, declares, “Whoever invented Christmas should be shot.”

And who, between those two quotes, has a massive row her with sister over the fact she’s having an affair, during which the sister comes out with the grand old cliché “I am glad our mother is dead, so she doesn’t have to witness this.” And then the narrator ends the chapter with this:

And you regret everything. Ever word you uttered. The fact that human beings learned the art of speech – you regret that too.

You regret “the fact that human beings learned the art of speech” – an insight so abysmally familiar, to all of us at some time, and so useless in its truth, that you can’t help but hate the narrator for having it, and admire the author for having her say it.

Of April’s other books, Philip Sington’s The Valley of Unknowing (reviewed here for the Independent) is a fairly good thrillerish recreation of life in Communist East Germany (though you can look at the acknowledgements and almost pick off where the pertinent, lovingly dropped in details came from), but also an object lesson in the danger of presenting your novel as if written by a – frankly – bad writer. Elizabeth Hardwick made sense in New York– and hopefully a blog post will follow about books and bookshops and reading in NYC – where she never did before. Her New York Stories seemed like found objects, picked up off the street, barely wrestled into fictional form, and I’ll have to go back again and try Sleepless Nights, also in lovely NYRB, which I’ve never really found my way into.

Jessica Hagedorn’s Toxicology I picked up because it was set more or less around the corner from where I was staying, and it passed the time on some of the flight home, but it’s unfinished and I sense will stay that way.

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