My May reading was in part dominated by averagely interesting books, not chosen by me and read at speed, that other people seemed to have rated higher than I. David Park’s novel The Light of Amsterdam, is certainly well-written and full of fine features but, in retrospect, disappointingly homogenised in its view of life, and unlikely to be remembered fondly; and Alex Wheatle’s Brenton Brown, again fine on paper, in its various attributes, but in the head – where books truly exist – lacking the spark to turn honest decent credible characters into living, breathing getting-under-the-skin ones. What most sticks with me, these weeks after reading it, is the bewildering range of speech tags Wheatle uses (“argued”, “sighed”, “insisted” and the like) when, as I’ve blogged before, the consensus, among Creative Writing teachers at least, is that one should simply use “said”. Is it snobbish, or reactionary, of me to want to put a wiggly line next to most of these? Both books read for Fiction Uncovered.
No one asked me to read anything for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, but I did anyway: Judith Hermann’s Alice, which basks in page after page of beautiful, expertly translated prose, is in the end rather defeated by its structure: five chapters, in each of which the titular Alice visits someone who is dying, and who then dies. Hermann is perceptive and connective about loss, and about the bloom of life that surrounds it, but the sheer doggedness of death’s reappearance (“Hello! It’s me!”) becomes self-defeating. It’s a bit like that thing about Agatha Christie mysteries: lovely as she, you really don’t want to invite Miss Marple to stay at your country house. She is a bad penny. The ability ofAlice (the book, or the character) to sublimate grief into art is, in the end, almost psychotic.
Dream of DingVillage by Yan Lianke I didn’t get into enough to let it get into me. It certainly opened my eyes to the harsh realities of life in China as imposed blood-harvesting spread Aids among the rural poor, but there was nothing in the novel, I felt, that I couldn’t have got from a well-written piece of reportage.
So it was with relish that I threw myself into a Brigid Brophy binge, brought about by the desire to write something for the Hesperus Press competition (outlined here). I reread Hackenfeller’s Ape, and glanced again through the wickedly funny The Finishing Touch and read Flesh for the first time, as well as some of her excellent, spiky journalism. Don’t Never Forget has a flurry of polemical pieces from the 60s that remain bracingly thought-provoking today. The Immorality of Marriage, for instance, is brilliant on the way that “irreligious married people” (among whom Brophy counted herself, as do I) have acted in bad faith by kowtowing, for their own good reasons, to the traditional, establishment view of what marriage is, even if we stayed secular in the mechanics of it. We have
tacitly endorsed a spurious ‘respectability’ which we do not believe has anything to do with genuine morals. We have withheld three people, ourselves and our child, from the group which ‘respectability’ unjustly outlaws: yet only when headmasters and landladies are confronted with such quantities of bastards and unmarried couples that they must either take them in or go without customers will the superstition of ‘respectability’ give way.
Then, she goes right on (in a Sunday Times Magazine of March 1965) to write:
By the same token, the irreligious married take for themselves an unjust privilege when they accept for their own marriages of true minds a social convenience and approbation which are denied to marriage of true minds which happen to be between people of the same sex.
Like I say, this is as acute today as it must have been provocative then. There are pieces, too, on monogamy, feminism, animal rights and town vs city, all of which make much of today’s journalism seem milk-and-breadish in the extreme.
Then I read Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet, the ‘proper’ novel by the American author of The Age of Wire and String, a book that I will never tire of dipping into, like you dip into the water of a Scandinavian fjord before breakfast, to remind yourself that you’re alive. Much discussion of the new book has to do with the fact that it tries to marry the anti-narrative, anti-logic language-work of the earlier book with the narrative and logical demands of the thriller, and ends up as a bit of a mish-mash, neither one fish nor flesh. As I say in my review for The Independent, there is a slow, slack stretch in the middle, where Marcus seems to be trying to move things along, rather cackhandedly, as if in the knowledge that forward propulsion is needed, but he doesn’t know how – but, to my mind, this is a problem that the end of the novel resolves, or abandons, or at any rate successfully moves beyond. It is as fine as the beginning, but different – so something has happened. Pathos is invoked, which after all is a standard by-product of the narrative engine working at full steam in the realist novel, is it not? You’re back where you were, but everything’s changed, or something has, and in that difference lies the knowledge of loss, or gain, or both, and it’s the reader’s special joy to be left sifting through the ash of the story, trying to work out how much of each there is.
Reading Marcus has sent me back to reading Barthelme (The Dead Father) and I shall have some thoughts on experimental writing, and the avant garde, in due course, in part in response to hearing Brian Dillon in conversation with the editors of The White Review last night.
I also read Noëlle Revaz’s With The Animals, for review in the TLS.
And I also read some more of TJ Clark’s The Sight of Death, which is one of those academic books about art that is fascinating and eye-opening because it doesn’t do that damn fool thing of putting forward a theory of anything, but simply considers one plain, fenced-in and finite subject – the experience of looking at the same two paintings, every day, for three months – and treats it to something like exhaustion.
Sometimes reading can be depressing. The obvious truth – that most books are okay at best – might drive you back to the classics, where at least you know the chances of excellence, or brilliance, or having your world tipped over, ransacked and cleansed, but then there’s a duty, in this publishing world of so many thousands of new books, to help seek out the half-decent books of today.
Recommendations for Gavin
My friend Gavin paid me the great compliment this week of coming to stay and asking me to recommend him recentish books that he may not have come across, and writing down the names of them. We spent an invigorating half hour trawling my shelves. What did I list for him? I couldn’t list them all now, but here’s a few that definitely were there (and this is very much what I thought Gavin would like, not everyone’s taste is the same) (and I haven’t got the time to really describe them as I should) (but it’s the perfect antidote to dutifully writing about books dutifully read):
Rituals, by Cees Nooteboom – picking this book up in the shop at the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich was like have a jolt of electricity put through me. Love at first sight. (The Following Story, also, but Rituals is better, I think.)
Running Away and The Truth About Marie, by Jean-Phillipe Toussaint. A stunning pair of short novels written in prose so clean and gleaming it almost hurts.
Open City, by Teju Cole. You know this. Everybody knows this. If you rate Sebald, and haven’t read this response to him, then come back when you have.
Animals, by Keith Ridgway. If only for the first chapter. Goose pimples.
A Russian Novel, by Emmanuel Carrere.
The Patrick Melrose novels, by Edward St Aubyn. The English sentence. The English upper class. The English raised middle finger.
Your Face Tomorrow, by Javier Marias. Gavin already knew he has to read this. You already know you have to read this. The long paragraph, picked up where Bernhard dropped it, and taken somewhere new.
There are other recent books I’ve loved, and maybe I’d recommend them to you, but not to Gavin.