September reading: Norfolk, Gough, Marías

One: I have a dysfunctional relationship with books, and authors. And, two: There is no functional relationship available, that I know of.

Take Lawrence Norfolk. I read his first novel, Lemprière’s Dictionary, in paperback, many years ago, and found it exhilaratingly different from my usual run of reading, a historical novel that confidently brushed aside my preconceptions of the genre, that boomed outwards in an explosion of character and description and action in ways I found exhaustingly brilliant. He followed this with a similar historical fantasy, The Pope’s Rhinoceros, which I picked up somewhere along the way, but never read, beyond its barn-storming opening section, beginning: “This sea was once a lake of ice.”

In 2000 his third novel came out, In The Shape of a Boar, and this I read on publication, and was bowled over by it in ways that knocked me a different kind of sideways from his previous books. It was, and is, an unprecedented novel. It comes in three parts, the first a mockery-free mock-epic narrating a boar hunt in Ancient Greece, complete with copious footnotes pointing to sources in the kind of Classical literature of which I knew little but was nonetheless in awe of. The second, and longest, part takes place at the end of the Second World War and treats love and betrayal among Greek partisans tracking down Nazis. It is, to my knowledge, the only remotely modern thing Norfolk has ever written. The book ends with a very short coda that joins the two sections in a way that in Creative Writing class I would have to call ‘thematically’, but that does not go very far at all in explaining how it does it.

This felt like the most exciting contemporary novel I had ever read: unfathomable and yet moving, miles above me in terms of intellect (and seductive because of this) while seeming to offer the possibility of understanding despite this. It reached down, or at least waved, from the heights on which it stood. In its construction it made the multi- and trans-textual novels of David Mitchell seem reductive by comparison, a neat little children’s tower of blocks, when this thing made of two unwieldly pieces of granite thrown together, that should not hang together, but does, like one of those massive boulders that get left teetering on the edge of a high cliff by a retreating glacier and given splendid names by the credulous natives.

Then he went quiet, until this year. That’s a 12 year wait. I have no idea what his reason for this was, and I don’t want to know. Perhaps he’s a perfectionist, perhaps he was blocked, or in rehab, or bringing up kids. Perhaps  – I perhaps thought – he was about something even more extraordinary, something that was as different from In The Shape of a Boar as that had been from the previous two books. When the catalogues announced a new novel, John Saturnall’s Feast, I was ready for it, and read it, a couple of months after it came out. And what a disappointment. *

What a disappointment.

It is a straight retreat to the thrilling, romantic, fantastical historical fiction of his first books. Set in the English Civil War. With a lovely love story – the upstart young cook falling in love with the daughter of his lord, and a couple of decent plot mechanisms, and a few moments of face-blanching horrors of war. All decorated with intense descriptions of the food, and the kitchens, of a C17th English manor house and interspersed with cod-extracts from a ye olde cookerie booke. But, really. Is this it? Is this all he could come up with in ten years? The opening section, about the bullying of young John and his ‘witchy’ mother by the ignorant locals followed the same basic outline as an undergraduate short story I read and marked this spring.

Clearly, I am being vastly unfair. This is a well-written, well-put-together book. It does what it says on the recipe card. But it feels like a retrograde step and, a betrayal of the possibilities set up by that miraculous third novel. And what’s so dysfunctional about my attitude here is that, to a certain, extent, I’m romanticising Norfolk because of his stately rate of production. People have high expectations of novelists like him, and Alan Hollinghurst, because they take their time between books, and give the sense (intentional or not) that they are working slowly and carefully on something special. In buying into this (presumably unintentional) persona, I load my expectations on them. Strangely, I have never felt betrayed by the fact that Kazuo Ishiguro retreated from the experimentalism of The Unconsoled (my favourite book of his) in the way that I do with Norfolk. What is it about the way I view these authors that makes this so? And if this is not dysfunctional, then what is it?

What’s strange about this is the sense it gives to literary, or artistic production in general of… not historicity (that a novel should and can only appear at a particular moment in our social or cultural development) but of personal narrative: that it should and can only appear at a particular moment in that writer’s life. That writers develop in a linear fashion. They have early work, and late work, and there is a demonstrable difference between them. Obviously this is true, to a certain extent, but what does it say about our ways of reading that this is important to us as we read a particular book. When we read a book, when we have it in front of us, and are working our way through its sentences, are we forever shuttling backwards and forwards from that to the wider context of that writer’s work, and the cultural and personal moment it sprang from? Wouldn’t that be incredibly tiring, if it were true. Or, if not tiring, if it comes ‘naturally’ to us, then how many shortcuts and abbreviations are we making in our thinking to be able to do so?

This reminds me of going to see the Gerhard Richter retrospective at Tate Modern late last year. So many great paintings, in so many different styles – but what struck me most of all was the insistence on narrative linking the different ‘rooms’, and the way that (as always in such galleries) you could glimpse the next room, and the last, through the wide openings between. You were always being chivvied into seeing the work in relation to what came before, and afterwards, which is a specifically art-historical behaviour very much foisted on us by the mindset of the curator. Does the artist have this narrative context when he or she is in the studio, daubing away – are they constantly thinking, in effect, of how this will look in terms of the development of their whole career, how it will look with the next room, and the last room, glimpsed out of the corner of the gallery-goers eye? And when the collector buys the work, do they feel that the ghosts of those works, before and after, come into their home with the canvas they have paid for? Do they buy the narrative context of the work, or just the work?

This is certainly something that I disliked about the Richter exhibition: that I felt I was impossible to see the individual trees of the paintings for the wood of the Artist and his Cultural Context, but then – I think this is the point of this meandering post – that is exactly how I behave towards my favourite authors when I applaud or denigrate them for writing a book that stands in the ‘wrong’ relation to their previous, or future, work.

My other reading in September was The White Goddess: An Encouter, Simon Gough’s overlong but largely hugely charming memoir of his visits to his grand-uncle, Robert Graves, on Majorca, of which my Independent review is forthcoming so I’ll say little, except that what I loved about it most was the very English twist of the adolescent Gough being overwhelmed by feelings of love (for Graves’ young muse) and disloyalty (towards the beloved poet, for whom he was supposed to be ‘keeping an eye on her’), only to find, when he tries, desperately, as if his life depended on it, to act on these passions, that ‘the grown-ups’ are way ahead of him, and his own, supposedly life-shattering experience is very much a small part of a bigger picture. Only, of course, the grown-ups aren’t being grown up at all, but just as adolescent as he – he thinks he’s barging dangerously into their world, when in fact they are stealing what by right should be his. It’s a tremendous achievement (I urge to listen to Gough introducing the book and reading an extract here)but I was disappointed to find that Gough has held back the rest of the story for another volume, treating ‘the aftermath’. The terror and joy of love, and the shame of discovery, are what drives this book; I’m not sure that the bitterness and anger of what comes after will be as compelling.

Then there was Javier Marías’ The Man of Feeling, in splendid new-look Penguin Modern Classics – and this I thoroughly enjoyed with no sense of where it comes in his oeuvre. Above all, for newcomers to this greatest of contemporary European writers, it is short, just 135 pages – I wholeheartedly recommend it to those who haven’t read him and are scared by the prospect of reading the mammoth Your Face Tomorrow (see my August reading). His most recent collection of short stories, While The Women Are Sleeping, is one to avoid, absolutely.

* Okay, I gave in. I Googled Norfolk and found, in this recent interview in The Guardian, that he spent years working on “the most complex novel that he, or perhaps anyone else, has ever attempted to write… three settings – Britain at the end of its Roman era, the second world war and 1981. “It was so complex that it became exponentially more difficult with every sentence.” The cast list for each time-frame had four or five major characters and 40 or 60 minor characters. ‘Everything that happens resonates. As soon as a character does something in Roman times that has three or four effects in the war section and another 10 or 12 effects in the 1981 section. It was impossible to control and the more I wrote, the more the ending got further away.'” So, apologies, Mr Norfolk. I know it’s tough, but, really, get back to the grindstone. You’ve one reader, at least, waiting for that book.

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