February reading: Gide, Havilio, Berger, Kawakami, Swain, Collins, Nicolson and Sackville-West

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I turned to The Counterfeiters this month after rereading and thoroughly enjoying Gide’s Strait is the Gate, which I’d read when a teenager, along with his lyrical and prophetic The Fruits of the Earth. I’d also read his more straightforwardly existentialist The Vatican Cellars, but for some reason had never got around to this, his other longer novel. I preferred Strait is the Gate, I have to say, for its gem-like precision. Nothing is wasted; everything is focused on the tragedy of the novella’s central relationship. The Counterfeiters (translated again by Dorothy Bussy) is one of those novels that must have been terribly shocking when it came out, for its depiction of nihilistic young French men talking about setting up avant garde literary journals, and probably being homosexual. Shocking – or thrilling, if you get a thrill from the idea of other people being shocked by what you read.

None of that really carries over today. It reads like the sort of literary ‘group novel’ that crops up every now and then. I remember one, by an author I know can’t remember, called All the Sad Young Literary Men, which is a great title absolutely not in need of a novel to justify it. Nor, really, is there any shock to the aesthetic frisson of Gide breaking the fourth wall to talk directly to the reader about his characters, and his confusion about where the novel is going. Admittedly the frisson is greater than, or different to, that in, for example, Tristram Shandy, because The Counterfeiters is not “Shandy-esque”: it is by and large a realist novel, and not interested in playing postmodern games, so the gentle looks-to-camera do give something of a jolt. It took me a couple of weeks to read the book, largely at bedtime, and I admit that I rather lost track of who all the disaffected young men and their decadent older friends were, and got them all confused with each other, meaning that the moral impact of the narrative was lost on me. But the Wildean dialogue was enough to keep me amused.

The last book I read in the month was Petite Fleur, by Iosi Havilio, translated by Lorna Scott Fox (And Other Stories, proof copy, for which much thanks!). This is a book short enough to read in one day, on the commute to and from work – though admittedly snowy delays did rather help with the logistics of that. This Argentinian novel carries comparisons on its cover to Tolstoy and César Aira, and the second of those is spot-on in terms of its gleeful, light-as-air ludicrousness – that bottoms out into terrible clarity just when you hope it won’t. I shan’t say much about the plot, as its pleasures come through its masterful sequences of bluffs, feints and double-bluffs, and these deserve not to be spoiled. I’ll say, though, that while it took me a fair few attempts to learn how to enjoy Aira’s output (by taking each book as a part of a broad, diffuse project, rather than a fully independent entity) Havilio manages to build that bold sense of randomness into this one book. The Tolstoy comparison is more uncertain. You’ll see why it’s mentioned when you read the book, but really we’re closer to Gogol than Tolstoy, in the book’s full-pelt playfulness with what readers think novels should be. I realised ten pages in that I’d tried to read it once before, and given up on it. I can see now that I must have been distracted. Elements that I had found merely confusing, before, now carried the full charge of the absurd. It’s a shame, too, about the title, which again makes sense when you read the book, but is hardly representative, and is frankly a bit shit. If Fever Dream hadn’t already been taken, you could call it Fever Dream. I preferred this to Schweblin’s book.

Another novel I read without much foreknowledge, having picked it at random from a charity shop shelf, was Strange Weather in Tokyo, by Hiromi Kawakami, translated by Allison Markin Powell (Portobello Books). This book does have a randomly changed title in translation, and here it’s one that I don’t think benefits it. (The apogee of this remains Houellebecq’s debut: in French ‘An Extension of the Field of Struggle’, more or less; in English: ‘Whatever’.) The literal translation of Kawakami’s Japanese title is ‘Sensei’s Briefcase’. That hardly inspires, but nor does the weather. It’s a reasonably familiar May-to-September (or rather June-to-November) romance in which a woman in her late thirties meets her old secondary school teacher in a bar and they embark on a friendship across an age gap of three decades that eventually drifts into something like love.

Despite the cool contemporary cover design, this is an old-fashioned novel, reminiscent in style and content of Natsume Soseki. You might say it takes the pupil-teacher relationship of Kokoro and gender-flips it to add a sexual-romantic element. I was rather worried at one point that it was going to go down the harsher, dirtier route of Yoko Ogawa’s Hotel Iris, about a sado-masochistic relationship between a young woman and old man. It doesn’t. It’s a melancholic, life-affirming story of love and grief. Like Soseki there is an engagement with the natural world that produces some of the book’s most lovely writing.

I’m not quite sure what to say about John Berger. He was clearly a good person – perhaps even a great person – generous and gentle, right-thinking and right-acting, but this doesn’t necessarily mean he is a great writer, and I often find his books dull, and have to remind myself that they were written by John Berger. The further he strays from art writing, the harder to love I find him. He is an essayist, I suppose. He has no interest in the tricks of narrative fiction, clearly, and to my mind he is a poor stylist. He writes plainly, and when what he has to say is interesting, that plainness is appreciated. When not, I struggle to stay with him. A Fortunate Man (Canongate; the copy lifted from the shelves of a retired work colleague who left hundreds of books for his fellow academics to sift through!) is a non-fiction book about a British country doctor, John Sassall. Its opening is thrilling: an account of Sassall’s arrival on the scene when a farm worker has been trapped under a fallen tree. But the more Berger moves away from an account of his practice to wider general points (social? medical? I can’t even really remember any more) the less it feels like a book that was calling out to be written.

I picked up a hardback copy of Portrait of a Marriage at a free book swap in Penge East station. It was a surprise to myself that I’d never actually read this acknowledged classic: an account of the brilliant, decidedly unconventional marriage of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson written by their son Nigel, but benefiting from large chunks of Vita’s diaries and letters. I’ve read Orlando (Virginia Woolf’s time- and gender-bending love letter to Vita); I’ve read Sissinghurst by Nigel’s son Adam Nicolson, that takes the story further down a generation; I’ve even read Harold’s diaries – a review assignment for The Daily Telegraph. So I was eager to read and love this, and love it I did. It’s always bracing and energising to read about people who have the courage to live against the grain, and Vita’s descriptions of going out and about in London, and on holiday with Violet Trefusis, dressed and passing as a man, are wonderful, and you want more of them. And you read passages like this with a thrill of passionate envy: that someone should be so sure about their sense of self, when that sense of self runs counter to society’s rules:

It never struck me as wrong that I should be more or less engaged to Harold, and at the same time much in love with Rosamund. The fact is that I regarded Harold far more as a playfellow than in another light. Our relationship was so fresh, so intellectual, so unphysical, that I never thought of him in that aspect at all. It was rather his own fault, after all, from the over-respectful way in which he had always treated me. I can best express what I mean about him by saying that he stood at the opposite pole from the lover-type of man. Some men seem to be born to be lovers, others to be husbands; he belongs to the latter category.  Rosamund wasn’t exactly jealous of him then; he was too far away, and our engagement was too vague, and she knew that although I was fond of him I was passionately in love with herself – I use the word ‘passionately’ on purpose. It was passion that used to make my head swim sometimes, even in the daytime, but we never made love.

Never made love! What a different age, that passion could be acknowledged, and lauded, without it having to be sexual at the same time! But also: Vita did leave a trail of destruction in her wake. And the description of her upbringing does make the mind boggle in terms of its wealth and privilege. So much easier to be a free spirit when you have cash!

The Naked Muse by Kelley Swain (Valley Press, like the Berger a hand-me-down of sorts) is a memoir about Swain’s career as a life-model, alongside her work as a poet. It would go well alongside Berger’s Ways of Seeing, for the way it gazes back at the male gaze, or rather drifts away from it. It’s interesting that for many of the artists Swain works with – especially women artists – her classically proportioned body and pale, smooth skin make her uninteresting to draw or paint. She is too perfect. This might be a less intellectually energised book than Martin Gayford’s account of sitting for Lucian Freud, Man with a Blue Scarf, but then Gayford is part of the establishment, an art critic, and someone that feels himself, to a degree, on Freud’s level. Swain is most interesting when she embraces the passivity of her role, her absence from the room, until the switch from body to person when the 45 minutes are up, and when she considers, in fact, how that passivity can be a positive force in her life, not least in her life as a poet and writer.

Interestingly, Sophie Collins’s Who is Mary Sue? is the only book in this month’s pile that I paid cover price for – if you discount the few quid spent on a handful of Penguin Moderns (see my blog post here on those) – though in my defence I spent enough money on enough other books this month, as yet unread, to equal the cost of the books I got cheap or free. Who is Mary Sue?, from Faber, is Collins’s debut ‘collection’, but it comes hot on the heels of small white monkeys (Book Works – read an extract here), a visceral little book about violence and shame that was one of my favourite books of last year. This is less throat-grabbingly vital, but like it is interesting for its mix of genres: criticism and poetry. The subject is the literary double-standards that belittle female writers for writing about or from themselves while praising male writers doing the same. What struck me most about the book’s construction is that the criticism is as direct and immediate as the poetry is oblique and deferred, meaning that I will have to go back and reread that part, whereas the criticism had its effect on first reading. This makes me think about rhythms of reading and rereading, about linearity and recursion. It’s a book that upsets traditional notions of reading. I’ll be interested to see how I and it fare when I go back to it.

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