Wow! Look at that pile books! Did you read them all?
No, of course not. Don’t be so stupid.
Reading has been tricky over the last couple of months – I managed to completely miss out on my ‘September reading’, beyond taking a photo of the relevant book pile. The truth is, I didn’t read all of ANY of the books stacked up under September with the exception of Klingsor’s Last Summer, by Hermann Hesse, which is really just three stories slung together. (Bonkers in part. Boringly chauvinistic in the main.) The only other books I’ve read in toto since the beginning of September, when I raced through Running Dog by Don DeLillo are:
- Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson
- Topics of Conversation, by Miranda Popkey
- Sanshirō, by Natsume Sōseki
But, as I’ve written before, much of my reading is piecemeal. I mean, look at all those other books I picked up, read a bit of, and put back.
Why is this? Perhaps it is to do with the attention deficit that is supposedly affecting us all. Perhaps it is to do with my job, in which I have to read lots of students’ work. Perhaps it is to do with my online project A Personal Anthology, in which every week I ask someone to pick and introduce a dozen favourite short stories… I mean, it’s not like I read all twelve, every week, but I always read at least a few of them, both those I don’t know and those I do. (For instance, oh man, ‘Gusev’ by Anton Chekhov, as picked by Darragh McCausland!) Perhaps it’s the fact that I happen to be judging the Manchester Fiction Prize this year, alongside Nicholas Royle, Lara Williams and Sakinah Hofler, which means much of my spare time is spent reading entries. And perhaps it’s to do with the fact that this year I set myself the project of reading all of Proust, for the first time. (I’m not going to make it, by the way. But hey-ho, it was always just a project.)
But there is more to it than that.
I write. I review (less, just now). I teach. Much of my life is taken up with books and literature and writing, and for that I’m profoundly grateful. But the constant irruption into my eyes of real, good, meant words from all sides – a river of words bursting into an overwhelmed house through every opening – means that whole books have to fight to stake their claim.
To put it another way, the idea of a novel – which is, to be blunt, my foundational idea of what words, put together, can achieve – has started to seem crucial, less joyous.
The novel is the type of book above all which insists on being taken as a whole. It is a monad, as Leibniz would have had it; an absolute unit, if you know your memes. It ring-fences its words, encases them in a protective membrane, so as to stop you from taking any of them except on its own terms. A story or poetry collection is built to be divisible. A non-fiction book, even a piece of narrative nonfiction, can be thought of as containing information in discrete units, separable and parsable without the whole.
The novel is the thing that says: I only make sense if you read all of me. It’s all of me, or nothing! No cherry-picking allowed.
A novel is best read, in my experience, either slowly and steadily, over a week or two, in sedate and regular portions, so that your imagination comes to a reasonable accommodation both with the narrative pacing and with the demands of everyday life, negotiating between the two of them, making space for one in the other, and for the other in the one – or it is best read at a gallop, picked up at every opportunity, a page snatched here or there, between bites of breakfast, between meetings, between conversations: this novel consuming your every waking thought.
Over the last couple of months, I’ve been able to do the latter – twice, with Topics of Conversation and Case Histories – but not the former, or not successfully. Sanshirō is the kind of book that would work perfectly as a leisurely fortnight’s read: not much happens; the chapters are short; the characters are agreeable. (It might help to know that the book was originally serialised in weekly instalments.) You could read a decent chunk of it on a good-length train journey.
(It is the third novel by Sōseki that I’ve read, and certainly it doesn’t reach the poetical highs of Kusamakura or the tragic depths of Kokoro. It is a calmative, a thoroughly delightful and spring-like story about a young man come from the country to Tokyo to study at the university, but although I enjoyed it, it didn’t fit the slightly frantic rhythm of this particular autumn.)
What does a novel have to do, then, to grab you by the collar and force you to read it? To elbow its way into your life and take up temporary residence? Well, an itchily cryptic plot is one way to do it. Case Histories is the first book I’ve read by Kate Atkinson, though I own maybe four or five of them. I keep picking them up, trying the first page or two, then putting them back. (Probably best skip the next paragraph if you’ve not read it, and get to Matilda Popkey, as there will be plot-spoilers.)
Case Histories is Atkinson’s first novel featuring a now-recurring private eye, Jackson Brodie, and from reading it you’d think that she didn’t particularly intend to ever bring him back: the end of the book seems to gift him with the kind of narrative closure most series-writers would only dream of when they’re 95% sure they want to retire their egg-laying goose. (When they’re 100% sure, of course, they close them down completely.) The book is also at odds with the crime genre itself in terms of narrative structure. It opens with the matter-of-fact description of three unconnected family tragedies taking place over x years – one disappearance, and two murders. It’s a bravura performance, with none of the shivery glee with which the worst kind of crime thrillers serve up dead or gone girls and husband-topping psycho-bitches. But much of the rest of the book’s plotting is devious in the extreme, basically challenging the reader to work out not just the mystery of who did the crimes, but the secondary mystery of how these disparate narratives are going to come together, other than that Brodie is investigating them all. They do, in simple and more tangential ways, but it’s a bit of a slight of hand. You couldn’t write more than one mystery book this way.
That reaction only comes right at the end, however. On the way there you are treated to a wonderful mixture of the plottish and the character-led. The book is character-driven, you might say, but by characters who can’t drive very well. It reminded me of Iris Murdoch, for its plainly, even humdrumly unusual characters – but an Iris Murdoch who either can’t write well, or doesn’t care for good writing. I mean, Atkinson is a whizz at plotting, at characterisation, and there is some splendid dialogue here – I laughed, I turned the pages, zip-zip-zip – but at no point in the book did a sentence slow me down, or make me catch my breath, or suggest I reread it or underline it or tweet. Reading the book was like eating a huge bowl of plain pasta, cooked exactly as you like it, but with no sauce. It seemed almost willed. She’s clearly too good a writer not to know what she’s doing. Now I need to read some of her other books to see if she makes anything else of it.
Miranda Popkey’s Topics of Conversation I won’t go into here in detail, because I hope to be able to review it. It’s an excellent debut that splashes around in the currently warm waters of autofiction. You might say it’s a touch derivative – and in fact it has an incredible two-page acknowledgements section at the back that lists all the books, films, essays, plays and pasta recipes that inspired it, however tangentially. It’s wonderfully in your face. To be glib, it’s Rachel Cusk by way of Sally Rooney. But it deserves something more than glibness. I want to read it again, slower. I’m tired. Some more books just arrived. I’m off to not read them all, from cover to cover.
Many thanks to Serpent’s Tail for the Popkey, which is out in February 2020.
(What a pleasingly alliterative set of author names)
There’s an epigraph that I often remember, from Dave Eggers’ debut A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000 – and boy I wonder if anyone’s read or reread that book recently. It would be an interesting experience.) In fact the book has two memorable epigraphs: firstly, ‘THIS WAS UNCALLED FOR.’; and, secondly:
First of all:
I am tired.
I am true of heart.
You are tired.
You are true of heart.
Both of them sum up the radical sincerity and potential mawkishness at the heart of his writing. Both, because of this, are memorable. They stay with me, because as statements they are so widely applicable – they are applicable now – as well as being pertinent to the book for which they act as curtain raisers, or perhaps, rather, mottos painted on the safety curtain of the book’s theatre.
I am tired. Teaching starts next week. Summer’s over. I am sure that you are tired. I make no claims for the trueness of either of our hearts, but let’s accentuate the positive.
I am tired. That’s it. That’s the tweet.
And but so:
Books are wonderful relaxation. They are also wonderful energising. There’s nothing I love more than grabbing my phone to tweet a response to something I’m reading, whether it’s Don DeLillo describing a woman putting a condom on a man’s penis as “dainty-fingered and determined to be an expert, like a solemn child dressing a doll”,
No big deal, just a DeLillo sentence describing someone putting a condom on a penis. Fuck sake, Don. pic.twitter.com/i5oBTEN1ly
— Jonathan Gibbs (@Tiny_Camels) August 31, 2019
or Lorrie Moore pole-axing the reader with the devastating end to the first page of her story ‘Terrific Mother’.
Here is the first page of ‘Terrific Mother’. Who else would *dare* to open a story like that? pic.twitter.com/vr4qFHJFXR
— Jonathan Gibbs (@Tiny_Camels) August 22, 2019
I’ve been trying to read Proust with my phone to hand, too, as an enhanced form of annotation, and that, too, has been fun and exciting.
Fun and excitement: wow. That’s it. That’s the tweet.
But, sometimes, writing about books can be a chore. It’s a terrible thing that a book, once read, even a good book, can be put on one side and forgotten. What’s the point of all of this, you think, if a book that engages your brain and emotions over a number of hours over a number of days just gets put back on the shelf and, to all intents and purposes, forgotten? Because sometimes they are picked up again. Sometimes they are passed on. My August reading contained left-turns and blind alleys, slogs up stony hills and brief gleefully shrieking slides down sandy dunes. There was reading for work, reading for the soul, reading by accident and reading by design.
The Don DeLillos are there for an academic chapter I’m writing, and I found myself zooming through them. Mao II, a re-read, is far from my favourite of his novels: too slick and portentous, too glib in the way it throws around its themes.
In one aspect at least it’s a victim of its success. The famous riff about terrorists having replaced the novelists at the heart of the inner life of the culture is blandly prophetic, but it’s too on the nose. The other ‘prophetic’ moments or images in his novels – such as the most photographed barn in America, or the playing dead response to the Airborne Toxic Event, are more oblique, more generally symbolic. The writing is spiffing. It’s spiky poetry has just become too easy to read.
Running Dog, by contrast, I enjoyed. I don’t think I’d read it before. It’s more corny in its plotting – closer to a spy thriller or a contemporary hardboiled thriller – and that allows the author to have more fun, and for the punchier writing to stand out from the more familiar skeleton. Another extract I tweeted managed to pick out something that occurred to me elsewhere about the male (I think) approach to language. Here it is: Continue reading
I’m coming out of a hectic and not entirely satisfying couple of weeks of reading. I finished the third volume of Proust on holiday, but didn’t have the fourth with me, which lost me impetus. Then the Booker longlist was announced and this sent me back to Ducks, Newburyport, which I had only dipped into but wanted very much to read. Then there was reading for work (variously, and for various reasons, Nick Harkaway, Don DeLillo) and then I read some short stories from the new editions of Granta and Lighthouse, and then one night I couldn’t work out what to read, so turned to Borges, which is my usual response to this problem, and that kept me going for a couple of nights. An unread secondhand copy of a Herman Hesse book, Klingsor’s Last Summer, beckoned when I wanted something to read in the bath, and I found a Hollinghurst in a charity shop I hadn’t read (The Sparsholt Affair) and read the opening pages of that on the train home. There’s a Penelope Fitzgerald re-read face-down and spine-open somewhere in the house. Then, yesterday, Toni Morrison died, so of course I picked up Beloved for the train home. Honestly, it’s a miracle I finish any books at all.
Here’s what I did read in July, however: three short novels by Mario Benedetti, a Uruguayan writer and poet who died in 2009 and is only now being translated into English. So far Penguin Modern Classics have given us Who Among Us?, The Truce and Springtime in a Broken Mirror. These were all wonderful, three broken-hearted love stories of one kind or another, two of them based around love triangles in which a woman leaves her husband for another man, the other featuring a middle-aged divorcee falling in love with a twenty-something woman working in his office.
So, yes, the vibe is melancholic-masculine, with not all but most of the telling coming from the men’s points of view, giving us the sort of pained, elegiac, romantic narrative that men might sneer at in a similar book written by a woman, and women might roll their eyes at when they read in a book written like this by a man. So there’s a risk that they are overly male-gazey, not a million miles from the kind of thing James Salter wrote at his best, though hopefully in a benign kind of way. (The casual homophobia in The Truce, in which the main character despairs when he learns one of his sons is gay, is harder to squint at.)
I certainly found all three books quite lovely and compelling and drank them down like long cold drinks on a hot day. (I reviewed one of them, Who Among Us?, for The Guardian.) In the review I point out that at least two of the books – Who Among Us? and Springtime in a Broken Mirror – make use of subtly destabilising narrative structures, giving the main characters opportunities to reframe and sometimes retell the events of the story in ways that are effective without being aggravatingly demonstrative. In terms of mood I’d perhaps also say that they have something of the at-a-distance melancholy of Yuko Tsushima’s slim books. I’d definitely recommend them – start with any of them, but why not Who Among Us? It’s the slimmest of the three, and the most seductive in its narrative play.
I absolutely loved Nan Shepherd’s influential nature-writing book The Living Mountain, about her lifelong love for – and built out of her lifelong knowledge of – the Cairngorms. The book was written during the second world war, but not published until 1973. Calling it ‘nature writing’ is somehow reductive, however, despite the beautiful descriptions of animals and especially birds: it seems clear that for her the Cairngorms transcend ‘nature’. Nor, really, is it ‘place writing’. The Cairngorms aren’t a “place”. When she is in them, the mountains become her whole world, so perhaps it should be called ‘world writing’. Continue reading
In truth I’m far too tired to write cogently about books, but the Conservative Party leadership election debate is on television and if I don’t sit and try to bash this out now, I’ll only sit following it on Twitter. So I have this pile of books next me – read during May and the first half of June – and Tiger Bay (Tapestry) playing on my laptop, and a small glass of leftover bourbon, and I’m going to see what comes up.
Lanny I read in sunny May, sitting on a slope above a football pitch, while my son trained ahead of a Sunday league final his team ultimately lost. I’d had the book sitting on the windowsill by my desk for a while. It hadn’t particularly grabbed me the few times I’d picked it up – not like Max Porter’s astonishing debut, Grief is the Thing With Feathers, which I remember reading in proof on a train journey from London to Norwich, tweeting as I went (this is just the start of a thread):
Well Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter is superb.
— Jonathan Gibbs (@Tiny_Camels) April 15, 2015
Dead Papa Toothwort didn’t grab me the way Crow did, nor did I particularly care for the curlicues of found or overheard text from the village that spiralled across the pages – spot on though they were in their surgical skewering of the worst of English parochialism. (It reminded me, too, of Will Eaves’s equally many-voiced, equally ventriloquistic The Absent Therapist.)
Things settled down though, once Lanny and his parents and good old Pete the scruffy, hip, half-retired, half-hermit artist elbowed their way into the narrative and Porter began to show what he’s really good at (apart from springing poetry live from the forehead of prose sentences: can we take that as a given?): the cool, drifting, seductive dynamics of middle-class family life.
So: the growing trusting friendship between Pete and the loveable oddball Lanny; the raw, touching concern of Lanny’s mother for her child, wanting to protect and nurture what is unique and characteristic about him, but fearing what price the world will extract from him because of it; the forgivable awfulness of Lanny’s dad; the almost flirtation between his mother and Pete, that really might just be a genuine mutual sympathy. But in a small village, in any small community, who can tell? Continue reading
Just as much of my reading in March was centred around Iris Murdoch, April was all about Brigid Brophy. I had given a paper at a conference a couple of years ago in which I considered her writing about sex in her 1962 novel Flesh, and now I had the opportunity to expand what I said (and firm it up) for a chapter in an academic book about Brophy.
This meant rereading Flesh, and going back to The Snow Ball, the 1964 novel that is the book of hers that I’ve read the most often – it gave the structural underpinning to my newest novel, The Lage Door. It also meant taking another look at Brophy’s non-fiction writing, both the brilliant, incisive journalism (collected in Don’t Never Forget, Baroque & Rolland the quasi-best-of Reads) and her frankly overwhelming standalone books, Black Ship to Hell and Prancing Novelist. It seems astonishing that, given the size of these books, that she managed to restrict or restrain herself when it came to fiction. Those novels are beautifully short. I have never tired of reading Brophy’s fiction, or at least the novels referred to above, and King of a Rainy Country. I urge them regularly on everyone I talk to about books, and don’t mind if it bores people.
Also read for the essay: The Country Girls, by Edna O’Brien, which I don’t think I’d ever read before. This was a delightful read, but it has already started to evaporate. Well, I read it quickly, and with half an eye on its use in my argument, but I’d happily carry on and read the other two books in the trilogy. I haven’t read any other O’Brien, although I saw her read from The Little Red Chairs a while back, which is also on my shelves, unopened.
I’ve also been reading some books from the Man Booker International Prize long- and short-list. I read the two story collections on the longlist – Samanta Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds and Jokes for the Gunmen by Mazen Maarouf – ahead of talking on the podcast to accompany the announcement of the shortlist. Both interesting, though I’m less taken with Schweblin’s stories than the longer Fever Dream, though that I found less effective the longer it went on. Books in translation, and books from foreign countries – some of them – need more context than the bare translation can give us. There is no shame, I think, in saying this. It comes down the Rumsfeldism of known unknowns and unknown unknowns. Jokes for the Gunmen is domestic and absurdist, and I cannot know to what that extent that absurdism lies in my lack of understanding of life in Beirut, where Maarouf grew up, or to what extent it is coming across truly.
Having previously read (and adored) Annie Ernaux’s The Years and Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead (which I didn’t), I also read Marion Poschmann’s The Pine Islands, translated by Jen Calleja. This is a quite wonderful novel, that I want to reread, more slowly. It is a poetic response, a European response, to traditional Japanese ideas of nature, death and permanence, in which a German academic flees home and his wife (who he is convinced, on the basis of a dream, has been unfaithful to him) to fly to Japan. He falls in with a suicidal young man and together they embark on a short, unlikely road trip, to explore whether Yosa should or should not kill himself, and where. Japan is where we (I, Poschmann’s Gilbert) locate our favourite paradoxes of modernity and classicism, ephemerality and permanence, and Poschmann plays with and against these brilliantly. It reminded me, for obvious reasons, of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s ‘Marie’ novels, though Gilbert is a more comical creation, and less cool. But I loved it and what to read it again. I have now started The Remainder, by Alia Trabucco Zerán.
2019 was supposed to be the year of reading Proust. I have finished two volumes and the third sits by my bed, but my head is not ready for it yet. It may have to wait for summer.
As always, there have been short stories, including Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior (now a Penguin Modern Classic), Tatyana Tolstaya (new to me) and David Means (not so). I’m not ready to write about these, I think. My brain is quite scattered at the moment. This month has seen the publication of my second novel, The Large Door, and I’ve just started writing something new, different and unexpected. And then there’s reading for my lecturing work. Possibly just now the strain of focusing on Murdoch, Brophy, my own writing and work has meant that I’m not able to fully dedicate myself to any book, no matter what it is.
Aetherial Worlds (Daunt), Instructions for a Funeral (Faber), Bad Behavior (Penguin) and The Pine Islands (Serpent’s Tail) come courtesy of the publishers. Thank you.
Mostly, though, I was reading and rereading Iris Murdoch ahead of a panel discussion with Alex Clark and Catherine Taylor at the Cambridge Literary Festival this weekend. It was a lively and stimulating hour’s talk, and only solidified my sense that she was, above all, a hugely accomplished novelist.
After a somewhat shaky start, my recent run of Murdoch novels has been one of unalloyed reading joy. Here, then, are some comments worked up from notes I made ahead of the talk:
Crazy plotting – and lack of interest in M’s biography
I’ve not read any of John Bayley’s books about Murdoch and, while I’ve read (some of) Peter J. Conradi’s biography, I didn’t find it particularly illuminating, and didn’t finish it. (I prefer his critical book, The Saint and the Artist.) I certainly didn’t find much to treasure in the recently published book of letters, Living on Paper, very well edited though it was. (My review here.) Basically, I’ve never really found anything in Murdoch’s biography that deepened my understanding or increased my enjoyment of the novels. The novels are enough.
Perhaps the novels’ crazy, precipitate, highly compressed plotting – usually taking place over a matter of days or weeks – is an attempt to make sense of the much bigger chaos of her life.
That’s all that art is, after all: an attempt to impose order on – or draw order out of – chaos.
An exchange from Stoppard’s Arcadia, that could be taken as explicatory:
HANNAH. The weather is fairly predictable in the Sahara.
VALENTINE. The scale is different but the graph goes up and down the same way. Six thousand years in the Sahara looks like six months in Manchester, I bet you.
The plotting in Murdoch is overtly theatrical: Shakespearean, or Restoration Comedic. She gathers a small-ish cast in a contained setting, or series of settings, and sends them bouncing around like molecules in an ever-tighter compression chamber.
How often in our lives do we have had someone knock on our door, unannounced, to deliver good or bad news, let alone tell us that they love us? It happens a lot in Murdoch’s novels. But, as I say, this shouldn’t be taken as a realistic reflection of everyday life, but as the compression of a life’s worth of living into a short, ecstatic and exemplary period.
Morality in a post-religious, post-Freudian age
Morality has many arenas in which it can play out, yet in Murdoch it plays out most usually in the arena of sexual relationships – through the questions of right love, adultery and faithfulness.
You can’t be true to God any more, since He doesn’t exist, but you can (or can not) be true to your wife, husband or lover. God is no longer the authority you must answer to, but Freud.
“The disappearance of God does not simply leave a void into which human reason can move. The death of God has set the angels free. And they are terrible.”
“There are principalities and powers. Angels are the thoughts of God. Now he had been dissolved into his thoughts which are beyond our conception in their nature and their multiplicity and the power. God was at least the name of something which we thought was good. Now even the name has gone and spiritual world has scattered. There is nothing any more to prevent the magnetism of many spirits.”
From The Time of the Angels, which I recently read for the first time. It is a stunning example of Murdoch’s process. It is also the darkest of her novels that I’ve read. No surprise that it was followed by The Nice and the Good, which is one of the lightest and most joyous, out-leavened only by The Sandcastle.
Sympathy for all her characters
We are all each other’s antagonists.
Even Carel, surely the blackest of all her characters, is presented sympathetically.
The novels (the best of them) are so expertly constructed, deploying their elements and then entangling them and setting these in conflict with each other, that they at times seem like exercises in counterpoint. John Gardner talks about the novel as symphony. These are not that, but they at times seem like a miraculous two- or three-part invention. Chamber music, played at double speed – like something from Switched-on Bach.
Compulsively rather than carefully written
Someone (Conradi?) talks about Murdoch’s refusal to slow down her novel writing, even if that might have improved her work. (She wrote 26 novels over a period of 41 years – a novel every 18 months!)
No. She wanted to work through a particular problem. When she had done this, it no longer interested her. On to the next one.
Might it have been an aspect of her success, considering the times in which she lived and published, that she seemed happy to explore ‘universal’ human concerns through male protagonists?
Many of her protagonists are middle-aged men, or older, who seem to have no problem in having much younger women fall in love with them. Male writers get hauled over the coals for this. Murdoch, not so much.
(Obviously, she treated male homosexual characters seriously, when it was not usual to do so.)
Beautifully clear prose
The descriptions of buildings and houses, of woodland and landscape, of rivers and lakes and the sea. The descriptions of fog.
The insistence, too, on describing complex physical actions: the car slowly falling into the river in The Sandcastle; the rescue by putting a ladder out of a window, also in The Sandcastle; the lifting of the bell in The Bell; the adventure in the cave in The Nice and the Good.
The idea that these might be intended as analogues for the concrete descriptions of abstract mental states.
Tell don’t show
The lack of interest in the free indirect style/close third person.
If the contemporary literary novel is often interested above all in the nature of consciousness, and invested in the ability of prose to blur the lines between character and the perceptual world (a phenomenological aesthetics), then Murdoch has no interest in either of these things. She sees the world clearly. She sees the insides of her characters’ minds equally clearly. She keeps both separate.
At the end of the session, Alex asked us all to name our favourite Murdoch. I was expecting Catherine to say The Black Prince, about which she had written a marvellous essay in the Brixton Review of Books. But she said The Flight from the Enchanter (which didn’t bowl me over; I need to revisit it). So I said The Black Prince, only for Alex to say that that was what she had been going to choose. So I chose A Severed Head instead, though kind of wishing that I could also have had The Nice and the Good.
Basically, of the Murdochs I’ve read, here are the ones that I feel are definite successes, perhaps in a kind of order:
- The Sea, The Sea
- The Black Prince
- A Severed Head
- The Nice and the Good
- The Bell
- The Time of the Angels
- The Sandcastle
And these are the ones I’ve not been so impressed with:
- Nuns and Soldiers
- The Italian Girl
- Under the Net
- The Flight from the Enchanter
- An Unofficial Rose
(By the way, I popped into Kirkdale Books this afternoon, and asked Roland – who read all of Murdoch, in order, a year or two ago – how far through you could get before the novels starting getting, well, not very good. He said that, of the late books, The Good Apprentice and The Book and the Brotherhood were certainly not to be dismissed. The three that came after – The Message to the Planet, The Green Knight and Jackson’s Dilemma – were all essentially flawed.)
Murdoch and me
So, many thanks for Alex and the Cambridge Literary Festival for inviting me. Oh, and why did they do so? Well, because of my recently published novel, The Large Door, which features epigrams from Murdoch and her friend, lover and sparring partner, Brigid Brophy, and a sort of joint dedication. Which epigrams did I choose? Well, you’ll have to buy the book to find out.
I finished In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower a couple of days into March, this being the second volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, in the translation by James Grieve, which means I’m not quite reading a book a month. I’m also reading not much else. As I said in last month’s post, reading Proust at any time, but especially at bedtime, is slow going. Picking up an Iris Murdoch novel – I’m trying to tick another one or two off before taking part in a panel discussion at the Cambridge Literary Festival next month – I find that I zip through double or even triple the number of pages.
The other books in the photograph are by Samuel Beckett, whose abstruse essay on Proust I’ve been glancing at at work, more in hope of the odd brief flint-like spark of understanding than of any general illumination. I turned to ‘The End’, collected with ‘The Expelled’ and other “novellas”, following the introduction to this story by Daragh McCausland in his Personal Anthology. (If you don’t know this online project, run by me, then check it out here.)
Daragh called it “a masterpiece”, and I’m afraid it didn’t seem so to me. Perhaps I read it too quickly, but I found it unrewarding, dark and constipated, and not shot through with any lyricism to speak of. Which is not to contradict Daragh, who wrote wonderfully about Beckett’s favourite short fiction, but to note my unsureness when it comes to this writer.
The late, spare stuff – the bleached bones of thought – is great, but can scarcely be read: like koans, they are there to be looked at and contemplated, not imbibed and processed as we do with most prose. And the “early, funny” stuff is great in its own way, if you ignore Beckett’s self-immolating hermeneutic diversions, the bonfires he makes of his own intellectual vanity. But ‘The End’ seems to me to fall between those two stools. He has sloughed off the early, conflicted attempts at connecting with the reader, and is telling stories of disconnection instead, but hasn’t yet built that rejection into the form of the writing.
So I turned to Murphy, right in the middle of my Proust, wondering if I would still get from this what I have done in the past. It was a quick check-in: is this still good? Do I still get it?
(This is a permanent aspect of reading that doesn’t show up in these blog posts. We’re always glancing into previously read work, as well as those unread, those come newly into the house. This month, for instance, I read a few pages of the Patrick Melrose novels, after watching the first episode of the Cumberbatch-starring adaptation, which was very good, if you ask me. The novels, of course, are splendid, already part of the literary landscape, with a status of their own quite disconnected from their author. I must re-read them, I think, leaving the book on a surface, where it sits for days or weeks before being reluctantly reshelved.)
(February also featured a certain amount of reading for the Galley Beggar Short Story Prize, about which I hope to write another blog post.)
So Murphy. I picked it up to check, then thought: I can read this, now, if I read it quickly. It’s a book to go through you like a dose of salts. It is perhaps the prose work by Beckett that most taunts the reader with the idea of what he could have produced, had he been of a more amenable disposition, had he accepted the role of writer as, among other things, entertainer. Continue reading
My Monthly Reading posts might start to look a bit same-y this year as, sometime between Christmas and New Year, I decided to read Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. I had taken a few stabs at the first volume in the past, but not successfully. It occurred to me that:
- I’d never actually read it unless I committed to it, and that a New Year’s Resolution is as good a way as any of forcing the issue
- the Christmas holidays was a good time to start, as I actually had large chunks of time to read, and the headspace to concentrate, both of which are basic prerequisites when it comes to Proust
I decided on two further tactics to strengthen my resolve: I would annotate my beautiful Penguin Allen Lane hardbacks* and I would keep a Twitter diary of the experience.
*An aside: Buying the lovely 2002 Allen Lane** edition hardbacks (picking them up for cheap as and when I saw them) was my previous best attempt at making myself read the novel. It failed.
**Another aside. I don’t really have the time or expertise to get into the Proust translations debate. I’ll note here that I also have the very, very lovely three-volume Penguin Classics hardback set of the unrevised Scott Moncrieff translation, but it’s not to hand just now.
The Twitter account @ProustDiary I’ve found useful and fun to do. There is a major practical problem I’ve run into, however, in that, once I got out of Christmas holidays into real life, my Proust reading has largely been relegated to bedtime, and I’m a strong believer in no phones at the bedside. It’s not just that you might get distracted by Twitter itself; it’s also that the process of translating vague readerly thoughts to brilliant 280-character apophthegms is one that does fundamental damage to the basic bedtime routine, that gentle slide towards sleep which books are so good at.
Which raises the interesting point of whether Proust is good to read at bedtime? Well, despite the pleasing echo it gives to both the content and composition of the novel, the answer has got to be No.
Or let’s think about that again. It’s a book that, in its syntactic extravagance and complexity, can act as an effective soporific. Those long, boring (yes, it’s true) paragraph-long sentences that never quite seem to want to end, enact the very process of the heading-towards-sleep brain, coiling down into the psychological depths where, strangely, in Proust, nothing actually seems to matter much, and it’s no great leap to give up on consciousness altogether.
In order to enjoy, or appreciate, the book, you need to be properly awake, and alert. I’ve found myself going back pages to pick up where I left off the previous night, as I simply had no idea what I’d been reading, dipping in and out of sleep, in and out of wakefulness.
***Another aside: I absolutely love that odd sensation you get sometimes when you’re dropping off, and switching (though that’s too abrupt) between wakefulness and a form of dream-state that isn’t fully dreaming, isn’t lucid dreaming, but where you have if not quite full control over your thoughts, then certainly a greater surface access to them . As it happens, last night I read Julio Cortázar’s clever, chilling story ‘The Night Face Up’, following its recommendation in Armel Dagorn’s Personal Anthology, and a brilliant evocation of this experience it is, too!
So I do encourage you to take a look at my @ProustDiary account. It has things in it like this:
This is something my 16yo boys have started doing recently (sans pipe, of course); clearly, it’s a fad at their school. While it’s fun that Proust is anatomising a social ritual that remains contemporary over 100 years later, there’s something else. pic.twitter.com/QpPq2OYlD9
— ReadingProustin2019 (@ProustDiary) January 5, 2019
The Verdurins at one of their soirées. pic.twitter.com/SIYXBDrnKz
— ReadingProustin2019 (@ProustDiary) January 7, 2019
and this: Continue reading
I read three great books in December: The Sandcastle by Iris Murdoch, Bad Blood by Lorna Sage and Two Sketches of Disjointed Happiness by Simon Kinch. All three were picked up in charity shops, and although the Lorna Sage had probably been sitting on my shelves for a year or so, I’ve just spotted that I had another copy that had been there for far longer, equally unread. The other two sped quickly shop-to-read. This question of what gets read when, and why, is one that continues to preoccupy me.
I have little to say about the Sage. It is a great memoir, a great piece of writing that takes the form of a memoir. It is lucid in its evocation of an upbringing that seems to have been usefully awful, and surprisingly placid in its telling, all things considered. The monster at the centre is Sage’s grandfather, a philandering vicar, who, nevertheless, had a deep connection with his granddaughter. Perhaps it’s that recognition that leads to the placidity.
Nevertheless, like all memoirs this is at base an act of revenge, but like all great memoirs the past (and the narrator’s own person) is held at enough of a distance that we can read ourselves into it. And certainly the description of Sage’s teenage pregnancy made me think of someone I knew in our street who went through the same thing, and was ostracised in a similar fashion.
Sage fashions a moving end to the story, though (memoirs, unlike novels and, obviously, biographies, can’t risk unhappy endings) in which she her young shotgun husband both make it to university with their daughter. On the way, the unmarried female teachers at Sage’s school (the Misses Macdonald, Heslop and Roberts) support her through her A Levels and university applications in the face of official disapproval, and her fellow pupils, who never much liked her when she was there, give her a huge round of applause as she goes up on stage to collect her leaver’s book token.
It does make me think, as a critic and teacher, about the tricksiness of memoir. It is the only literary form that comes with any kind of barrier to entry. Anyone can write a novel, a sonnet sequence, an essay… even a biography, if they do their homework. In order to write a memoir, on the other hand, you are generally expected to have experienced something extraordinary in your life. But how extraordinary? How much is enough? Equally clearly, the presence of extraordinary events alone is not sufficient. You also need to be able to write.
The greater the writer, you might think, the slimmer and sparser the incidents treated might be, but that still does leave us, as with Sage, trying and failing to unpick the two aspects (bluntly: form and content). It is harder to tell, when reading a good memoir, if it is the events that are affecting you, or the treatment of them, or both. When something doesn’t work, it’s usually easier to make the call. I was astonished how uncompelling I found Adam Mars-Jones’s memoir of his father, Kid Gloves. The prose was as good as ever (I’m a big fan of his slow-flowing, practically viscous roman fleuve), but I found the story he was telling entirely uninteresting.
Also: is Sage’s book better as a memoir than it would have been as a novel, with all the variance that may imply? If so, why? Because we ascribe more affect to it because it is ‘true’? (And, after all, we don’t know how much variance there is in the memoir itself; we take it on trust.) None of this is new. But certainly I enjoyed Bad Bloodvery much.
(Interestingly, Marina Warner’s introduction to Sage’s posthumous essay collection, Moments of Truth, mentions that she intended to write a book about the friction between life and art, based on the idea that “you can’t have the work without the life or, more pointedly, the life without the work, nor the work or the life without the art”, and to show that “the ‘heroism’ and representativeness of writers’ life-stories [are] aspects of the decay of classic literary realism”. Which, when you think about it, is precisely the work we need to read today, that would throw into relief the whole question of autofiction, not along moral lines, but practical, aesthetic ones. Sage died in 2001.)
The Sandcastle is the second thoroughly enjoyable Iris Murdoch I’ve read on the trot, following the superb and wonderful The Black Prince, discussed here. This was a relief, for in fact I have had problems with some of her novels: A Fairly Honourable Defeat, The Flight From the Enchanter and The Philosopher’s Pupil are all ones I’ve started and not finished at various times over the past few years. An Unofficial Rose I finished, but grudgingly, with dwindling pleasure; ditto Under the Net. (On the other hand, The Sea, The Sea, The Italian Girl, A Severed Head and Nuns and Soldiers were all read and enjoyed.) Continue reading
In going back through my Monthly Reading blog posts for the year I’ve identified 12 books published this year that I more than thoroughly enjoyed, that I think are great to brilliant examples of what they do, and that I feel will frame and influence my future reading. (A thirteenth, The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem, is not pictured because I’ve loaned it to someone.)
A quick scan of the books shows me Faber have had an excellent year – four of the twelve – and it’s no surprise that Fitzcarraldo and CB Editions show up, both publishers very close to my heart. (It’s only fair to point out that those books were complimentary/review copies, as was the Heti and the Johnson. All others bought by me.) And a shout-out to Peninsula Press, whose £6 pocket essays are a welcome intervention to the literary scene. Eight women to four men writers. Only one BAME writer. Two books in translation. Two US writers.
I’m not going to write at length again about each book, but rather provide links to the original monthly blog posts or reviews, but I do want to take a moment again to think about Sally Rooney’s Normal People, which seems to stand out for me as a Book of the Year in a more than personal way. In a year that the “difficulty” or otherwise of Anna Burns’ Milkman (which I haven’t read, and very much want to) became a hot topic, I think it’s worth considering just how un-difficult Rooney’s book is, and how that absence of difficulty, that simplicity, that ease-of-reading – allied to the novel’s clear intelligence – is central to its success, both as a novel unto itself, and more widely. You can see precisely why an organisation like Waterstones would make it Book of the Year: it is utterly approachable; it finds an uncomplicated way of narrating complicated lives and issues.
I read Normal People in September, a borrowed copy, but bought it again recently, and was pleased to find that Marianne and Connell drifted back into my life without so much as a shrug. I think it’s a brilliant accomplishment, while I’m also very aware that this is a book aimed squarely at me: white, middle class, educated. I embrace it because it reflects my situation and concerns, and in addition romanticises and bolsters the generation I now find myself teaching at university. I want it to work, and it does, for me.
Yet I am astonished that it does so much with so little. Present tense, shifting close third person narration. Unpunctuated dialogue. A drifting narrative almost without plot, chopped into dated sections.
I wrote here about how I didn’t want to have to buy it in hardback (though I did) and I wrote here about how these anti-technical techniques made the book a potentially dangerous model for Creative Writing students – it looks like you can get away with Not Much – and it is true that Rooney’s book seems to throw a harsh light on some of the other books on my list, sitting with it in that stack. They seem to be trying so hard: Jessie Greengrass’s Sight is so unashamedly intelligent, Will Eaves’s Murmur so oblique and poetic, Tony White’s The Fountain in the Forest so formally inventive (and in a number of different ways), Sheila Heti’s Motherhood so disingenuous in its informality, its seeming-naturalness. (I hope it’s clear that I love these books for the very aspects I seem to disparage.)
By contrast, Normal People seems written at what Roland Barthes called ‘writing degree zero’, by which he meant writing with no pretension to Literature – “a style of absence which is almost an ideal absence of style”. His model for this is Camus’ L’Étranger, and the comparison seems apt, except that L’Étranger is written in the first person. Everything extraneous is taken out. It’s interesting to note that David Szalay’s All That Man Is is written in a very similar way to Normal People, the only real difference being the use of single quote marks for dialogue. Yet they seem a world apart to me. Continue reading