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
In a way I spent November getting over reading Christina Stead. For Love Alone is a big, old-fashioned novel that’s not afraid to move slowly, and be dense, all the better to throw up bright shards of insight. I can’t quite remember why I picked up PD James. It was one of those moments when a new book (a charity shop find) skips to the top of the to-be-read pile, ahead of other, possibly worthier, certainly more patient and long-suffering novels. So far as I tell, this is the first book of hers I’ve read. I’m not a massive reader of classic detective thrillers: Chandler, Ellroy, Hammett, Mankell, Rankin and Christie are probably the only authors I’ve read multiple books by – and Simenon of course, but we’ll get to him in a moment.
Teaching creative writing means thinking a lot about plot, and there is no genre more concerned with that aspect of the novel than the murder mystery. In November I also rewatched the Gary Oldman Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy and that led me, as with the last two watches, to pick back up the le Carré novel. It does open brilliantly, but once the plot proper gets going it seems to settle into a linear plod towards the truth, as Smiley heads across town, from encounter to encounter, picking up clue after clue, rather like a character in a dull 1980s text-based computer game. I put the book back down.
James’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman avoids this through having the distinctly odd device of the protagonist, the young private detective Cordelia Gray, actually moving into the cottage where the murder took place, to live, while she investigates.
October began with finishing Will Eaves’s Murmur, his balletic novel-in-prose based on the tragic life and surreal afterlife of Alan Turing. Why novel in prose? Well, because half the time the wonder of it is that it is written in prose at all. It feels like it’s been downshifted into words on the page from some higher dimension. It starts and finishes with putative journal entries from a Turing avatar (Pryor) suffering the chemical castration that drove the scientist to suicide, with, in the middle, a longer run of letters mixed, improbably, with dream narratives. It is at once as weird as that sounds, and absolutely plain and straightforward.
I have long had a problem with novelisations of real people’s lives. It feels like the biographers have done all the hard work: primed the canvas, blocked in the background, worked up the figures, and all that remains for the lazy novelist to do is to dot in a few highlights, idiosyncratic and humane, to ‘bring it to life’. Rather as a mortuary assistant might make up the face of a corpse, you might think.
This book is nothing like that. For a start Eaves has clearly worked incredibly hard on it, thinking through the implications of artificial intelligence on consciousness as assiduously as any critical biographer, quite apart from the nasty effects of the drugs on Turing’s body and mind. And the ‘novelistic’ touches are anything but perfunctory. The journals entries are quite compelling enough, in their view of closeted gay life in 1940s England, and the way it shattered class boundaries, and how it was treated by the establishment. But it is the dreams and letters that take the book definitively out of the realm of the mundanely novelistic.
They move backwards and forwards through aspects of Pryor’s life, from gorgeous, creepy remembered childhood to an imagined future that even goes so far as to include parenthood as part of a heterosexual couple. If this is disorienting, then it is also tangentially illuminating. Is it too much to say that it reads like alternate quantum lives peeling off the central narrative and floating wispily away? Well, yes it is too much, if only because I’m now well outside the limits of my scientific understanding, unlike Eaves’s. If you’ve read his columns in the Brixton Review of Books, or his interviews (like this one, or this one, in which he navigates the TLS 20 questions with greater dexterity than anyone before or since, especially the last 10) then you’ll know he is as at once forbiddingly intelligent and engagingly – mercifully – sympathetic.
It’s a quite brilliant book. I need to read it again. More slowly.
(Aside: it’s odd, isn’t it [no it’s not] that ‘sympathetic’ has turned into such an ambiguous, two-way road of a word. Its original meaning is of someone who is characterised by sympathy, i.e. who is able to reach out and understand the feelings of others, usually in a benign, benevolent way. But it has also come to mean, more simply, nice, attracting the liking of others. It’s almost as if – gasp – we tend to like people who are kind and understanding, and then tend to attribute the fact of that liking to us, rather than them.)
Last month I also read Barbara Comyns’s The Vet’s Daughter, a first of hers for me. Her name is one of those that bounces around a little on Twitter, and turns up on the Backlisted podcast. The Vet’s Daughter is an odd, short novel, that trips between a down-at-heel Edwardian realism and glum Gothic fantasy. I didn’t really enjoy it. There is a horrid bullying father, a dying then dead mother, and a bright daughter who can’t escape the awfulness of her life except, occasionally, by spontaneously levitating into the air. Only, of course, even that offers no escape. It is all very depressing. It is also all rather desultory.
A book that did so much more for me was the long, big, wonderful For Love Alone by Christina Stead, another woman writer in the permanent state of being ‘rediscovered’. Continue reading
There are some books missing from this photo: Normal People by Sally Rooney, given back to the kind student who lent it to me; The Trick to Time, sat on a shelf in my university office; and In Our Mad and Furious City, donated to the university library – I wanted to get an extract from it straight into the course reader for our undergraduate Writing London module and this was the surest way of doing it.
Let’s start with Guy Gunaratne’s novel. I liked it very much. As with many other readers I was bowled over by the confidence and fluency of its interlocking narrative voices, and the sense that the characters and events, big and small, were coming straight up out of the city and onto the page. It is an easy and impressive read: the individual sections flow swiftly, never getting snarled up, as interior monologues can, and the sense of adjacency between these few characters living out a few days in a north London housing estate matches the theme of frantic, disconnected urban living. We are linked closer than we can know.
I gave it to my 16-year-old son, to try a chapter, just to see how he responded to the writing. Some of the YA fiction he reads is likewise concerned with contemporary social issues: would he buy someone doing the same in a more sophisticated narrative mode, with a wider historical reach? He liked it, though not enough to want to read on right away.
Interestingly, he queried the use of ennet for innit in black British teenager Selvon’s chapters. ‘Why does he do that?’ he asked. It was the right choice, I think: innit is too familiar as a locution, and can seem reductive, even parodic. You want your character to seem ‘street’: you make her or him say “innit,” innit? And Selvon’s ennet is part of his interior monologue; it’s not actually voiced, and in that context it sinks happily into the drift of his thoughts, bobbing up every now and then as a form of semi-digested punctuation.
Gunaratne’s novel was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, but not shortlisted, and it has been shortlisted for the Goldsmith Prize. I’d say that sounds about right. His approach is fresh, and structurally lively – on the surface, at least. By skipping around between five or six narrative voices, he jumps about his environment and orbits his central events rather in the manner of The Matrix’s bullet-time – the novel does feel three-dimensional – but two problems emerge.
Firstly, two of his narrative voices belong to elderly people, both of whose monologues focus almost exclusively on the past – the British civil rights movement of the 1960s, and Northern Ireland during the violence of The Troubles. They are interesting, and show real range in the writing, but all this harking back has a braking effect on the narrative.
Secondly, and more generally, the breadth of these different narrative voices also slows down the novel’s movement. The events it describes take place over 24 or perhaps 48 hours or so (writing from memory) and the lead-up to the quite substantial climactic event is so brief as to largely defuse any sense of drama. It’s like a pocket-sized version of Underworld, and it needs, if not a bigger canvas then certainly a longer timeline to make the impact it might – as a novel. It’s brilliant at set-up, character, the ambient noise of a true dream of life, but it’s less good at acts and scenes.
Normal People was also on the Man Booker longlist and not the shortlist, and again that feels about right to me – though I say this without having read any of the ten other longlisted novels. No particular kudos to them, then, but Normal People feels like a brilliant novel that needed a final twist to make it completely outstanding. I wrote at length about it here, but in short: it does character, and dialogue, and environment just as well as In Our Mad and Furious City – albeit far more restrictedly in terms of its social reach, engaging class and gender relations but not race or ethnicity – and it does time much better than that book, showing how people change, and don’t, over months and years. But it is lacking a novelistic backbone, or skeleton.
Furious City’s novelistic backbone is missing too, which Gunaratne tries to make up for with his rushed climax that feels like nothing. The more I read Normal People, on the other hand, the more I felt like it was about to make a killer statement about the novel form – how life simply doesn’t have a shape like novels do, and so the novel form is a lie – but it never quite did. It doesn’t work like a novel, but doesn’t really find a way of making its meandering narrative form seem like a serious conceptual alternative.
Along with Normal People the highlight to my reading month – and surely one of the highlights of my year – was Iris Murdoch’s The Black Prince, which I picked up for a quid from a charity shop (having thoroughly enjoyed Catherine Taylor’s piece about it in the Brixton Review of Books) and launched into straight away. Continue reading
Two months of summer reading brought together because, you know, things. Only some of which are books. July started with a fresh attempt – my third, I think – at Richard Beard’s The Day That Went Missing, subtitled A Family Memoir. Why did it take me three goes to get into? Because, frankly, it is a fucking hard book to read. It’s a writer’s response to some ancient family history: the death, by drowning, on a family holiday, of Beard’s younger brother, Nicholas – made more devastating for Richard, eleven years old to Nicholas’s nine, by the fact that he was only the witness, only just managing to save himself from the same deceptive tides on a Cornish beach that swept Nicholas out of his depth.
And made more devastating, over the years, by the decision of Beard’s father to wipe the tragedy out of the family narrative. Over the next forty years Nicholas was barely spoken of, represented by a single photograph in the family home, his few belongings relegated to a box somewhere in the attic. If this sounds like English repression taken to psychotic lengths, try this for size: after returning to Swindon to bury Nicholas, the family drove back to the rented farm house in Cornwall to finish their holiday. It was booked and paid for, after all.
It’s not these awful aspects of the situation that make the book so hard to read, though. They are traits that can be analysed, contextualised, built out from. It is the insistence of Beard on returning again and again to the ‘primal scene’ of the drowning, trying to work out what happened, trying to investigate his own guilt: could he have saved him? If Beard’s father set out to deny this moment as a survival technique, then Beard insists on looking. He insists on us looking too. It’s that that makes the book at times excruciating to read. That and the way the surviving family members (not his father, he died: “I haven’t mourned him, and I didn’t cry at his funeral,” Beard writes… “A lesson he taught me himself”) are actually, eventually, willing to talk about Nicholas, and his death, now, forty years on. Perhaps, you think, all that denial was not needed. Clearly, this was a book that Beard had to write, in some sense (he talks about the dead little brothers that have cropped up in his fiction), but in another sense it was a book that didn’t have to be written at all, or wouldn’t have had to be written, if Beard’s father hadn’t been a particular kind of Englishman.
It’s all dreadfully sad, but am I glad I read it? I’m not sure. I happened to partially reread Cathy Rentzenbrink’s The Last Act of Love at about the same time, for teaching, and it reinforced my general feeling about such memoirs: that I don’t like them, however well they’re written. Perhaps it’s because I have very little close experience of grief. I haven’t had the opportunity to see how mourning can become part of a person: I can’t see it in the people I know who have lost someone. I see only desperate desire to imbue the pages with the presence of the dead person. A desire that can only lead to failure. The specifics of the dead person can never be as meaningful to me as to it is to the writer. Grief memoir is the genre that is doomed to failure.
Following these books I had a few days of feeling really ill (some kind of bug, I can’t remember now) and every book I picked up seemed to hard, the language too complex, the insistence on plot and character too damned demanding. The only book I found I could bear to open was David Markson’s This is Not a Novel. Having read it and kind of enjoyed it, but then read and loved his earlier novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress, I had long wanted to look at again because of it. Continue reading
I read some good books in June. I’ve already written at length about Annie Ernaux’s The Years in a separate post, so I’ll leave that be. The funniest book I read last month – the funniest book I’ve read in a long time – was Elif Batuman’s The Idiot. I’m talking about regular chuckling out loud on the train, and in bed, enough to annoy anyone travelling alongside me on either vehicle.
It’s half campus novel, half American abroad in Eastern Europe tale – think The Marriage Plot meets Everything is Illuminated, but is better than either of them. Selin, Batuman’s stand-in, turns up to Harvard to study but finds the whole process overwhelming: classes, teachers, roommates, friends, potential boyfriends. The plot doesn’t progress so much as… well, either drift or plod or both. It ends up reading like a Kafka novel leached of moment, as if Selim doesn’t realise she’s supposed to be in a tragedy. And why should she? Unlike a Kafka hero she doesn’t have a goal that she sees herself failing to move towards. Perhaps that’s part of the point of the undergraduate existence: you bundle all personal goals into the uber-goal of getting your degree. Ambition is deferred, dissipated. That sense of life unfolding without trajectory feels accurate.
There’s a funny running gag about an adult education class Selin volunteers at, trying to help people more hopeless than herself with her lessons. She is supposed to be helping Joaquim, a Dominican plumber, with his spoken American.
“The paper is white,” I said, holding up a paper.
He nodded. “El papel es blanco,” he said.
“Right, so repeat after me. The paper is white.”
“Papel, es, blanco,” he said, with a serious expression like mine.
“No, repeat the words I’m saying,” I said. “The paper is white.”
After twenty minutes he could say, “Papel iss blonk.” He said it with an expression of great patience and kindness. We moved on to “The pen is blue.” We started with “El boligrafo es azul,” and eventually got to “Ball iss zool.” Then our time was up.
This is the stuff that had me chuckling. (There’s a less good running gag about a Russian-language story Selim has to read in her Russian classes, which I started to skip. This is novel-writing 101. You never expect the reader to put up with more than one of these things.)
Then Selim goes to Hungary for her summer break, volunteering again, to help remote villagers with their American. It’s more of the same: comic characters – which means, essentially, stupid characters – idiots – though treated with greater or lesser degrees of compassion. All comedy is based on cruelty. Even puns have as a butt the hypothetical person who doesn’t know a particular word has two meanings. Batuman is not cruel, however – not needlessly so – and she makes Selim almost as dumb as everyone else.
The mayor thanked us for coming to share our culture and language, and hoped that we would take something away in return. Then he asked whether any of us knew HTML, because his village needed a webpage.
There is cruelty here – as in the ‘papel is blonk’ piece above, and it’s these parts that make me think, anxiously, about Safran Foer’s novel – but there is compassion, too, though it is compassion laced with nostalgia. Once upon a time, we were all a village that needed a webpage. Continue reading
This is not my usual monthly reading post. Instead, I’m using four books I read this month as a springboard into a pair of barely-thought-through meander/rants.
Autofiction vs ‘the novel’, followed by Value for money in bookbuying. If you fancy that, please read on:
Here are two interesting novels that seem, to me, to epitomise the two dominant modes of being for the novel at the moment, rather as Netherlandand Remainder did for Zadie Smith in her much-discussed ‘Two Paths for the Novel’ essay, which you can also read in Changing My Mind. For Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, used by Smith to represent the way things used to be, may I suggest Happiness by Aminatta Forna, a writer I’d never read till now, and maybe never would have if I hadn’t been given the book by my parents as a birthday present. Smith set in opposition to O’Neill’s Franzen-esque ‘well-made novel’ Tom McCarty’s Remainder, a more difficult and dicey proposition that, now, I’d be tempted to call ‘neo-postmodern’. In place of that, how about Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, as good a representative of the ‘autofiction’ genre as you can imagine, outside of Rachel Cusk’s Outline/Transit/Kudos trilogy.
I won’t say too much about the Heti, as I have a review of it forthcoming in the excellent Brixton Review of Books, but I will say that, although I am a big fan of autofiction as a genre, I am becoming annoyed with its willingness to play fast and loose with the title ‘novel’ – even if it’s not the writers themselves who do so, but rather than nebulous publishing-promotional-journalistic apparatus that surrounds them. When I think of the books that have most impressed me so far this year, I think of Esther Kinsky’s River, Jessie Greengrass’s Sight and Heti’s Motherhood – and that’s not counting the latest Cusk, which I haven’t read yet, but which if it is as good as Outline and Transit, will certainly be up there too. All of those are books that seem to come under the autofiction bracket – though Kinsky’s blue Fitzcarraldo livery would seem to mark it as fiction rather than non-, and Sight gets called a novel on the blurb.
Now, what I like about autofiction is that it problematises the very notion of what a ‘novel’ is, but what I don’t like is that in doing so it seems to sideline the very worthy, if unfashionable idea of what a novel used to be. It seems at time to equate the view that the line between fiction and non-fiction is blurred, and in fact more of a zone than a linewith a wholesale annexation of the fictional landscape. As if autofiction wants to be what a novel should be. This doubtless reads like some kind of awful exaggeration, but it does seem to suggest to me rather where we headed – which is a place where to write a good old-fashioned novel, with rounded characters, and realist description, and manufactured plots, is, oh dear me yes, something that is beyond the bounds of tastefulness. As if to write a traditional novel is akin to producing ‘likeable’ characters. Continue reading
Neel Mukherjee’s A State of Freedom took me two goes to get into. This a novel of parts: there are five numbered sections, told from the points of view of five different characters, who cross each other at most tangentially. The problem was that I found the first character – a wealthy Indian emigre taking his young, more or less American son on a tour of the Taj Mahal and other attractions – essentially uninteresting… or uncompelling… or that taboo word, unlikeable.
Unlikeable. I’m in two minds about this term, which has become something of a shibboleth in the contemporary book world. For some it’s a good thing – essential, if you want to take your readers with you. For others it’s anathema. How gauche, that you need to like the characters you read about! The way I’d think about it is that, however unlikeable a character, you’ve got to like reading about them.
I prefer the term ‘compelling’. It’s active; it describes what an interesting character does, whereas likeable or – ugh! – relatable are passive, indicating only the capacity to be seen in a particular way. You can like them, or relate to them, or not. ‘Relatable’ also strikes me as being analogous to that awful word collectable, as in the kinds of collectable figurines or commemorative plates you used to get advertised in the back of the Radio Times. Listen, mate, you can collect anything; designating something as such is worse than meaningless.
So: the rich man failing to connect with his son in the first section of Mukherjee’s novel did nothing for me. It wasn’t until I read on, however, that I came to understand that I wasn’t supposed to like him. The next section’s character – a British-Indian designer visiting his parents in Bombay, and the only first-person narrator of the five – is more sympathetic, a well-meaning man trying to square his western morals with his parents’ culturally-ingrained treatment of their cook and servant girl. With each section, in fact, we are moving down the social scale: to an unemployed villager who sets himself up in business with a bear cub he teaches to dance; to a young girl sent into service (who ends up in the apartment of the couple in part II); to the brother of the bear-man, who is working on big city construction sites and who impinges on the father and son in part I… you get the idea.
There was a similar structure behind Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, although this feels tighter, harder to recast as a set of ‘interlinked stories’. Perhaps not so much tighter as denser, more deeply attached to its theme. Egan’s book had a superficial subject, the music industry, and an interest in connectedness; Mukherjee’s has that same structural interest, but the connectedness is linked to an investigation into the strata of Indian society as they currently stand and, through that, the subject set out in the title: freedom. Mukherjee digs deep into his characters’ situations; their place in the book feels earned (apart, perhaps, for the father and son, which is more important structurally than thematically). Winningly, the sections are variable in length, as if they are as long as they need to be, rather than as long as the author needs them to be for the sake of the novel’s structure.
The novel belongs with those that attempt to adapt the Nineteenth Century realist novel for postmodern times. It sees the hidden, sometimes ephemeral connections that cross class and caste boundaries, and it wants to tell the story of the age through individual narratives that respect and embody vastly different life experiences – but it doesn’t try to offer the whole social-aesthetic architecture that would build these characters and these connections into a closed, coherent superstructure. Each character is given a narrative that, naturally, grows social context around itself – the embarrassment of the Westerner who imposes himself on his family servants’ lives, the Maoist rebels who drift in and out of the forests around the poorest, most remote villages – but the connective tissue that would be needed to show each character present and correct in a fully embodied structure is cut away, until those connections have almost to be inferred. It’s to Zola as Giacometti is to Rodin.
This month was a month of two Sparks: The Ballad of Peckham Rye, which I have read before, and The Mandelbaum Gate, which I have not. I’m not entirely sure how much I got out of The Ballad…this time around. The style, of course, is perfection, a studied nonchalance with regards to character that makes me think of a grandmaster politely playing a game of chess with a house guest while at the same time filling out their tax return. But how much is going on underneath? The lower-class satire of the factory workers and managers thrown into chaos by a Scottish graduate set on bringing the arts to the unlettered feels dated; it takes too much for granted. Dougal Douglas is no Jean Brodie.
The Mandelbaum Gate is a different matter. Set in Jerusalem in 1961, when the Eichmann trial was in progress, it follows a British half-Jewish Catholic convert (shades of Spark, obviously) who crosses over to the Jordanian-held part of the city as part of a pilgrimage. She falls in with a slightly comical, fusty British diplomat, who persuades her to conduct her pilgrimage in disguise, as her Jewishness could put her in danger, which she does in a full Arabic veil, pretending to be the old maidservant of a young Jordanian woman – who happens to involved in a spy network, and who also happens to fall into a romantic entanglement with Freddy, the diplomat. Although much is made of Spark’s debt to the French nouveau roman, especially in terms of her determinedly ironic attitude to characters, this book is far closer to a Graham Greene entertainment. Characters are given, as the rather archaic saying goes, their head; they are about as credible as Spark characters get. There is tension, and danger, and even the close threat of death – compare to poor Joyce Emily Hammond, from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, whose death in the Spanish Civil War is distant and bathetic rather than tragic. It’s the biggest Spark novel I’ve read, at 300pp, and rather against expectations – I hadn’t expected her to carry it off for so long – one of my favourites. (That said, I’ve got rather a poor track record with rereading Sparks. The Driver’s Seat, Ballad of Peckham Rye, The Public Image: none of these improved particularly on second reading. Only Jean Brodie gets better each time.)
Another writer that I had a hard time with in April was Cees Nooteboom, some of whose books I have loved immensely (The Following Story, Rituals). I took the latter with me on a writing trip to Amsterdam (my next book is set there), together with In The Dutch Mountains, which I’d never read. Dutch Mountains I reallydidn’t like: a strange fable about runaway circus performers with little grip on reality. Worse than this, however, was that I couldn’t get on with Rituals. This is probably the fourth time I’ve read it. Maybe I need to give it a rest.
Also on the Dutch trip I bought a first book, for me, by Tommy Wieringa, A Beautiful Young Wife, a slim novel about a brilliant 40-something biologist (working on cures for bird flu and the like) who has, as the title hints, a wonderful younger wife. The first half of the book, that shows them falling in love, is fine, but then when they have a child, against his wishes, things go off the rails, but in a confusing, unsatisfying way.
A fabular book that I did love was Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, which I read on the recommendation of a student at St Mary’s, Twickenham, where I teach. I wrote about it here.
My best find of the month was Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, which I finally got around to buying after reading her piece ‘The Body That Says I’m Here’. I haven’t read all the stories yet (incidentally, see this, from Mavis Gallant), but what I have read, I love. It’s fiercely intelligent in its formal experimentations, but it bends back and back to the communication of real, or credible, experiences.
And then, at the end of month, I received two quite splendid books: Riot Days by Maria Alyokhina, about her experience as part of Pussy Riot, and Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature, with a lovely evocative introduction by Olivia Lang. I can’t believe I hadn’t read this book of Jarman’s – I’ve read At Your Own Risk and Chroma, as well as Blue – but it’s an absolute beauty, his diaries of Prospect Cottage at Dungeness and of the aftermath of AIDS. It’s a bath book par excellence. A book to dip into, time and time again, and to luxuriate in.
Thanks to Penguin for the copy of Riot Days and to Vintage for the copy of Modern Nature.