Part One of my April 2020 Reading blog post covered the essays of Lydia Davis and Natalia Ginzburg. Read it here.
Apart from Ana María Matute’s The Island (reviewed here) the only other book I finished in its entirety in April was, I think, Sodom and Gomorrah, the fourth volume of Proust. I started reading Proust last year, as my 2019 New Year’s Resolution, but stalled after finishing the third volume on my summer holiday. By October I’d abandoned the fourth volume. (I’ve been dating the passage where I leave off each day, as well as posting notes on another Twitter account, @ProustDiary.) I picked the fourth volume back up in March of this year, and finished it in April. I am now most of the way through the fifth volume, The Prisoner.
So: I am making good progress, but in fact lockdown hasn’t given me that much more time to read than normal. It’s not just that I am working, from home, but that reading, in a busy house of five people (two adults and three teenage boys) can sometimes be a hard activity to justify. Sitting with a laptop is work. Sitting in front of the television is generally a communal activity, and one that can bring the family together outside of mealtimes in a way that board games and jigsaws, because of particular personality types, can’t always do. Reading, apart from at bedtime, is likely to get you looked at strangely – more strangely, I’m afraid to say, than looking at your phone.
I have been enjoying Proust very much in parts, and drifting through others. Indeed, I felt particularly skewered by this aside in Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature:
To a superficial reader of Proust’s work – rather a contradiction in terms, since a superficial reader will get so bored, so engulfed in his own yawns, that he will never finish the book – to an inexperienced reader, let us say…
So let’s call me an inexperienced reader. Certainly, there have been plenty of bits where I have been bored, and irritated. Irritated by the fascination with the workings of society, and bored by the endless unfoldings, like a piece of eternal fractal origami, of the intricate inner imbrications of sometimes mundane psychological impulses. More on this later. Continue reading
That pile of books looks more impressive than it should. I didn’t read all of the books there cover to cover. The two MacNeice books arrived only at the end of the month, and so far I’ve only read them scavenger-wise, mining them for the parts about the writing of ‘Autumn Journal’, MacNeice’s book-length poem that I’ve been using as a model for a poem I’m writing on our current Covid-times, called ‘Spring Journal’, that you can read here. I also wrote about Ana María Matute’s excellent novel, The Island, here.
The essays (Lydia Davis and Natalia Ginzburg) I’ve been dipping in and out of, as you should with essays. Reading the Davis is perhaps the odder experience. She is so marked by her style, so wedded to it, you might say, and that style across all her writing is so essaystic anyway, or bellelettristic – and on occasion faux-essayistic, faux-bellelettristic – that the essays themselves seem to almost dissolve in their own solution.
Her stories often read like boiled-down or reduced essays, like you reduce a sauce – but reduced to the level of density and taste that Heston Blumenthal would approve of – but they also often seem to be poking fun at the idea of essays, of the gap between their confidence of delivery and the meaning of what is delivered.
None of the essays in the book are as outright enjoyable as the best of her stories, and the very placidity of her voice – placidly arch, you might say – means I kind of drifted through them. Some of them I must have read three or four times now, without them becoming fixed in my mind, good though they are.
(The essay about fragments, for example: how perfect, how useful, how now, how me: I love fragments! And she is interesting and useful about fragments, and she carefully considers various people who write in fragments, or forms that are akin to fragments, but at the end of it I’m no wiser than I was at the beginning.)
Perhaps she is trying hard not to be showy in her writing, which is good, in a way, but in another way it is not good. Certainly she is never aphoristic. She is only aphoristic in her stories, where she is lampooning aphoristic writing, with its idea that you can boil down wisdom into apercus:
‘Examples of Remember’
Remember that thou art but dust.
I shall try to bear it in mind.
Natalia Ginzburg is, on the face of it, a very different kind of essayist. (For those that don’t know, she was a prolific Italian writer and political activist who lived through the second world war, though her husband was murdered by the government, and lived to the early 90s.) She is not primarily writing about literature, and so about things thought, but about life, and lived experience.
(Davis seems to give the sense in her writing that she has not experienced anything in her life that has not been thoroughly, even entirely mediated by words. If you walked up to her and tweaked her nose, she would be thinking about the word ‘tweak’ before the sense-impression of the physical act had even reached her brain.)
The Little Virtues (published by Daunt Books) is another book that I have picked up more than once, and read bits of, and probably reread some bits of multiple times. Perhaps it took reading it under lockdown to really make it stick. Ginzburg is a simple writer, rather in the way that Davis is a simple writer, but the difference is that I am reading Ginzburg in translation, whereas Davis always reads like I am reading her in translation. Continue reading
I have this problem with the novels of Peter Stamm. I love reading them, but they evaporate from my reading brain after I have read them – like the conceptual artist mentioned in Nathalie Léger’s The White Dress who pushed a block of ice around Mexico City until it melted entirely away. All that is left from my reading of All Days Are Night is a sense of a couple coming together in a ski resort, and an all-night rave of some kind, and of the relationship not working; Seven Years I remember barely at all; To the Back of Beyond is more memorable, perhaps because more high-concept: it is a novel built on an audacious idea that all the same builds that idea into something subtle, and moving.
The only thing I could remember about Stamm’s latest novel, The Sweet Indifference of the World, when I put it in that stack of books read in March, and photographed it with my phone, was the idea of the doppelgänger – which is also foundational to To the Back of Beyond. Beyond that, I could remember not a thing.
Writing this, though, the book has come back to me. It is just as audacious as To the Back of Beyond, and for that reason cannot be described. Let me repeat that Stamm tends to write books that start from an audacious conceit, but which drift away from it, or sink down into it, or in any case hedge or fudge their treatment of that conceit, so that you are never forced to actually judge it in the clear light of day, as you would with a piece of speculative or fantastical fiction that leads you to ask: yes, well, but would it actually work like that?
There is a kind of disintegration loops approach to the writing here – these are thought experiments that are allowed to unfold only so far until they start to disintegrate, while continuing to unfold.
Or: they are Schrodinger’s Boxes novels, that allow their conceits to both be and not be, and honour both in the telling, on the page, where normally things just are.
I’ve just picked the book up and flicked through it: no notes, no underlinings, which is unusual for me. And as I flicked through the book I thought about the nasty trick it plays with its gimmick; and that that’s precisely the reason for having it. It’s a book that undermines its own narrative strategy, or at least its narrator, that kills him off and leaves him alive to see it. It made me think of Simon Kinch’s excellent Two Sketches of Disjointed Happiness, which plays a more similar trick, I think, to To the Back of Beyond. There is something to be written about doppelgängers in fiction – not the simplistic Jekyll and Hyde type, but the type of novel that plays with the foundational idea of narrative that the narrator is a stable, indivisible unit. There’s also Geoff Dyer’s The Search. It is only men who write this kind of novel?
A thought experiment novel, I like that. Perhaps also a little like a Borgesian novel, if Borges hadn’t been too lazy (to use his word) to write one, and had had the patience to let his conceit roll out and gradually disintegrate, like the 1:1 scale map in That Empire in ‘On Exactitude in Science’.
Just for reasons of titular symmetry I’ll move from Stamm to Sarah Hall’s The Beautiful Indifference. Now, I’ve never quite managed to get to grips with Hall as a writer: I’ve failed to make significant headway with any of the novels of hers I’ve tried, and although I remember being quite affected by the story ‘She Murdered Mortal He’ – the part with the creature following the woman along a beach in some far off holiday country – and I’m sure that I did get to the end of the story at least once, I was still surprised by that ending when I read it this time.
This time I read it because Hall was again picked as part of a Personal Anthology. Continue reading
January was largely taken up with Simenon – for a piece still forthcoming, for which I tried to read as much of the famously prolific novelist as possible. This was not an entirely rewarding experience. After all, which writer can you honestly binge-read to the extent of weeks and weeks of nothing but them? Bear in mind that your average Inspector Maigret novel is around 170pp long, and you can absolutely blaze through them, so unencumbered are they by much in the way of plot, description or linguistic complexity.
The fact that they are crime novels, that they mostly open with a murder, and are peopled by rough, tough types, don’t stop them being, essentially, soft reads. They are close to Barthes’ Degree Zero Writing. As books, they practically read themselves. This is a good thing, individually: the Maigrets are ideal comfort reads; you can pick them up in confidence that you know what you’re getting. In conjunction, in succession, this is not the case.
Simenon’s romans durs (straight or hard novels) are different. Without the broad, brooding humanity of Maigret – so long as you’re not Jewish, or eastern European, or female and ugly – they give off an acid, acrid stench. Their anti-heroes are nastier than Patricia Highsmith’s basically amoral villains.
So, reading lots of Maigrets back to back was not a particularly edifying experience – in my photo they’re represented by Maigret in Vichy: a fine example. It doesn’t help that Simenon seems to have got more slipshod in the later novels. Nowhere really do the books offer up an ‘extended universe’, beyond the dependable lode stars of Madame Maigret and the inspector’s closest colleagues at the Quai d’Orfèvres, but they do repeat themselves, and they get sloppy. I will go on reading them, and acquiring them in their lovely new Penguin editions, and I will seek out more of the non-Maigrets, but by the time I filed my piece I was desperate for something sparkier, something punchier, something with more heart and mind. I turned to Raymond Chandler, thinking I could make do with one story from Pearls a Nuisance, but actually reading all three of them: the title story, ‘Finger Man’, and ‘The King in Yellow’.
Oh, Chandler is such a joy. Like Simenon he knew well enough to make his hero(s) good, honest men with gruff exteriors, knights in tarnished armour. Like Simenon, he knew that we don’t want Poirot or Holmes-style clever-clever cryptic crossword mysteries; we’re quite happy to tag along behind the detective, picking up clues with them. Bad guys are usually pretty obvious, after all. Most murder is decidedly uncryptic. Unlike Simenon, however, Chandler is a delicious prose stylist, who would never settle for Degree Zero. (He is so even in ‘Pearls are a Nuisance’, in which the first-person private dick protagonist talks like a Dulwich College stuffed-shirt, rather than a laconic, tooth-pick chewing gumshoe; when called on it, he answers:
‘I cannot seem to change my speech, Henry. My father and mother were both severe puritans in the New England tradition, and the vernacular has never come naturally to my lips, even while I was in college.’)
But it’s not just the case of a way with a particular vocabulary. The is a splendid sharpness to the narration in terms of what is told, and what is not. Here is a paragraph from ‘Finger Man’, in which the hero, another standard-issue private eye, comes back to his office to find a client, a standard-issue femme fatale, in his waiting room.
I unlocked the other door and she went in and sat in the chair where Lou had sat the afternoon before. I opened some windows, locked the outer door of the reception room, and struck a match for the unlighted cigarette she held in her ungloved and ringless left hand
The ‘ringless’ is a good detail, but you’d expect that from a private eye. It’s the fact of how that unlit cigarette comes right at the end of the paragraph, like the verb in a German sentence, and the way it sits there, patiently, on the page, shows us that she’s been sitting there like that for a while – for the time it takes him to lock the door and open the windows – waiting for him to light it, in the way of femmes fatales down the ages. And it only takes a second look at that sentence to realise (or guess, if you’re being picky) that he, the private eye, had spotted the cigarette, there in her hand, just as he spotted the ring, at some point in his tour of the office windows, and left her there, waiting, while the rest of the sentence rolled itself out. It’s not narrated, but it’s there. Continue reading
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.