December reading: Murdoch, Sage, Kinch

img_1955I 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

Books of the Year 2018

IMG_1914In 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

November Reading: James, Simenon, Booth, Keenan

IMG_1886In 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.

Continue reading

October reading: Eaves, Stead, Comyns, Sudjic, Stanley, The Second Shelf

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

September Reading: Gunaratne, Rooney, Murdoch, le Guin, de Waal, Tokarczuk, Deighton, Eaves

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

Sally Rooney and the brilliance of Normal People (and the danger it poses to the novel form)

IMG_1583I wrote recently about my first exposure to Sally Rooney’s writing, and the dilemma I faced, or conjured, as to whether buy her then-Booker-longlisted novel Normal People in hardback or wait for it in paperback – a debate that wasn’t simply down to price. In the end I was saved my deliberations when a kind student lent me a proof copy of the book. I will certainly be buying it in paperback when it comes out, and I may well be putting it on the curriculum at St Mary’s, Twickenham, where I teach.

The usefulness of Rooney to Creative Writing students – and teachers – is something I will discuss below (and this will involve a spoiler near the end: I’ll give you fair warning) but my general response to the novel is a solid continuation of my thoughts about the extract and early version story I had read in Granta and The White Review: this is a great book, that matches a warm, oblique narrative style to a pair of characters who, while immensely likeable (or ‘compelling’, if you quail at the L-word) are also intensely uncertain about the value or depth of their own qualities: the more time they spend poking and probing at their own selves, the further they get from any definite conclusion, and so they rely on each other – on their relationship with each other – to ground themselves, but seeing as they continually misstep, misspeak and misconstrue, they are always finding that solid ground shifting beneath them.

Thus the warm – we like them – and thus the oblique – they are continually struggling to find the perspective that Rooney offers the reader, from which they can be seen as genuinely likeable.

Again, the first thing to love about Normal People is the characters; the second thing to love is the cool narrative style, that dips into each character’s thought processes, and lets them be themselves, up close and personal, for the reader, but also steps away, and allows the reader to see them at an emotional distance. The mix of this is something Rooney gets absolutely right, and people have talked on Twitter about getting very closely involved in this couple as they read the book. I concur.

A brief introduction, then. The couple are Marianne and Connell, who as teenagers in small-town Ireland develop a secret and passionate friendship that crosses class divisions both in the town (Connell’s mother is Marianne’s family’s cleaner) and in school (where Connell is popular and Marianne is ostracised). The novel shifts locus but not focus when Connell follows Marianne to Dublin to study at Trinity, where they are both high-performing students. The novel is essentially one long on-off/will they?-won’t they? narrative as the two of them repeatedly grow close, sleep together, piss each other off, take other partners and then fall back into each other. The reasons for their separate and individual inability to commit, or trust – each other, and themselves – become clear as the novel progresses, but… Well, I’ll get to the but in a moment.

(If you want to get a sense of how cherished this book might become to future generations of romantically-inclined novel readers, there’s a lovely hint halfway through, when Connell is backpacking around Europe in the summer holidays. In his backpack is “a very beaten-up copy of a James Salter novel”. I think we know which James Salter novel that is, right, people? That’s right, it’s A Sport and a Pastime. People will love Normal People as much as people love that book: take my word for it. Continue reading

Sally Rooney and the hardback/paperback dilemma (A Graphic Index Part IV)

I hadn’t read any Sally Rooney until a couple of days ago when I was reminded on Twitter that there was a story in a back issue of The White Review that features the two characters – Marianne and Connell – from Normal People, Rooney’s Booker-longlisted and roundly lauded second novel. (Interestingly, this is from 2016, before the publication of her debut, Conversations with Friends.)

I read it, and loved it.

Then this morning I decided to take the latest Granta magazine (‘Generic Love Story’) into the bath with me for a lazy Sunday morning read, and there she was again, in the form of an actual extract from the book. (You can read it online.)

I read it, and loved it too, and finished with teary eyes.

Although this isn’t the main point of this post, I’ll say briefly that my reasons for loving it are more or less the same reasons other people have mentioned in reviews and online: that Rooney makes you care about the characters, which is perhaps an unfashionable thing; but also she seems utterly contemporary. This comes partly in the depiction of contemporary attitudes – to relationships, to sex – or rather of the contemporary ways of conceptualizing attitudes that themselves are probably as old as the hills; and also partly in the smooth integration of contemporary technology etc into the narrative, but also in the way the prose seems alive to the texture of life today.

One example: in the Granta extract, teenage Connell’s mother puts the kettle on, something that has happened countless times in realist prose fiction since the invention of kettles, or realism, whichever came first, but this time we get this: “She laughed, fixing the kettle into its cradle and hitting the switch.” And I realise that’s the first time I’ve had a writer notice that that’s how kettles work these days. (Perhaps someone else has used it, but I missed it.) And if Rooney is noticing that, then what else is she noticing about modern life? The kettle moment is like a concrete token offered to reader that encourages them to believe that the more intangible things she’s noticing (do young people really think like that about sex?) are credible also.

Now as it happens I’m off out to my local bookshop shortly to buy a book as a present (in fact it may well be a copy of Conversations with Friends) and so I’m asking myself: should I get Normal People? I’m sure I’ll like it. There is also a definite thrill to buying a new book to read straightaway when I’m not exactly short of other books that I either want to read or feel I should.

But… here’s the thing: it’s hardback, and I don’t want to read Normal People in hardback. Nor do I want to have the hardback of Normal People on my shelves.

Why is this?

Well, there are bad and shallow reasons why I might feel this. She’s a female writer is the most obvious one, and I don’t want to accord her the status of hardback author. She’s a paperback writer, to quote George Harrison out of context. Do I think this? I hope not. Or rather: the status thing is true. Not everything is worth buying in hardback. But I hope that my measuring of her worth doesn’t involve sexism.

Let’s take a step back. Continue reading

July and August Reading: Beard, Rentzenbrink, Markson, Ondaatje, Baker, Diski, Postel, Moss, Palmen

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

June Reading: Batuman, Manguso, Teo, Fuller, Milano

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

Occasional review: Annie Ernaux’s ‘The Years’

I picked up a couple of Annie Ernaux books last time I was in France. I think The Years (Les années) was a recommendation from someone, possibly a bookseller. I remember starting it (“Toutes les images disparaîtront…”/”All the images will disappear…”) but didn’t read the whole thing until I received this translation, from Fitzcarraldo Editions. It is a stunning piece of work, a memoir of life in France since the second world war drained almost entirely of the personal. Ernaux presents her life as a series of disconnected generalisations – sociological, political and cultural: an election might carry as much weight as a film, or an advertising slogan, or the availability of abortion, or the changing tenor of parenthood or coupledom. She describes her goal at one point as presenting “an existence that is singular but also merged with the movements of a generation”.

The great stylistic trick of the original, of course, is her use of that characteristically French pronoun on, which carries none of the painful elitism of the English one, and in fact Alison L. Strayer often translates on as we.

A pair of underlined paragraphs – of which there are many in my copy – picked at random:

Meanwhile, we studied for our BAs while listening to the transistor. We went to see Cléo from 5 to 7, Last Year at Marienbad, Bergman, Buñuel and Italian films. We loved Léo Ferré, Barbara, Jean Ferrat, Leny Escudero, and Claude Nougaro. We read Hara-Kiri. We felt nothing in common with the yé-yés, who said Hitler, never heard of him, and their ideols, who were even younger than we: girls with pigtails and songs fo rthe school playground; a boy who bellowed and writhed on the floor of the stage. We had the feeling they’d never catch up with us. Next to them, we were old. Perhaps we too would die under de Gaulle.

But we were not adults. Sexual life remained clandestine and rudimentary, haunted by the spectre of ‘an accident’. No one was supposed to have a sex life before marriage. Boys believed their lewd innuendos displayed advanced erotic science, but all they knew how to do was ejaculate on the area of the girl’s body to which she directed him, for the sake of caution. No one knew for sure whether or not they were still virgins.

(As it happens, the first uses on in the original, and the second uses nous.)

The closest Ernaux comes to her own person is a series of descriptions of family photographs in which she features, from childhood to late middle age, but even here she is always she, never I. Dispassionate is the word.

There is an obvious link here to Barthes’ Camera Lucida, but Ernaux is not conceptually or theoretically interested in the idea of photography. In fact, in Barthes’ terms, the photos she gives us are all stadiumand no punctum. She refuses to pick out the single, novelistic detail that, despite its inconsequence, is able to carry the weight of sentiment. Continue reading