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
Julian Barnes’ Booker-winning The Sense of an Ending really is a drab and uninteresting little book, but something about it annoyed me enough to want to write about it. In fact I’ve ended up writing far more about it than I intended, and have come back and rewritten the start of my post. For a reason that will be become clear, I want you to know this.
I only read the book – I’ve long been a non-fan of Barnes’ work – because my wife brought it home, and I was interested to see what the best book on a supposedly dreadful prize shortlist read like. It didn’t take me long, in part because it’s short, in part because it’s full of such doggedly uninspiring and eminently skimmable prose. Picking the book back up, I open at it random, and here’s what I find:
Margaret sat and listened through the quiche and salad, then the pannacotta with fruit coulis, as I described my contact with Jack, the pages of Adrian’s diary, the meetings on the bridge, the contents of my letter and my feelings of remorse. She put her cup of coffee back on its saucer with a slight click.
Tiring, isn’t it? To be fair, Barnes would seem to be boring on purpose – the exemplary dullness of the quiche and the salad and, more to the point, the dullness of the person who thinks they deserve our approval for the addition of the pannacotta with fruit coulis. Barnes, it seems reasonably clear, is after the feel of Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier, about which he has written, and which I read for the first time over the summer.
John Dowell in The Good Soldier is, like Barnes’ narrator, Tony Webster, a dull man who somehow ends up living his life alongside decidedly less dull people – people that are, he comes to discover, even less dull than he realised at the time. Above all, they are people whose tragedy it is to be memorialised by creatures such as Webster and Dowell, “bumblers” (as Barnes has it in his – very good – piece on The Good Soldier) entirely devoid of imagination.
Ford’s book works by virtue of the intensity and complexity of the Ashburnams’ and Dowells’ lives, and the compromised intricacy with which the narrator brings the past, and his growing awareness of it, to the surface. It’s one of those books that depends for its effect on the withholding of pertinent information, and thus on the reader’s acceptance of the idea that, just as Dowell comes to know the truth of his friends’ lives piecemeal, so he narrates them in a like manner; even though (and this is the crucial point), at the point of narration, he has all the facts before him. In other words, he is artificially (or unconsciously) recreating his past ignorance.
It’s a dubious authorial move, but it’s carried off because of the psychological acuity of Ford’s prose – comparable to the vertiginous descent into the abyss of a single thought that you can find in a page of Javier Marías. It also works because Dowell, a stolid non-writer, is writing the book we read. His struggle to get down in words the most difficult episodes of his life explains and – hopefully – forgives the obliqueness and opaqueness of the resulting prose.
Barnes’ novel is different in this crucial respect. It doesn’t present itself as a written document, though it clearly comes directly from Webster’s consciousness, and seems to be narrated from a point beyond its narrative terminus. If you ignore the extreme variability of his retention of sense data (see the click of that coffee cup in the quote above) you’re still left with the uncertainty of his unreliability. Continue reading