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Book Club Spy: A Little Life

A Little LifeHanya Yanagihara – A Little Life

Harrowing is the word most commonly used in reviews and in conversation where A Little Life is involved. It is a word more commonly associated with a dreadful ordeal than a seven hundred page novel. There is no point shying away from the fact that the book is far too long. However, Hanya Yanagihara is such a pro in the world of books that no one can blame her editor from baulking at the prospect of that particular conversation, especially as the story itself is undoubtedly compelling. The friendship between four university friends as it twists and breaks over several decades living in New York is as gripping as it is complicated.

Except it is not about four ‘little’ lives, because the stage is set for just one. Anyone intrigued by Malcolm’s daddy issues and burgeoning architecture career will be disappointed – he is really just a supplier of divine interiors after page 200. JB is the only one with a sense of silliness, and the release the reader feels from his comical presence is palpable, until the jokes and then his presence also recedes. Willem is the kind heart who seems to be a dim failed actor, until he gets his break, and is the best friend Jude could ever ask for. He is endlessly patient, and somehow avoids being annoying.

Jude is the unwilling star; the bleeding angel, the lawyer, baker, studio assistant, adopted son and abused vessel of what loosely represents the care system in America. Such is his beauty and grace that those who don’t want to paint him want to carve their marks into his (already battered) flesh to appropriate a piece of him for themselves. His story has been compared to a misery memoir, but whilst A Child Called It contains mawkish sentiment, and gestures of hopeful rhetoric, A Little Life has none of the above. The ending is not happy, and the very worst things happen to good people. Yanagihara, when asked about the expanding taint of child abuse in the novel, has explained that it is not that she is especially interested in children or abuse, but in this form of abuse as the ultimate form of abusive power.

Where Yanagihara has the edge over a well written journalistic by-line on an amazingly accomplished and complicated individual is her setting. The former careers from humble box room beginnings and cheap Vietnamese food to slick urban mega flats and haute cuisine. A few people left the narrative here: the endless square footage and minimalist contemporary art provide a bleak contrast to Jude’s scarred wreck of a life. Or perhaps their hearts just creaked with envy at the mental image these palaces summoned, which was too much when the reader has already been put under a certain amount of emotional duress. As covered in our Booker Prize piece, Yanagihara wanted to move away from the typical portrayal of New York’s geography and capture the hunger of the city’s inhabitants. She accomplishes this in every sense of the word – everyone works till they drop, they are always moving into bigger apartments or building new houses, expanding their empires and upgrading. Strangely, when it comes to appetite, despite her descriptions of iced cakes and Thanksgiving meals, I have never felt less hungry while reading about food. The opposite was the case when reading Fleming’s Bond books – never have scrambled eggs sounded so tempting.

Her most enchanting character is a supporting role. Harold the law professor first meets Jude at law school, where he buys Jude some clothes for a job interview. He is gentle, funny, a devoted husband and father and an appalling cook. He adopts Jude, and loves him persistently when Jude – like many victims of abuse – desperately tries to push him away. He gently continues to reappear, and that is his simple and irrefutable way of showing love. Harold is Mr Tom, Gandalf, John Keating and Atticus Finch combined. He represents the most pure manifestation of familial, paternal love in a novel which is interesting in tracing every kind, including the fleeting and the inadequate. Blood ties are replaced by friendships as the important family structure for Yanagihara’s characters, especially for those without children.

So harrowing, yes, too long, certainly. However, A Little Life is a detailed tapestry of style without being overly stylized, honest without being brutal for the sake of impact, and Yanagihara’s characters will floor the reader, often when they least expect it. It is not the image of a broken figure curled up on the floor in the dark that sears, but the gentle insistence that you look the speaker in the eye, figuratively speaking, as they are showing you something new.

The Editors

Jonathan Franzen on Purity

Franzen

An Evening with Jonathan Franzen: Intelligence Squared, 30 September 2015

At the end of last month, Intelligence Squared (the world’s “premier forum for debate and discussion”) hosted an evening of Franzen in discussion with Sarah Churchwell at The Royal Geographical Society for the launch of his latest novel: Purity. Two Americans discussing America in a room of ex-pat Americans. Plus two British people feeling very underdressed and obliged to ask each other questions like “What is Stevia?” [The answer turned out to be a sweetener; we were not missing out].

Once we managed to shoulder past the American academic habit of using longer words than necessary – like supererogatory – and they had each brought up their credentials frequently enough to feel well established, appreciated and legitimate, we were all delighted to get on with it.

Before reading from his latest novel, Purity, Franzen claimed it is a hard book to read from, but rose above this to deliver three entertaining passages in an appropriately wry tone. It was best when he dropped the voices and let his words do the job, as he has created a very entertaining story.

The protagonist Pip and her mother talk on the phone. The latter is a recluse living in the California hills, bleating: “you have no idea how much I envy you your cubicle” as she blenches at the visibility of the human form. Pip wishes to be in the world, but is stuck in a non-job hampered by student loans, and feels she cannot get much further without knowing who her father is. It is the only taboo topic between them, and so they dance around hypochondria and passive aggressive commentary: “No phone call was complete before each had made the other wretched”.

Next, down to Amarillo, Texas, where Leila the investigative journalist looks into a missing nuclear weapon. A listener so sympathetic she receives Christmas Cards from the Unabomber ten years after she wrote a piece on him that he felt painted him in a more favourable light than most. Leila is interviewing a woman about her ex-boyfriend, who showed her a B16 thermonuclear warhead, before asking her to strip and climb on so they could have sex on it. The payoff for this part of the narrative came from her initially playing for time by saying she didn’t want to get radiation poisoning.

Franzen avoided his Denver and Bolivia sections to provide his final reading: a first person narrative in early ‘90s New York. A recently divorced couple fight over the phone until he agrees to cross state lines so they can continue dysfunctionally sleeping with one another. At this point Franzen was at his most engaging, and rapid dialogue is hard to read well aloud.

As we entered the discussion section of the evening, Churchwell opened by saying Purity was a continuation of themes introduced first in The Corrections [published a week before 9/11] and then in Freedom – such as the corporatisation of America. The internet, and associated questions of privacy drive Purity. Not only was it unclear where a question lurked within this statement, but writers (as discussed in a recent piece on the Man Booker) do tend to pursue themes that hound them. This is hardly a revelation. Regardless, Franzen was deft with these questions that were more like earnest statements of intent.

This was not the case in the recent FT interview, where he came across as precious and evasive – almost keen to stoke the concept of him being the second most loathed man in America (Kanye West has top billing). He did not help himself with comments such as:

I am literally, in terms of my income, a 1 per center, yes,”, “I spend my time connected to the poverty that’s fundamental to mankind, because I’m a fiction writer.”, and “I’m a poor person who has money.”

He claims that he tells the truth, and he claims people do not like him as they do not like the truth. Rachel Kushner’s review is a classic example barely even touching on the novel’s content, cosily referring to the author as “Jon” while colouring in Franzen’s snobbery and mean spiritedness.

Returning to the podium, Franzen’s decision to name his protagonist Pip inevitably raised a question regarding his interest in 19th century literature. As we moved from Dickens to Trollope and How We Live Now, questions surrounding writing about the moment as it happens were parried by Franzen requesting who ‘we’ are now, as Dickens was able to have a much clearer idea of who ‘we’ were. This was explored in the last two novels and he struggled with it when writing the third before coming to a different understanding of who ‘we’ are: a community of readers and writers. This seemed to be rather stating the obvious and until he explained that he still aims to write for the imagined audience of 5000 that were present when he crafted The Corrections.

He cited anxiety and all kinds of shame stemming from digital communication as big drivers: he writes about these and “what the world is doing to me”. When asked about shame, he stressed the ironic nature of Purity as a title, and said his duty as a writer as he sees it is to ironize. The novel’s epigraph is Goethe’s Mephistopheles (Franzen called him Mephisto) introducing himself to Faust. Franzen explained: “He’s still a villain and because the universe is so big, some of the bad things cannot help but have good outcomes”. This applies to the internet – good coming out of bad – and specifically the character of Andreas Wolf, an Assange like figure. Assange is referred to several times in the novel in contrast to Wolf. When Churchwell asked: “How much emphasis do you want to put on their differences?” Franzen’s eventual response was “Quite a bit”. Like Assange, Andreas Wolf craves fame, but unlike him does not want to be seen as a hero. He resembles a compulsive lab rat with a like button.

Purity is surprisingly enjoyable to read – perhaps because Franzen’s pained tones do not pervade his narrative in the same way as when he is interviewed. The novel is an amusing sprawl through 80s East Germany, Bolivia and (as ever) a modern America that readers in the UK will never be part of but we somehow find compelling to read all about. There is no doubting his skill as a storyteller, and fortunately there is little risk for most of us in finding ourselves engaged in conversation with him.

The Editors

Man Booker Prize 2015: Readings

man-booker-prize-longlist-2015

“This group shows what a broad church we are. Long may it remain so. ”

Man Booker Prize Readings, 12th October 2015, Southbank Centre, London

The night before the winner was announced, the six shortlisted Booker Prize nominees met at the Southbank Centre. Mariella Frostrup was presenting, and appeared to have mislaid her notes before mounting the podium, as her summary of Hanya Yagihara’s novel was:four men descending into horror because of one’s childhood secrets”. Anyone who has read A Little Life knows it is all about Jude. More on this from the Book Club Spy next week.

Much more important to focus on the six writers, starting with Marlon James*, who read from A Brief History of Seven Killings, set in 1976 Jamaica with “an ill wind, a malaria”, and “now, something new is blowing”. Bob Marley is playing football with anyone who will play with him, when his toe is skewered by an errant wire hidden inside his boot, his toenail is torn off, he nearly loses it entirely to cancer. Time speeds up rapidly and a litany of injuries whirl together in a global journey that seems full of blood – his boot fills with it every night on stage. Marley is ill, “the mattress has sucked two pounds of water from your skin”. One minute he is running in Central Park, the next his hips lock, then his neck, finally his arms, bringing him crashing to the ground with a dead scream in his throat. The cancer in his foot spreads throughout his body and he is transported around a series of hospitals before dying.

When questioned about his choice of Marley as a subject, it was not his music that clinched it (James is a Pet Shop Boys fan: “For me, reggae is like a family member, it’s great, I love it, but then I just want it to leave”) but his desire to find the 1976 his parents lived through while in Jamaica, the place James was born and where: “For me, a crisis was Starsky or Hutch”. He talked compellingly about his childhood reading of Dickens, who recounted history via marginal characters who, in the process, made history.

Tom McCarthy followed him with a brilliantly delivered reading from Satin Island. His hero is a corporate anthropologist, who writes in numbered paragraphs. McCarthy (who is also a performance artist, the head of an extraordinary group called the International Necronautical Society that seems to promote death) placed entirely perfect stresses upon the phrase “fucking buffering”. He revels in playing with language used by corporate structures and information exchange; seeing the data powering the spinning hourglass on his screen reassures our hero “a grace conferring act of generosity….an inexhaustive torment of giving”. The horror to him is that the spinning circle we are all painfully familiar with isn’t anything but the things itself: “We become buffering and buffering becomes everything”.

McCarthy feels that the digital world is the terra we live on now, citing the opening scene of the Oresteia, where Clytemnestra sees the beacons being lit, bringing news from Troy as proof that the remote transmissions of signs is nothing new. He asked what Hamlet is if not an examination of personal correspondence by the state. He later responded to an audience member asking if one needs to like a central character by crying: “No, look at Hamlet, he’s not even a character.

When probed on his continual treatment of themes such as doubling and transcendence, McCarthy politely answered that one tends to return to old wounds; however a blunter response could arguably be is this not what writers do?

Third came Chigozie Obioma with The Fishermen, reading a passage in which a group of boys, returning from the river with two large tilapia, find a dead man lying under a mango tree next to the Celestial Church. The ugliness of the soles of his feet are commented upon. He is, it turns out, not dead at all, simply mad. He performs a ‘calisthenics display’ covered in rotting mango, while the boys goggle at him in the gloaming, comparing him to a lion or Superman. They then watch him throw a mango twenty miles. From Obioma’s part of West Africa, there is strong belief in everything being pre-ordained, of the power of fate, spells and superstitions. He created his tale of fratricide while he was at college abroad and extremely homesick for…his brothers and sisters.

Next up was Sunjeev Sahota with The Year of the Runaways, which he rather undersold with the description of the novel as “four people together in Sheffield”. He read a scene where one character – “alone in the world and in himself” – leaves a suitcase of clothes at his future wife’s flat. The couple talk of the weather, and there is clearly something staged and/or sinister going on. He shows her clearly falsified photographs of them on holidays they never took, created by his lawyer. His involvement is not entirely fabricated, as he searches for excuses to stay in her company: “he couldn’t remember ever feeling that warm”.

Frostrup asked about his decision to write (as the child of migrants) about migration in light of recent press coverage devoted to the topic. He very gently answered that the question of migration had always been ‘gnawing’ at him – on his frequent trips to India it is an “open conversation” regarding the number of people who want to move to the UK or Canada – and for the 34 years he has been alive the question has been there, so it is not, for him, a topical issue.

The penultimate reading came from Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread. She read the contents of a phone call between an (estranged) brother and sister in Baltimore that was more of a monologue, with the sister using rather clichéd language – dusty motes of sun, doors being flung open and people sitting on stoops – in order to manipulate her brother with shared memories, or simply punish him through boredom. She was more engaging during the Q&A, exclaiming: “I don’t know why we’re all so fascinated by family, but I’m sure I’m not the only one”. Her description of reducing a novel’s plan to one sheet of paper over the course of a month, then knitting it together through an intricate editing process with multiple stages.

Finally, Hanya Yagihara read from A Little Life. The passage focussed on the main character Jude’s process of managing memory by erasing the small and avoiding the big, but the gaps he creates in his memory widen and try to infiltrate his waking life. His techniques (phyically checking locks, and those of the mind where he envisions a white expanse, where he is finally clean) are employed to make himself feel safe. Yagihara described her way of writing the novel as frenzied and exhilarating, though physically and emotionally difficult. Upon being complimented for her competence at writing as a man, she explained she felt that she has always been surrounded by women and thus is more interested in men (though “less as I grow older”). She was wry and polished, quipping that as someone having lived there for twenty years and who works in the literary world, she was tired of people writing about the physical geography of New York. What she is interested in is the shared ambition of those who live there, as everyone is on the run from something. To be continued.

The quote in the title of this review was from Sunjeev Sahota and felt apt: in the course of an hour, six writers gave us a dizzying range of style in every sense of the word, while showing a quiet regard for one another and the canon into which they had all been hurled headlong.

*Marlon James was announced as the winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize on Wednesday 15th

The Editors

Elena Ferrante, or Naples, Part Two

ferrante

A panel discussion was held at Lutyens and Rubenstein on the eve of the release of the final novel in Ferrante’s Naples tetralogy. The panel was made up of Cathy Rentzenbrink, Jonathan Gibbs, Susanna Gross and Tessa Hadley – all writers and critics, but more importantly, ardent Ferrante fans. Although none of them were especially keen on speaking in front of an audience, when it comes to this author none of them could bear the alternative prospect of sitting in the audience and watching another panel get it wrong. Such is the fervour for Ferrante.

For those who have not yet been introduced, the books chart the course of a friendship over several decades. The two women – Elena and Lila – are co-dependent rivals and know each other better than anyone. The novels open with Elena writing their story down as Lila has disappeared. Her aim to recapture what may soon be forgotten becomes, we realize, memoir as as an aggressive, defiant act. Elena is punishing Lila by colonizing their story. She seems to own it by providing the only side, however, in telling the full version of events, there are moments when she clearly hands the reader’s sympathy over to Lila by recounting her own actions. There is little objectivity, but at the same time, there is little bias.

In the third novel, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Elena Greco admits: “I had been conditioned by my education, which has shaped my mind, my voice. To what secret pacts with myself had I consented, just to excel. And now, after the hard work of learning, what I must unlearn. Also, I had been forced by the powerful presence of Lila to imagine myself as I was not. I was added to her, and I felt mutilated as soon as I removed myself. Not an idea, without Lila. Not a thought I trusted, without the support of her thoughts. Not an image. I had to accept myself outside of her. ” Indeed, Lila affects every sentence: “she has managed to insert herself into this extremely long chain of words to modify my text, to purposely supply the missing links to unhook others without letting it show, to say more of me than I want, more than I’m able to say”. Despite becoming a successful author, Elena Greco feels she owes all she has to Lila’s inspiration, to her very existence. Lila (beautiful and wild) overshadows Elena, but the former feels she must live vicariously through the latter because she ducked out of formal education, failed to get out their neighbourhood in Naples, and succumbed to its cycle of savagery.

In the second novel, The Story of A New Name, when Lila realizes on her wedding day just how significant her groom’s shortcomings are, she barely restrains herself: “She used all her strength, and I who knew her thoroughly felt that if she could she would have wrenched [his arm] from his body, crossed the room holding it high above her head, blood dripping in her train, and she would have used it as a club or a donkey’s jawbone to crush Marcello’s face with a solid blow.” Upon realizing she cannot leave the old life, or indeed change it, she retreats into blackness: “I think how much blood there is in a person’s body. If you put too much stuff in things, they break. Or they catch fire and burn. ”

In the final instalment The Lost Child, Ferrante describes Naples as “a city that reveals or underlines that dreams of unhindered progress is utterly pessimistic and unfounded. We are in fact in an age of savagery, unknowing.” The tonal overlap with Saviano is striking when she describes the lack of “decipherable order, only an unruly and controllable crowd on streets…in the place where they threw out beasts and garbage a lot of human blood was shed”. As Saviano alerted the world to the presence of the Camorra at the centre of global crime, Ferrante shows that Naples is a microcosmic world: “The entire planet, she said, is a Fosso Carbonario”.

The complexity of local life in Naples is initially baffling, not least because of the various intertwined family trees by the end of the final book. Every family has a function within the neighbourhood, which Ferrante manages to stretch out over the course of thirty years. This is, perhaps, where people see the soap opera element to her writing. The end of the tetralogy was compared (perhaps sacrilegiously on both sides) to the end of Coronation Street, as the number of characters was gradually reduced until barely eight remain. All minor characters blend together on the second rung – an act of will to draw attention to the central dynamic – burnished by brilliant touches, such as Nella with her “laugh of an ageing virgin” talking about cutting people’s cocks off. She tells Elena that she is “much better” than her friend, who “knows how to wound” but so indeed does Elena, we learn.

Some readers have questioned whether these novels are feminist. In an attempt to answer this question, it has been pointed out that they are both full of rage, and the obligation to conform in rooms of men. One panellist cited the idea of bleeding likeability when the word feminist was mentioned in a recent conference, and that is not dissimilar from how I feel when rage and feminism are so swiftly connected. One thing is for sure: Ferrante’s books are full of blood. For those that still find swearing amusing (guilty) then the level of violence in the dialectic insults thrown around is superb. Ferrante treats language like a set of land mines beneath your feet: the path is difficult until only one way is possible: forward.

Only irony is made difficult as [you would imagine the books would be saturated with it] – especially when it comes to Nino, the love rat. He goes from hero to rotter as the years go past, and if you consider how Alice Munroe would write a love scene with him in it, it would be awash with irony. In this way, the tetralogy does not conform to our understanding of what novels are. There are no nods for the reader to give us a hint as to what to expect – no beams of sunlight shining on a character to let us know all will be well, no black cats as a warning. Her apparent lack of tricks – seeming like a memoir with all the tricks employed in fiction – makes one realize the unspoken conventions writers employ: such as never having two characters called John in the same story, as there so often is in life. The characters feel like flesh and blood acting of their own volition, rather than constructs with strings being pulled by the author.

Lila dissects her own form when she gives an explicit account of her own formlessness, after an earthquake. When she is overwhelmed, unreal things are “plunged into a jumbled, sticky reality”, and solid forms have dissolving boundaries. This underlines the lack of formal, stylized style in these novels. They run on messily – much like life – colliding and repeating in a realistic fashion. There are no good or bad characters; they all devolve or change. Her characters are true in every flaw, and can arouse and disgust us.

Just as outsiders identify themselves with her characters, Ferrante’s decision to remain an outsider through anonymity is the source of much speculation (though the panel felt disloyal discussing this rather than the novels themselves). Unencumbered by identity, Ferrante is as free to live as we are to read.

The Editors

Gormenghast

GormenghastGormenghast – Mervyn Peake

This massive tale of a remote, gothic earldom is comprised of three novels published between 1946 and 1959. Peake was unable to realize his plans for further novels after his death from Parkinson’s at the age of 57. His pellucid language darts in and out of the dark, hulking place he concocted in Gormenghast, which of course is a living presence in itself.

Gormenghast has been ruled by the family Groan always; it is a vast castle, isolated from the outside world by inhospitable regions on every side. As Peake was an official war artist (and had been present at the opening of some of the Nazi concentration camps), it has been suggested that the partially abandoned and jagged skyline of Gormenghast is intended to be reminiscent of London or Dresden post-war.

Outside the castle, clustered under the northern walls, are mud dwellings inhabited by the “Bright Carvers”, whose only purpose is to carve elaborate objects out of wood and present them to the Earl. The Outer Dwellers bear children of unearthly radiance, which fades rapidly on reaching adulthood. The castle’s highest tower, the Tower of Flints, is inhabited by huge numbers of death-owls. The realm’s inhabitants know “every bay, inlet and headland of the great stone island of the Groans, of its sheer cliffs, of its crumbling outcrops, the broken line of the towers”. Their lives revolve around the ruling family of Groan. Martial force, economy and religion appear to have no place here, yet this still does not make for simplicity, because of course there are still people in it.

The melancholy Earl Sepulchre loses his mind after his library is burnt, and sacrifices himself to the death-owls, believing he is one of them. His Countess – a magnificent bulwark redhead with locks like “burning snakes”– only talks to birds, is followed by a cloud of white smoke and yet hides a keen strategic brain. Their wild daughter Fuschia always wears a dress of “flaming red” and their son Titus is not keen on taking on their father’s mantle of observing endless, onerous ritual. And this is approximately seven percent of the plot.

The Groan way of life is threatened by a boy from the kitchens, named Steerpike. He worms his way up the ranks of the servants by murdering and manipulating at every opportunity. He knows every rule and every nook, and is quite simply a wonderful creation. He is revolting (“His body gave the appearance of being malformed, but it would be difficult to say exactly what gave it this gibbous quality”) and highly intelligent. His rise to power is psychopathic (declaring “Equality is everything” whilst pulling the legs off a beetle) fuelled by the fundamental urge to destroy the castle. With his bulging brow and red eyes, capering over the corpses he creates, you do not clamour for his victory but there is a chasm in the novel at his departure.

Notable dynamics are between the obese, sweating cook Swelter (first name Abiatha) and his murderous, reciprocated hatred for the top servant Flay. Flay is an emaciated tall devotee who sleeps outside his master’s door and who lives to preserve the stones of Gomernghast. Second to their dance macabre is Doctor Prunesquallor’s verbal torture of his egomaniac sister Irma (played brilliantly by Fiona Shaw in the 2002 BBC production). She is:

Vain as a child, thin as a stork’s leg, and, in her black glasses, blind as an owl in daylight. She misses her footing on the social ladder at least three times a week, only to start climbing again, wriggling her pelvis all the while, She clasps her dead, white hands beneath her chin in the high hope of hiding the flatness of her chest.

The romantic sub-plot concerning the vapid Irma Prunesquallor and Gormenghast’s Headmaster Bellgrove is welcome relief from Steerpike’s machinations. The established professional academics, the schoolmasters of Gormenghast, are parodies of Oxbridge learning; pedantic, futile, vulgar, lazy and grotesque. Bellgrove is gently dismissed thus:

Two things demand transparency when it comes to this epic. Firstly, that because it is an epic, it is of course immense. Perservere by all means, and here is the second thing: the third book is extremely strange. At the end of the second, Titus flees the castle for the wider world beyond Gormenghast Mountain. The third book follows Titus as he finds a futuristic world of industrialists and advanced technology – with strong steampunk overtones. The plot for this one is utterly bonkers, but suffice it to say that Peake includes some fairly indulgent love scenes, and Titus learns that he does not need to live in the shadow of Gormenghast. Peake’s humour and original illustrations help you along the way. This is a book to read over a holiday, when it does not matter if the way is long, and when you can succumb to the intensely detailed world he created, and follow Flay into the dark.

The Editors

Justice for Thomas Cromwell

JUSTICE “Law & Literature” event – 11 February 2015, Great Hall, Middle Temple, London

Three months agCromwello, JUSTICE hosted their third event in what seems to be the increasingly popular “Law & Literature” series, and surely there was no better venue than the Great Hall of Middle Temple for Hilary Mantel to read from her new, as yet unfinished novel, The Mirror and The Light, the third in the trilogy featuring Thomas Cromwell as its protagonist. Up to this point in the series it was noticeable that JUSTICE had carefully selected their authors based on some sort of affinity with the law and, understandably, justice. The first event featured Julian Barnes discussing his novel Arthur & George, which revolves around a well-known miscarriage of justice, and that talk was followed by another given by Robert Harris on An Officer and A Spy, also about a notorious miscarriage of justice (l’affaire Dreyfus). Although the theme of righting wrongs was not so immediately obvious with Mantel’s trilogy of Tudor-age tomes, all doubt was cast aside at the entry to the event, where the title of the reading was unveiled as “Justice for Thomas Cromwell”, slightly giving away the plot of the third instalment in the process. Of course, Cromwell himself was also a lawyer, among many other things it seems, if we are to believe Mantel’s retelling of his life and times as one of Henry VIII’s closest consiglieri.

Mantel’s is certainly not what you would call a booming voice, and the size of the venue meant that the audience had to lean forward as one to catch everything she said. Again, perhaps given the high proportion of lawyers in attendance, she was quick to point to the legal mechanics underpinning the history of the novels: England’s break from Rome was about “jurisdiction not ideology”. In other words, the separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church was not about a disagreement over religious doctrine, but rather about sovereignty and the right to self-determination. In that sense, certainly, it could be said to anticipate by half a millennium the current political tussle over the Human Rights Act/European Court of Human Rights, which also seems to have little to do with legal philosophy and everything to do with perceived foreign interventionism and the fact that politicians never like to have their power challenged. I suspect that the organisers of the event at JUSTICE may have made that connection before inviting Mantel to be a speaker.

Mantel said she was less interested in the formalities of history and power than she was in the behind-the-scenes wrangling that actually leads to agreements being reached between kings and countries. To this extent, her interpretation of Cromwell is as the ultimate manipulator of events (almost like a slightly more benign 16th century version of Frank Underwood), whose pragmatism stands in marked contrast to the ivory tower intellectualism of Thomas More. In Mantel’s world, less gets done in the great halls of power than in its courtyards, corridors and kitchens; one would imagine that little has changed over the ages in this regard. However, it is these interstitial spaces between what we know as history that Mantel has made herself master of. It reminds me of something Julian Barnes once wrote about his aversion to famous dates; he said he was less interested in 1492, for example, than 1493 – i.e. what happened when Columbus got back to Europe and took all the credit for finding the new world? The answer is that things continued very much as they had been before, except that the man who actually first sighted America wound up as a gunrunner in north Africa.

I think it is Mantel’s eye for detail and nuance, her ability to humanise historical characters by revealing both their strengths and their weaknesses, that accounts to a large extent for the incredible success of her novels. However, it is also her immense skill at filling in the void between what we think we know actually happened at the time. To this extent, I pity historians of the period who must be unable to read Mantel’s novels without a considerably heftier degree of scepticism.

Dial M for Mass Market Appeal

Killing-Floor-by-Lee-ChildLee Child is clearly a talented writer. The first three chapters of Killing Floor constitute one of the most strident openings to a novel I can remember. Strident, which is to say, gripping and devoid of nuance.

Then the problems begin. Because Killing Floor is too carefully constructed an artifice to be satisfying. Firstly, the author’s name is not Lee Child. It is Jim Grant. Jim Grant chose his nom de plume because it would put him next to Agatha Christie on the shelves. Good commercial thinking, but unsatisfyingly cynical.

Secondly the booming clarity of Jack Reacher’s internal monologue is a pace that Child is unable to sustain for an entire novel. When compared with an equally forthright opening to a book, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, it whithers on the vine.

Thirdly the intricate twists of plot, the Sherlock Holmes like deduction, the neat tying up of loose ends to lay the foundations for the next novel smack of the worst of Hollywood. The base commercialism that great literature manages to avoid, patterns the novel in its paint by numbers crime thriller simplicity. It’s clear what Lee Child has done with Jack Reacher and he sells a lot of books, but it’s not art and it’s not literature any more than the The Hardy Boys or Biggles (though Biggles is great). It reveals nothing about the broader conditions of humanity, except that some people have talent and use it with cynicism and there is a huge market in feeding people entertainment which refuses to challenge them. No doubt the greatest of artists are prone to venality as much if not more than the rest (I remember an anecdote of Mozart in which he was asked what he was thinking when he stood as if in a reverie at the end of a performance regarding the applauding audience and he said “I was counting the house.”) but the lasting impression of Killing Floor is not improved by the cynical aftertaste it leaves or the charmlessness with which it is achieved. In the shadow of other great English popular writers such as the late Terry Pratchett who outsold every other author of the nineties, shifting close to 100 million books, or George MacDonald Fraser who wrote the first Flashman in two weeks on leaving the Royal Navy because he needed the money. Both were strongly and impressively commercial writers who serviced great audiences with their franchises but somehow achieved it with wit, charm and an invention that escapes Lee Child’s cruel and ultimately unsatisfying novel.

He is a great British export success story, for that we should be grateful, and we must certainly be impressed by his commercial performance, but as for his writing, it evades most compliments except, of course, that of purchasing it.

The Editors

Review of the Year 2014

Fiction: Part 1

Welcome to Don’t Read Too Fast’s review of the year 2014.

For those who have yet to experience our yearly extravaganza, our approach is not to give a list of the best books published this year, but rather to share some of the best of what we’ve actually managed to read, whether 21st century offerings or tomes from the Dark Ages. With that said, please sit back and enjoy the first instalment.

Hannah Joll

The Dig, by Cynan Jones

This is very short and very good by a fairly new writer, I think. The length and intensity of language (like Ted Hughes or Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist collection his ear is poetic and rough at the same time e.g. describing a badger’s nose hanging from ‘a sock of skin’). It’s about badger baiting but also farming, briefly. The physical descriptions, (knowingly) brilliant attention to detail, and its address to grief make the book tender as well as frightening.

The Periodic Table, by Primo Levi

I’d looked at this book on other people’s shelves and skipped over it for years (also vaguely mixed it up with Italo Calvino). The whole thing is great but a story like ‘Iron’ I’d recommend to anyone, anytime and feel confident. It’s about friendship and bear meat as a euphemism for experience. ‘Nitrogen’, a story about the author sifting through chicken shit with his new wife on their honeymoon to try and synthesise the factor that makes the better post-War lipsticks stay on is also tip top. He’s so thoughtful and excited, it’s good to read.

Alexander Starritt

Naples ’44, by Norman Lewis

I’m pleased to say I’ve read lots of good books this year, but the best I think is Norman Lewis’s Naples ’44. Lewis was a population liaison officer in the War and for this book has basically written up his diary, taking out the boring bits. It is still in the form of entries a page or two long, and each of them is fantastical. Naples seems only half-real, only half-European, starving, oriental, in thrall to sex and superstition. Lewis reports that the Neapolitans raided the aquarium for food, sparing only a baby manatee they could not bring themselves to kill; it lived a few short weeks more before the American commander in chief demanded it for his table. A prince comes to Lewis to find a position for his sister at a military brothel. The populace anxiously awaits the annual liquefaction of a vial of San Gennaro’s blood. The volcano erupts. The mafia seize control. The warped and the monstrous gather in caves. Each diary entry is the most astonishing short story you’ve ever read.

Olivia Hanson

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

I’ve never read such a long book that is so compelling. A well-written page-turner! I have now totally forgiven Donna for The Little Friend on this basis. (Eds: we agree)

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

This, plus The Corrections, are two of my favourite novels ever. Beautiful turns of phrase and highly believable characters. Perfect reflections of the human condition.

The Last Tycoon, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Beautifully written, one of Fitzgerald’s best. If only it were complete!

Tender Shoots, by Paul Morand

A jewel-like collection of short stories, set in Paris at the turn of the century. Such a find.

The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst

Wonderfully written, sympathetic narrator, startling insight into 80’s life for gay people.

World War Z, by Max Brooks

What a revelation.

Imogen Lloyd

Innocence, by Penelope Fitzgerald

Chosen for the scene with the tailor and all the other bits I wanted to underline and remember forever but was too greedy to.

A Girl is Half Formed Thing, by Eimar McBride

Because once I found a rhythm, it became the most ferocious and intimate thing.

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

I got there in the end. Because every scene felt intricately painted (like those tiny Dutch rooms ), not just the characters but their surroundings, as if she’d been spying on them inhabit that world before she started writing, and that richness and made all the tricksy twists and turns easier to navigate.

There but for the, by Ali Smith

It was a bit like if all the best, weirdest characters from legendary sitcoms have been told to hang out, and the master of ceremonies is an unassuming genius who has never watched TV and has no clue who they are. I loved it so much but can’t really explain why!

This list seems a bit sexist now, I did read men too but they didn’t cut the mustard this time.

The Men and Women of Middlemarch: Part 1

middlemarch

I at least have so much to do in unravelling certain human lots, and seeing how they were woven and interwoven, that all the light I can command must be concentrated on this particular web, and not dispersed over that tempting range of relevancies called the universe.”

George Eliot’s Middlemarch, first published serially in 1871-1872, is a work of almost unrivalled complexity set in the Great British Countryside.  AS Byatt has suggested that the title is both a nod to the geography of the novel, and a reference to the first lines of Dante’s Inferno: “In mezzo cammin di nostra vita / mi ritrovai per una selva scura” [“In the middle of the road of our life / I found myself in a dark wood”].  Certainly, the main characters are all beset at various stages in the novel by the obstacles life hurls at them.

Middlemarch was famously the conflation of two separate narratives the author was working on simultaneously: the first, a study of provincial society revolving around the character of Dr Lydgate; the second, a short story entitled “Miss Brooke”, with Dorothea Brooke occupying centre stage.  The resulting dual-protagonist structure of Middlemarch has been a source of confusion for readers and critics ever since, doubtlessly exacerbated by the fact that Eliot did not contrive to have her two main characters end up romantically entwined.  However, to describe Middlemarch in terms of two parallel stories would also be simplistic, there being a huge number of other characters whose separate entanglements are also central to the overall makeup of the novel.  In fact, it has often been noted that the underlying metaphor of the book is that of “the web”, holding the various strands together in an intricately woven arrangement.

Besides Dorothea Brooke and Dr Lydgate, much can be made of Bulstrode the morally dubious banker, Mary Garth the sensible daughter of the local land agent, Ladislaw the principled outsider, and even Mr Brooke the delusional would-be man of politics.  Arthur George Sedgwick, writing in 1973, observed the debate that had already begun to rage regarding the identity of the novel’s true protagonist, noting that some even viewed the town itself as the lead player.  Unfortunately, Mr Sedgwick ultimately appears to have become caught up in Eliot’s carefully constructed web of interconnected plot-lines and overlapping characters:

It would be a mere waste of time to go into a minute criticism of Middlemarch.  The plots are too numerous, the characters too multitudinous, and the whole too complicated.”

He thus concludes as follows:

In the attempt to play the critic of such works as these, one cannot help feeling that to properly analyze and explain George Eliot, another George Eliot is needed, and that all suggestion can do is to indicate the impossibility of grasping, in even the most comprehensive terms, the variety of her powers.”

It is not our intention in this series to get bogged down in a similar state of despair, so we will not be attempting anything approaching a comprehensive analysis of the novel.  Instead, we plan to look at a few of the characters individually, to see what still resonates about them and the way Eliot presents them to us.  The idea is that by putting some of the key character under the microscope separately we might learn something about the way Eliot conceived her characters, both as someone fascinated with the concept of freedom and choice, and more generally with the intertwining paths of human life.

The Editors

Spoken Word: Other Lives – Hilary Mantel in conversation with Harriet Walters for the RSL

Wolf Hall - MantelWolf Hall has just come off the London stage, and it is about to appear on ITV as a ten-part series starring Mark Rylance, adapted for the screen by Mantel, just as she oversaw the stage production. With Bring Up The Bodies finally edging off the bestseller lists, Mantel’s collection of short stories The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher is on every top ten list predicting Christmas books. In short, Mantel is everywhere, luckily for us.

Before delving into her latest offering, her appearance in the Union Chapel with Harriet Walters for the RSL is definitely worth mentioning. It was a few months ago now, but the overarching conversation has lingered, centring as it did on the idea of wearing another’s skin on your back. Walters, an established character actress, described having to go “a long way” to meet Lady Macbeth, reassuringly. Mantel, in turn, described the process of acquainting herself with Thomas Cromwell as mediation, or more simply as the process of getting inside a character’s head. The way she explained this was to recall the first moment the reader encounters Cromwell, as a fifteen year-old, bleeding in Putney after a beating from his father. She could hear a voice floating above his head, feel the cobbles beneath his cheek, and taste blood.

She gleefully relayed Christopher Hitchens’s review of Wolf Hall (“you would never know it was written by a woman”) as a testament – as well she should – of how naturally she occupied Cromwell. She clearly delights in living unlived lives by writing as a man, much as she did for Robespierre in A Place of Greater Safety. She wears their skins well and has done it often, so she knows what it requires, and is conscious that if you encounter the actor playing Cromwell five minutes after the curtain, you cannot be entirely sure if they have yet made the “perfect conversion”. Something of the public Croydon’s thuggish self may remain, before the private core of the actor manages to reassert itself.

The power of the play (it will be impressive indeed if this translates to the small screen) is that watching it makes Cromwell inhabit the present, walk in your line of sight and live, of course, if only for a while. The two women agreed that when it really works, the production “pins you to the heartbeat and to the breath”. This would be harder for a more thoroughly cerebral Machiavellian character, perhaps, as Cromwell lashes out – lightning quick – to strike Wolsey; he paces, looms and threatens. Exposition and rubbing one’s hands together in a sinister fashion alone will not get it done.

Given that Mantel is a pleasure to watch as well as to read – she beams and laughs, and seems to enjoy herself – sinister is the word that describes some of her rawer home truths (“ultimately, we are all just alone in the dark”) as well as the creeping feeling of dread from reading her recent collection of short stories. She described on stage the presence of an unarticulated secret – like Bluebeard’s locked room – in a novel, and how this can change with contextual climate. For Wolf Hall, she cited the preconception of people who tend to watch Henry VIII as a wife killer, because this is how the Tudors are taught in schools. We learn his list of wives with the song in order to remember how they snuffed it, rarely dawdling on his accomplishments in poetry, music or foreign policy, let alone his relationship with the Privy Council.

In the same way, every story from The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher carries a patina of dread. While it is not as overt as the corpse stashed beneath the coffee table in Rope, it is much more than something stuck in one’s tooth or a fingernail split to the quick. Some of the stories are more overtly macabre, and ‘Harley Street’ is just plain upsetting as one cannot help but speculate it is based on Mantel’s own delicate health. They are all funny. On finishing the title story, however, it is difficult to shake that feeling of something starting to turn on a muggy day, or indeed get rid of the sand concealed under one’s own skin, like the rhino in Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories.

The Editors