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Posts tagged ‘Fiction’

25. Why Read?

“Why Read?”

You can rely on reading.

Lots of the other things that you can do to pass your time and have fun are out of your control. My favourite television programme has ended and there probably won’t be another series because not enough people liked it (which means they must have been stupid), but with a book, it’s just you and the book. It doesn’t depend on anyone else’s point of view – once it’s there, no-one can change that.

In the same way, when I read, no-one is making their mind up about the appearance, setting or accent that characters have: everything comes out of my own brain. If you go to the theatre, or to the cinema, then lots of that has already been done for you. Even if you don’t think that that lady looks like Medea, that’s bad luck because she’s already in it and that’s who you’re going to see. I didn’t think Percy Jackson would have an American accent, but he did in the film and now that’s the voice I hear in my head when I read the books.

Reading allows me to make my own mind up about everything, and make my own decisions: there’s just me and the writer’s words – and that’s how I think it should be. That’s why I read.

William Kelly, age 11

“Why Read?”

I read me because it enables me to go back in time and experience what other people with different standards of living experienced.

I find it really interesting to read about things that I don’t understand, because then I’ll know about it, and that knowledge will never leave me – I even know about the Stone Age now, and that’s not the sort of thing that comes up in conversation, but it’s good to know, because now I’ll never wonder what happened in the Stone Age. I’ll know.

Some of the most amazing people in history wrote their autobiographies, so you don’t have to think what they MIGHT have thought: you can read their actual words. People like Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Julius Caesar (and some baddies as well) wrote about what had happened in their lives, so when I read about them, I know they’re telling the truth and that they haven’t got it wrong.

Alexander Kelly, age 10

“Why Read?”

Reading lets impossible things happen to you.

You can be in the story, with the characters, not just watching the story like you would do on television, but actually being there. Even if you don’t know people exactly like in the story, or know the places that they’re talking about; when you read, it’s like you do know those things.

In “Alice in Wonderland”, I think Alice is me, and that those things could actually happen to me in real life. Even if there are things that seem impossible (like girls turning into kangaroos in “The Wind on the Moon”), when I read it in a book, I don’t think it’s fake or unrealistic: I think that there’s a world where it can happen and does (under certain circumstances). When I read these stories, I think that these places are lovely places to be, and that the things that are happening are lovely things to happen. It brings a huge amount of pleasure into my life and allows me to relax in silence, and if I couldn’t read I’d miss all the worlds, the lives and the people in the books who have come to life as I have read about them.

Nina Kelly, age 10

 

22. Why Read?

I was a sickly child. But I was fortunate in having a mother who was ambitious for me and who had a long shelf for my books built above my bed. I could reach my entire library without having to get up. Nearest to the pillow end were the ten volumes of my Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia. I don’t know who Arthur was, but he did a cracking encyclopaedia. It was not arranged alphabetically but quite arbitrarily, so it was perfect for browsing, rather like the London Library. It moved seamlessly from Mme. Roland ascending the scaffold (‘Oh Liberty! What crimes are committed in your name!’), a line I have never forgotten, through a cutaway drawing of the engine room of RMS Queen Mary to ‘Dusky Beauties’, pictures of women of the British Empire, always naked to the waist and frequently with discs the size of soup plates set into their lower lips, or long sharp pegs through their noses, parallel to the ground, as if they had been ambushed by someone with a bow and arrow.

Solid reading came next with the complete Sherlock Holmes long and short stories and then Conan Doyle’s Historical Romances. I particularly liked The White Company. Next on the shelf came my Arthur Ransome’s packaged by Jonathan Cape in handsome green covers. People call them the Swallows and Amazons books but that title is one of the dullest. Pigeon Post and We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea were my favourites. That reminds me of Enemy Coast Ahead, another great favourite; a shabby little Pan book about Guy Gibson. ‘It takes strength to fly a Lancaster’ it told me. Well, I could imagine corkscrewing the plane in an emergency and spiralling out of those dazzling searchlights. Next would be my Observers Book of Aircraft, small enough to fit in my blazer pocket, but actually I didn’t need it if I was out with my binoculars because I knew every aeroplane in the skies of England at the time. No, its well-executed three-views of the Hawker Hunter, the Avro 504 and the Bristol Brabazon (for example) were a kind of roughage for the imagination; I saw myself in them, or making models of them, or improving on them – another jet here, more sweepback there.

Herbert Ponting’s book about being the photographer on Scott’s expedition to the South Pole didn’t make me want to be an explorer, but may have led to my training as a photographer. There were books that one got out of the library but didn’t own. W. E. Johns’ Biggles books passed the time but didn’t win shelf room. I found books in other peoples’ houses that I would have liked to own. Emil and the Detectives (Kästner) was a joy to me and lives on in my mind 60 years later, and so does an American children’s book called Little Britches. I liked Hornblower and would have adored Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey novels; if only they had been available then! On the bedroom shelf was a curious little Penguin that I liked very much called I Was Graf Spee’s Prisoner, the true story of a merchant seaman whose ship had been sunk by the German pocket battleship. The war had only been over for seven years when I was ten and cast a long, strong shadow. I had two volumes of the government’s propagandist Britain at War series, one RAF, one Royal Navy. I pored over the pictures, but the text was unreadable. H. E. Marshall’s Our Island Story taught me some history and was useful if one had history prep. Also useful for prep was Pear’s Cyclopaedia which I was given every Christmas by an uncle. But this was a dangerous book, for its medical dictionary convinced me that I had a terminal pulmonary tuberculosis and ruined one Christmas as I waited for the blow to fall. If there were other books on my shelf, I have forgotten them. They failed, then, to be memorable and that is the first thing that a good read should be. Why read? Well, why live? Why think? Why dream?

 George Pownall

A life in books

StonerStoner – John Williams

This is a book about a man, William Stoner, who enters the University of Missouri at the age of nineteen to study agriculture and never leaves. It charts his progression from undergraduate student to professor of English literature within the university, depicting the trials and tribulations of his professional and family life. Ostensibly, it is not a book that tells a particularly interesting story, certainly not an extraordinary one in any case. Nor does it go into any particular detail about the focus of Stoner’s career as a student or as a teacher of literature; I can’t remember the period or any of authors he specialises in. And yet, Williams manages to convey an irresistible sense of the joy of Stoner’s vocation, starting with a vague awareness of his calling through to the publication of his first text. In fact, the most striking thing about the novel is the way it moves seamlessly through the protagonist’s life, stopping carefully to consider some of the key moments in it, but at all times adopting a detached perspective.

It is this detached perspective that allows the author to capture the vagaries of human life so convincingly, successfully mixing a sense of fatalistic abandonment with an appreciation of Stoner’s stoicism and ability to take stands on matters of principle. He has to make several difficult decisions, including to stay at the university to study literature rather than return to his parents’ farm as originally planned: “If you think you ought to stay here and study your books, then that’s what you ought to do.” However, despite these fleeting instances of self-determination, Stoner’s control over his life is limited in the extreme, as tends to be the case with every life when looked at in retrospect. Similarly, his contact with the outside world, and with history generally, is described in terms of transient encounters: the First and Second World Wars and the Great Depression appear indirectly through other characters rather than as characters in themselves.

Perhaps it is the book’s grasp of the ephemeral that leads many to the conclusion that this is a melancholy novel about a thoroughly downtrodden individual. In many ways that assessment is correct, but it fails to do justice to the full extent of the novel’s scope. For starters, Stoner lives a life of relative comfort and is a man who loves his job. Williams spoke as follows of his protagonist: “I think he had a very good life. He had a better life than most people do, certainly. He was doing what he wanted to do, he had some feeling for what he was doing, he had some sense of the importance of the job he was doing.” There is no doubt that, despite some moments of intense conflict and sadness, Stoner’s is a full life, which is more than most will experience. Williams manages to convey this in a thoroughly original manner, and it is a book that haunts the reader long after it has been put down.

The Editors

Pushkin 2: Epic poetry, a love unthinkable, a youth unbearable

 “I am writing now not a novel, but a novel in verse – the devil of a difference. Something like (Byron’s) Don Juan – there’s no point in thinking about publication; I’m writing whatever comes into my head.”

Pushkin writing to a friend, 1823

Eugene Onegin is magnificent. Do not be fooled by Pushkin’s glib suggestion that his poem contains the fleeting fancies of his mind. Written over the course of eight years – started during his exile and finished in the year of his marriage –Eugene Onegin is informally autobiographical, a social commentary and a timeless love story.

Touching briefly on Pushkin Part 1, it is clear that if you read a translated text a good deal of Pushkin’s technical ability and talent as a wordsmith is lost. In particular, feminine rhymes at the end of lines are not easy to replicate without some degree of word replacement. Translating Russian to English requires around one third more words so we also lose some of the acute, direct nature of Pushkin’s text. That is not to say that he is ever verbose or overly wordy, far from it. My copy is the Penguin Classics translation by Stanley Mitchell. Wherever words and phrases are untranslatable, they are often substituted for lines from Pushkin’s contemporaries, idols and influencers; Byron is used often. As a result, the translator appears to have done an excellent job replicating the character and style of the original. One might hope that the author himself might have been proud of the translation. A slight quirk of Eugene Onegin and Pushkin’s work is that French is frequently used for both description and conversation – as was the case amongst the Russian ruling class of the time. This provides an escape route of sorts. On occasion, his characters cannot describe something in Russian or simply prefer to use French. For translation purposes it is beneficial when a romantic language is used in these tricky spots.

Epic poetry is rarely easy to read. This grand literary tradition began as a format for entertaining story telling and an outlet for extraordinary imaginations. It was then somewhat hijacked by the intelligentsia through the middle and industrial ages so as to advance authors’ personal agendas and advertise their intellect alongside the original purposes. A good example of this (very bias, admittedly) theory can be found in Dante’s Inferno in Cantos 4 and 8 where he encounters history’s greatest poets, exposes their limitations through allegory and moves swiftly on. Eugene Onegin is a refreshing diversion from this trend. The tone of the text, narrated by Pushkin himself, is almost chummy. The reader is directly addressed on a frequent basis and the audience’s feelings often anticipated and read out loud. Pushkin demonstrates kinship with his fellow, contemporary poets (some of whom appear as minor characters) and far from exalting his art or his intellect he seems to acknowledge its waning influence:

To Spartan prose the years are turning,
Coquettish rhyme the years are spurning;
And I – I with a sigh confess –
I’m running after her much less.

Pushkin is refreshingly honest and plain in his reflections and descriptions. As a result the reader is favourably disposed to the writer: I have rarely felt more rapport with an author, let alone one nearing their 180th birthday. 

—–

Eugene Onegin is a difficult book to review or summarise without spoiling the plot. The story is not long and moves apace; there are occasions where months pass between stanzas and years pass between chapters. This actually leaves the reader intrigued by what the characters have been doing and how they have been developing rather than encouraging a sense of bewilderment. This pace and the quixotic verse in which it is written yield characters that are more silhouettes than anything else. They flash between scenes giving you glimpses of a dark romance, torment and duty. In many ways, it reads more like a play or indeed an opera.

The two central characters are Eugene and Tatiana. Eugene, a wealthy twenty-something becomes bored with and resentful of Moscow society and moves to his estate in the countryside. Nonetheless he never attempts to rid himself of his dandy habits:

“One can still be a man of action
And mind the beauty of one’s nails”

Unsurprisingly, his fancy ways and disaffected personality do not enamour him to the locals. Still he strikes up a friendship with the youthful, slightly green, poet Lensky who is part of the regional gentry. Through Lensky, Eugene is introduced into local society and, in particular, Lensky’s fiancée Olga and her older sister Tatiana. The elder sibling becomes infatuated with this worldly newcomer and falls into a deep love:

“(Tatiana) Your fate already you’ve relinquished
Into a modish tyrant’s keep (Eugene’s)
Imbibe the magic bane of yearning,
Daydreams will court your every pace,
And you’ll imagine in each place
A tryst to which you’re always turning;
In front of you and everywhere
You’ll see your fateful tempter there.”

Tatiana’s love is rejected. The apathetic Eugene masochistically denies himself pleasure at every turn and refuses to entertain Tatiana’s pleas. His response to her letter of love and devotion is almost as pathetic as it is sad. Through the poem, love letters and responses to them provide the most detailed look into the characters’ personalities. In this neo-classic romance we are forcefully drawn into Eugene’s world of sadness and spurned hope. It is marvellous.

(Spoiler alert!) The damage caused by Onegin’s self-pity continues to the end. He courts jealousy, which ends in him being challenged to a duel by his great friend Lensky whom he shoots dead. Tormented by these events Eugene leaves the countryside and travels. Tatiana is left torturing herself with memories. She frequently visits Eugene’s deserted house to read his books in his study. The hero of the story is truly lethal, physically and emotionally. 

Years later we find that Tatiana has journeyed to Moscow to find a husband; she marries a famed general. She becomes a woman, a paragon of society, embodying truly Russian values and virtues. Gone is much of the simple country girl, replaced by an urbane yet unpretentious princess, the toast of Moscow: “the city’s flower”.

Eugene returns to Moscow following his travels and forces himself to re-enter society circles. He falls in love with Tatiana, his tragic infatuation matching the young girl whom he encountered in the countryside years before. The crushing inevitability of this emotional inversion has the reader squirming with ineffectuality yet slightly rejoicing in Eugene’s plight. It is one of the oldest stories in the book. Eugene writes to his love, he begs her for forgiveness and fulfilment. Tatiana, the once-lovesick youngster, responds and reaches a zenith:

Your heart is honest and I prize it:
And there resides in it true pride
With candid honour, side by side.
I love you, why should I disguise it?,
But I am someone else’s wife,
To him I shall be true for life.”

The ephemeral scenes and the mysterious ‘cut-scenes’ provide a dream-like quality to the book. The occasional meetings that the reader has with the characters provide intrigue and engagement in equal measure through the quality of the writing and the timeless yet tough subject matters. For all Eugene’s self-absorption it is hard to dislike him. Tatiana is loveable and Lensky likeable. The characters showcase parts of Pushkin himself and you will aspects of yourself in all of them. Above all else Eugene Onegin is a letter of love and of guidance to the young:

Blest who in youth was truly youthful,
Blest who matured in proper time,
Who, step by step, remaining truthful,
Could weather, yearly, life’s bleak clime
To curious dreams was not addicted,
Nor by the social mob constricted,
At twenty was a blade or swell
And then at thirty married well;
Ridding himself, on reaching fifty,
Of debts and other bills to foot,
Then calmly gaining rank, repute
And money, too, by being thrifty;
Of whom the world’s opinion ran:
An estimable man.

Eugene Onegin is a gift, a brilliant work, and this verse buried deep inside Chapter VIII seems to have been echoed seventy years later by our very own Rudyard Kipling.

Matt Bradley

The Catcher in the Rye

The Catcher in the RyeThe Catcher in the Rye – J. D. Salinger

“A liar tied up in truth / Enough for a lifeline” – Bonnie Bishop in The English Journal, November 2003

I had always held The Catcher in the Rye in mind as an archetypal coming of age novel which I had never read. It sat, on the bookshelves of my mind amongst Italo Calvino’s “Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them.” The name Holden Caulfield familiar, like an old acquaintance whose face has been forgotten.

Occasionally, I have the the feeling when reading a book for the first time that subconsciously I must have been saving it as a reward for myself. Regardless of the occasion, I look out especially for books with which I can identify. Something in Holden Caulfield’s outlook strikes a chord with me, though his experience of teenage life is far removed from my own.

Caulfield’s aggressive, often shrill, dislike of ‘phonies’ is interspersed with intelligent, charming observations which do not give him up for his naivity: ”The thing is, it’s really hard to be roommates with people if your suitcases are much better than theirs.”

The genius of his character is his ability to extrapolate universals from the very limited and apparently immature perspective of his own experiences. His extrapolations are lampoons to the impulse to generalise – reflecting his naivety yet seemingly drawing out insightful conclusions despite his narrow experience; the privileged son of a wealthy ‘corporation lawyer’ (“boy, do those guys really haul it in”).

His insatiable understanding of the complexity of others, coupled to an inability to concentrate on any topic or person for a protracted period produces these perfect polished lines setting out the many injustices of American society in the 1940s: “I hate it if I’m eating bacon and eggs for breakfast and somebody else is only eating toast and coffee.”

Caulfield’s love of “a swiss cheese sandwich and a malted milk” is also strangely similar to some later iconic American sociopaths (Clarence Worley in True Romance: “I could eat a horse if you slapped enough ketchup on it”) of which he seems to be one. The honesty of Caulfield’s attitudes to food and drink pre-figures Tarantino’s tight characterisation of Worley’s almost psychotic relationship with food and eating (a relationship most explicitly plaid out in one of the most violent scenes of the film in which Worley is out ordering a chicken sandwich while his girlfriend is beaten half to death in their hotel room by a brutish James Gandolfini).

The brevity of the book and the flex and slap of the prose belies the complexity of its writing, the delicate and indelicate leitmotifs (“Old Gatsby. Old Sport. That killed me … I was waiting for old Luce”), the clever patterning, the five years of writing that makes Holden Caulfield one of the best and most brashly defined characters that I can recall reading since I first read Anthony Burgess’, A Clockwork Orange.

And yet, The Catcher in the Rye is really an innocent novel, a coming of age tale about a sixteen year old boy who can’t keep himself in a school for longer than a year. The worst violence of the book is really a drunken Caulfield, clutching his stomach, pretending to have been shot, shouting down the phone to Sally Hayes at two in the morning – the child Holden playing gangsters and the adult Caulfield chasing after women: ”They got me, Rocky’s mob got me. You know that? Sally, you know that?”

But it is not the innocence or naivety of the action in The Catcher in the Rye that is reminiscent of the clearly violent A Clockwork Orange or even of True Romance. It is the cold and violent use of the English language (“that really killed me”) and the lightning strikes of annihilation directed at the other characters in the novel that makes Caulfield’s performance so potent, cynical and entertaining: “She was dating this terrible guy, Al Pike … he was always hanging around the swimming pool. He wore those white Lastex kind of swimming trunks, and he was always going off the high dive. He did the same lousy old half gainer all day long. It was the only dive he could do, but he thought he was very hot stuff. All muscles and no brains.” His rasping assassinations inflected with his childish and incisive observations (“Goddam money. It always ends up making you blue as hell.”) make this one of the most enjoyable books I have read in months, reading each sentence like cutting with a well sharpened knife.

Caulfield seems to roam from one place full of phonies to the next. He is both attracted to the places that they are attracted to and repulsed by their presence in them (“It’s one of those places that are supposed to be sophisticated and all, and the phonies are coming in the window”). Much more, it seems, he is a stranger in the place of his own existence. Someone who is not yet accepted, or who does not yet accept himself – personification of that difficult journey out of adolescence, always approaching adulthood, retreating into childhood. This apparent uncertainty lashes out at the other characters he encounters, blind always to his own issues (“Stop screaming at me please,” she said. Which was crap because I wasn’t even screaming at her.”) he attacks the many flaws of others in place of addressing his own – an intelligent and childish prism through which to view 1940s New York – a delightful one.

The Catcher in the Rye has created a new category of books for my my mental shelving, one which it is leading by a mile: The Books You Have Recently Read And Now You Want Everybody To Read Them.

The Editors

Spoken Word III

Eleanor Catton, author of The Luminaries interviewed by Robert Macfarlane

RSL, Union Chapel, Thursday 3rd April

The winner of the 2013 Man Booker prize, 27 year old Eleanor Catton from New Zealand, was interviewed by travel writer and academic Robert Macfarlane* earlier this month as part of the RSL event series. The evening kicked off with two men singing various traditional Maori songs, followed inevitably by the Haka. With our focus determinedly set on New Zealand – in case we had been inclined to wander – Macfarlane introduced Catton by describing the night The Luminaries won, with an anecdote highlighting the fact that Ben Okri is clearly great company as well as a good friend of Macfarlane’s, and that Catton was obviously startled to have won. She recalled for the audience that the moment she won, the internet ‘broke’ in New Zealand – her parents had to find out via the radio. 

Catton veered between making statements with a glint of steel – despite the prize, she said “the same task is before me now” – and being charming to the point where it almost beggared belief. Every question he posed was ‘interesting’, everything she wrote was ‘gorgeous’ to Macfarlane.  In their shared love of landscape they were brought together, and when they discussed this it felt like the audience were able to see where the bones of the novel came from. The Luminaries is a thin strip of a novel in that it covers the main street of a pioneering town and the beach, where the rivers meet as they come down from the hills. Catton spoke of this meniscus of land being trapped between the savage sea and impassable peaks. It is a land caught between ‘dangers’ where people refer to drowning as ‘the West Coast disease’.

Even when she has been abroad, Catton has been pulled toward her native land: her grandmother sent her the shipping news from microfiche across the ocean when she was in Iowa. She writes with two family maxims in mind: the idea that effort is individual, and that you cannot buy a view, it must be deserved. In addition, the Cattons maintain that everything looks better in the rain. This will not be news to any resident of the United Kingdom. 

Despite the undeniable importance of the setting in terms of the initial events within the narrative, the action mostly happens inside. Virginia Woolf commented on how hard it is to move characters out of one room and into another. The chances of this happening and of then meeting others are significantly increased by being inside, on the whole. It also helps that the rain is relentless in the novel. 

Without wishing to ruin it for those yet to tackle this huge novel, The Luminaries charts the interwoven fates of several characters within a gold mining town. A local prostitute and infamous opium addict is found badly injured by the side of the road, a shipwreck causes a key crate to go missing, a hermit is found dead and his estate hotly contested. As the town elders vie for prominence and a séance reveals a common desire to be hoodwinked, everyone is of course obsessed with gold. In many ways it is a novel about dividends, and Catton is clever on the subject of relations being bought. She feels love and money are opposite, and that the latter is only ever a transient vehicle for enabling the former in some way. 

Catton planned out the structure of the novel with a piece of software that enables the user to program the night skies. By inputting the longitude and latitude, it shows you the stars in sky above that location, by adding any date it shows you the constellations at that time in order to see the skies revolve as well as the phases of the moon. In the late nineteenth century she found ‘a month without a moon’ between two full moons, and deemed it the sign to start her off. She had already been interested in astrology (to Maori New Zealanders, Orion’s belt is the bottom of a catamaran), but the idea of both fixed and moving parts interested her as well as providing assistance in crafting a plot of that complexity. She took astronomy archetypes and turned them into a novel: Sagittarius – said to represent the collective unconscious – is also the House of Journeys, suitable for a novel where the arrival of the mysterious stranger is key. 

Macfarlane enquired after Catton’s casual use of the word ‘whore’ throughout the narrative; it did not lose its impact for him no matter how many times it cropped up. She agreed the word was a shock, and that she would never normally use it but in this case had no compunction doing so, before pointing out that the words whore, ore, California and Victoria all contain the same sound. Catton sees patterns in apparently randomly distributed data. She is clearly interested in connections, describing them in a neat way.

The evening concluded with a reading by Kerry Fox in darkness so complete that Macfarlane said he felt like he was at a séance himself. He helped Catton towards increasingly voluble responses as the hour progressed and was the ideal choice to interview such a modest writer at the start of her undoubtedly stellar career. I just wish there had been slightly less awareness of this fact throughout the evening. 

*Kathleen Jamie’s 2008 review of Macfarlane’s book The Wild Places is one of the most crushingly funny pieces I have ever encountered. It may not be entirely fair, but with sentences like the below, that ceases to matter quite so much: “ if we do find a Wild Place, we can prance about there knowing that no bears or wolves will appear over the bluff, because we disposed of the top predators centuries ago, and if we do come unstuck there’s a fair chance that, like the man on Ben Nevis, we’ll get a mobile signal, and be rescued.”

http://www.lrb.co.uk/v30/n05/kathleen-jamie/a-lone-enraptured-male

The Editors

Spoken Word

Daunt Books Festival, 27/28 March 2014

Celebrating Virago Modern Classics: Maggie O’Farrell, Susie Boyt and Deborah Levy, questions by Lennie Goodings

Virago was created as a publisher in 1973 to challenge the notion of ‘great’ women writers. They calmly and effectively appropriated the idea of Penguin Modern Classics for themselves, and O’Farrell, Boyt and Levy opened the inaugural Daunt Books Festival by discussing which Virago novels particularly inspired them. It was a relatively unusual opportunity to hear writers talk about reading without their being obliged to tie in their own work unless they felt like it.

Deborah Levy (Black Vodka and Hot Milk are two of her recent titles) chose Angela Carter and Muriel Spark as her authors. She compared Carter’s ‘long, luscious, feverish and slightly inflamed sentences’, that are all about revealing desire to Spark’s short, spiky sentences about it being concealed.

Spark feathers her books with many beautiful, slightly psychopathic female figures, about whom she is unapologetic. Levy described Spark as a genius at depicting human frailty and human cruelty, which she did not appreciate until years after first reading her. Spark inserts a kind of ‘mild panic’ into her calm sentences, which informed the way Levy wrote Swimming Home, creating a splinter on the surface of the prose. In this way, Levy explained her feeling that “books are laid inside us” until you re-read them and uncover more at a later stage.

Carter was described as altogether more theatrical, with desiring female characters; their bodies no longer buttoned up – in fact, they tend to have the first five undone. Levy cited Baudelaire’s influence on Carter before reading a passage from The Magic Toyshop in closing.

Overall, Levy’s confidence in her choices was partly derived from the fact that neither writer tends to have characters doing things like putting a chicken in the oven. The characters are given minds, enabled to travel on horseback – vulnerable and fragile – but are often ‘travelling across terrain to find something they need’.

Every time Maggie O’Farrell sees a dark green Virago spine in a second-hand bookshop, she buys it on principle. She described being drawn to the aesthetic of it: the portrait on the cover and the whiteness of the pages.

Her first choice was Our Spoons came from Woolworth’s by Barbara Comyn (the ‘daughter of a madwoman and a violent, cruel man’). She asked that you not be put off by the title, having herself been transfixed by Comyn’s unique prose style within five minutes. Quick as a whip, she pre-empted my next thought by acknowledging that the word ‘unique’ is overused, but asserted that Comyn’s narrative voice is unlike any other. Her character will take a newt to a dinner party and let it swim in the water jug, delivered in the same tone as a child dying of scarlet fever. The novel illustrates 1930s Bohemian London pre-Beveridge report, wherein barbed comedy rapidly descends into the destruction of a marriage.

Her next choice was Mollie Keane, ‘a Hibernian Evelyn Waugh’, who wrote about the minute calibrations of class and family in the Anglo-Irish last days of Empire. The novel portrays a family of poverty stricken snobs who value dogs above one another, and who would rather die than eat rabbit mousse, as it is ‘low’ food – having been caught for free rather than bought in a butcher. Their servants – who are starving – are sacked for eating starch in the laundry, and grocers are ‘robbers’ if they have the temerity to actually send a bill. You say nothing when your husband sleeps with servants, or when your son dies. If you are still standing after all of that charm, the language will still hold you fast, as every word Keane uses pulls its weight. She is the master of the disparity between what we feel and what we say: let’s take the dogs for a walk rather than actually talking about it.

Her third and final choice was Rosamond Lehmann’s The Invitation to the Waltz, which captures a seventeen year old girl preparing for a party – and that true insight that the prospect of the night is always better than what actually takes place, the anticipation always being superior to the event. At the party she encounters the master of the house’s son. More on this at a later date (when I have finished the book).

The final speaker Susie Boyt chose Elizabeth Taylor in the hope that one day the film star will be called the “other Elizabeth Taylor”.

Boyt carefully explained that Taylor repeatedly pulls off effects that are very hard to achieve with no effort at all, from simple, perfect sentences (“The chair scraped back and talk broke out”) to expertly set moral thermostats and particularly good group portraits: one scene was cited where a clutch of ladies cook their lunch – lamb chops on a Baby Belling – at the same time as melting wax in a little pan to do their moustaches.

She also described an air of recklessness to Taylor’s stories, including one where a new groom gets so caught up in the joy of being in the pub that he simply forgets about his new bride upstairs in her lilac underwear. He automatically goes home to his mum’s house at the end of the night, alone, and ‘no one knows what to think at all’.

Boyt also gave a synopsis of a brilliant short story by Taylor of two people posing as a married couple in order to land a job offered to a pair of married waiters: these people are serious enough about their vocation to be lifted by ‘the glacial table linen’ and the elegance of the clientele. The ‘husband’ takes their cover story seriously enough to put a photograph of ‘their son’ in the flat, and asks her to leave out her hairbrush and a pot of face cream in order to convince any curious visitors. Of course the story does not end well.

Taylor expertly shows all the things in family life that can go wrong, something that Boyt, who described herself as liking ‘to write dark books with high spirits’* and with the same moral agenda as Taylor, clearly sympathizes with. A slightly more optimistic way of describing it could be a way of showing how to be good in the world without being ground down to a paste.
This concludes Part One. Part Two, featuring Evie Wyld and others will follow shortly.

*Boyt on cities: “I like dual carriageways and litter and all the things you are not supposed to like but I really do”.

The Editors

Making it up


100YOMThe Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared
– Jonas Jonasson

Reading this book gave me the feeling that Mr Jonasson was writing to an urgent deadline and making things up as he went along. More often than not, novels give the opposite feeling, a feeling of profound heaviness as though the author has weighed every word against its alternatives over a period of years, maybe decades, in order to refine what it is that he or she actually wanted to say. This can work well, and it is fair to say that most of the ‘great’ works of literature are probably crafted agonisingly slowly by committed people prepared to dedicate an enormous amount of time to their art. However, as we would like to think this blog has show over the course of its two-and-a-bit year existence, books are not confined to any one type (or weight) and this particular book about an old man who goes AWOL from his care home is ample proof of the ability of literature to depart from the expectations of even the most seasoned readers.

Perhaps Jonas Jonasson was not writing to a deadline, but his plot unfolds like a bedtime story that has ballooned grotesquely out of proportion into something it was never intended to be. As though, scrambling desperately for something to keep his child interested, Jonasson stumbled upon the goldmine of twentieth century history in all its convoluted glory and blithely sourced it for the invention of preposterous anecdotes revolving around key geopolitical events and characters. It is in this way that the 100-year-old-man, Allan Karlsson, comes to meet President Truman, Chairman Mao, Stalin, Albert Einstein’s brother and an infant Kim Jong-Il. But the narrative, like its protagonist, remains both impulsive and utterly indifferent to its inherent absurdity: Karlsson’s life story develops as a sort of funfair ride through the 1900s, reminding us in the process that a lot can (and did) happen in 100 years. Embarrassingly, I still found myself having to do a lot of background research on Wikipedia.

The president continued to describe military strategy, but Allan had stopped listening. He looked absentmindedly around the Oval Office, wondering whether the windows were bulletproof and where the door to the left might lead.”

In short, Allan Karlsson may seem a man like any other, but he is not. He is willing to drop his hundredth birthday party on a whim and embark on an adventure because he still has the legs for it. He rallies around himself a ragtag band of misfits and although it seems only a matter of time before the curtain comes down on his remarkable life, he defies convention much as Mr Jonasson does, carrying on as indifferent to politics/the opinion of others as he is to the fact of his geriatric status. In a world overrun by cynicism, Mr Karlsson is a man whose unquenchable lust for life is too inspiring to ridicule.

So what does it amount to? To be honest, the question seems obtuse when asked of a book that is essentially a shameless literary joyride over several hundred pages. There is a genuine sense throughout that caution was thrown to the wind, that the question “why stop there?” was asked at every step of the way and received the ecstatic response “why indeed!” – like Forrest Gump when he got to the end of his driveway – and perhaps this is how, at a stretch, it was meant to tie together.

The Editors

S.

sJJ Abrams used to be a fairly acquired taste. An elite few of us sat, agape, through several seasons of his TV series Roswell High many years ago, but not everyone could stomach the subtle metaphor for teen alienation being delivered via the plot vehicle of teen aliens attending high school in Roswell, New Mexico, famed for an alleged UFO crash and resulting cover up in 1947. Subtle and fairly casual about timelines, he went on to make Lost which made him more popular, until the ending made everyone cross.

However, now there is no way of evading Abrams, even if you wanted to. Much like Joss Whedon’s ascent post-Buffy and Firefly, these geeks have sidled into commanding mainstream cinema in the form of The Avengers for Whedon, and Star Trek and Star Wars for Abrams. To be helming two major science fiction franchises at once is unheard of, but regrettably this post is not about fanatical loyalty, but about Abrams’ literary side project.

An interesting reaction to the pressure of taking several massive professional commitments is writing a book. However, what makes it more intriguing is the form in which the book appears. S. was co-authored by Doug Dorst (a slightly shadowy figure who writes full time as well as being a three time Jeopardy winner), and is a singularly beautiful – or at the very least pleasing – object. The hardback appears in a box, and resembles a library book down to the label on the spine and the stamps on the inside cover. What is more, it is entitled Ship of Theseus, by an unknown 19th century writer called V M Straka, and it is full of pieces of paper: maps, letters and postcards hidden between the pages. It is also covered in notes scribbled in the margins, written in two very different (but wonderfully legible) kinds of handwriting. It emerges that this book is in fact more like three stories: there is the science fiction novel by ‘Straka’, the footnotes by Straka’s translator arguably add another level as it turns out Straka’s true identity remains a mystery to this day, and the relationship developing between the two people who take it in turns borrowing this volume from their university library in order to crack who Straka was. The stakes are raised by a rival group who are trying to uncover the Straka myth at the same time, and seem to be supported by a larger entity with nefarious influences.

s2

Trying to keep track of the varying strands at the same time while juggling the marginalia and various paper clues means that the reader has to work rather harder than they may be used to, but this may be a welcome change for the readers so habitual they tend to gallop faster than they’d like. Going back and forth and around makes you reconsider the pages, which is both refreshing and exasperating. The reader encounters a ship manned by a silent, gaunt crew with a grim mission reminiscent of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a country broken by revolution, an American university in the grip of winter plagued by apparently random acts of violence and theft, an elderly Brazilian lady refusing to give up her secrets in any of the many languages she speaks, and two chippy academics with a certain amount of self-pity who still manage to fall rather touchingly in love.

The stories themselves may not stand up to prolonged scrutiny, but it is such a creative way of changing one of the more established formats that it does not matter hugely. The production must have been an expensive labour of love, as the end product costs no more than a standard hardback and is the sort of object you would be delighted to hold on to. S. has been compared to Nabokov’s Pale Fire and A S Byatt’s Possession with some justification, and even if you are still seething about Lost, this book will not entirely repair the damage, but it may both mollify and entertain you in the process.

The Editors

 

Book of Mammon, Part I

mammonMONEY [book], Martin Amis [writer]

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET [film], Martin Scorsese [director]

[Pedant warning: references to Jordan Belfort in this article are to the fictionalised character in The Wolf of Wall Street, not to the real person.]

I finished Money, Martin Amis’ novel of eighties debauchery, a few days after watching Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, which has been so popular since its release last month that apparently it’s now impossible to actually go and see it.  It turns out that my timing was quite the artistic alignment of the planets; Scorsese’s film is in many respects a skewed adaptation of Amis’ novel, from the transatlantic flights to near-death experiences, by way of rampant misogyny and orgiastic self-indulgence.

Perhaps it’s easiest to get the differences out of the way first.  The protagonist in Money is an ambitious English ad-exec called John Self; DiCaprio’s character in The Wolf of Wall Street is an ambitious New York trader called Jordan Belfort.  They both consume rapaciously, but the former has a debilitating weakness for junk food and suffers from numerous associated symptoms – Rug & Gut & Gum issues – whereas the steady diet of cocaine and Quaaludes has no appreciable effect on Belfort’s outward appearance beyond mild facial sweats.

On the other hand, they are both addicted to money; of all the drugs on offer this is their favourite:

SELF: Maybe money is the great conspiracy, the great fiction. The addiction too: we’re all addicted and we can’t break the habit now […] You can’t get the money monkey off your back.

BELFORT: Enough of this shit’ll make you invincible, able to conquer the world and eviscerate your enemies. Money is the oxygen of capitalism and I wanna breathe more than any other human being alive.

In a way, this is because money is the great facilitator: without money there can be no addictions to  the more conventional drugs of cocaine, booze and sex.  But it is also because both characters see money as the ultimate goal, the end that justifies all means, and think therefore that making money will save them from having to give any thought to the complexities of life.  To this extent, Belfort’s great moment of discomfort doesn’t come with his final arrest or prison sentence (spoiler alert: we seem him playing tennis in prison at the end) but when he is confronted by his straight-laced pursuer Agent Denham of the FBI on his boat.  Denham gently makes it known that he sees Belfort as a petty criminal – “Good for you little man” – and it is this informal indictment of character that Belfort is unable to cope with: “Alright, get the fuck off my boat. Good luck on that subway ride home to your miserable, ugly wives.”  In other words, he snaps at the mere implication that there might be something to life other than money, and that he might somehow be missing out.

Similarly, John Self is troubled by the thought that there might be something else out there that he is only vaguely aware of.  This ‘something else’ manifests itself most obviously in the form of literature, and specifically the appearance of a fictionalised Martin Amis within the novel itself.  Self initially despises Amis for what he sees as aloofness and snobbery, but they eventually get to know one another, only for Self to turn his back on Amis once again when the latter’s character evaluation cuts too close to the bone.  Perhaps this is the symbolism in the final chess game between the two of them; Self thinks he’s won but stutters to a crushing defeat.  Our final impression of the protagonist is therefore as an unlikely ingénu, outwitted on all fronts by the complexities of life.

One of the things I liked most about both book and film, however, is that neither of them is a morality tale in the conventional sense (in fact, The Wolf has been roundly, and I think unfairly, criticised for glamourising city excess and psychopathic behaviour).  Both protagonists suffer comeuppance of a sort for their lives of lecherous abandonment, but that’s not really the point.  For my money the point is twofold.  Firstly, that living a life of lecherous abandonment is extremely good fun, and the depiction of the high life in both works is nothing short of hilarious, not to mention envy-inspiring on many levels.  Secondly, that the high life is actually quite a narrow life, offering little beyond hedonistic gratification.  However, this does not amount to an “I told you so” criticism because there is only an oblique suggestion that there is actually anything else out there.  The latter point is for the viewer/reader to decide, as it is in real life, and it is not an easy call to make, partly I would suggest because money is very tangible and ‘other stuff’ (art, love, justice, friendship, morality, intellectual fulfilment) tends to be less so.  Which is why in one of the final scenes of The Wolf we see a weary Agent Denham riding the subway home looking distinctly ambiguous about how things  have turned out (very much like the young couple on the bus at the end of The Graduate), and perhaps wondering whether he should have taken that bribe.

As the ever-sage Keith Richards says: “I look for ambiguity when I’m writing because life is ambiguous.”

The Editors