Thursday, November 29, 2007

A review of The Waterfall by Margaret Drabble

It’s almost 40 years since Margaret Drabble published The Waterfall, a novel, therefore, of the swinging, liberal, liberated sixties.. The scenario is simple. Jan and Malcolm and Lucy and James are two (heterosexual) couples. Then Jane initiates a shuffle of the cards and has an affair with James. By 2007 standards, this might provide enough material for page one of a contemporary inter-relationship novel. In Margaret Drabble’s hands it is more than enough to sustain a substantial book.

The narrative is seen entirely from Jane’s point of view. Alternately written in the first and third persons, we get to know Jane’s character from within and from without. She is not always honest, either with us or herself. She admits manipulation, duplicity, selfishness and infidelity. But they were the right things to do at the time, she convinces herself, the right things, that is, until she later reassesses what she did. So she justifies her inconsistencies, her whims, her foibles, her weaknesses through a belief that they were the right thing to do in the circumstances, at least as they unacceptably presented themselves. She is sometimes assertive, sometimes vulnerable, both satisfied and frustrated, accomplished and bereft. She hates sex, cannot cope with the physical contact of marriage, yet she finds herself with two children, and those after a first miscarried. It seems that for Jane every position is a default.

She is intensely analytical, however, extruding every aspect of her own psyche in every direction possible through the needle-eye of existence. And sometimes she meets herself going in the opposite direction, offers a greeting as she passes and remains unimpressed by the concept of contradiction. So in Jane we are presented with a character who appears to analyse every aspect of her life, of her very being, in forensic detail, only to ignore any conclusion that might arise. And for Jane, life changes on the day she discovers that James can give her what her husband seemed to promise, but was unable to fulfil. The Waterfall takes us through the minutiae of their relationship, examined from every possible angle, analysed down to the particulate. But we see everything from Jane’s point of view and, as I have already stated, this is not a consistent perspective.

Margaret Drabble provides the reader with some exceptional observations. Jane’s family, she tells us, believed in the God of the Church of England, and a whole host of other unlikely irreconcilable propositions, such as monogamy, marrying for love and free will. An aunt married a tradesman (Lord save us!), but she cultivated him so that he was at home with his professional relatives, and as capable as them of verbal malice. Jane describes herself as drifting sensibly into marriage. The class difference between Jane’s family and her husband’s was enjoyed by her own parents because it allowed them to indulge their passion for condescension. And these were the same parents who ate their hearts out in Surrey as they contemplated the forbidden fruits of prestige.

Margaret Drabble ostensibly presents Jane – and indeed Lucy, her cousin – as vulnerable females. Overtly – even internally – they are weak, perhaps wavering, unsure, forever unconvinced. But ultimately it’s the men involved who carry the weight, who become the tragedies. It seems that, at least in Margaret Drabble’s Waterfall, there exists in women, within an overtly vague vulnerability, a paradoxical and contradictory stern steel resolve which eventually endures.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A review of Disgrace by J M Coetzee

Disgrace is a novel of a man’s, even a family’s decline. David Lurie is a university teacher, the kind of teacher who was at home with academic material that current course requirements no longer demand. He is also divorced, twice, and even on his best form he has to grapple with the trials and tribulations that his frayed life and career present.

He needs regular sex and visits a prostitute with regularity, always the same one, and harbours suspicions that he provides her with more than just business. He also suffers from self-delusion. So when he has an affair with one of his students, he really believes that she wants him for what he is, despite his thirty years of seniority. He convinces himself that she is a willing participant. It turns sour. She reports him. There is a committee. He cooperates, perhaps, but not in the way required by mores with which he cannot identify. Conveniently, messily, he resigns. And he loses his benefits.

David goes off to live with his daughter in a rural area in the Eastern Cape. He discovers complexities in the relationship between white and black which were at least less apparent in the urban setting of Cape Town. He is willing to make compromises, but it is not going to be easy.

David and his daughter are then viciously attacked. Motives are clear, and then unclear. Relations between the father and daughter, and between the two of them and their black neighbours become difficult and strained. Old scores are being settled, perhaps. Older scores are being tallied. A new world demands that new details of inter-relation and inter-dependence be drawn, except that for David the art seems like freehand. No-one seems to be able to say what they want or what they feel.

To me, Disgrace seems to be about change and how we do or do not cope with it. It’s about how we want to continue asserting, for want of a better word, values – assumptions, perhaps – that might no longer apply. We would only know by reading the unspoken assumptions of others and interpreting them correctly. Disgrace is also about vengeance and punishment, about settling scores, about inclusion and exclusion. The story line is strong, but the overtones are stronger.

Disgrace is a book that presents individual experience and through that manages to comment on change within South Africa and its society, What has changed is not always for the better and what is retained is not always relevant. But these are reactions to assumptions, perhaps, rather than to any external reality, no matter whose it might be. On reflection, the overt simplicity of Disgrace is part of its complexity.

View this book on amazon Disgrace

Fascination by William Boyd: a virtuoso performance

Fascination by William Boyd is a set of sixteen short stories. This may not sound either surprising or original until one considers their form. The author uses at least nine different and clearly identifiable forms in which to present this work. One takes the form of a video. There are childhood memories, a diary, a journal, an A-to-Z listing. One story is a set of dialogues over lunch. Another is a set of monologues. And William Boyd’s use of these different forms is not just a writer’s trick to impress a critic. In each case to form complements the story, adds interpretation to the events and helps our understanding of the characters. Fascination is thus no less than a fascinating read, a tour de force in miniature by a great writer. 

 View the book on amazon Fascination

Sunday, November 25, 2007

A review of Going Home by Doris Lessing

It is fifty years since Doris Lessing published Going Home, an account of her return to Rhodesia, the country where she grew up. By then in her thirties, she had already achieved the status of restricted person because of her political allegiances and her declared opposition to illiberal white rule. These days Zimbabwe makes the news because of internal strife and oppression. It is worth remembering, however, that fifty years ago the very structures of Southern Rhodesian society were built upon oppression, an oppression based purely on race.

Fifty years on Doris Lessing’s Going Home an historical record of this noxious system, a record that is more effective, indeed more powerful because of its reflective and observational, rather than analytical style. Doris Lessing, a one-time card-carrying Communist, laid a large slice of the blame for the perpetuation of discrimination firmly at the door of the white working class. Though not all white workers were rich – indeed she records that many were abjectly poor – what they had and sought to preserve was an elevated status relative to the black population. She describes white artisans as white first and artisans second. Though trade unions actively sought equal pay for equal work, they never campaigned for any kind of parity for black workers. On the contrary, they demanded the maintenance of racially differentiated pay rates. How’s that for the spirit of socialist internationalism and brotherhood! (I accept there is a misplaced word there…). In fact Doris Lessing records that it was the relatively liberal capitalist enterprises that demanded more black labour, their motive of course arising from cost savings, not philanthropy. So trade unions spent much of their time making sure that companies hired their quota of higher paid, white labour.

Even in the 1950s, she remarks on the likelihood that many Africans were already better educated than their white counterparts. White youth shunned education as unnecessary, while Africans saw it as a possible salvation. She notes that the people who treated the African population the worst were recent immigrants from Europe, particularly those from Britain, who tended to be less educated themselves and drawn from the ranks of the politically reactionary. Such people, apparently, were equally critical of immigrants from southern Europe, and expected Spaniards and Greeks to work for African wages, not the white wages that they themselves demanded.

The situation in Rhodesia, clearly, had to change. Not only was such crass discrimination unsustainable, it was also comic, as are all racially posited class systems. While the South Africans over the border created honorary whites of the Japanese they increasingly had to do business with, the Rhodesians went through their own equally idiotic contortions. An example of such nonsense is quoted by Doris Lessing when she remarks that there was a privileged group of Africans who were granted the right not to carry passes with them at all times, as long as they carried a pass to record their exemption.

But it is also worth remembering that Doris Lessing, herself, was a banned person, unable to travel to certain places and very much under the watchful eyes of the authorities. In Going Home she observes a society that had to collapse under the weight of its unsustainable contradictions. The fact that this took more than twenty years after the book was written was nothing less than a crime, and probably contributed to the subsequent and equally lamentable reaction.

Doris Lessing records seeing a British film towards the end of her travels. She describes it as a “cosy little drama of provincial snobberies and homespun moralities played out in front of African farmers in their big cars”. Fifty years on, Britain is probably cosy and provincial, and the snobberies are still rife. But now it is not Rhodesia where these reactionaries look down on people of other races overpay and under-educated themselves. It is not in Africa where corporations would dearly love to employ cheaper labour, imported if need be. Rhodesia’s white privilege of the 1950s was obviously absurd. But there are some parallels with economic and class relations in the Britain of today and, like all good books, Doris Lessing’s Going Home may even add prescience to its qualities.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

A review of The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester

One of my greatest pleasures is eating, so I must cook. I savour, therefore I cook. I like tasty food made with fresh ingredients that address all four of our tastes – salt, sour, sweet and bitter – to create a complementary whole. Of course, there is now the fifth taste, unami, the expanding universe within soy sauce, that can amplify other inputs. I have just made an English pie, with chicken, mushrooms, a little diced bacon, seasoning and fresh herbs. It was moistened with stock and an egg before being baked in my own short-crust. Fresh gravy and vegetables alongside is all it will need. It thus has sweet, salt and bitter, but lacks sourness. A squeeze of lemon on the vegetables will compensate.

For the expansion, take one novel closely related to cooking and read. Do try the recipes, but proceed with care. Cook things right through before committing to taste. John Lanchester’s The Debt to Pleasure is my recommendation. It’s a highly original, highly informative cookbook written by one Tarquin Winot, an expert in the field.

In one of the most original books I have ever read, John Lanchester creates a real anti-hero. Too often the concept is ironed onto a character who is just a naughty boy doing naughty, often repulsive things, the concept of “hero” being often ignored. Tarquin Winot, the anti-hero of The Debt to Pleasure, is a brilliant and learned cook. He is also highly creative, using ingredients that only those who might cook with a purpose would choose to use. He is also something of a psychopath, perhaps. That is for you to judge. But he has survived to write his cookbook and apparently savours his retirement, courtesy of those he has fed.

The Debt to Pleasure is a superb novel. Tarquin’s narrative draws the reader, perhaps unsuspecting, into his world, evoking an empathy with and for the character. That we have as yet only partially got to know this brilliant cook only becomes apparent as we proceed through his life, a life he has peppered with his personal peccadilloes. But above all, Tarquin Winot is both a planner and a perfectionist. His culinary creations are thought through, drafted like dramas to provoke particular responses, to achieve pre-meditated ends. They are also successful, appreciated by those who consume his concoctions, and eventually they succeed in precisely the way that he plans and executes.

Throughout, John Lanchester’s prose is a delight, as stimulating to the mind as his character’s creations might be to the palate. Florid and extravagant it might be at times, perhaps too much butter and cream for some diets. But The Debt to Pleasure is a satisfying, surprising and eventually fulfilling read. Tarquin fulfils both aspects of the anti-hero and ultimately we are left to grapple with the nature of self-obsession and selfishness.

View the book on amazon The Debt to Pleasure

Friday, November 23, 2007

A review of Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes

Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes is a book I have had queuing up to read for some time. I don’t know why I have never got round to reading it. Perhaps it’s because of the overtly “literary” tag that was attached to it when it was short-listed for the Booker Prize. I am not against “literary” fiction. Far from it: indeed I aspire to write it, after a fashion. My avoidance of Flaubert’s Parrot was never conscious, but was probably a result of thinking that I knew what to expect – word play, experimentation with form, biography, dissection of the writer’s role, relationship between art and life, in fact all the mundane things that your average novelist has for breakfast. The less than average ones, by the way, always have corn flakes. It is their convention. Having just finished the book, I can declare that I found all I expected and much, much, much more.

Julian Barnes has his character, a doctor called Geoffrey Braithwaite, consider various literary ideas. One, which only really applies to writing prose fiction, is the relation between form and content. Most novels, certainly most pulp fiction, never address this, since the authors usually present apparently literal material merely literally or, perhaps even more commonly, fantastical material literally. Generally within some recognisable genre, these offerings tend to preoccupy themselves with simple narration. In effect, most novels are presented in pictorial form, like a comic strip running a frame at a time through the author’s mind, with only minimally extended commentary. Their presentation is invariably linear, with the writer’s aim to spoon-feed the reader with bite-sized chinks of easily digestible plot in a context aimed at simplifying the experience.

Flaubert’s Parrot is the polar opposite of this. The only plot is Flaubert’s life, both physical and intellectual, alongside that of his enthusiastic intended biographer, the doctor, Geoffrey. Geoffrey’s research, notes, speculations and musings provide the book’s utterly original form. Since the adultery of Flaubert’s fictional Madam Bovary provided the scandal that created his fame, evidence of his attitudes towards women and sex in his own life provides a fascinating backdrop against which we can assess the author’s motives and desires. The death and revealed adultery of the narrator’s own wife provides motive for his obsession with Flaubert and his femme fatale, and, quite unexpectedly, this culminates in a truly moving moment of emotional empathy that the author, Barnes, not Flaubert, not the narrator, evokes in his reader.

This emotional intensity developed as a real surprise towards the end of the book. Through it, Julian Barnes achieves a perfect marriage of form and content, the finest I have ever encountered. No matter how much we analyse the creative process, it is our emotional lives that provide the stuff of art. The writer moulds it, contextualises it, formalises it, but eventually the rawness of the experience, the chasm of bereavement, the hollow of betrayal, the consonance of love that makes us laugh or weep as we read, and Julian Barnes provokes both responses in this beautiful book.

There are some stunning moments of virtuosity. There are, for instance, three concatenated chronologies of Flaubert’s life – an encyclopedia of success, a record of failure and a personal diary. This is a masterstroke, effectively answering the rhetorical question of why we remain interested in the author, even when we consider a work as iconic as Madame Bovary. The narrator’s dissection of “correctness” in fiction is utterly poignant, especially so when we cannot even agree on the detail of reality. And so what if the writer decides to change things around? Isn’t it supposed to be fiction?

But the enduring memory of Flaubert’s Parrot is that masterstroke of marrying motives via Falubert’s real life, whatever that was, the imagined world of his femme fatale and the apparently real life of Geoffrey Braithwaite, with its own experience of adultery and bereavement. And then, of course, we have Geoffrey’s obsession with Flaubert, through which we reflect on the ideas of the self and its selfishness. Stunningly beautiful.

And the parrot? Probably a fake. Or perhaps just faked. Or then again….

Thursday, November 22, 2007

A review of The Valkyries by Paulo Coelho

I found Paulo Coelho’s The Valkyries a bit of an enigma. I suspect the author at least partly intended it to be so. In a nutshell, the author seeks to discover new aspects of his psyche, to develop new angles on his existing skills. After a consultation with his mentor, he and his wife set off for a jaunt in the Mojave Desert to find what it is that they seek. Our author is in engaged in a quest, a search for his personal Angel. The reader, I am sure, will be convinced from the start that she accompanied him throughout.

They wander off in full sun one day, take their clothes off (for some reason) and have to be rescued by Gene, who has seen it all before. He reassures the travellers that they will find their valkyries. And they do. They turn out to be a band of leather-clad women on motorbikes, ladies who have profound mystic powers which they practise amidst their regular partying.

I was a bit perplexed by the narrator who claimed to have trained as an engineer in one breath and then discussed the existence of the universe in terms of ancient Greek elements. I suspect that the high performance motorbikes relied on a rather more complex analysis of matter. But honing the skills of a magus apparently requires the application of ancient knowledge, no matter how wrong, whatever the context. And sure enough the revelations come flooding in and lives are duly transformed. I have just a suspicion that there is something in the observation that no matter what one does with reality, spirituality is necessarily a personal experience, its significance purely internal, even when shared with others.

The Valkyries has all the Paulo Coelho elements. There are short scenes presented in a variety of literary shorthand. The text is suffused with magic, religiosity and self-realisation set in an earthly medium. It’s a quick and easy read but ultimately a satisfying one, even for someone like myself, who cannot suspend belief long enough to share in the book’s experiences.

But Paulo Coelho is a magus and a magician of the highest order. He has sold over 90 million books and, as a writer myself, I will read more of his books in the hope that I might discover his magus touch, his waft of a wand that will reveal his secret. Even without sympathy for the detail, it’s a lovely, rhythmic read.

Costa Blanca Arts Update - A piano recital by Young-Joo Lee in Palau Altea, Altea, Spain

I claim to be a music lover and I attend a lot of concerts and recitals, so I don’t try to write a review every time, except for a few notes for my journal. But sometimes the playing is so perfect, the interpretations so poignant that the experience demands a record, if only to help publicise real, perhaps exceptional talent. 

And so it was with Young-Joo Lee, a Korean pianist. She gave her concert to the Amigos de la Musica de la Marina Baixa on November 9 2007 in Altea’s Palau on Spain’s Costa Blanca. In summary, her programme looked rather conventional. It featured Haydn, Rachmaninov, List, Ravel and Prokofiev. I envisaged a classical sonata played as a loosener, a couple of preludes, a showpiece, perhaps a little dead princess and then something from the tuneful end of Prokofiev to round things off. I am not suggesting that concert programmes offered to the Amigos de la Musica tend to be predictable. Quite the contrary, they tend to the ambitions, but then I am always sceptical of programmes that list only the composers’ names.

Young-Joo Lee did start with a Haydn sonata, but it was much more than the predicted loosener. She played the piece, Hob XVI:34 in E-minor, with charm, wit and real invention, with some of the rhythmic turns and cadences being delivered with an air of unexpected surprise. Haydn sonatas are rarely played this well, and, when they are, they are a revelation, a real ear-opener. 

She followed on with a quite rarely played set of variations by Rachmaninov. We all know the Paganini Rhapsody for piano and orchestra, but how many of us have ever heard a concert performance of the composer’s opus 42, the Variations on a Theme by Corelli? It’s a late work, written in a tougher style than the composer’s more familiar and generally more popular works. But it is a remarkably demanding piece, both in its execution and its realisation. Its twenty variations, plus intermezzo and coda, present a formidable challenge to the performer. They begin after the statement of Corelli’s little, apparently stalling tune, and require tremendous interpretive skill as well as technical mastery and Young-Joo Lee displayed brilliance in both areas to bring out the very best in the music. 

A set of variations can often descend into the presentation of a list, with each item interesting in itself, but the whole lacking coherence. Not so with this Rachmaninov, and much of the credit must go to the performer’s ability to identify and then communicate the grand design. Then we did have a real showpiece. Young-Joo Lee played the last of Liszt’s Paganini Etudes. It’s in A-minor and is based on the well known theme of the 24th Caprice for solo violin, the same theme that Rachmaninov used for his Rhapsody. Liszt’s treatment of the material is nothing less than pyrotechnic and as Young-Joo Lee played, there were times when her hands and arms were nothing but a blur. But often pianists present such pieces as if they were nothing more than a gymnastic display. It’s essential that everything should be in the right place, of course, but to achieve that state many players sacrifice the musical vision, as elegance and interpretation are muscled out by sheer technique. 

Not so with Young-Joo Lee. Not only was the piece a pianistic tour de force, it was also a thoroughly satisfying musical experience. The pyrotechnics made sense and became much more than the coloured bangs and flashes of random display. 

After the interval Young-Joo Lee presented her Ravel, which was the Valses Nobles et Sentimentales. Essentially this was the third piece in variation form on the trot. Under lesser hands, this could easily have become tedious, but Young-Joo Lee made it into a triumph. It was more than just an opportunity to show that she could handle the legato ambiguities of Ravel’s idiom after the confident force of the Liszt. She played with poignancy and power when needed. But she also never let the sense of the waltz become subsumed within the detail.

And then the Prokofiev. Young-Joo Lee offered us no less than the Seventh Sonata. Now the pianistic pyrotechnics needed an extra toughness, an almost industrial delivery through which the composer’s thematic and harmonic genius must shine. And Young-Joo Lee’s playing was not only up to the piece, it provided a complete revelation. To say that in the third movement she drove the car straight into the garage would be an understatement! It’s a piece that races towards its abrupt end, but to work it must be utterly relentless in its pursuit, never stalling, never anticipating. To describe her playing as close to perfect would be to do her an injustice. It was much better than that and, frankly, I think the audience was left utterly stunned. 

She offered a perfect encore in the form a Piazzolla tango and then retired for a well-deserved rest. Young-Joo Lee is an incredible talent. I do hope that her career as a soloist blossoms.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Europe revisited, reinterpreted - The Ruby in her Navel by Barry Unsworth

A Ruby in Her Navel is yet another superb historical novel by Barry Unsworth. By his phenomenal standards, this book might at first appear somewhat one-paced, even one-dimensional, with its action set firmly in the place and time of its main character, Thurston Beauchamp, a young man in the service of King Roger of Sicily in the twelfth century. But if A Ruby in Her Navel might lack the immediacy and complexity of Stone Virgin, it approaches the beautifully portrayed picture of medieval life presented in Morality Play. Indeed, a group of travelling players also features in this novel, as in Morality Play, but this time it’s a troupe of belly dancers from Anatolia, on tour in southern Italy. The ruby and navel of the title both belong to Nasrin, the youngest, most beautiful and most provocative member of the group. But having written that they were touring Italy, a country name that in our eyes is merely mundane and perhaps innocuous, I am reminded of one of the most enduring features of Barry Unsworth’s book, which is its ability to re-draw one’s understanding of who we were.

It was Alison Weir who first did this for me, if you see what I mean. I read her biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine, the marriageable lady who became King Henry the Second of England’s queen. Again, there’s the name of a country… You see, at school we British school children learned a variety of history that filtered everything through a sieve of contemporary national requirements. I can remember being taught that during the medieval era, the English ruled most of France and largely held onto it until the Wars of the Roses (I was brought up in Yorkshire, another irrelevant aside). Possessions remained until Queen Mary finally gave up Calais with a cardiac etch. Alison Weir undid a school lifetime of history when she described the Angevin Empire, part of the pan-European expansion of the Franks. Based in Anjou, this empire comprised what we now call southern, western and northern France, plus all of England and Wales, and other bits at times (though never Scotland, hence that nation’s long-lasting alliance with the rival empire based on the Ile de France). When interpreted this way, it wasn’t English kings that ruled France, or vice-versa. It was an empire with its own lingua franca, langue d’oc. The countries, and with them the geographical, ethnic and cultural assumptions upon which we falsely base our interpretation of the past, simply did not exist. Thus the paradigms upon which we base our understanding of English-ness or French-ness become both irrelevant and inapplicable. And thus the troupe of belly dancers in A Ruby in Her Navel weren’t, therefore, in Italy. They were in the Kingdom of Sicily, a small but powerful and ambitious little Norman empire created out of the same Frankish expansion that spurned the enduring conquest of the Anglo-Saxons in 1066.

In A Ruby in her Navel Barry Unsworth presents medieval Europe in a way that brings the historical issues into focus and gives them life. Lands were conquered and their Muslim leaders deposed. But the new rulers had to politic their way to continued incumbency, recognising the interests of land-hungry knights, only temporarily defeated Muslim predecessors with friends nearby, Jewish merchants who did pragmatic business with anyone and everyone. And even within these groups there were divisions. Amongst the Christians there were two competing blocks, the Germanic Holy Roman Empire and the Byzantine remnants of Imperial Rome. And then there was the Pope with his own empire, interests and ability to raise an army. And then there were those who aspired to power from within and sought to depose a rival in their own house. The Crusades that primary school history presents has having something to do with religion thus become mere wars of conquest for booty.

In A Ruby in Her Navel Barry Unsworth thus gives immediate, tangible life to the feudalism of the time. We really do understand the politics, the interests, the motivations of the era. But we are led to it by our experience of the characters’ lives, not via instruction or polemic. And the message is more powerful for Thurston Beauchamp, because he aspires to the knighthood his father relinquished in favour of monasticism. Thurston is currently King Roger’s entertainments manager and has to travel to Italy (I am doing it again!) to buy herons, caged prey for the King’s peregrines. He does his deal, but meets the troupe of dancers and the resulting stirrings of the spirit provoke him to ship them back home to do the same for his master. He falls in love with Nasrin, one of the group. Meanwhile Alicia, Thurston’s childhood sweetheart, suddenly reappears in his life. They were at school together until she was whisked away at a marriageable fourteen to be conjoined to a knight with a big sword and real estate in the Middle East, the Norman Outremer. Alicia’s husband, it seems, has now snuffed it, and again Thurston’s spirits rise when he realises that she is again available, again an unaccompanied, unclaimed, newly-vacated vessel.

The belly dancers go down well at home, of course, and so Thurston’s star is in the ascendant. He gets a new mission, commissioned by he knows not who and which causes accounting difficulties for the Muslim “head of civil service” to whom he reports.

By now you have probably guessed that there is a plot. And it’s a vast one, involving insiders, outsiders, a pope or two, Muslims, Germans, Jews, Byzantines and all the other interests competing their share of or their consolidation of feudal power. This really is top-down government, but the trick, once power is achieved, clearly is just to hold on. And sometimes you consolidate your home base by having a fiddle or two on foreign soil, a political strategy not unknown in our own times.

Our Thurston analyses the plot, works it all out and then acts to influence the outcome. Along the way he grapples with his rising dilemma in relation to Nasrin and Alicia, and thus his life is eventually transformed. As in all ages, he follows his heart (by which, of course, I mean his brain). A Ruby in Her Navel thus reveals that, as ever with Barry Unsworth, it is a multi-layered, complex, surprising and yet deeply human tale.

Monday, November 5, 2007

A review of A Question of Upbringing by Anthony Powell

Anthony Powell’s “A Question of Upbringing” is the first part of his mammoth twelve novel epic “A Dance to the Music of Time”. He writes with wit, humour and not a little sarcasm, describing a quintessential Englishness that perhaps was never representative of the society and has, arguably, disappeared. He wrote this first volume in 1951 and, though the book starts with a London scene from that era, the majority of the book deals with the characters’ school and university experiences and recalls a time passed.

The main character is Jenkins. I will follow the author’s lead and use surnames only for males, surnames plus titles for married, older or otherwise unavailable women, and Christian names for eligible women, whether they be of a certain class or prone to wear flowery dresses while standing next to post boxes in the street. As his friend, Stringham, discovered, even some of the surname plus title women at times can prove highly eligible.

The book’s form is both simple and intriguing. It is so effective we almost miss the ingenuity of its construction. There are just four chapters, each in excess of fifty pages and each focused on one particular episode. We have school, a social gathering, a holiday in France and college undergraduate life. Powell’s writing has such a lightness of touch that we forget how intensely we are invited to analyse the circumstances of each chapter and how penetratingly we discover the characters’ lives. There is considerable innuendo, much gossip and usually piles of money, along with social status and influence wrapped up in every household.

The quintessence of their Englishness, like characters in the novels of Evelyn Waugh, arises out of their apparent inability to question – or perhaps even notice – their privilege. It’s a state they inhabit without either reflection or gratitude, so much taken for granted that it lies beyond doubt, its achievement apparently assumed, not expected. School means one of the better “public” schools. Going “up to university” assumes Oxbridge as a right, though Powell tinges this with the perennial blight of the English upper classes, intellectual paucity, by having several of his keen entrants “decide” not to complete a degree. One assumes that many of the others will take thirds before assuming their company chairs or ministerial portfolios. The army figures large in family histories, always at officer class, of course, and so does the City, where one can always become “something”. Even Americans, however, can be described as having “millionaire pedigree” on both sides, an economic status that presumably compensates for what is otherwise a palpable lack of breeding. When family members do not assume expected and assumed heights, they are referred to in hushed tones, the words “black sheep” perhaps not politically or at least socially correct even then.

But if this really was a quintessence of Englishness, it was a pretty rare ingredient. Maybe one or two per cent of the population went to the right school. Only about five or six per cent attended higher education of any sort, let alone a university one “went up to”. Neither Sandhurst nor corporate board rooms were populated by the masses. (They still aren’t!) And so this was a quintessence of separateness, of rarefied heights in an extended class system and, certainly by the 1950s, some of these peaks had been scaled by other aspirants, using new climbing techniques eschewed by the incumbents of years.

And so “A Question of Upbringing” reveals its duality. It’s a tale that celebrates a time lost, a nostalgic peek into a remembered adolescence where a hand placed apparently carelessly and always momentarily upon that of a member of the opposite sex remained a daring highpoint of teenage years.

Nostalgia is always tinged with loss, however. Early in the book, Powell describes the school thus: “Silted-up residues of the years smouldered interruptedly – and not without melancholy – in the maroon brickwork of these medieval closes: beyond the cobbles and archways of which (in a more northerly direction) memory also brooded, no less enigmatic and inconsolable, among water-meadows and avenues of trees: the sombre demands of the past becoming at times almost suffocating in their insistence.”

And how about this for a presumption of affluence: “It was a rather gloomy double-fronted fa├žade in a small street near Berkeley Square: the pillars of the entrance flanked on either side with hollow cones for the linkmen to extinguish their torches.” And we notice we are in a different age when Powell has his lads pick up two girls off the street to joy-ride in a new Vauxhall. Without a suggestion of tongue-in-cheek or indeed relish he can write that: “The girls could not have made more noise if they had been having their throats cut.”

When I first read Anthony Powell, I could not get past my ingrained hatred of this class and its power-assuming, wealth-inheriting inhabitants. It was a country that was not mine. I come to it now a little wiser and a little richer myself, richer in experience at least, and now I can appreciate the irony that my previous naivety ignored. I now look forward with some relish to the next eleven episodes. “[book:A Dance to the Music of Time|16113]” is certainly a masterpiece to be revisited.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

A Silk Road Trip, or I Gobbed in the Gobi, China,1992, by Philip Spires

In August 1992, myself and my wife, Caroline, arranged a trip to post-Tiananmen China. It was in the days when the London China Travel office was on Cambridge Circus, opposite the Palace Theatre on Charing Cross Road. It took me at least twenty books, a late-night Japanese television series and several months to plan and arrange the trip from what was then our base in Balham, south London. In those days, you could arrange the visit via China Travel and then, as long as the itinerary was lodged in advance, you could travel absolutely independently. Everything was pre-paid, but on setting off, we had no tickets or confirmed reservations apart from our air tickets in and out of Beijing. As ever, I kept a journal of the trip, which ran to more than fifty pages. A few years later, I condensed the experience to two sides of A4, ignoring rules of grammar and syntax, and produced the following ramble, a perhaps poetic impression of nearly a month of travel.

Ex-London while the Sun dissected Michael Jackson's nose and praised Boardman's hooterless gold-medal bicycle. Air China to Beijing, where taxis cost more than Lonely Planet predicts. A Chinese character itinerary from one Tim Han of China Travel whilst fellow workers drool over televised lithe Afro-American sprinters at the Olympics. Then to the no-longer Forbidden City. Piles of local tourists to negotiate.

Four hours of Xinjiang Airlines to Urumqi. Signs in Chinese and Russian plus Uigur written in Arab script (a recent innovation). Land lines across Inner Mongolia. Why and how so straight? Urumqi multiple-peaked. Piles of coal, scruffy high rise, snow-capped Bogda Shen at street-end. Pavement fortune tellers, traders. Food stalls. Women washing sheeps' stomachs in a stream, tripe kebabs. Uigur town now Han Chinese, populated by Shanghai overspill, over 2000 miles from ‘home’. The second long march.

Uigur breakfast. Hot sheep's milk, Chinese tea, flat tomato bread, sugared tomato and cucumber, pickled cabbage, thin congee, sheep's milk butter, two giant sugar lumps. Uigur market. Fruits amid a forest of hanging lamb. Chinese market. Live vegetables and meats. Tank over-spilling with energetic eels (unit price). Self-knotting spaghetti.

Woman losing her gold watch at an illegal 'find the lady'. Policeman looking on. Tears when the loss hits home. Renmin Park for noodles and rocket-fuel chili sauce. Bag slashers with finger-ring knives on a crowded bus. Care needed.

Car to Turfan. Fertile valleys. Barren mountains. Occasional snow. Road ploughed. Kazak yurts. Semi-sunken shade-making rammed-earth Uigur villages, invisible at a distance save for chimney smoke. Steep downhill gorge, spectacular river, rocks, white water and slate-grey hills. Into Turfan depression, snow-capped distance surrounding grey stone pit 100 miles across. 42 degrees at its base, 200 metres below sea level. Car ahead leaving tracks on molten road. A hefty gob from the driver irrigates. Gobi means stones. Plenty here. And then green. An oasis. A giant mirage?

Turfan. Latticed vines for street-shade. Hanging raisin grapes. 15 yuan fine for casual picking. Hotel tea in galvanised buckets. Turkish-style dancing and music. Genghiz-sacked rammed-earth cities of Goachang and Jiaohe. Painted tombs and brick minarets. Flaming mountains. Karez underground irrigation system. 3000 kilometres of channels. 1500 years old, gravity-fed from mountains at the depression-edge. Uigur culture's greatest feat, and in full working order.

Bus to Daheyan. Two hours over bumpy stones to depression-edge. Dump of a railway town. Coal heaps, box buildings, waste land. Two women at war on station forecourt. Ramming victim's head onto the ground. Blood. Onlookers. Inaction. A tense town of resentful postees.

500 miles to Liuyuan in Gansu. Featureless flat grey shale stone. Spectacularly unique. Snow mountains to the north. Utterly empty, save for smoking coal towns. 40 above in summer, 30 below in winter. Overnight by train. Dawn reveals same massive scene, now in brown.

Arrive Liuyuan. Daheyan writ similar. 120 miles south across the desert (black at first!), past remnant ramparts of Han Dynasty Greater-Great Wall. Camels and dunes of Taklimakan, world's largest sand desert. Near Dunhuang oasis blossoms again. Sand and scree suddenly crop and tree. Feitian Hotel, with complimentary toiletries labelled Sham Poo and Foam Poo. Lunch. Fourteen dishes. Duck, foo-yong, cucumber, cabbage, oyster mushroom chicken, coriander pork, steamed buns, steamed bread, rice, beef broth and noodles, pork and green beans, pork and sweet chili, chicken and squash, plain noodles, water melon. Then to get the essential torch for the caves. Houses huddled together. Wood stores for winter piled on top. View across the roofs like a scrap heap. Ground level claustrophobic stoneware maze.

Cave day. Mogao Buddhist caves - closed from 12 to 2, full day needed for perhaps the most stunning sight on earth. 400 'caves' (some cathedral size) in a sandstone gorge, between 400 AD to 1100 AD. Utterly dry, always dark, perfectly preserved. Everything painted. Tang period complex and colourful. A world of scenes by torchlight. Buddhas reclining, sitting, standing, posing. Thirty metre seated figure with thousands of unsmoked cigarettes and coins on his lap as offerings. Shock of Qing-renovated cave with Taoist figures. Ghoulish features, contorted, and a face in the groin. 40 caves seen in the day, archaeologist as a personal guide. Stunning. Fourteen dishes for dinner.

Desert bus back to Liuyuan. Always a fight for seats. Three dusty hours. Train to Lanzhou. 800 miles along Gansu-Qinghai mountainous border. More black desert, then yellow earth. Jaiyaguan fort at the limit of the Ming empire. Overnight by train. Country changed. Mountain pass, green rolling hills and stepped fields. Wheat harvest in. Straw dollies like children at assembly. Houses still of rammed earth. Lanzhou a thriving industrial city. Thirty hours of travel. Walk by Yellow River.

Fish in hotel restaurant tank all dead. Lanzhou bus expensive. 50 fen per trip. Radios and knitting banned. Han dynasty flying horse and bronze warriors. Steamed carp with rape on menu. The fish comes first. Train to Xian through yellow loess country. Deep furrows and gorges. All flat land cropped. 500 miles overnight.

Terra cotta warriors facing east to guard Qin Shihuang's tomb. Made in pieces. Assembled in situ. Partly excavated section where piles of dismembered limbs emerge from the earth. New terra cotta warriors for sale from the factory behind the museum. Exact replicas of originals. Wheeze at the thought of the whole thing as a sham for the tourist trade.

Xian, like all Chinese cities, a square. Roads straight, intersecting always at right angles. Ancient centre walled, Ming rebuilt. Old mosque exquisite. Xianyang nearby, with Seventh century Qian tombs, museum with another 3000 Han terra cottas like a football crowd. Train to Beijing. 800 miles, 26 hours. Houses often caves in valley side. Later immense flat land, maize everywhere.

Temple of Heaven, Tiantan, and then Beijing Opera. Pause for beer at wayside stall. Served by moonlighting trainee stockbroker! Breakfast pickle amazing, like four year old camembert out of a shotgun. Takes the head off. Great Wall. Mucho touristico, but still stunning. Like climbing a giant ladder in places. "I climbed the Great Wall" T-shirts, prices lower the further you climb. Must be the air. Ming tombs dismissed by guide-book. Wrong. Amazing barrel vaulted rooms nine stories underground. Jade doors, carved thrones, marble, marble, marvel. Reminiscent of renaissance Italy. Everlasting bricks etched with names of their makers. Souvenir jade boat for £55000.

White drapes over erotic statues in Tibetan Lama Temple. Same bestial content in wall paintings. 24 metre gold Buddha through the incense-blur. No smoking signs everywhere.

Mao's Maosoleum an emperor's tomb. Lines for queues painted across the square. Feet pointing north towards Tiananmen Gate, upside-down feng shui. He is shiny, waxy and painted about the face. Moving lines file past on either side. No pausing. Outside, stalls with Mao T-shirts, Mao key rings, cuddly toys, post cards, magic lantern shows. Mao Zedong candy floss by the armful. Then Great Hall of the People. Dining room for 5000. Now fast food for tourists. Great Hall chop sticks, cigarettes, T-shirts. Great Hall of the People cuddly toys.

2500 miles. Three and a half weeks. 5 destinations. 50 caves. 6000 terra cotta warriors. 1 each Great Wall, Forbidden City, Beijing Opera, Mao Zedong. Hundreds of tombs, temples, pagodas, parks, bendi-buses and bicycles. 3 silk shirts on the Silk Road. One amazing trip.