Friday, October 24, 2008

The Destiny Of Natalie X by William Boyd

An aspect of William Boyd’s writing that always seems close to the surface of his work is an examination of selfishness. At the very least, his characters fulfil their self-interest. One recalls how the events of The New Confessions or Any Human Heart unfold, how in both cases the central character’s aspirations are forever paramount, often to the detriment of those he proclaims to love. But it is probably in his short stories that this theme is best illustrated and his collection, The Destiny Of Natalie X, does precisely that.

Two of the stories, The Dream Lover and Alpes Maritimes, in just twenty pages each, pursue there ideas in depth. In the first, a student in a south of France university is envious of the obvious wealth and easy-going lifestyle of an American fellow student. This well-heeled American splashes money around, advertises his talents and gets the girls – at least in theory. He even has a desirable Afghan coat. By the end of the story, the narrator has utterly reversed the roles. Not only does he come out on top financially, he goes off with the girl, and even gets the coat. In addition, he has benefited from the other’s profligacy along the way.

Another side of selfishness is expressed via responses to temptation, specifically to the proximity of opportunity. Even a man in a stable, happy relationship cannot avoid speculating what a taste of something different might bring. The possibility that it might sour everything else is, of course, never contemplated. In Alpes Maritimes a lusty young man just cannot resist the idea that grass is greener on the other side of the twins. His partner is one twin, his desire might be the other. He years to sample what he seems to see as the merchandise. So while it is in progress, William Boyd suggests that life may be a neurotic search for ever greater fulfilment, even if that is only imagined. Future promise, it seems, always surpasses experience.

When it is ended, however, life seems inconsequential. We live, we love, we dream, we die. And we are soon forgotten, even the turbulence of the journey is soon smoothed. Those with whom we have shared our lives may remember us for a while, but even memory, it seems, is founded in self-interest. Perhaps memory of a deceased is the livings’ mechanism of coping with their own future.

The Destiny Of Natalie X, the title story, deals with the making of a film. It addresses pretence and the inflation of egos. But it also makes us think of the mundane and how, for every individual, it remains special, the only possible existence. As ever, William Boyd uses many different forms to express his ideas. For some readers this variability may get in the way of appreciation of the material. But rest assured, the material is worth the challenge and, if it forms a barrier, then the stories are worth several readings until their challenges are overcome.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Heart Of The Matter by Graham Greene

Over forty years ago a new English teacher at my school answered a question asked by an eager student. The question was, “What do you think is the greatest novel written in English?” He didn’t think for very long before replying, “The Heart Of The Matter.”

We academically-inclined youths borrowed Graham Greene’s novel from the library and eventually conferred. There were shrugs, some indifference, appreciation without enthusiasm. We were all about sixteen years old.

I last re-read The Heart Of The Matter about twenty-five years ago. When I began it again for the fourth time last week, I could still remember vividly the basics of its characters and plot. Henry Scobie is an Assistant Chief of Police in a British West African colony. It is wartime and he has been passed over for promotion. He is fifty-ish, wordly-wise, apparently pragmatic, a sheen that hides a deeply analytical conscience. Louise, his wife is somewhat unfocusedly unhappy with her lot. She is a devout Catholic and this provides her support, but the climate is getting to everyone. She leaves for a break that Scobie cannot really afford. He accepts debt.

The colony’s businesses are run by Syrians. Divisions within their community have roots deeper than commercial competition. There is “trade” of many sorts. There are accusations, investigations, rumours and counter-claims. Special people arrive to look into things. There’s a suicide, more than one, in fact, at least one murder, an extra-marital affair, blackmail, family and wartime tragedy.

But above all there is the character of Henry Scobie. He is a man of principle who thinks he is a recalcitrant slob. He is a man of conscience who presents a pragmatic face. He makes decisions fully aware of their consequences, but remains apparently unable to influence the circumstance that repeatedly seems to dictate events. He remains utterly honest in his deceit, consistent in his unpredictability. His life becomes a beautiful, uncontrolled mess. His wife’s simple orthodox Catholicism contrasts with his never really adopted faith. He tries to keep face, but cannot reconcile the facts of his life with the demands of his conscience. His ideals seem to have no place in a world where interests overrule principle. He sees a solution, a way out, but perhaps it is a dead end.

For twenty-first century sensibilities, the colonial era attitudes towards local people appear patronising at best. Perhaps that is how things were. But The Heart Of The Matter is not really a descriptive work. It is not about place and time. Like a Shakespearean tragedy, the events and their setting provide only a backdrop and context for a deeply moving examination of motive and conscience. And also like a Shakespearean tragedy, the novel transcends any limitations of its setting to say something unquestionably universal about the human condition. Forty years on, I now realise, that my new English teacher was probably right.

View this book on amazon The Heart of the Matter

Saturday, October 18, 2008

A valley side too far - Resistance by Owen Sheers

In Resistance Owen Sheers re-writes the history of World War Two. Germany has invaded Britain. The United States, having suffered reversals both east and west, has retreated home to navel gaze. Britain thus is occupied, but has not yet succumbed. In a remote rural community on the Welsh borders, a whole valley of farming families awakes one morning to find that all the men have gone. No-one knows where. They were recruited, perhaps, into an underground resistance and not one of them let slip any of the details. This, frankly, is incredible.

The demands of farming, however, continue, despite invasions and estrangement. Sarah, though devastated by her husband’s, Tom’s, disappearance, must battle on. There are dogs to see to, lambs to nurture, pigs to feed and foals to train. This permanence of landscape and activity is thus set against massive upheaval. Not only have the men gone, but German troops have appeared, troops who seem to be more on holiday than at war. Again, incredible.

Alex is good with animals and helps at Sarah’s farm, as does Albrecht, an English-speaking, Oxford-educated academic, uncomfortable in military garb. Relationships develop, whilst most involved apparently remain increasingly apologetic.

Owen Sheers also wants us to believe a scenario for conquest where the invaders lay siege to the cities. Again this lacks credibility, since German military success in the Second World War seemed to come when invasions went straight to the centre. Where they lay siege, such as Leningrad or Stalingrad, they failed. But then the whole point is that the history has been reversed.

In a situation where passions and tempers would probably have been frayed, tested at least, Owen Sheers presents a community that seems to survive just as before, minus the local males. Resistance is well written and is very readable, often beautiful. But it does demand that one’s belief be suspended from very high indeed.

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Monday, October 6, 2008

Lives In Time - The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler

For me, The Amateur Marriage represents the sixth time I have read one of Anne Tyler’s novels. On the surface it’s the story of Michael and Pauline. They meet by chance in 1941 in Anton’s, the grocery store run by Michael’s family. 1941, perhaps incidentally, is the year Anne Tyler was born. There was a war to be fought, of course, a war that affected both of their lives. But there’s a marriage, and a child, a daughter named Lindy. Others follow, a boy and another girl.

For Michael and Pauline, life progresses, as does their marriage. But twists and turns take them to places they have never visited. As with other novels by Anne Tyler, there is an obvious and consistent linearity about its time.

A reviewer has to be careful with detail, because what happens to this novel’s characters is a large part of how it happens, and thus an integral part of the book’s rationale. To some extent, a listing of the plot, event by event, would render a reading unnecessary.

But after a handful of Anne Tyler’s books, I am now convinced there is much more going on in them than mere story-telling. In the past I have found her characters shallow, rather self-obsessed, selfish, perhaps. They are people who have lives outside the family, but people who seem pre-occupied with the familiar and seem rarely to confront ideas or experience outside its apparently defining, but only sometimes reassuring confines.

And perhaps that’s the point. It is an American dream, a libertarian ideal under a microscope. It is analysed, picked apart, sometimes reconstructed. The characters are affected by political, social, economic and cultural change. Their lives are materially transformed by the same forces that lay waste and occasionally reinvent their home town, Baltimore. But they, themselves, are mere recipients of these effects, appearing to play no part in their instigation or, it seems, their analysis. They live their lives. They are pushed around by experience, jostled by life, reflect little, internalise everything, only occasionally recognising life’s potential to reform. Time thus moves on. Inevitability looms unexpectedly.

It is not a criticism of Anne Tyler, her novel or its characters to proffer the opinion that everything seems to happen in an intellectual wasteland. People go to college, do law degrees, become involved with good causes, procreate, but moments of reflection seem to be confined to what breed of dog might not provoke allergy. Perhaps that’s the point. Such things are the stuff of life. Time goes on.

View this book on amazon The Amateur Marriage

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Prisoners of ideology - Angels and Insects by A. S. Byatt

Angels and Insects is an intriguing pair of novellas. At one level it examines the complexities of human relationships, especially those incorporated within marriage and the family. It identifies tension, dissipates it, anticipates expectations and then seeks resolution of conflict when they are not realised.

In Morpho Eugenia, William, a suitor, pursues his beloved and she becomes his wife. They breed with regular success, but there is a darkness that separates them in their marriage, a darkness that becomes light when William comes home from the hunt unexpectedly.

In The Conjugal Angel we enter a spirit world. For the inhabitants of the world, the spirit reality is as tangible, as rational a universe as any other. It is a world with familiar landmarks that reveal themselves easily to the accepting mind. Powerfully and engagingly interpreted by an influential writer, their significance enters the participants´ assumptions, their existence never questioned.

Angels and Insects is set in the mid-nineteenth century and, as such, deals with concepts, both social and intellectual, which are quite foreign, quite removed from those of the contemporary reader. In Morpho Eugenia, we have a scientist exploring the revolutionary ideas of evolution and applying these not only to the natural world he researches, but also the private human world, both physical and emotional, that he inhabits. Needless to say, his radical ideas are not shared by many close to him. In The Conjugal Angel, we encounter a group of people motivated by a reality they all share. 

But, for the contemporary reader, it is a reality that is utterly foreign, its literature and its analysis both apparently bogus in today’s judgment. Thus, eventually Angels and Insects is a novel about ideology. It illustrates how ideological assumptions about the nature of existence can drive an individual´s and a society´s approach to life, and how it can convince people of the truth of illusion, or vice versa. And in considering the works of contemporary poets, Angels and Insects illustrate how the literature of an age can become suffused with its ideology and, indeed, how this can feed back into the substance of life to reinforce assumptions.

As ever, A S Byatt´s use of language is virtuosic, making the process of reading Angels and Insects a delight throughout. It is an ambitious project which almost achieves its design. The shortfall, however, becomes a frustration.

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Saturday, October 4, 2008

Regeneration by Pat Barker

In Regeneration, Pat Barker fictionalises an encounter between H. R. Rivers and Siegfrid Sasson in a military psychological hospital. In Craiglockhart, near Edinburgh, there are numerous war wounded, whose experiences in the Flanders trenches of the First World War have left them psychologically, as well as sometimes physically scarred.

The symptoms are many and varied. In Sassoon´s case it is possible that the motivation might even be political, rather than psychological. Rivers attempts to analyse his patients and his own responses to them. He is of the modern school, unlikely to resort to the blunt-edged methods of some of his contemporaries. 

Descriptions of some of these established treatments read very much like torture. They were, after all, in the cases described, trying to make someone talk. How appropriate.

But Rivers is unimpressed and he pursues his own line. Along the way, he also develops new, ground-breaking treatments of his own invention. Sassoon befriends a young man called Owen, whom he encourages to write. Another friend called Graves visits whenever he can. Together, Sassoon and Owen work on some of Owen´s writing.

The results, they both agree, are improvements. The power of Regeneration is the relation between its overall idea and its setting. It presents the creative process as a reflection on experience and sets this in an institution where formal reflection on experience is a treatment.

Eventually, it is not just the individual patient who benefits from the cathartic process of reflection, but also the analyst and, ultimately, all of us when the relief takes the form of great poetry.

View this book on amazon Regeneration