Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Road Home by Rose Tremain

I approached Rose Tremain’s The Road Home expecting a vivid story drawn on a life of struggle, whose central character might grapple with life’s traumas, opportunities, joys and disappointments. I also expected that all of this would be placed in a setting where landscape, physical, social and psychological, but perhaps not political, would both inform and influence the characters’ lives. I was not disappointed, but for the most part I remained less than surprised, apart from the fact that Rose Tremain in The Road Home approached a contemporary political issue. 

The Road Home has modern day economic migration at its core. Lev is Polish. He has worked in a sawmill in his home town, the less than prosperous Baryn. He has a family and he used to be married. But now, as a single parent, despite the assistance of friends and family, he finds there is no future at home, no visible means of support. So he leaves for London on a bus in search, presumably, of streets paved with gold. On that journey he meets Lydia, a compatriot with connections and in some unlikely way or other they manage to stay in contact throughout the book.

Clearly their lives were never meant to intertwine, but circumstance, in The Road Home, is forever a local confinement. It simultaneously restricts and empowers, and then conspires with time to create a bond of friendship between Lev and Lydia that transcends class, interest, geography, expectation and assumption. Rose Tremain’s story takes Lev to different jobs, a kebab shop, two quite different restaurants, an old people’s home and a vegetable form. She has him encounter low life on the street, the high-brow in a concert hall, and also the other-worldly in a theatre. He spots pretence – it might not be that difficult! – but he also appreciated sincerity. He encounters self-obsession, honesty and love, always in unequal measure in every aspect of life. 

Eventually, his travels become both self-revelatory and enriching. He comes to terms with loss and turns the void in his life to personal gain. There is no fairy-tale get-rich-quick ending for Lev. The Road Home is no sugary advertisement for individuality, no attempted apology for market capitalism. This is a personal quest to cope with personal tragedy and unacceptable economic reality. The road does eventually lead home, but only when Lev and his destination have both been transformed. In their own way, neither is the same as they were at the start. 

And, I suppose, that’s the point. Life takes us wherever it goes. As it drags us along, either we learn and survive, or merely survive, or not. The process is given. The result is speculative. Lev survives. And he learns. He is a credible, real character, with a credible, real life. But there were aspects of The Road Home that I found disappointing. The scenario that adopted Lev at his destination was, for me, too isolated. Migrants often rely heavily on networks, but Lev has no contact save for Lydia, whom he met on the bus. He has no relatives to phone, nor friends, nor relatives of friends, nor someone from his home town who knew someone from somewhere else who just happened to be in business in Essex. This I found unlikely.

In a literary sense, this liberated Lev from his background and thus enabled Rose Tremain to layer upon his experience exactly what she wanted. This was convenient. It also rendered Lev’s point of view wholly individual. He apparently experienced everything in the naiveté of complete isolation, the foreignness of British behaviour thus presented as if seen in a laboratory analyst’s test tube. In this context, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Rose Tremain used Lev’s trials and tribulations merely as a vehicle to let off some steam about aspects of contemporary British culture that she finds abhorrent, embarrassing or reprehensible. This, and not Lev’s economic migration, is the rather failed political aspect of the book. Christy, Lev’s Irish live-in landlord, was rather more stereotypical than he needed to be. A plumber with a broken marriage and a drink problem might be plausible, but the last Irish plumber I met in London had so much work he earned a fortune and owned several London houses on which he collected rents. Maybe his name was Christy. Lev’s relationship with the eventually predictable Sophie also seemed unlikely. They worked together in a ground-breaking new restaurant, encountered the pretentiousness of a cutting-edge playwright and together even got involved in some social conscience. 

I would have no criticism here if Lev, throughout all this experience, had seemed more engaged, rather than experiencing everything as if he were merely a recipient. Out of your own context and background, you have the opportunity, even the right, to be super-opinionated, and this is a right that Lev seems to forego. Overall, The Road Home is an excellent read. Its characters are engaging and its events are eventually both credible and poignant. I felt, however, that it lived too much outside its principal figure’s psyche. But then it chose to concentrate on his experience of change, one aspect of which is travel, itself, rather than his responses and judgments. Sometimes travel itself intensifies responses, and it is possible that Lev’s experiences explore this aspect of experience. So when he returns home, as the book’s title requires he does, he is a changed man. But now he is also newly skilled, enriched and motivated. The Road Home does more than a little of that for the reader as well. View the book on amazon The Road Home

City Of Spades by Colin MacInnes

Colin MacInnes wrote City Of Spades over fifty years ago. At the time its depiction of London from an African immigrant’s point of view both shocked and revealed. I wondered whether a contemporary reader might now find its perspective hackneyed, its impact diminished by changes in attitudes towards race that we assume have happened in the intervening years. Half a century ago, the bones of Johnny Fortune’s story might have shocked. Somehow, at least for those anywhere near the issues, I doubt it. 

He arrives in London from Nigeria to study meteorology, an activity that, for a whole host of reasons, he manages singularly to avoid. A newly-appointed welfare officer is charged with the task of easing the exigencies of life for youngsters from the warmer parts of the Commonwealth who come to be weaned by the mother of the Empire. He is appointed to care for Johnny’s file. But before long, while Johnny designs his own curriculum, it is our young civil servant who is receiving the education, an education about the nature of his own society, or at least a side of it that he might previously have been totally and blissfully unaware.

Perhaps paradoxically, Johnny meets people who regularly do things that are less than legal. He encounters substances with their associated informal retail trade, dubious service-sector occupations with their associated facilitators, activities behind closed doors that would be unseemly at the street corner. In short, opportunities in several shapes and sizes appear at almost every step. And then, of course, the police turn up and try to call a halt to the party. Suffice it to say that Johnny Fortune’s fortunes lead to various encounters, some of which are within the law, and some with the law. Invariably, they involve little prosperity and even less formal learning. 

If the plot’s content might have shocked residents of areas outside inner London in the late 1950s, then today it would not. Times certainly have changed. But then shock was not the book’s intent, even fifty years ago. Shock would have encouraged exaggeration which Colin MacInnes only ever suggests to create comedy. What City of Spades tries to do, in my opinion, is question those assumptions we all make about the nature of our society, our identity, our ideas of culture, nationality and history. And the book still manages to achieve this, because those themes, if not their settings, are eternal. I was reminded, on this reading, of The Rake’s Progress. When we follow the exploits of Tom Rakewell, we make allowances that accommodate differences between eighteenth century life and its contemporary manifestation in order to see through to the principles and ideas. We do not, for instance, need to believe that Nick Shadow is actually the embodiment of The Devil, as advertised, to understand the folly of Tom’s decision to seek personal aggrandisement in London rather than a slower-paced but perhaps more sincere provincial predictability. We do, however, have to understand a certain moral landscape in order to interpret the schemes that Tom pursues, despite the fact that they now seem strange and a tad unlikely. It’s in this spirit, I believe, that we should approach City Of Spades in order to identify, experience and understand much in the work that clearly transcends merely historical significance.

Also like The Rake’s Progress, City Of Spades is a highly witty and humorous look at some aspects of its contemporary society. In the latter’s case, it reveals double standards relating to race, class difference and a host of societal characteristics whose existence received middle class sentiment might seek to deny. Nowadays, we might see many of these revelations as highly unremarkable, despite the fact that, for many, they remain not quite mundane. Colin MacInnes’s City Of Spades still retains the ability to make its point in its original, apparently durable terms. In the 1950s, a stereotypical view of Britishness might have included claims to trust, honesty, integrity in public life, a police force that was the toast of the earth and a society that both cared for the vulnerable and had time to love animals. In City Of Spades, Johnny Fortune had drugs planted on him, was beaten up in custody and lived ordinarily in layer of society whose existence the polite either denied or ignored. But then he has African. Times don’t change. But the title might have. View this book on amazon City of Spades

Hotel de Dream by Edmund White

In Hotel de Dream, Edmund White presents a fellow writer, a fellow-countryman called Stephen Crane. Stephen is well connected, but ill-equipped. We are in turn of the century England. That’s old-England, by the way, and we are tuning into the twentieth, not twenty-first century. Henry James drops by occasionally. Conrad sometimes stumbles hereabouts and Arnold Bennett throws in an occasional sentence. 

But Stephen’s social life is hardly hectic. He is ill, tubercular, and in need of treatment. He seeks what might be a last chance, perhaps, to deny or merely postpone the inevitable. A clinic in Germany might be able to offer an answer. If only he had the money. While his carer, Cora, struggles to meet his needs, Stephen recalls a street-waif in New York. Elliott is in his mid-teens. He sells newspapers and does a little thieving on the side. Prostitution fills otherwise unproductive hours. Stephen further recalls the boy’s beauty, his wholly pragmatic approach to securing a livelihood and also his syphilis, a condition for which the writer tries to arrange treatment.

Via the germ of memory, Stephen, despite his own failing health, begins to invent a narrative. He writes from his sick bed, his weakness eventually requiring he dictates to his partner. He tells the story of Elliott’s arrival in New York and his introduction to the ways of the street by an Irish red-head boy who is in need of an accomplice. He describes the petty larceny and the occasional servicing of specific services for casual clients that provide the boy with a living. When Theordore, a middle-aged, unhappily-married family man takes a liking to the boy, everyday life takes a different twist. Elliott and his accomplice have just done for Theodore’s wallet. The older man, however, hardly notices the loss, so taken is he with the lad’s delicate, almost porcelain but ailing beauty. 

Theodore and Elliott the lad become lovers and Theodore’s respectable career as a banker becomes increasingly compromised by the pressure of having to provide with the boy’s needs, his own desires and his family’s respectability. Stephen Crane’s own condition deteriorates. As he heads to the Continent for last-ditch restorative treatment, he has to dictate his writing to his carer, herself a former brothel owner. And so Edmund White skilfully presents parallel narratives relating Stephen’s treatment and decline and Theodore’s self-destructive obsession with Elliott. Together, they proceed towards their perhaps inevitable conclusions. 

All of this happens in around 80,000 words. Hotel de Dream is far from a long book, and yet it manages to pursue both themes adequately. Edmund White’s style is nothing less than beautiful throughout. He is economic with language, but also poetic and in places highly elegant. The book is a real joy to read. But there remains the problem of the subject matter. Edmund White appears to believe that the homosexual, even paedophilic nature of the writer’s fiction is inherently interesting because of its subject matter. Without that, the predictable decline of the writer would be less than interesting. The process was hardly original. After all, Chopin had already trod this path three quarters of a century earlier! And to greater effect! Edmund White does ask some questions about attitudes towards homosexuality, about double standards and also about loveless marriage. But they are questions merely asked. 

There are only cameos of the detailed scenarios that might suggest answers. But at the core of Hotel de Dream is the assertion that Stephen Crane is one of America’s greatest writers. An early death and an interest in risqué subject matter conspired, however, to keep him from the wider public gaze. Though Edmund White’s book works in itself, it fails to convince the reader of this grand assertion about its subject. To make its point, it would need to be weightier, broader and offer much more evidence. Its apparent self-satisfaction with the mere statement of sexual proclivity falls well short of real substance. But then lives may be substantially less than substance. Hotel de Dream is a captivating read and an engaging, often beautiful study. View the book on amazon Hotel De Dream