Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Honorary Consul by Graham Greene

Graham Greene’s The Honorary Consul is a deceptively ambitious project. And this applies as much to the reading of this great work as to its writing. The novel addresses some great themes on a multiplicity of levels and in every case succeeds in both illustrating issues and provoking thought via a deceptively simple story of kidnap and espionage. 

 The Honorary Consul is set in Argentina. We are in the north, far from the sophistication of cities, on the banks of the Paraná River, cheek by jowl with Paraguay. And over that border there is the iron-fisted rule of the General, an oppression that has created a social orderliness based on fear and persecution. About twenty years ago, a victim of that oppression, an Englishman resident in Paraguay, put his wife and young son onto a ferry to Argentina. He stayed behind to rejoin the struggle and was not heard of again.

The wife took up residence in Buenos Aires and devoted herself to gossip and sweet eating. The son, Eduardo Plarr, went to medical school, qualified and, at the start of the novel, is practising his profession in that small, provincial, northern town. His thoughts regularly cross the river to contemplate his father’s possible fate.

It is by virtue of his father’s nationality that Eduardo calls himself English. Eduardo is one of just three English residents in the town. Humphries used to be a teacher, while the third, Charles Fortnum, has the title of Honorary Consul. His role is minimal, of course, and his status is less than that. But he ekes a few bob out of the role by the resale of the new car he has a right to import every two years.

Charles is a heavy drinker, preferring whisky of all types, but willing to drink almost anything in the right measure. He and the other two English residents frequent the same bars, restaurants and brothels, and so they also share the same sources of pleasure. Eduardo is surprised to learn that Charles, a sixty-year-old slob, has married one of the girls – a twenty-year-old stripling – from their favoured haunt. He wonders how it will all work long before he becomes her doctor and thereby provides the most thorough examination that medical science knows. When she falls pregnant, she at least is sure whose child it is.

And then one day visitors from Paraguay bring news of Eduardo’s father. They have a plan. There is to be a visit by the American ambassador. Charles will actually have to do something. There is to be a visit to a local site. The group of opportunistic Paraguayans plan a kidnap. They will hold the ambassador until named detainees in Paraguay, Eduardo’s father amongst them, are released. They carry out their threat, but bungle it. As Charles Fortnum’s car passed by, they mistook his CC plate for CD and thereby kidnapped the wrong man.

Instead of an American ambassador, they have a merely an honorary consul, and one without much honour. El Tigre, their remote, anonymous commander is clearly not pleased. We never get to know much about El Tigre, but then perhaps we know more than we think. As ever in Graham Greene, the characters are presented with moral dilemmas. In The Honorary Consul these span the domestic, the religious, the familial and the political.

A short review can do no justice to either the complexity of the ideas or the economy and subtlety of the writer’s treatment of them. Tragedies ensue and there is even a happy ending of sorts. A former priest – there’s no such thing as a former priest! – grapples with the contradictions of liberation theology on the one hand and the obedience demanded of servile duty on the other. Graham Greene does not resolve all the dilemmas he raises. Good writing, after all, is not about answering questions. But it does necessarily involve asking the right ones.

The Honorary Consul is the work of a writer of genius at the height of his powers. It is also the work of a man with a keen sense of politics and morality. And it is also surely one of the few books that all people should list as a must read.

Friday, December 10, 2010

First Love, Last Rites by Ian McEwan

Having read much of Ian McEwan’s later work in the last few years, I was intrigued to chance upon a copy of First Love, Last Rites, a set of his short stories published in 1975. I read The Cement Garden and The Comfort Of Strangers just after their publication, but I have not picked up any early McEwan since then. First Love, Last Rites proved to be an eye-opening read, not least because hindsight offers real clues as to how Ian McEwan has developed as a writer.

The stories in this set vary from Disguises which, at around 20,000 words, might even be a novella, to Cocker At The Theatre which is definitely a short story. What characterises all of these tales, however, is that they focus on characters whose behaviour or personal culture might be seen as towards the minority end of taste. I use the word minority to indicate that only a few people would admit to such proclivities, not that they might comprise only a small element of generality. It was this concentration on arguably the freakish that allowed the nickname Ian Macabre to stick.

In First Love, Last Rites, for instance, we have a touch of incest, sexual intercourse on stage, not a little child abuse seasoned with transvestism, an episode of boiling in oil, childhood games that grow prematurely adult, rats scratching at the skirts and more. I am reminded of the photographs of Diane Arbus from roughly the same period. It seemed that wherever she pointed her camera, no matter how potentially mundane the shot might appear, there would be evidence of sadomasochism, bestiality, paedophilia, even meat-eating. It was this mix of what was understood as marginal mixed with the manifestly prosaic that caught the attention in the photographs and rendered them so disturbing. Viewing them reminded oneself of diverse aspects of humanity that – at least potentially – we all share and yet publicly try to deny. For the British, that might include all sex that cannot be advertised or sold. It certainly includes all the aspects of human behaviour listed above. I am not accusing all adults of paedophilia. I am suggesting that all of us have both privately and publicly appreciated the neat, taut beauty of a child’s body. 

The question, and it remains an interesting one, is where is the line between ‘normal’ appreciation of beauty and socially unacceptable ‘perversity’. I will never forget a trip around London’s National Gallery with a relative younger than myself, someone with little previous exposure to “art”. Her comment was that the paintings were pornographic, merely because they portrayed nudes. All Ian McEwan’s characters straddle this question’s necessary confusion. Maybe their acts are merely imagined, leaving the individuals grappling with aspects of themselves they cannot understand, admit or control. Maybe they do what they say but, as a result of some inner drive that others do not share, cannot comprehend their own marginality. Whatever the case, these peoples’ psyches must continually grapple with a conflict between a truth of what they are versus an image of what they believe themselves to be. There’s a gap of communication wide enough to allow most experience to fall through.

And it is these gaps that Ian McEwan exploits. He presents people in situations that for them might seem completely mundane. For the rest of us, these are highly individual worlds that publicly we do not expect to see. But, like the images of Diane Arbus, we find we can enter into them because those aspects of humanity are within us as well, though often we don’t like to admit it. Where Ian McEwan’s later work triumphs can now be seen more clearly. Whereas in the earlier work there was a need for a fundamental shift by the reader to admit a possible likeness with his characters, in his later work he presents the individual foibles of his characters in much more rounded, complex forms, forms that all of us can easily associate with. Then the contradictions emerge. Then the conflicts surface and then the gaps in communication widen. The approach is the same, but the effect is so much greater. First Love, Last Rites remains a brilliant read in its own right, but I reckon that for many readers of Ian McEwan a re-visit would shed much new light on his later work.

The Telling by Miranda Seymour

The Telling by Miranda Seymour is the life story, life confessions perhaps, of Nancy Parker. She is living out her retirement in a satisfactory way, given that she has been one of life’s downtrodden. 

She has been victimised, abused, betrayed and even framed, a recipient of repeated short straws through no fault of her own. And Nancy Porter also bears witness to the fact that if enough of it is thrown, then some of it starts to stick.

Now she is old and dearly wants to relive it all by writing it down on paper. She does not attempt a linear recollection, though. Instead she allows time to switch across decades to recall salient events in their context. Throughout we are aware of a crisis that drew the heart from the middle of Nancy’s life. As a result, she was incarcerated for fifteen years.

It is the circumstances that led to this that form the central plank of The Telling’s plot. We begin at the beginning, however, with a childhood that knew abuse, denial and bigotry. Despite this, Nancy grew up. Then, as a young woman, she was packed off to relatives in New York.

They immediately try to remake her in their own image, but her interests are aroused by an acrobatic character she meets in the street. He inhabits a part of the city unknown to her well-heeled hosts. He has the unlucky first name of Chance, and Nancy takes it to become Mrs Brewster. Chance is on the edge of the city’s cultural life. The couple hobnob with writers and other who claim insights into the human condition. Nancy meanwhile becomes a mother and makes a home. She is a giving sort. But the daughter, Eleanor, is a source of concern.

Events conspire further to spell danger for the household. There are crises. Via a mutual friend the Brewsters meet Charles and Isobel. They live abroad, but a change of circumstance brings them to the Brewsters’ cottage in New England as lodgers. The rambling house proves too small for everyone and, according to the record, Nancy suffers a breakdown of sorts, a catastrophe that starts her fifteen year incarceration in institutions. There is a twist, by the way. But, as a result, her own daughter never again entrusts her with the care of her own children.

The Telling is eventually a satisfying read. But I repeatedly felt themes surfacing and then sinking back to the depths, lost, ignored and out of mind. For me it was a novel that lacked coherence. Nancy’s childhood experiences, for instance, were vividly portrayed. One felt there would be consequences, but they were apparently forgotten. By the end I was mildly disappointed by the claim that much of the material was based on the lives of named people. I felt this added nothing to the book or its ideas. These are fairly small criticisms, however, because The Telling remains a worthwhile read.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Rules Of Life by Fay Weldon

The Rules Of Life by Fay Weldon aspires to the feeling of a full-length novel in the guise of a small novella. In less than 30,000 words, we are presented with a science fiction scenario, a society- and even culture-wide ideological and religious shift, a transformation of our approach to death, and then, if that were not enough to make a cake, a life history and the reactions of others to it iced on top. It is a remarkable feat to bring all that off, create a complete and highly satisfying experience for the reader and to do it in an easy, but sophisticated style that is never didactic. 

 The Rules Of Life begins in a new era, that of the GNFR, the Great New Fictional Religion. Grades of priests proclaim different levels of access to truth. Not a lot new there, then! It’s an age of science, apparently, despite the general absence of anything that seems even vaguely scientific. GSWITS is a character who figures prominently in the book, but we never meet her. She, or perhaps he, is the Great Screen Writer In The Sky, and was probably a comedian in an earlier life, though few laughs are raised. 

Thus the book opens, and we expect we are to be transported into yet another clichéd distopia, full of romantic references to dysfunctional but homely aspects of the present. How easy is it for a writer to play on people’s shallow fears? But The Rules Of Life does something more subtle than this. Fay Weldon uses the scenario merely as a means to examine further – and in a different way – those apparently permanent aspects of life that have been the raw material for writers since writing began, and for people in general even before that. Ghosts have a new status in this rather cowardly new world. Lives can be replayed like cassette tapes. They can be examined, but not quite reconstructed or relived.

Our narrator, a recorder priest in the new order, has a disc to examine. It contains, he finds, the life of one Gabriela Sumpter. As he replays the dead woman’s life, he finds himself ever more engaged in her experience. A relationship develops between them as Gabriela relates her life story. 

 The point of The Rules Of Life may be that no matter how much human society changes its assumptions, its organisation or even its adopted values, there are aspects of life that remain immutable, perhaps inevitable. But despite inevitability, each individual experiences these givens of human existence in what – at least at the personal level – feels like a wholly unique way. No matter how many times we replay it, it only ever happens once. That maybe is the only rule of life.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Monsieur or The Prince of Darkness by Lawrence Durrell

Some decades ago I read Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet and all his travel books. The term addict could easily have been an under-statement of my obsession with the author’s work. I also discovered Tunc and Nunquam and drooled over Dark Labyrinth, Sappho, the Collected Poens and the rest. Soon afterwards, following a break of a couple years from Durrell’s work, I bought a copy of Monsieur and expectantly embarked upon what I anticipated would be a return to the sublime, sometimes intellectual complexities of the sophisticated, often Bohemian travellers that populate his work. I reached page sixty-five, which promptly fell out when I flipped it over in a frustration that had been growing from page one. 

The people in the Avignon books seemed different. They were of the same ilk as those I had previously revered, but somehow these people were fundamentally less engaging than the Alexandria residents with their guarded complexities. In Monsieur, they seemed stuffy, self-obsessed, bound up in the over-complicated minutiae of what I now saw as an isolation, not a liberation, of travel. 

Thirty years on, I gave just finished Monsieur, its time on my bookshelves in the intervening years being merely decorative. It retained a mild disappointment, but this time I was completely engaged.

 Piers has died. His life-long friend, Bruce, is on his way to the rambling but grand old house in the south of France to see to his friend’s affairs. Bruce recalls their friendship, the tripartite relationship they shared with Piers’s sister, the delectable but unstable Sabine. Sutcliffe, the writer, was also a long-term mutual acquaintance. His frustration with his own creativity as never diminished. His notes testify to how hard he tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to sustain his task. And there are others, such as the delicate Pia and a man called Toby, who seems to be exactly what men called Toby ought to be. 

But the central dimension of the book is not the interpersonal relationships between the characters, which form a kind of currency via which the main themes are traded. It is when the Egyptian Gnostic Akkad enters the story that things start to hang together. They went to meet him at Macabru in the desert, where he provided an hallucinogenic stimulus and invited them to a vision, which some of them shared. 

It changed Piers’s life, while others could not get past their scepticism. But in fact the experience changed all of their lives in that it revealed aspects of themselves that each, independently and perhaps collectively, would rather have not admitted until that day. Some of them continued to deny. And laced over the top of all this is a filigree of plot arising from the fact that Piers’s full name was Piers de Nogaret. He was no less than the last earthly survivor of a line that led back to the Grand Master that saw an end to the Knights Templar. The ancestor, the historical figure that became the head of one of the most powerful orders of medieval Christian warriors, was born of parents who were themselves burned as Cathar heretics, so perhaps there was the motive. Perhaps… 

 To cap it all, there’s also sexual confusion. There are homosexual tendencies that seem to be linked to religious cravings. There’s the usual Henry Miller-esque hetero variety that so often suffuses through Durrell’s characters. And here there is more than a suggestion of incest in the dusty rooms of that Avignon chateau. Confused? So was I. And don’t expect much resolution. Perhaps now that I a tad older than when I first read Lawrence Durrell, I am more willing to accept this.

Monsieur, the first of a set of five books, becomes thus a meditation on motive, religiosity, belief and Lord knows what, juxtaposed by a sense of place and history, and all layered with a near scatology of bodily functions. And when it comes to the crunch, why should a corpse need a head anyway? This time I got past page sixty-five, which fell out again, by the way. Monsieur is not the kind of novel that contemporary, plot-hungry readers might crave. It is a page-turner, but you have to go back as often as forward. That’s life, I suppose.