Friday, August 26, 2011

Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel An Artist Of The Floating World

Superficially, Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel An Artist Of The Floating World seems to present a gentle observation of manners. There’s a daughter to marry and thus associated contracts to be nurtured and negotiated. There’s a relationship with an eight-year-old grandson who in the late 1940s is growing up with American cartoons and comic book heroes as his cultural icons. And, above all, there’s the artist himself, bound up with concerns of style and expression, keen to re-examine his influences, especially those arising in the floating world.

His teacher had been instrumental in focusing his tutees on this floating world which could be found in the city’s night-time entertainment district. The artist of this world of pleasure, Masuji Ono, learned well from his master and adopted much from his style, technique and philosophy of Japanese painting.

But Ono was not satisfied to portray the floating world’s beauty for its own sake, or mere pleasure to evoke delight or diversion. No, he had other ideas, such as comment, loyalty, justice, pride, amongst others. And it is because of the direction of Masuji Ono’s developing inspiration that provides the book with its sinister, even violent thread.

An Artist Of The Floating World is set in post-war Japan. There is cleaning up and reconstruction to be done. There is much rebuilding, and not a little reconstruction, much of it not merely physical, but also cultural. A victor’s imposed norms are changing Japan’s future, perhaps to the relief of many who cannot live with their own country’s past. Masuji Ono finds himself at the centre of this transformation because of his previous success as an artist. But, as he continues to seek a future husband for his younger daughter, his personal achievements apparently divide his acquaintances, pupils and even friends into distinct camps, those for, even reluctantly, and those definitely against.

The novel seems to inhabit similar territory to Orhan Pamuk’s later book, My Name Is Red. There is a debate about culture, heritage and identity at the heart of an apparently rather narrow discussion of aesthetics and artistic influence. While Pamuk’s characters inhabit the cut-throat world of the Ottoman court, Masuji Ono lives in a country defeated in war and ravaged by it. The desire to break with the past brings as much tension to Ono as the desire to retain it does in Red. But the style employed in An Artist Of The Floating World is deceivingly gentle and belies the deep tension and conflict at its heart. Kazuo Isiguro’s prose is always silky smooth, so much so that An Artist Of The Floating World seems like a short, even simple book. Luckily for the reader it is neither.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Wole Soyinka’s Aké

I expected to get a lot more from Wole Soyinka’s Aké than I did. It’s not every day that the childhood memoirs of a Nobel Laureate come to hand. Expectation demanded something special, something revelatory perhaps, from the formative years of a man who grew up to be one of the greatest writers of all time. What Aké presented was in fact exactly what it said on the tin. It’s a childhood memoir.

There are no great moments, no previously hidden insights on how to achieve greatness. But there is a life, and perhaps that is our clue. Born into a teaching family, Wole Soyinka lovingly recalls a headmaster father he calls Essay and a severe mother nicknamed Wild Christian, who certainly is the ruler of the household. But around this potentially unlocatable family, there exists an eclectic mixture of Yoruba tradition, imported educational values and imposed colonial rule.

The young writer’s concerns, however, are exactly what might be expected of a growing lad. He chases things, explores, is naughty – sometimes very naughty! He is punished and rewarded. Life goes on. 

There are local concerns, sometimes wider ones. He eats plenty of good food and, by no means uniquely, but certainly eloquently, describes the multicultural reality of colonial West Africa. Whether it was the reader or the writer is unclear, but when, about half way through the book, Wole Soyinka starts to relate his school experiences, Aké seems to change into a different, much more vivid book. Recollections become stronger, more deeply felt, more keenly described.

What had already been a joy now becomes thoroughly engaging as well. Wole Soyinka’s neighbours did become objects of great interest, and not merely because they figured in this book. Their name, Ransome Kuti, may be familiar. It’s a family that produced in successive generations two of Nigeria’s most famous musicians. Strangely, their family too lives its life just like the others, with no apparent inkling of the greatness to come.

As Aké progressed and this reader continued to search for what made the author such a great writer, it began to become clear that the only thing that made this man was experience, something we all share. Individually, any experience is unique; it does not need to be dramatic, violent, broken or ecstatic to be special. It is special because it was experienced. And this is what makes Aké, in the end, such a great statement. It’s life. Let’s get on with it.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Old School by Tobias Wolff

Superficially, Old School by Tobias Wolff suggests the gentility of an adolescent memoir. The paroxysms of growing up will be heartfelt, but from the distance of adulthood they will surely claim no more than the relative insignificance they deserve. But Tobias Wolff’s book is not of this mould. An apparently idyllic paradise is shattered not only by a taste of forbidden fruit, but also by a significant kick up the proverbial by an angry farmer!

Again superficially, Old School presents an adolescent male in an environment of privilege, certainly one to be envied. The school’s atmosphere seems rarefied in the extreme, with the study and generation of literature elevated to render writers and would-be writers to almost God-like status. Students compete to publish in the school’s journals and employ criticism from the adulatory to the vicious, thus forming alliances and confirming enemies. 

The teacher, of course, are co-conspirators, never unwilling to voice an opinion of their own, often implicitly, thereby doubly wounding. This Old School has a tradition of inviting some very famous writers to judge its competitions.

The entries, of course, are pre-selected by teachers, but not all pupils are aware of this preservation of power. For Tobias Wolff, the prospect of a visit by Ernest Hemingway is tantamount to an invitation to dine with God. Unfortunately, his previous attempts at creative writing have not exactly set the editorial committee on fire and he has never come close to winning any of the previous events. Then one day he finds inspiration in the words of another. He finds a story that is so clearly his own that he seems to live the lives of the characters he imagines. It is a story he commits to paper and submits for the great man to consider.

You may have guessed that all does not turn out well for our young student. Years later, having made his way through whatever life he could cobble together in New York, estranged from a previously supportive family, he returns to the Old School to discover that all was not as it seemed when he was a student there. His own recalled misdemeanours had only ever been part of the story. The book’s principal character recalls the childhood impression that personal conflicts are all that matter and that the adult world is a place where such tensions are not allowed to exist. He then realises, apparently suddenly, that this adult world is no more than an aged version of childhood’s continued confusion. It is the school and memories of it that have become old in this surprising book.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Saxophone Dreams by Nicholas Royle

Saxophone Dreams by Nicholas Royle is a remarkably ambitious project. It also presents an immense challenge for the reader. At the end of the process, and from all points of view, I am not convinced that the journey is worth the effort. A list of themes alone is of epic length. We have jazz throughout. There’s Hašek and Ankers, both sax players. They are based in different countries, but manage to collaborate musically via an exchange of tapes. At least the postal system seems to be something less than surreal.

As ever with jazz buffs, there seems to be much name dropping and a lot less musical idea. Then there’s the surrealism of Paul Delvaux. The characters find themselves appearing involuntarily or via dreams in the artist’s paintings, the descriptions of which never really offer any stylistic devices that might convey their content, let alone extend their scenes. The images themselves often involve naked ladies wandering wide-eyed through the night. And it is this image of sleep-walking that underpins much of the book. Apparently in dreams - or perhaps not – these jazz types wander through Europe and witness the fall of Communism whilst encountering one another along the way.

And so we visit Albania, a disintegrating Yugoslavia, a changing Czechoslovakia and a rumbling Rumania. We seem to have hot-lines direct to national leaders who themselves wander in and out of the narrative, some dead, some alive. The book’s narrative becomes unnecessarily didactic rather than dream-like as the text lists strings of facts, Wikipedia-like.

Ian, a black hospital worker from Brighton who always carries drumsticks in his jeans is more of a character than most of the others. He sets off across Europe with a theme of his own to identify the source of illegally trafficked human organs that are feeding business into the pocket of his surgeon boss back home. Ian traces the source of the organs to Kosovo, where ethnic tensions between Albanians and Serbs become part of the story.

Yet another theme… Still with me? Overall, Saxophone Dreams is a well-written and often engaging novel. These people drink a lot, travel quite a bit, perhaps without ever leaving their beds, and seem to enjoy unwittingly acting out stills from paintings. They are into jazz, but play little between the name dropping. They are into politics, but apparently cannot do without a couple of paragraphs with historical background to justify what they think. And they seem surprisingly unaware of the world around them. They are all too busy dreaming, perhaps. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Saxophone Dreams is a pot pourri of ideas, locations, themes and characters that occasionally, just occasionally, delights. But it can be something of a long trip…