Thursday, February 20, 2014
To reveal that “he dies in the end” gives no more away about the plot of Stoner by John Williams than the revelation that “he’s born in the beginning”. Both phrases refer to Stoner, William Stoner, principal character of the book that’s named after him. Perhaps it might be more accurate to refer to Stoner as just the principal, because it could also be argued that Stoner himself really did not have much of a character.
Born in 1981, John Williams, the author, tells us, William Stoner was brought up on a Missouri farm and then went to college to study agriculture at the age of nineteen. A Damascus moment in a literature class soon provoked a change of course and thus Stoner left agriculture behind to plough a literary furrow. A true mid-West lad, Stoner stayed local for his studies. He completed his degree and then a doctorate before academe beckoned, and he began a career in the same University of Missouri where he had himself studied.
Thus Stoner became a teacher. He also became a husband, a husband of sorts to Edith, who tried to persuade herself from the start that she knew what she wanted from life. He also became a father, despite the ever present difficulties in the marriage. Problems mounted elsewhere as well, and relations with students were sometimes tense, while colleagues also often became sites of conflict. Grace, his daughter, grew up whatever way she could, given her father’s apparently limitless devotion to his work and her mother’s undeniable dedication to herself. Stoner’s interactions with fellow teachers, departmental chairs and deans went this way and that, and varied relations with students happened both inside and outside the classroom.
Great events of twentieth century history passed by William Stoner. A First World War was fought. Friends went and did not return. One loss in particular remained at the forefront of Stoner’s thoughts. Denied his own life, the memory of this lost friend regularly returns to Stoner’s thoughts whenever he needs a reminder that life could have dealt him a worse hand. And then the great crash came along to ruin lives and opportunity, especially for the family of Edith, Stoner’s wife. And then, just when you might least expect it, another war comes along. Conveniently for Stoner, this new conflict begins when he is already too old to participate. But rest assured, he knew some of the casualties.
The core of Stoner the novel is the portrayal of a life, the professional and the less so, in a university department. This is mister ordinary writ small. There are feuds, friendships, words of advice whispered towards ears, and simple, blazing rows that bow people apart. No-one, we must hasten to add, is ever killed in these battles, no guns are drawn, let alone fired, and there is no blood letting, except figuratively. But it can be seen that the injured are legion.
If all this sounds rather glib, then it might just be possible that this highly credible scenario does not quite live up to its celebrity backdrop. Yes, Stoner is born at the start and dies at the end. The life in between ought to be the meat, the real guts of this story. But strangely, it isn’t. For all Stoner’s obvious commitment, patience and integrity, he rarely seems to be a participant even in his own life. Things happen to him, and around him, but yet he seems strangely passive, unwilling to express opinion, commit himself or take sides. By the tale’s end, history has come and gone, characters have impinged upon this life, left their mark and gone their own way, and students have grown up to live lives of their own. And throughout William Stoner seems curiously inert, lacking in opinion, unable to influence the impressions that others make on his life. As a character, he seems to be little more than a vehicle through which others’ foibles can be experienced. In the same way that Forrest Gump in film enacts history apparently without reflection, William Stoner sees his friends and colleagues take what the twentieth century can throw at them, but without really participating himself.
Perhaps this is John Williams’s point. In film, Forrest Gump is the embodiment of Middle America, the faithful, uncritical, trusting majority that suffers the consequences, picks up the pieces, makes the best of things, and always puts the wheel back on the wagon. Perhaps William Stoner is similarly an allegory to depict the respectability and value of the suffering Job. There are surely many others who have lived out such plots, such as anyone invented by Anne Tyler, or Saul Bellow’s Herzog. But William Stoner’s determination to remain the third person recipient of his author’s God-like view on his life is truly worthy since, if William Stoner really did have control over his own voice, he would surely have demanded just a little more of the action.
In The Deposition of Father McGreevy Brian O’Doherty transports us into a world and culture that will be quite alien to most readers. By the book’s end, we may even be convinced that this might be a different universe.
But Brian O’Doherty’s book is set in Ireland, not some distant, fanciful galaxy. It’s the west of Ireland, County Kerry to be precise, where there is a remote community on a mountain side. A harsh winter has brought sickness and, in this small place, all the women have died. It’s a momentous calamity, rendered all the more devastating by the community’s inability to bury the corpses, because the earth is too frozen to break. The local priest, Father McGreevy, takes up his pen to describe the plight of his parishioners, as they struggle to come to terms with the fate that has befallen them.
Father McGreevy’s view of the world, of course, comes from a particular standpoint. He deals with sin, guilt and all the other trappings of Roman Catholicism. But he is also a man of the world, and understands much, though not all, of what makes men tick, even though women do seem to remain a tad beyond the pale. He is also aware of how the demon drink can enter a man’s soul and transform him into something he might never have wanted to be.
None of this would have come to light, however, if William McGinn, a journalist in the 1950s, had not come into the possession of Father McGreevy’s jottings. The old fellow was gone to earth himself by the time an envelope with his testimony passed into the hands of McGinn who, out of curiosity and a need to unearth a good story, tells us the priest’s tale. Footnoted to explain the more obscure allusions and references to Irish history, literature and folklore, Father McGreevy’s notes begin with the winter tragedy. What begins to unfold, however, is a decline to death of an entire community, itself a metaphor for a whole way of life.
Pestered by progress, battered by the elements and deserted by its masters, the peasant existence, that for so long had been life’s only option, was now being squeezed into the shape of an in-bred deformity. This village on a mountainside is frozen as much by time as by its winter frost. Perhaps McGreevy’s reliance on religion to seek an explanation for illness and misfortune, an approach that in the past might have united a community struck by adversity, was already itself part of the problem, part of the frostiness that hardened everything into an unyielding, unforgiving, inflexible and hostile environment.
But what we are not prepared for in this tale of degeneration and decline is how McGreevy’s tale develops. The priest bears witness to some deep sins, acts that he previously had never even imagined possible. The lad might have been a half-wit, but he had a complete body, that’s for sure. And, again for sure, the acts in question are not what you think they are. The Father’s deposition has it all, and it’s there for you and William McGinn to read. Let it be said that the local doctor, himself a metaphor for a more pragmatic and modern way of life, takes a remarkably casual, even ungodly line, when McGreevy bares his soul to describe these shocking practices.
But, as ever, as sin leads to more sin, grievous acts lead to more eve grievous consequences. And it’s only via locating some of the participants, still alive but incarcerated in mental hospitals in their decrepit old age, that McGinn forms his own version of what happened up there in the frost on that Kerry mountainside.
The Deposition of Father McGreevy is an extended poem. But it is also a deeply surprising, ever shocking tale of the desperation that almost inevitably rules a way of life. Strangely, we never really did establish what happened to all those women, the ones who died that winter. And we never really established why the ailment was so gender-specific. We do know, however, why the men might just have been the cause of the plague. Because, when left to their own devices, it may be sin and depravity that beckons, and this just might be their true nature. The Deposition of Father McGreevy is often funny, is always graphic and is continually evocative of a potentially endearing culture. But it’s not a reassuring vision of humanity.
Friday, January 17, 2014
Woman Of The Inner Sea by Thomas Keneally is a thoroughly satisfying novel. Via its pages, the reader shares its characters’ experience, inhabits their landscape and almost participates in the stories told. Late twentieth century Australia is where everything happens, but the country’s apparently inescapable sense of its own history continually seeps through the experience. The novel, thus, is more than a story, more than a personal history, more than a drama.
Kate Gaffney-Kozinsky is the book’s central character. Née Gaffney, she was originally of Irish stock and gained the Polish double barrel by virtue of marriage. Virtue may be a stretch of both truth and reality when describing this particular marriage, however.
Kate Gaffney has an uncle who is a priest. Given the Irish connection this is not altogether surprising. But Kate’s uncle is not the usual sort of cleric. He has particular interests and proclivities that result in his rubbing shoulders with the rich, the powerful and the infamous. Thomas Keneally’s novel pre-dates scandal relating to personal abuse by clerics, and there is no mention of this in relation to the story of Kate’s uncle, but the rest will eventually conspire to condemn him and indeed defrock him. But a tension that is present and one that Thomas Keneally brings out to great effect is the way that this Irishness, this anti-British nationalism, can in Australia be lumped together with the traditional English rump to form a contrast with the later arrivals to the country from Greece, Poland, Lebanon, Vietnam, Italy and elsewhere.
It is pertinent to Kate’s story because she meets and marries a Kozinsky, a Pole, one of the more recent, non Anglo-Saxon antipodeans. The family has made a huge fortune in developing investment property. They are rich, famous and successful. Kate’s life is duly transformed.
Two children are born and they begin to grow up in a family whose cracks are beginning to appear. Kate internalises anything that might appear to fall short of overt success. But then mothers often do regard as failure anything less than perfection in themselves, especially in those things that impinge upon their children’s lives. Kate turns to new relationships, seeking there perhaps to fill some of the cracks that have appeared in the very structure of her own family life. And then things really fall apart.
Kate seeks out a new life. She takes a train into her country’s interior, that vast, even now largely unknown hinterland where it is usually failure, not opportunity, that awaits. She becomes a barmaid in a back-of-beyond town that suffers chronic and regular flooding, and, sure enough, climatic disaster strikes again. A man called Jelly reckons that a hole blown through a railway embankment would relieve the town of its unwanted surfeit of water. Predicting the blast proves more difficult that setting it.
The plot wanders across country after explosive events. A large kangaroo and an emu travel in the party, on their way to a film set where they are cast in parts of a living national coat of arms. Kate thus travels again, but always pursued by her husband’s family lawyer, who wants her to sign away her rights, responsibilities and any presumed guilt.
When, later, abortive attempts at settlement have been attempted and come to nothing, Kate tries to take things into her own hands and seeks a settlement of her own. Her priest-uncle’s fate has taken its turns, as, she discovers, have the fortunes of the Kozinskys. While she has been bound up in the detail of her own life and its imaginings, fears and guilt, things outside of her direct experience have moved on. The world she rediscovers has changed. The landscape, though still unchanging ancient Australia, is now utterly different, offering new possibilities to new lives and even the opportunity to rewrite her personal history. Kate Gaffney thus explores the great inner sea of her country at the same time as navigating the tides of her own innermost fears. The journey, as ever, lands on new shores in old places.
My latest book, One On One, is a romantic espionage thriller set on an island in the South China Sea
Thursday, January 16, 2014
In a very famous context, D. H. Lawrence is himself famous for using a word beginning with ‘f’, a word that is infamous rather than famous. Mentioning this word and then repeating it got the author into some serious trouble that was not resolved until decades after his death. In this book, The Lost Girl, Lawrence is clearly preoccupied with the word and the novel is very much focused on it and its associated act. Its anticipation, achievement, consequences and perceived implications seem to be the very stuff of the heroine’s life, but in this book the word never actually appears. So, like Lawrence, let’s use a euphemism, but let’s also be more direct than the writer. Let’s use ‘fabrication’, an activity that is central to the work of any author.
The Lost Girl is Alvina Houghton. The surname is pronounced with an ‘f’ sound in the middle, not an ‘o’, so its first syllable rhymes with ‘fluff’, not ‘now’. She is the daughter of James, a shopkeeper in a small Derbyshire town called Woodhouse, in the north English midlands. James has a shop selling Manchester goods, the mass produced textiles of the late nineteenth century. He is not the best businessman, however, and his activities shrink over time. His daughter, Alvina - that’s with a ‘y’ sound in the middle, not an ‘e’ - is rather plain-looking and apparently not too interesting either. She thinks quite a lot about fabrication from quite an early age, but she is a determined spectator when it comes to relationships. Her counsel, especially after her mother dies, is from older women, some of them determined spinsters.
After some prevarication, Alvina eventually trains as a midwife. The skill offers her a chance of independence, but she chooses to revert to her preferred state of familial dependence. After all, Alvina will probably inherit her father’s business. Thus she continues her arm’s length relation with life.
There is a short affair with a local man, a rather goofy figure who goes on to Oxford University and probably lives long enough to make a packet. But clearly the safe option is not for Alvina, who equally seems utterly afraid of risk in any form. She clearly cannot bring herself to the fabrication she privately craves and so the affair, surely destined for marriage in the eyes of the locals, comes to nought.
Women close to The Lost Girl die. Others remain like perched birds watching over events. And, when James decides to leave the shop and sell off the little coal mine he also owns there is much consternation. There is even more to chirp about when he announces he is going into the entertainment business by opening up a little music hall, especially when Alvina declares that she will play the piano. Until this point, she had not mentioned being a musician. It is worthwhile remembering that we are in age when playing the instrument was almost part of any single woman’s trousseau.
And so the music hall presents its act, a motley crew of Red Indian impersonators, including a German called Max and an Italian called Cicio. Initially, the show packs them in, but the passing of time sees interest start to dwindle. But suddenly new opportunities arise for Alvina to think of fabrication, and fabrication with foreigners involved to boot!
And so the story of Lawrence’s The Lost Girl eventually fabricates its way from Derbyshire, and we leave Alvina in what looks like a new - though very old fashioned - life in changed circumstances. She seems now completely enslaved in her chosen womanly role, but we are at the start of the First World War and surely the role of women in society is about to change for ever.
The Lost Girl deals with many of Lawrence’s recurring themes, but its fabrication is often rather clumsy and its style often less than comfortable. It is, however, worth seeing through, if only to realise just how much both Lawrence and his fabricated characters - especially the women - are still locked in a soon to be changed mind-set about gender roles and social class.
Wednesday, January 15, 2014
A Text-Book on the History of Painting by John Charles Van Dyke was published a century ago. Today it offers the modern reader not only potted, period critiques of important artists, but also a remarkable insight into how aesthetics change from generation to generation. John Charles Van Dyke’s assessments of some work will surprise today’s reader, especially his attitudes towards some contemporary artists who received rather hostile reactions from some quarters when their work was first exhibited.
The book deals with the European tradition. It makes no excuses for this. At the time, non-European art was perhaps less well known in Western critical circles. Perhaps also, it was regarded as somehow inferior, perhaps also merely because it was not European in origin. But Van Dyke does offer us a working distinction that excludes most non-European art from his survey, that of the difference between observation and expression. Only that which aims at expression, for van Dyke at least, is worthy of the label “art”. Somehow ancient Egyptian art makes it into the oeuvre, probably because it was also represented in museums that were close at hand and accessible.
Two painters in particular illustrate the difference in treatment between van Dyke’s age and our own, El Greco and Alma-Tadema. El Greco is hardly mentioned as a figure in sixteenth century Spain, his achievements apparently being regarded as rather localised on Toledo. Thus a figure now regarded as a unique stylist and visionary hardly figures in this text. Alma-Tadema, whose academicism and detail might today offer summary and epitome of the staid Victorian England that toyed euphemistically with the erotic is also dismissed. And one of the few English painters to be raised to the peerage, Frederick Leighton, also did not impress Professor Van Dyke. Neither, it seems, did Albrecht Durer.
Central to Van Dyke’s aesthetic is a judgment as to whether the painter not only represents, interprets and expresses, but also constructs a painting. Mere reality is never enough, it seems, life requiring the skill of an editor or architect to render its experience communicable. It is interesting to reflect on how much or little we still value this aspect of aesthetics in today’s painting.
Some of Van Dyke’s observations will at least entertain. Franz Hals, we learn, lived a rather careless life. William Blake was hardly a painter at all. A Dutchman is attributed with the faint praise of being a unique painter of poultry. Matthew Maris is criticised for being a recorder of visions and dreams rather than the substantial things of earth, while Turner is dismissed as bizarre and extravagant, qualities that today might enhance rather than diminish his reputation.
But Van Dyke’s book remains an interesting, informative and rewarding read, despite its distance from contemporary thinking. He is especially strong in his summary descriptions of the different Italian schools of the late Gothic and Renaissance eras. It is more than useful to be reminded of how independent these city states were at the time and how little they managed to influence one another. A Text-Book on the History of Painting by John Charles Van Dyke remains, then, an essential read for anyone interested in the history of art. Much has changed, but then there is much that has not.
Tuesday, January 14, 2014
In A Change Of Climate Hilary Mantel presents what is essentially a family saga, but in settings that add extra dimensions to the expected dilemmas. The family in question is the Eldreds. Ralph and Anna have shared an unusual if not an altogether unconventional married life. They have spent time in Africa as missionaries. They have devoted their time to helping others less advantaged than themselves. Ralph runs a charitable trust in Norfolk in the east of England. But they have also found the time and energy to raise children of their own and experience the day-to-day pressures of any family’s life. But there has been more, more that has not been voiced.
Volunteer missionary work took them to South Africa, to a township called Elim near Johannesburg. It was during the era of toughening Apartheid, a time when new powers threatened whole communities with eviction and resettlement to “tribal homelands”. Ralph and Anna begin to identify with their community and deal with certain people who held particular opinions about the way South African society was being organised. Their activities catch the eye of the local police and, as a consequence of their contact, Ralph and Anna are arrested and imprisoned.
For them there is a way out of jail, and it is a way that is not available, of course, to the others who had been associated with them in Elim, those who have to continue living with the injustice that seems to affect the lives of the Eldreds. Hilary Mantel’s novel, however, doggedly follows the Eldreds to Botswana, where the family apparently gives up thinking about those they have left behind. Known then as Bechuanaland, Botswana provides the family with an opportunity, but they are offered a posting that the previous incumbents did not appear to like. By this time Anna has been through a pregnancy and has been blessed with twins. It seems, however, that the mission’s previous occupants were correct about the undesirability of the posting. Problems ensue for the Eldreds. What happens to the couple in the latter days of their stay in southern Africa is crucial to the plot of the A Change Of Climate. But there are two or three aspects to these events, not just one relating to a child. Perhaps sometimes overlooked is the fate of the others involved with the tragic events at the end of the family’s time in Botswana, a fate that returns to haunt via an almost passing mention towards the end of the book. Guilt, it seems, has many manifestations, mostly ignored.
Back in Britain, the Eldreds devote themselves to assisting those less fortunate than themselves. Thus Melanie appears on the scene. She is young, self-abusing, antisocial and in need. But then all these characters find themselves in need - in need of comfort, reassurance, something that might salve the conscience, replace the loss, turn time around and allow a different path to be taken. Devoted to alleviating the suffering of others, neither Ralph nor Anna can cope with their own traumas. These have to be lived with and relived every day, the guilt they engender colouring most of their lives. Ways out of the impasse of coping are always at hand, however. When Ralph and Anna’s son takes up with the daughter of a local single mum who ekes out a living from standing markets and trading junk, an opportunity burns suddenly bright and new suffering and guilt is wrought in the furnace.
In the end, no matter what life throws at us, we all depend on one another and need the succour of others to survive. This remains the case, even when our ideals lead us blandly towards avoidable tragedy and our ensuing suffering impinges on the lives of others.
Hilary Mantel’s novel invites us to empathise with the suffering and guilt of Ralph and Anna Eldred. But what the book fails to examine in depth is their motives. Given the consequence of some of their actions, whether intended or not, these could surely have come under greater scrutiny.
My latest book, One On One, is a romantic espionage thriller set on an island in the South China Sea
Monday, January 13, 2014
Brian O’Nolan was an Irish civil servant who wrote fiction and journalism under pseudonyms. Flann O’Brien was the name O’Nolan used on his fiction and it is the name of the author of The Dalkey Archive, a metafictional novel that veers from the philosophical to the nonsensical, from the tender to the coarse and from the religious to the irreverent, often in the same sentence.
The Dalkey Archive is much more than a novel and at the same time much less than a story. There are linear threads of sorts that run through the book, but they are often knotted or broken. But the real ambition of the book seems to be something different from story-telling, something more akin to a flippant, sometimes facetious examination of the relationship between received assumption, demonstrable fact and identity-endowing allegiance.
On the face of it, The Dalkey Archive is something of a farce. There is this fellow called Mick, who is generally surprised by the use of Michael. He has an acquaintance called De Selby who claims both theories and capabilities, one of which is the ability to manufacture a substance capable of sucking all the oxygen out of the atmosphere. He has plans.
But his greatest achievement is to attend a meeting with Saint Augustine of Hippo set up by De Selby, where the attendees can grill the Saint about, amongst other things, his dabbling with Manicheanism and his sexual preferences. But this is no story cast in black and white, though it may make claim to the mundane.
Another of Mick’s adventures is to locate James Joyce, reportedly resident nearby. He wants to ask the great man a few questions about his work. He traces Joyce to a seaside resort called Skerries, which means he is on the rocks. James Joyce is working as a bar assistant, which is convenient because Mick likes to spend quite a lot of his time in bars.
But Joyce remains enigmatic. And why wouldn’t he be? He denies all knowledge of Finnegan’s Wake and maintains that someone else wrote Ulysses. It’s all right, especially when the concept of truth is under scrutiny. After all, the eternal Holy Ghost only became extant - in its non-extant way – at the Council of Contantinople in 381AD, so there!
Now if anyone might think that things are getting a tad silly, then spend just one day - as Leon Blum did in another place - just making notes on the things you saw, said or thought, however random. At the end of the day, have a look at what is there and realise that you have been everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Welcome to being human. Oh, and there are some pretty strange policemen in the book as well, often riding bicycles, of all things. They have made appearances in another book.
It is hard not to read The Dalkey Archive in a Dublin accent. Even then, it remains incomprehensible, the blast of reality coming, perhaps, with Mary’s final words. Which Mary? you might ask. Now there’s a story…
As novels go, The Dalkey Archive might itself be intoxicated. Certainly most of its characters are intoxicated for a good proportion of their time. Read it to realise, amongst other things, how much other writing, especially that we often describe as conventional or mainstream, is no more than illusion sugared with unreal reality. Also realise how much of life, itself, and our assumed beliefs within it are delusional. Oh, and have a good number of laughs along the way.
Sunday, January 12, 2014
In some ways The Sense Of An Ending by Julian Barnes is far too short. Tony Webster, the novel’s central character and first person narrator, lives most of his adult life in relative anonymity. He marries, works to earn his living, raises a daughter and perhaps blends into the suburban landscape of outer London’s long terraces with their fair-weather-only gardens. During these intervening years, how often did Veronica cross his mind? And when she did, just how much of their courting did he recall, and how much did he have to re-invent? Compared to the vivid recollections of school and university years, Anthony’s take on his intervening adulthood seems scant in the extreme, dismissive even.
We would like to know more about Anthony, because Julian Barnes’s novel is pure, unadulterated joy to read. This character is so rounded and three dimensional that often it feels like he is in the room, telling his story. His manner would be quite assertive, but also self-deprecating, without that force of delivery that would suggest confidence. Surely he is a reflective type, but like most of us he is not good at reading others’ motives, especially when these do not coincide with his own. This inability will have significant bearing on this novel’s own sense of an ending.
Now in his sixties and divorced, Anthony recalls the arrival of a new classmate at school, a lad who becomes a friend, adopted into a clique. Adrian, however, is different from the others. He seems more intense, certainly more analytical, both intellectually and personally. He is one to examine the detail of justification in almost every aspect of human activity, most of all his own. But for all his attention to apparent detail, is he any better at knowing himself and his own motives than anyone else? The question will remain open.
Anthony, on the other hand, seems to get on with things as they present themselves and reflect later. He is not prone to analysis. He does find a girlfriend, Veronica, whom he seems to worship, both mentally and physically. It is the nineteen-sixties, the time of sexual liberation and free love. But not for those who lived through the era, Tony reminds us. What became iconic for a decade was at the time probably only an aspiration for an elite. For Anthony it remained a time when he could only dream of the pleasures that might await. His relationship with Veronica, however, did become reasonably intense, even if it did remain pre-marital by not usually going all the way. On a weekend visit to her parents’ home in Kent, her father seemed superciliously jocular and yet evasive, while her mother seemed strangely free and close. She even confided in him, warning him about her daughter. Tony found motive hard to ascribe.
Adrian went to Cambridge, of course, as did Veronica’s brother. Tony didn’t. You might guess that there is going to be a transfer of allegiances, a falling out, a separation and a redrawing of relationships. The Sense Of An Ending is the kind of novel where the twists and turns of people’s lives provide the plot. There is no linear invention that progresses from one false cliff-hanger to another and on to the next, so a review of the book should reveal no more than the above about its principal characters.
Overall, the book is a complete joy. It is not long enough and it is hard not to finish it in one sitting. Eventually Tony has to accept that words thrown away almost without thought or reflection have caused events to twist out consequences that have entwined the people concerned for the rest of their lives. Forty years on, Tony, never good at identifying motive, must wrest out of memory an analysis of his own intentions in the light of consequences of which he remained unaware.
Every minute of every day we communicate, sometimes in anger, and remain unaware that anything we say might have long-term consequences that we could never have imagined. Of course if we do try to consider the significance of everything we say or do, we cease to communicate and have no interaction at all. Thus we remain human, actively involved in lives whose progress and development we cannot predict. Ignorance is inevitable, but it is not blissful. Julian Barnes’s The Sense Of An Ending is not the kind of book that will enlighten or alleviate our collective state of ignorance, but it is pure bliss.
Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Prodigal Summer is eventually both surprising and deceptive. It is surprising because of the twists and turns of the lives of its characters, all of whom become completely, sometimes endearingly, always engagingly real. The deception arrives subtly to enlighten, because these apparently ordinary lives with their pressingly everyday concerns grow to illustrate and then eventually represent something of great significance, being the natural world and our place within it. Thus Prodigal Summer, a novel that begins suggesting a snapshot of a single season in the lives of just three households grows into a profound statement of their relationship – all of our relationships – with the natural world and indeed life, itself.
Deanna Wolfe is a mid-forties idealist who has chosen to live as a warden and ranger in the National Forests near Zebulon in the southern Appalachians. She is studying predators, especially coyotes, but apparently yearns to worship living things, especially those that are not human. She is beginning to anticipate the menopause of her own life-cycle as she marvels at nature’s ability to both regulate and reinvent itself. Crucial in this process, she feels, is the role of the predator, the animal at the top of the food chain, and especially the females of those species, those charged with husbanding its renewal. Her work seems all absorbing.
Then one day she meets Eddie Bondo. He is not from those parts. He is a hunting cowboy-type from out West, not the type, you might think, that Deanna would have time for. He is twenty-something, almost two decades her junior and he has a body plus a way of handling it that stirs the autumnal debris of Deanna’s psyche, debris that has accumulated in her continued, self-imposed and desired isolation. After all, in magnetism opposites attract.
Not far away there is Lusa. She came to these parts to marry Cole. He was the man who lured her away from her biology and installed her on a smallholding, where even the hardest work would hardly make a living, let alone create wealth. Lusa has some relationship problems with Cole’s family. After all, she is not one of them and, perhaps more importantly, her parentage has European and Middle Eastern roots. And - at least in theory - she is not even a Christian.
And then, one day she finds herself a widow. Cole’s family are immediately closer and yet further away at the same time. Sympathy partly overrides the tensions. Lusa has to begin dealing with them directly, not through the mediation of her husband’s filter. Problems of making a living might just be solved by going into goats. Goats? At least she still has time to study her beloved insects.
Not too distant are the neighbours Garnett and Miss Rawley. They are, shall we say, at the senior end of their citizenship and perhaps as a result rather set in their ways. Garnett is not just a Christian, but one of the breed that interprets the Bible, including its timeline, quite literally and can thus locate an exact date of creation just beyond 4000BC. He might profess not to be impressed by science, but in many ways he worships it by regularly dousing parts of his land and its flora in insecticides. If only…
If only that darned neighbour, Miss Rowley, would clear the cuttings and clean up that compost where al the pests breed. But she is a declared worshipper of science and cannot bring herself to interfere in any natural process, lest human intervention gets in the way of the inevitable. Miss Rawley and Garnett are not the most companionable of neighbours.
In Prodigal Summer these three households, each with their own tensions, relationships, feuds and priorities live cheek by jowl with nature. Animals, plants, the weather, chance and inevitability press themselves to the forefront of daily concerns. Thus they find they are in contact in more ways than one. Not only must they commune with the natural world, they must coexist, even communicate as assumption, motive and consequence push them in different, sometimes conflicting directions.
Of course, given Prodigal Summer’s theme of renewal and at-oneness with nature, it is no surprise that all things female are predominant. Reproduction, its necessity, its mechanisms, its intended and unintended consequences, its intended inevitability, runs not like a thread but like a strong, perhaps unbreakable rope that ties everything together. No matter what we do or think or feel, experience tries to lead us all in the same direction, as if the destination were pre-ordained, in spite of our determined meanderings designed to deny it. In Prodigal Summer, a many of the encounters are sexual. If it does not form the main argument, then the need to mate is at least preamble. There is never time to review. Life has a habit of taking us where it wants, ideas of control or self-direction being perhaps illusory.
But in the end these people all realise that they are part of the same natural world that, independently of human-created desires and prescriptions, sets its own pace, follows its own rules, precludes exemption and decides consequence. This Prodigal Summer thus reveals its surprises to all concerned, leaving them changed and transformed, older and wiser. The reader makes the same journey.
Saturday, January 11, 2014
In Blackberry Wine Joanne Harris presents a novel about Jay, who is a writer. Some years ago Jay created a character in Three Summers With Jackapple Joe, the novel that made his name. But since then, Jay’s products have been mediocre and his career has stalled. We meet him looking at his life, especially his relationship with Kerry, whose own media career seems to go from strength to strength. There is tolerance in the air, but resentment and envy are not far from the surface.
Jay reminisces about Joe, the ex-miner in Yorkshire who became something of a local hero for the young writer. Back in the 1970s, when Jay Mackintosh was an impressionable lad growing up in Yorkshire, Joe seemed so sophisticated, a much travelled man of the world whose collection of exotics from all over the planet facilitated the concoction of strange brews from the fruit of his plants. Blackberry Wine is actually written from the point of view of one of Joe’s bottles of home brew that survived for decades after its initial fizz. The device is interesting at the start and end of the book, but for the most part it is best ignored. It remains a good idea, but does not quite come off.
Chapters describing Jay’s present in London and then France and his past as a child and adolescent in Yorkshire are interleaved. Joe’s magic seemed to work those years ago when talismans cast spells that protected Jay from local bullies. They also seem to work when, disaffected with city life and frustrated by his continued lack of achievement, Jay disappears to a rural French farmhouse. There, lubricated by some of the home brew preserves, Jay finds himself haunted by old Joe and, once again transformed, as if by magic, newly able to write.
Jay finds that there is more than meets the eye in his little French town. The small community is riven by family feud and accusation, alongside general disagreement about how the area should develop in the future. Should it retain its rural roots or appeal to the holiday trade? Perhaps displaying latent Romanticism, Jay finds himself securely on one side of the discussion. He negotiates his way through new relationships, some mixed with a little local politics. Meanwhile his muse, Joe’s old wine and its associated ghost, encourage him to write a new and successful book.
Jay’s neighbour in France is Marise. She has a daughter, Rosa, who apparently is deaf after an illness contracted when an infant. For some unknown reason, Marise is determined to buy the very farmhouse that Jay himself has bought. The competition from over the fence intrigues Jay. He is at a loss to explain how passionately Marise appears to want his property.
Joanne Harris’s characters are thoroughly credible. Their weaknesses are truly human and their reserve makes their shortcomings understandable. But overall Blackberry Wine fails to convince. Not only is the setting in which Jay finds himself too soon accommodated by both himself and the locals, but the book simply has too many themes. Jay’s relations with the locals could have been the single focus of the book, but we also have his childhood, his inspiration, his relationships with two different women, his coming of age. As a result, none of the themes is thoroughly examined. This gives the book a lightness that aids a skimming read, but which simultaneously undermines any real engagement with the character. Some of the book’s themes, indeed, become submerged and apparently forgotten, only to spring up again without warning. The novel remains, however, a rewarding read and an interesting take on what really has the power to motivate people to achieve. There might be an added dimension of autobiography, but that would be another story.
Friday, January 10, 2014
In Egypt, in Alexandria to be precise, if precision be our goal, Lawrence Durrell once attempted to fuse fiction into a relativistic universe that, poorly interpreted, might blur perception to render all positions relevant. The aim was vast and its non-achievement eventually irrelevant, for the quartet that grew out of it proved to be an enduring masterpiece. Half a generation later, and self-referentially, Lawrence Durrell began a quest to go one better. Over the decade it took to construct, this magnum opus grew into a Quincunx, five books that formed a whole, five petals of a great flower of a novel, all attached, apparently, to a non-existent core. So now, thirty years on, what does a new visit to Monsieur, Livia, Constance, Sebastian and Quinx reveal?
Perhaps Blanford should be offered the opportunity to open the discussion. Who is Blanford? Now there’s a question. “My style may be described as one of jump-cutting as with cinema film. The basic illustration is of course the admission that reincarnation is a fact. The old stable outlines of the dear old linear novel have been side-stepped in favour of soft focus palimpsest which enables the actors to turn into each other, to melt into each other’s inner lifespace if they wish. Everything and everyone comes closer and closer together, moving towards the one. … But the book, my book, proved to be a guide to the human heart, whose basic method is to loiter with intent…” This is how Blanford himself describes his own work, for he, we are told, is the author.
A word of warning: Lawrence Durrell is as good as Blanford’s word. Lawrence Durrell is a wrier, a novelist, who invents Blanford, who is also a novelist. In his novel, Lawrence Durrell has his creation, Blanford, write a novel, in which he invents a character called Stucliffe, who is a novelist, and who writes a book. Characters that Durrell invents, or even perhaps knows, live alongside Blanford, himself a fiction, and are reinvented by Sutcliffe, under different titles but with the same character, in his own fiction, which really is written by Blanford, who is Durrell.
So we have a fiction within a fiction, featuring the same characters, but with different names. They sometimes meet one another and, ego to alter ego, discuss the others and sometimes themselves. Here and there, just to clarify things, the writer also includes thoughts and actions from characters in the Alexandria Quartet, who seem to relish being cameo-quoted in these new surroundings. Don’t worry, because they don’t exist either.
Blanford’s assertion that material will be inter-cut has to be taken seriously. There is barely a page in the five novels of the Quincunx that does not slip from a layer of apparent fact into fiction in order to render it fact and the source fiction. And, of course, the whole thing is nothing more than the musings of Durrell, who perhaps intends to loiter a little longer than he ought.
The five books of the Quincunx, Monsieur, Livia, Constance, Sebastian and Quinx, often approach an approximation of plot. There’s Tu Duc near Avignon in France, an old house near the city of Popes. It has its own memories, almost its own character. But is it real? Of course it isn’t! Just ask one of the characters to confirm its fiction. There’s a cult of Gnostics in the Egyptian desert who seem to convene like some diplomatic corps whose party has lost its bearings while on its way to an official gathering. There is drug abuse, and a lot of sex. They are human, after all, aren’t they?
There is also mental illness and breakdown. There is congenital deformity, illness and death. There is sexuality of every persuasion, visits to bordellos and yearnings for more, something more. There’s a Templar treasure to be discovered, a Nazi occupation to endure, labour camps and internment, novels to be written, relationships to perfect. Confused? Why should anyone be confused? What, after all, is there to be confused about? We wake up and, as long as we loiter around long enough, we go to bed and, if we are lucky again with the loitering, we sleep or, if we are a tad luckier, make love. So what?
Lawrence Durrell’s Quincunx, the Avignon Quintet, feels very much like an author’s commonplace. It’s a disjointed and sometimes deliberately obtuse, often intentionally banal set of musings. It’s five books that head in no particular direction and go nowhere on their extensive travels, but explore character along the way, without ever really getting near any of the humanity they encounter. They dip into history which is always present, and seek material consequences in ethereal ideas. And, sure enough, it loiters around in its unfocused way for what increasingly seems like a lifetime. And where does it go? Where does it finish? Now there’ a question…
Writers of fiction are often accused of forcing their characters to jump through ever more fanciful hoops to satisfy a presumed need for engaging plot. The fact that reality often amplifies the unlikely to the near incredible regularly reminds any reader that considered fiction rarely overstates any issue that derives from our usually random human recklessness. Rarely, for instance, when dealing with war, does fiction place women in the front line. And equally uncommon is the recognition that women are also often in the front lines of politics, even when they might continue to be under-represented amongst the professional practitioners of the art.
And so we often need the kind of reality check that a balanced historical account can provide. Paul Preston’s Doves Of War is precisely the kind of book that can provide comment on all these themes and thus bring us back to earth with an eye-opening bump.
Doves Of War presents contrasting biographies of four women who were directly involved in the hostilities of the Spanish Civil War. Priscilla Scott-Ellis is born of the English upper crust and supports the Nationalists. Nan Green is also English, but motivated by a commitment to left-wing politics. She lines up with the Republic. Mercedes Sanz-Bachiller, a Spaniard, marries into the political life of Vallolid. Margarita Nelken, Spanish-speaking and Spanish-born, but Jewish and branded a foreigner by her enemies, becomes a significant actor on the political left. And so we follow the lives of four women, two on the left and two on the right, two outsiders and two insiders, two who celebrated victory and two berated in defeat. Their stories thus contrast.
It is much to the author’s credit that these lives are presented in a fair and unbiased way. Paul Preston’s personal take on the history of Spain’s war is well known. But in Doves Of War he consistently ducks opportunities to make points about the politics of the struggle, except when the politics are lived out in the lives of his subjects. Committed readers on either side of the argument might feel frustrated at this, but the overall result in that Doves Of War avoids polemic and lets the detail of these four women’s stories demand the reader’s uncomplicated attention. The first subject, for instance, was born into privilege and wealth, thus making political points easy to score. The second is very much the nineteen-thirties pro-Soviet apologist and activist, and caricature might thus beckon. The third is a long-suffering wife dragged into the limelight and the fourth is the driven polymath intellectual. In some way or other, all four could be presented as caricatures or used as vehicles to score other associated historical and political points. Aspects of all four lives could be stressed to demolish them as people or belittle their contribution and commitment. But the author always shies away from cheap shots, even consciously avoiding them, always preferring to analyse rather than judge.
What happens to these four women is the meat of Doves Of War, so this review will avoid reference to the detail of the individual stories. What the review can do, however, is note that each of these lives presents a series of events that is stranger, more heroic, more tragic, more convoluted, more complicated and much more profound than anything a writer of fiction might implausibly create to impose on a character. The twists and turns of these lives, each one pummelled by events and scarred by war leave the reader breathless just trying to keep up.
The style, however, is not easy. Paul Preston is an historian, not a sensationalist or indeed a sentimentalist, and these tales, as presented here, are more documentary than Hollywood. Their content may be stranger than fiction, but the material is considered, discussed, referenced, sourced and checked. Nothing is ever over-stated. Doves Of War displays immense scholarship and, whatever the author’s obvious sympathies, he offers tremendous respect for these four differing women who, in their different ways, gave their lives to the causes they supported.
The Room Beyond by Stephanie Elmas is a ghost story. When Serena arrives in Marguerite Avenue to apply for a job, she is intrigued to find as she walks the street that next door to number 32 in number 36. Strangely, number 34 does not seem to exist. A mere curiosity, perhaps?
Also a curiosity is the job that Serena is seeking. She is applying to be the nanny, the companion, the teacher or perhaps the partner in crime of Beth who, Stephanie Elmas tells us, is just four years old. This little girl is rather odd. She has only just graduated from toddler status, but throughout the tale she seems to display the maturity, vocabulary and sensibility of middle age, let alone precocious adulthood. Serena is intrigued from the start by the origins of this little girl, and she does not believe everything she is told.
Beth’s apparent wisdom beyond her years may test some readers’ ability to suspend belief. But there are rewards for those who do, because The Room Beyond becomes an engaging read, not least because Author Stephanie Elmas’s style is always lucid and clear, and yet can offer a telling turn of phrase. When books include a child as a principal character, writers tend to use the implied innocence as a vehicle for delivering statements that no-one else dare say, or noting observations that the mere conventional either miss or fear. Mercifully, Stephanie Elmas just avoids over-using Beth’s child status, though she remains very much at the centre of the developing story.
A time shift takes us back to 1892, to a time when number 34 Marguerite Avenue definitely did exist. We get to know the Whitestones and the Edens, Mrs Hubbard who cooks and several characters, Miranda, Lucinda, Tristan and Alfonso included, whose lives become intimately intertwined. There is intrigue in this street, where much goes on behind the curtained windows.
Back in the present day Marguerite Avenue, Serena gets the live-in job offered by the Hartreve family and thus enters the household to get to know little Beth, whose hidden origins immediately interest the new nanny. Then there is a discovery that Eva, a morose teenager, knows much about the toddler’s birth and is partially willing to talk. Eva’s revelations ought to be momentous, but Serena takes them in her stride, a response we soon begin to associate with her. Eva is a strange, waif-like, almost ghostly youngster, but we hardly ever seem to get to know her as she drifts in and out of the story.
The character of Serena, the modern-day narrator, is intriguing. She’s an injured young woman. She lost her parents in a road accident. She herself is scarred and harbours a morbid fear of glass. Even more intriguing about Serena is her rather unpredictable impetuosity. When she feels an urge, she gives its expression free reign and, throughout, she displays an almost rampant sexuality that simply will not give “no” as an answer. Serena meets a number of possible liaisons and, when the fancy takes her, liaises. One particular encounter gives rise to something that develops like an obsession for Serena, who as a result becomes ever more obsessed with the non-existence of the house next door. Who might have lived there, and for what reasons it might have been removed from history? Perhaps it still exists. Perhaps we merely convince ourselves that it’s not there. And if all of this is not enough, we have another character who paints black paintings that hang in a house full of eccentrics!
Back at the end of the nineteenth century, there is yet another strange figure. Walter Balanchine is part tramp, part wizard, part psycho-analyst, part éminence-grise. He wanders in and out of the story, leaving enigma and mystery wherever he treads. Like the present-day Beth, he seems to appear whenever something more than the expected might transpire.
Overall, The Room Beyond is a satisfying, but un-demanding read. With so many characters, two time periods and several settings, we could never expect to reach an end where all the ideas are worked out, all the loose ends tied up. Stephanie Elmas’s style remains a delight and so the text always flows past and through its events with ease. But by the end, for this to be fiction of its genre, there may be rather too little tension, alongside too little of interest to excite literary interest. But The Room Beyond does present an interesting, engaging tale that is well told. Stephanie Elmas, herself, cites a debt to Mary Elizabeth Braddon, who wrote mysterious, eye-popping works that sent middle-class housewives flying to the bookshops. The Room Beyond hopes to emulate this success by presenting a new gothic Victorian sensation drama, but with the present day entwined within. Via the character of Serena, Stephanie Elmas may well have achieved her goal.
One On One by Philip Spires is now available
One On One by Philip Spires is now available
Thursday, January 9, 2014
Pure by Andrew Miller promises rich, illuminating and even exciting experience, intrigue mixed with history, science blended with romance. Set in the year 1785, the novel inhabits pre-revolutionary Paris, focusing on a small area near rue Saint Denis, where there is a church. In the church there is a neglected organ, which cries out to be played. And, also nearby, there is a graveyard, Les Innocents, a much inhabited though disused and derelict plot, if inhabited might be the word to describe the subterranean tower blocks of coffins.
Word has come down from the King - a king who, as we know, will himself be coming down in the near future - that the area is up for re-development. No, this is not a modern tale of fractured communities, corruption and greedy developers, but an eighteenth century examination of fear, religion and, in some ways, the supernatural. It is a cemetery that is to be dug out, its contents reassembled and then moved, and there are beliefs associated with that age, or perhaps any age, that might be aroused.
Jean-Baptiste Baratte, an out of town engineer with only a small amount of work to his credit, is chosen to carry out the task. He moves to Paris and finds rooms near his project, rooms cheek by jowl with the varieties of life one expects to find in a city jammed with humanity. There’s a strange girl called Ziguette on hand. She is clearly going to play her part in the plot. But whether that part will be in relation to the engineer’s work or play is initially unclear.
Of course there is no shortage of service industry or local free enterprise in eighteenth century Paris. And so there is no shortage of sensuous encounters, wine, food, grime, laundry and other related activity that humans might pursue while they claim to be alive. An occasional famous name calls by, and other characters wander in and out of the tale. The dead, of course, are always around.
But there is also a political dimension, and larger historical possibilities, because this is pre-revolutionary France, where an Austrian harlot plies her expensive and highly visible trade at public expense. And there is also a philosophical dimension, since this purports to be the dawning of an age of reason, where Voltaire satirises those ideas that foster the kind of fears that the digging out of a cemetery might generate.
If these are the themes, then it is the job of the engineer Baratte to assemble them, along with his team of labourers, to achieve an end. And that is where Andrew Miller’s Pure rather fails to deliver. The elements are all there - the sensuality, philosophy, politics, history, intrigue and, not least, the sense of time and place. But none of these aspects rises above the incidental. Neither the literary atmosphere nor the immediate narrative strands seem to come alive. The political and philosophical angles are around, and crying out to be developed, but they appear in hints and asides, without any involvement. Pure becomes a perfectly satisfying read, a sometimes vivid novel that takes the reader to a particular place and time. But strangely it never really seems to come alive and, when surprising events emerge, it feels like they have been concocted to prevent further drift. Pure is a book that could easily disappoint, for it promises much. Though there are aspects, particularly the political and philosophical angles, that are not fully realised, perhaps not even attempted, it remains a worthwhile and satisfying read. And in the end it reminds us, as a city of the dead is cleared out, that in the very near future French society was to embark upon some clearing out of a different kind.
Trespass by Rose Tremain is a novel that repeatedly meditates on and around the theme it takes from its title. The author’s glittering but deceptively simple prose dances through the magical realities of the characters’ lives, but always has in mind an overriding concept of space which is personal, a space which is also inevitably and necessarily invaded by interaction. Such invasions, such trespass upon another’s territory will leave footprints, imprints that set into memory and thus themselves become part of the space we call ourselves.
Trespass might be read as a conventional who-done-what. There is a rural house in southern France, where a brother and sister live. Aramon is decrepit and deceitful. He is untidy, avaricious and an alcoholic. He has also had a history of blackouts, and these are nothing new, not mere boozed-up sleep-ins. He has suffered them since childhood, adolescence at least. Audrun, his sister, or perhaps not his sister when opinions are shared, has tolerated his excesses throughout her life and now, living in the cottage that abuts his land, she apparently continues her pursuit of the quiet life. Audrun bears her own imprints of the past, brandings of origin and parentage that have threatened to devalue her very existence. This has apparently given Aramon the right, in the past and continuing present, to trespass on his sister’s space and to use it as is he has assumed ownership. It’s an invasion that Audrun has always resented.
It seems that Aramon has to be sober to admit his illness. His blackouts might be fits, though episodes might be a politer term. They have happened at various points in his life. They are associated with passion, with moments when emotion gets the upper hand, or alienation dominates, moments such as those when the possibility of realising a fortune excites previously unimagined possibilities in his imagination.
Such source of possible excitement arrives one day in the form of a probable purchaser of the house, a man who seems to have money in his pocket, more money than Aramon can even imagine, it seems. Anthony Verey is an antique dealer for London. He has had many years in the business and knows his stuff. He has been lucky - except he would probably claim mere good management - to have developed a loyal following of clients, who over the years have maintained his trade. But the clients have thinned out and now the business is running down. Anthony, as a child always rather protected by his elder sister, Veronica, now looks at her lifestyle with some envy. She lives in France, has a relationship with Kitty, who is an artist, and seems, at least from Anthony’s increasingly pressured point of view, to be living an idyll.
On a visit to France Anthony considers how he might replicate his sister’s perceived paradise by checking out a few properties, preferably secluded, remote perhaps, where he can rest, recline and recuperate. Funnily enough, Aramon’s farmhouse home has just gone on the market, with the deranged owner’s imagination lit up by the attached price tag that the estate agent has conjured.
But there are always problems… Not only o you have yet another foreigner wanting to buy up a piece of French real estate, yet another trespasser intending to invade, but also you have Audrun, the sister, inconveniently trespassing on the farmhouse land with her own little house within the boundary. And beyond that, Veronica’s life becomes less than a paradise as Anthony re-invades her space, when her partner begins to resent a renewed trespass on their stability.
And so we reach the point where trespass, somehow, somewhere, will transform into its alternative meaning of sin. Some of these people are suffused with guilt, remorse over what they have done or smothered by the weight of what has been done to them. A grand sin is committed. A trespass into another space, across another life, always leaves an imprint. Merely repaying the debt by visiting trespass in return is never sufficient to exact retribution, to secure reparation. And so a great sin is committed. But by whom? And for what motive? Whose trespass was a step too far?
Rose Tremain’s novel is a beautiful and often moving study of guilt, remorse and retribution. Her writing has a deep and exciting sensuality alongside a vivid sense of place. The characters become people, rounded personalities with their strengths and weaknesses, their passions and their frailties, people who must seek their own goals, often trespassing across the desires of others. Who might forgive them their trespasses?