Friday, 31 December 2010

The Pilgrim's Tale

There was an almost universal reaction in the house when I slapped down a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five on the arm of the sofa, and it went something like this: ‘Ooh, Slaughterhouse-Five!’ Everyone vaguely knows what it’s about – the destruction of Dresden, nominally – and everyone (including me) is vaguely aware of a nagging sense that they Should Have Read It By Now. It has also been on various English Lit syllabuses for a few years, which I think compounds the feeling of schoolboy guilt.

I said I vaguely knew what it was about, but I was surprised by just how little Dresden features in the story. The book has a conversational tone and a first-person introduction, which feels a bit like you’re being addressed by a grown up version of Holden Caulfield. Throughout Vonnegut’s prose there is a vein of laconic, sardonic wit which allows the reader to progress through the wretched life of the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, without becoming utterly miserable. Billy is absurdly tall, skinny, clumsy, fragile and utterly detached from the real world, but he has a ‘tremendous wang’ and ends up impregnating a famous movie starlet. So it goes.

‘So it goes’ is the narrator’s catch-all philosophy throughout. It is derived from Billy’s travels to the planet Tralfamadore (I told you it wasn’t really about Dresden) and his encounters with an alien species who see all instances of time simultaneously, in the same way that we can look across a landscape. What happens in any particular moment is unavoidable; we are all like flies trapped in amber.

And this is true most of all for Billy Pilgrim. He is shunted along from time and place to time and place, not unwillingly, but certainly not of his own free will. He tumbles through the plot just like Joe Christmas does in Faulkner’s Light in August. I think Billy’s name perfectly encompasses this as well. He is a pilgrim, bumbling along through life in an extraordinary way. His father tells him to call himself Billy, not any other variant of William, because there is something magic about the name. It certainly has a Peter Pan quality, somewhere between an ordinary kid playing in the suburbs and an all-American action hero. Billy Pilgrim. The ordinary American boy, the optometrist-turned-chaplain’s-assistant, as comically unsuited to war as he is to life in general. Billy Pilgrim, victim of, well, everything.

My main criticism of Slaughterhouse-Five would be the abrupt way in which the novel ends. For a book which everybody thinks is about Dresden, it spends a long time getting there and very little time in that charred, otherworldly landscape. Perhaps the point is that the reader is shunted around the place just like the protagonist. Billy’s journey is far from linear, but fortunately Vonnegut’s repetitive use of language is a useful crutch. Familiar themes surface and re-surface in peace and war alike, from simple descriptive phrases to the sinister opalescence of wartime candles made from the rendered fat of human beings. This repetition is paradoxically both reassuring and disorientating. We share Billy’s disconcerting journey until one morning the war ends, and so does the book. And although the ending of the novel is abrupt, it happens exactly as the narrator tells us it will in the first chapter, which is in itself is a baffling experience. So it goes.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

As I Lay Reading

This is just a brief post-mortem on William Faulkner’s Light in August. One or two other matters seem to have got in the way lately. 
Overall, I’m glad to have read it, as it was considerably better than As I Lay Dying. But I’m also glad to have finished it. Faulkner’s reputation for verbose and exhausting prose is well earned, and although I was complimentary about the first half of the book, it soon began to drag. 
One particularly annoying feature of the novel, and one that I certainly didn’t expect from someone accepted as a masterful storyteller, was the clumsiness with which Faulkner kept introducing new characters. ‘At that time there was X, who had lived in the town for Y years...’ This happened several times, and was so formulaic and cumbersome that I almost suspected that Faulkner had run out of storyline and was introducing new characters in order to coax the plot along for a few more pages.
It is easy to see how Faulkner earned his title as one of the great American novelists, and it is equally obvious that he has shaped whole generations of authors. His metaphors are vast and captivating, his language poetic and sinister. For me, the problem is that some of his modern protégés seem superior. If I want to see blood spilled in the Deep South, I’ll turn to Cormac McCarthy, an author whose style and use of language owe so much to Faulkner, but who is far more accessible to the modern reader. He doesn’t have the lulls that Faulkner has.
Perhaps fast-paced modern literature has spoiled me, although I am still happy to trudge through classics like Don Quixote and Moby-Dick. I think Faulkner’s major problem is that legions of writers have come after him in the Southern Gothic tradition, and the style that was so uniquely his is now readily available elsewhere. He may have been original then, but he is not unique now. And although he writes with incredible power, his voice is lost among those of his imitators. Faulkner has been a victim of his own success.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Danger on the Edge of Town

Last time I had a tussle with Faulkner, he won. I still finished As I Lay Dying, because I couldn’t bear not to, but it was an incredibly tedious process and I didn’t enjoy the book. Happily, Light in August, which I’m now about halfway through, is a much more gripping read.

Light in August - William Faulkner
As you might expect from Faulkner, this novel sits slap bang in the middle of the Southern Gothic genre of which its author is one of the chief architects. In nineteenth-century Mississippi, a man named Christmas struggles with his own identity and free will. He is part black, with all the stigma attached to that, but not such a large part that anyone can immediately tell. He is despised by the whites who know his secret and rejected by the blacks.

Christmas is trapped by his blood and his upbringing. In a masterful flashback, Faulkner reveals the cold, puritanical foster-father and the young man’s inevitable violent reaction. Beaten daily for not learning his catechisms, the young Christmas becomes imbued with his foster-father’s disdain for women and icy capacity for violence.

Faulkner’s genius lies in his ability to create a brooding, pervasive sense of impending disaster. Christmas’ upbringing inevitably shows itself, and the reader bobs along just as helplessly as the protagonist. It seems very likely that there will be no escape for either. The book is claustrophobic, despite the vast open spaces of the Deep South; and the limitless potential of a young country is arrested by the furtive, sweaty dealings of the town of Jefferson.

At the end of the flashback, Faulkner is at his haunting best: the outcast Christmas is a man and a parricide by the age of eighteen. He wanders a single dusty road that stretches through countless towns and cities and fifteen years of whorehouses and fistfights. After all we have learned about Christmas in an incredibly detailed flashback, the fifteen years of wandering between the novel’s past and its present lasts for a breathtaking page or so. It’s not what he’s known for, but at times Faulkner can be an extraordinarily economical storyteller. Christmas is propelled into the future by some terrible, unseen force, and all one can do is keep turning the pages.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Kings and Fools

I have returned to Anthony Burgess, with his novel Any Old Iron, which follows the remarkable Jones family throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The old iron of the title is Excalibur, a.k.a. the Sword of Mars, once wielded by Attila the Hun before ending up in the hands of King Arthur, according to popular legend.

For a story ostensibly about Excalibur, the first major surprise is how little the sword itself features. It does, however, hang over the fates of the various members of the Jones family, and by charting their fortunes Burgess is able to cover an extraordinary variety of subject matter. The sinking of the Titanic, the Russian revolution, two World Wars, the struggle for Welsh independence, and the founding of the nascent State of Israel are all effortlessly and mercilessly scrutinised.

When Burgess writes about the Second World War, his acerbic wit is reminiscent of Joseph Heller. One Private Jones suffers so many bouts of bronchitis, pneumonia, and minor war-related injuries that, despite serving his country for several years, he never actually sees any fighting. There is a powerful sense of the absurdity of war. Another Jones, defending his classical education as a means to interpret the mad situation around him, reduces war and Homeric verse to the level of crapulent nightmares, concluding that “We’re all living in the aftermath of a cheese supper.”

Burgess’ view of Welsh independence and Zionism are just as jaundiced. The two struggling states are set up as parallels, with the bumbling Welsh independence movement robbing post offices and giving old ladies heart attacks. Perhaps because it is still a delicate political issue, perhaps because Wales is more integral to the plot, Israel is seen as a distant absurdity, used by the Welsh freedom fighters as an example of what could be achieved. This absurdity is brought out by discussions of the ethnic similarities between the two groups, and the suggestion that the Welsh are a fragment of the Jewish diaspora.

So, where does Excalibur fit in? Having been looted by the Nazis and captured by the Soviets it resides in a Russian museum. There Reg Jones, half mad with his love for a Russian woman and his fear that she will be sent to the Siberian work camps, liberates it from the icy grasp of the Soviets. He does so with no nationalistic intent, his wartime experiences having destroyed any such naive ideals. But when he returns it to Wales, and when the Luftwaffe unintentionally expose some apparently Arthurian ruins, the nationalistic fervour of others is whipped up. For Reg, the end of the war is sadly not the end of pointless quarrelling.

Clearly, for Burgess, the absurdity of war is inseparable from the absurdity of nation-building. Thousands of Russians were worked to death in Stalin’s USSR because they had been exposed to the decadence of Western society, and could have spread word of its success. Welsh nationalism seems the nostalgic province of petty thugs. Wars, and the thought of dying for one’s country, are absurd.

Any Old Iron tumbles majestically and mockingly through the terrible events of the twentieth century. The Sword of Arthur almost seems like an afterthought, until you look closely and realise that it symbolises all the nostalgia for conquests and golden ages that motivated so much of the bloodshed in our recent history. It is a rusty relic, quite out of place in the modern world.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Come out to play...

The front cover of Sol Yurick’s The Warriors bombastically proclaims that it is the most dangerous book since A Clockwork Orange. It is not. Yes, there are ritualised stabbings, gang-rapings and casual violence aplenty, but the comparison was clearly made by the sales team rather than the critics.

I read The Warriors because of the movie of the same name, which is something of an 80s cult classic, all urban decay and hipster slang. The same two features dominate the book, but whereas in Paramount’s version the hero and the tart-with-a-heart get together, in Yurick’s original she is raped and left in an alleyway beside a bleeding corpse. Predictably, the Warriors have been neutered for Hollywood.

The bombast of the front cover sets the tone for the whole novel. It follows a gang, the Coney Island Dominators, in a not-too-distant New York future, as they make their way home through fifteen miles of hostile territory after a huge peace talk between all the NY gangs ended in anarchy. The young men of the gangs are obsessed with their machismo, their appearance, their ‘rep’. If you look at them the wrong way, they’ll bop you. Or jap you. Or waste you.

While one or two scenes make for slightly uncomfortable reading, there is certainly nothing as distressing as Anthony Burgess’ wilder moments. The most uncomfortable aspect for me was the narrator’s – perhaps the author’s – tacit assumption that the female victims of the Dominators nocturnal activities were a) asking for it, and b) enjoyed it. The book was written in the eighties. Whether it was behind the times then and seems even more so now, or whether the author is attempting to be provocative, is difficult to tell.

What the novel does do well is evoke the sweat and seediness of a hot New York night. I’ve never been, but I have experienced enough American culture and been through the arse-ends of enough big cities to find it convincing. All the talk of fairies, fags and whores is reminiscent of Travis’ skewed view of the nightlife in Taxi Driver, while the sweaty, paranoid road trip aspect reminded me of Kerouac’s On the Road.

The Warriors is not a sophisticated work of literature. I read it in about three hours flat. But given how much I enjoy the film, and how many times I’ve seen it, I was impressed that the book wasn’t a disappointing experience. Yurick’s prose is nothing special, but it isn’t actively bad, which is what I’d been bracing myself for following some friendly warnings. And for a novel unashamedly based on gang violence, it does at least voice some intelligent thoughts. One character’s aspiration is to earn a fearsome ‘rep’ and make others follow his orders by sitting behind a desk and working hard, by having a big house, a nice car, a pretty wife. There’s that latent misogyny again, but at least these are reasonably honest aspirations.

The real tragedy is that by the end of the book, the one character that has developed the most, who conquered his inadequacies in a ten-cent arcade shoot-out game against a shinily handsome plastic sheriff, is back where he started. His home is his prison, and his potential as a leader of men and as an honest person seems likely to remain unfulfilled.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Ahab's Philosophy

All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event — in the living act, the undoubted deed — there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask... Sometimes I think there's naught beyond. But 'tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.
Moby-Dick, Ch.XXXVI

What follows is my effort, taking Ahab's outburst a little further:
'They will tell you, if you let them, a great deal about our common father Adam, but all of it is false. They will tell you that it was his greed and disobedience that caused mankind’s fall, and they will push the lie further and say it was Eve’s fault before then. They will not say that it was hatred and jealousy, man’s twin and natural states, for these are truths unpalatable to many. They will not say that in his naked form, ostensibly clothed in innocence, that man raged at his creator as all men have done since. But his anger was the greatest, for he was the first. The indignity! To be the prototype of a fumbling demiurge, the product of his inexpert and trembling hand, the whetstone for his dull scalpel! Who can truly imagine this first man and his first, roaring hatred?

You who ask for proof of this conjecture, witness the lessons of history! Of ancient and attic warriors who endured starvation and thirst in boundless deserts, who walked for months and years to bring bloody war to a people they had never known. Witness those at war for a decade for the sake of a whorish princess they never even saw. How else do you explain such actions, veiled as they are behind such thin and petty tissues? Hate, I tell you, is as much a part of man as his very blood, the blood that is spilled and spills the life of other men into the dust for no reason other than to satisfy animal urges that most men cannot control or name.

Moby Dick - Herman MelvilleBut the utmost proof I can provide is stored deep within you, though you know it not. Every shred, every tatter of self-loathing, of humiliation, of despair redounds to the curses of your creator. Man is not an instantaneous, unspawned hater of others, but was made in the image of another. Life is not so bleak! We are not without precedent, alone in this world; our actions are validated and confirmed by the actions of our maker. Not for nothing were we made weak, and jealous and wrathful, and not for nothing does everyman seek to improve his lot by shedding the blood of his neighbour.

What man, then, can hate anything so much as he hates his god? Though he venerate him and burn for him the thighs of oxen and totemicise the heads of his enemies; though he lets the vital fluid of his own kin, his son or his daughter, and boils their blood upon ancient stones worn and reddened with centuries of propitiatory murder; though he preach to his flock words of peace and admiration and mocks up his god in a language of love, what man can consider anything more worthy of his hatred? What greater, more fitting foe could be found for a species which has toiled for millennia slaughtering one another, whose sole aim is manifestly the attempt to satiate the bloodlust that burns within them? What better action for a species wracked with jealousy, and with the arrogance that takes jealousy by the glove, and with the rage that cavorts behind them, gnashing his needlelike teeth! What finer expression of hatred and arrogance can there be than hatred of the creator?'

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Melville and I

Herman Melville is synonymous with Moby-Dick - a book which I thoroughly enjoyed despite being warned away from it by a friend – despite the author having several other novels and a collection of short stories to his name. It is the latter, entitled Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Stories, which I have on my desk at the moment. Although I’m less than halfway through it, parts of the collection are shaping up to be very... familiar. There is a pervasive nautical theme, as you can tell from the title, and Melville’s grandiose and allusive style is just as magical as it was in Moby-Dick. On a less positive but entirely predictable note, these short stories are also sometimes very heavy going.
My least favourite story so far is The Encantadas, or, The Enchanted Isles, which is divided into a series of ‘sketches’ of various mystical isles, and betrays the author’s fascination with the sea. They almost feel like rough drafts for Melville’s magnum opus. Although occasionally engaging and characterful, these sketches more often seem like indigestible lumps of vaguely-factual, semi-autobiographical writing without any particular theme or plot to unite them. So, enough of them.
The story I’ve found most interesting so far is entitled Bartleby. It is not nautical.
Bartleby has a distinctly Dickensian feel about it. It is the story of a solicitor and his staff of three copyists, who are soon joined by a fourth, the Bartleby of the title. He is a lean, cadaverous young man, who works hard all day except for periodic window-gazings, and appears to subsist solely on ginger nuts. Bartleby is so other-worldly that his oddly-phrased refusals – ‘I would prefer not to’ – to carry out some mundane tasks leave his employer stunned. It is eventually discovered that Bartleby has been squatting in the office, and his continual refusals to perform commonplace tasks lead to confrontation. It is Bartleby’s quiet, passive refusal that is so remarkably haunting to his employer and to the reader. Frequently he ignores all calls and requests, and continues staring out of the window. He remains in the offices, ghostlike, even after he has been officially fired, leaving his angry but concerned former employer no choice but to relocate his offices.
Bartleby’s melancholy suggests some ancient trauma, and his quietly unyielding nature gives the impression of a man whose past experiences mean that he no longer fears retribution from any man. He is, to use a cliché, a lost soul. Eventually, the solidity of nineteenth-century society reinstates itself, and Bartleby is incarcerated in the pauper’s gaol. Unsurprisingly, this cannot long hold him.
This emaciated, haunted man cuts a romantic figure reminiscent of an abstemious Withnail. Melville shows that his majestic, orotund prose is just as at home in human mystery and tragedy as it is tumbling from the roaring, cursing beard of Ahab.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

A Hand-Made Tale

If, a couple of years ago, you’d have asked me to read a novel that ‘illuminates some of the darker interconnections between politics and sex,’ I probably would have told you where to put said novel. Fortunately, times have changed. And, in tandem with this process of enlightenment, I got hold of a copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale for free...
In the near future, fertility is the overriding concern of human society. Mass chemical leaks have caused widespread sterility, and women are empty vessels, valued only for their reproductive potential. Those who cannot yield are banished, they are Unwomen, and in the patriarchal fascism of the Republic of Gilead a failure in fecundity is always the fault of the woman. Sterile men do not exist. The eponymous handmaid, Offred, recalls her past life and her past lover against the stifling backdrop of this new society.
Atwood’s prose is acutely poetic, and it is no surprise that she has also published volumes of poetry. She clearly has a deep interest in words, their sounds and connotations as well as straightforward meanings, and this comes through very strongly. There is a pleasing sense that her words really are meticulously chosen. ‘I feel like the word shatter,’ Offred thinks to herself. The words she finds scratched inside the wardrobe in her room become totemic, and complex memories and streams of thought are evoked by casual words repeated, echoed, distorted. The process of wordplay vividly displays the layers of consciousness of someone caught between a happy past and a bleak present.
It is these small details that I’m enjoying most about The Handmaid’s Tale. The grocery shops are called things like All Flesh and Daily Bread, and this again gives the reader a point of contact with our own world. Just as Offred seizes on a word and it becomes evocative of her past, so we can seize on these names and know that organised religion and male dominance are virtually inseparable in Atwood’s crosshairs. As always, it is the recognisable elements of our own society that are the most frightening.
Atwood also evokes the worst of our society’s past as well as its present. There are high walls and public penalties for political dissidence which bring to mind the very worst that the twentieth century had to offer in Europe. There are also the barren Colonies, reminiscent of the wasted, sterilised Africa in The Man in the High Castle, which condemn imperialism and colonisation, so often perceived as masculine instincts. 
I once read an article exploring the sexual side of colonialism, and it was one of the worst piles of tripe I’ve ever waded through. Something about King Arthur slaying giants with the phallus of his sword. Obviously, Atwood is vastly more subtle than this. She has issues with modern, masculine society, but they are expressed in such a way that you can almost take them or leave them. I don't think this is a bad thing. The book may be intended to make a point, but my experience of it was more poetic than political.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Autopeotomy and the OED

A brief foray into non-fiction.

Simon Winchester’s The Surgeon of Crowthorne is the history of a former US army surgeon imprisoned in Broadmoor lunatic asylum, near Crowthorne, in the late nineteenth century. It charts his involvement with the creation of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, which was compiled with the help of hundreds of volunteers throughout the English-speaking world who read obscure books and sent in little slips of paper with words and quotations illustrating their meanings. The surgeon, Dr Minor, was imprisoned after he killed a man in Lambeth whilst suffering from one of his periodic, almost nightly, bouts of delusion. From his asylum cell, lined with his many books, he begins a correspondence with the editor of the OED that will last twenty years and will prove him to be one of the most meticulous and productive of the many volunteers involved in the project.

The subject matter, a murder in smoggy Victorian London and the severe conditions of a nineteenth-century lunatic asylum, are enough to make Edgar Allen Poe salivate. The story hinges on the tension between Minor’s insanity – he is convinced that he endures nightly persecution by would-be assassins who emerge from the floorboards to drug, torture and sexually abuse him – and the evident lucidity of his work on the dictionary. It is told well, with a verbosity that suits the bookish subject matter, and leaves one’s own vocabulary enhanced (see title, a late twist in Dr Minor’s already grim saga).

As with all such books – and to continue on from the previous post on Burgess – it suffers from what I perceive to be a problem. Some of the facts are clearly verifiable, and the author acknowledges his debts to many documents, institutional registers and the like. But some are obviously the product of artistic license, and this bothers me. Either write a history, or write a novel. I might sound a bit militant here, but I am a historian by training. On the back of the book, it is described as a ‘classic work of detection’. Very noncommittal. But Winchester does intersperse his narrative with enough perhapses and maybes to let us know that he is filling in a number of gaps. He is being honest, at least.

I sound very snobbish about this, I know. I enjoy a book that meddles with the line between fiction and reality, but I think I only enjoy this in a fictional context. Hopefully somewhere out there is a semi-history or a historical novel that can persuade me to take the plunge off my high horse, but I’m not quite there yet.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Beyond Nadsat

Like most people, I think, my acquaintance with Anthony Burgess is based solely upon A Clockwork Orange, and like most people, I think it is an excellent book. But the problem with it is that it is so saturated with words of Burgess’ own invention that you almost lose sight of whether or not the man can actually write in English. It is his power of invention that dazzles us most, not his storytelling.
That’s why I bought Burgess’ collection of short stories, The Devil’s Mode, a week or two ago. The Devil’s Mode makes it very clear that Burgess is an exceptional storyteller, but also suggests that when the author wrote these short stories – at the age of 72 – his power of invention was waning. Just take a glance through the contents pages: the first story describes an encounter between a foppish young Shakespeare and an embittered Cervantes; the next follows Marlowe and Goethe as Dr Faustus conjures the notorious beauty Helen of Troy; the third is based around an opera libretto. There is also a pastiche of Sherlock Holmes and a historical novella about Attila the Hun.
If I was being incredibly critical, I would say that this suggests a lack of imagination, perhaps even laziness. This is the same charge that can be levelled at all historical fiction. What is easier than inventing characters and situations? Why, using ready-made ones, of course. And then rudely imbuing those ready-made characters – whether they are the product of someone else’s imagination or of history itself – with one’s own thoughts and prejudices.
These remarks are general, not specific to Burgess. His stories are written with great liveliness and intelligence, and when he resurrects a character it is done incredibly convincingly. He transforms Attila from the ravening barbarian we expect him to be into a sophisticated strategist, his land-grabs preceded by tenuous diplomatic pretexts that are so civilised that the Romans are unable to refute them.
My favourite story was the first one, Shakespeare and Cervantes. Burgess is protective of English culture, almost to the point of being jingoistic. Cervantes blasts the English, their amputated stump of Christianity, and their infantile written culture which lacks the dramatic suffering of the Spanish mindset. Shakespeare’s task is to convince a vaguely hostile, non English-speaking crowd that his work has some value, and can convey the gamut of emotions expressed in Cervantes weighty tome. The solution is beautiful. A seven-hour production of Hamlet, incorporating Falstaff and other additional characters, shows both the range of Shakespeare’s talent and the pigheadedness of Cervantes’ insistence that the length of Don Quixote is one of its chief virtues. It is a story of literary one-upmanship, giving Shakespeare an appealingly childish personality worthy of Angela Carter’s Wise Children.
The Devil's Mode is a finely crafted selection of short stories, and I think that the accusation of a lack of originality is combated by the obvious depth of reading and research that has gone into them. After all, pastiches, imitations, or whatever you want to call them are fundamental building blocks of literature. If you only read Shakespeare, you would write like Shakespeare, and if you only read Cervantes, you would write like Cervantes. Burgess’ achievement is to put all of these into a melting pot and produce something – certainly not something coherent, because that’s not the point – but something wide-ranging, intelligent and very enjoyable.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Once More With Feeling

I’ve been sans computer for a week, but on the plus side, I have done a bit of reading. I thought I’d give Italo Calvino another go, since I found another one of his books lying around the house. I wasn’t exactly harsh on him before, but I do think he has a lot of potential. 
The Path to the Spiders’ Nests is Calvino’s first novel, written when he was just 22 years old. On this basis at least it is impressive. It follows a young boy, Pin, in rural Italy during the second world war, charting his encounters with various local characters, resistance members and so on. Pin is not quite a child, being somewhat too aware of his older sister’s nocturnal activities, but is certainly not treated like an adult in the tavern where he goes to sing ribald songs for a free glass of wine. As village life becomes ever more disrupted by the war, Pin eventually (and accidentally) joins a rag-tag local resistance movement.
The first thing that struck me about this book is the narration. The narrator’s voice is that of an omniscient third person, but Calvino’s interest is necessarily in Pin’s interpretation of the world. I think this can sometimes seem awkward, because Pin’s childlike thoughts and actions are told with the voice and conviction of a much older narrator. I’m sure this can be interpreted as the author’s failure to fully align his narrator with his protagonist. I also wonder how much this curious voice is a product of the novel having been translated. Finally, I wonder whether Calvino is being subtle, and creating this confusion of childlike thought and adult expression in order to convey Pin’s limbo-like adolescence.
This difference between Pin and his narrator is exacerbated towards the end of the novel. There is an interlude in which the narrator focuses on the thoughts of an officer of the resistance, named Kim. Kim analyses the war and the men under his command in a stream-of-consciousness internal monologue reminiscent of Robert Jordan’s meanderings in For Whom the Bell Tolls. This is where it becomes apparent that Calvino’s young protagonist does not allow the author space to express his feelings about the complex subject matter. Kim’s interlude is slightly clumsy, and it feels odd to have intimate contact with the thoughts of a character only briefly introduced late in the novel. But in his role as Calvino’s mouthpiece, he expresses some interesting thoughts about why the men around him fight as they do.
This isn’t really a problem with the book, it’s just something I noticed. I do take the view that Calvino deliberately makes the narrator’s voice ambiguous to emphasise the ambiguity in the character of Pin himself. As with Calvino’s much later work, Invisible Cities, this novel is impeccably written. It has well-drawn characters and some very haunting turns of phrase. But I still haven’t quite made up my mind about Calvino, and I might have to read another one of his books.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Big City, Deep Time

I’ve finished The Book of Dave and it has been one of the most intense and enthralling novels I’ve read for a long time.

At one point, Self uses the phrase ‘deep time’, and this is the book’s real appeal for me. It is soaked in time and place, and the two are irrevocably linked. The past is heard through Dave’s recollections of stories told by his grandfather: how, during the war, sand was dug from Hampstead Heath to fill sandbags, and when buildings were reduced to rubble by German bombs the rubble was deposited back in the pits from which the sand was dug. The city’s past is cannibalistic, a constant series of recyclings which infest the present.

It is in the present, in London circa 2000 AD, that Self is at his best. The grime of the contemporary city is phenomenally well-expressed. The London Show continues, in its two thousandth year at the same venue. The then rumbles seamlessly into the now, and Dave’s present is full of the knowledge of his city and its past.

The future reflects the past, and London’s auto-cannibalism continues, albeit somewhat distorted. Names become warped with repetition through the generations, and it seems that the real tragedy of the future inhabitants of Ham is their lack of a distinct past. Their history all stems from the book of Dave, and the reader’s awareness of its twisted psychoses exposes the flaws in any society’s dependence on a revealed religion or a single version of events. These people need more history, a second book to set the record straight.

So, history is powerful in this book. But by my reckoning, the present is the most intriguing part of the book. I initially wondered whether this could be labelled a failure in terms of dystopian literature, since the depicted future is not the most immediate part of the novel. On second thought, this seems like a very narrow reading. This is not a dystopia, but something much broader.

I think that our present is always likely to be the thing we can relate most closely to, particularly in a novel with such a sense of place. But I also think that our present, Dave’s present, acts as the conduit for the history and future which Self creates. Does that make sense? It is the focus. Dave’s actions, shaped by the past, shape the future which we are privileged enough to see running alongside the present.

I can’t articulate any of this as well as it is implicitly expressed in The Book of Dave. But this sense of deep time is one of the biggest things I took away from this novel.

Oh, and the storyline is ok as well.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Ubiquitous Cities

I read Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino a little while ago because I heard a few of my friends discussing it. Here are my thoughts.

The book is a fictional account of the travels of Marco Polo, as related by the traveller himself to Kublai Khan. His descriptions of various cities are interspersed with a dialogue with the Khan, in which it gradually becomes clear to the reader that all the cities described are really facets of a single city, Venice. I feel no compunction in spoiling this for you, because Vintage Classics, in their infinite wisdom, spoilt it for me by putting that morsel of information on the back cover.

Invisible Cities almost seems like a rough draft or a scrapbook full of ideas. Each city is unique, whether this is because of its unlikely location, bizarre architecture, or the characters and actions of its inhabitants. In one city, the citizens trail threads between themselves and all of their acquaintances, with different colours of thread symbolising different relationships; familial ties, business dealings, romantic entanglements. Finally, when there are so many threads that normal life becomes impossible, the inhabitants will abandon the city and move somewhere else, leaving their deserted, spider-webbed homes to be gradually destroyed by the elements. In another city, the residents build an exact replica of their metropolis underground in order to house the dead and make the transition from life to death less jarring. Or was it the dead who built the upper city?

Each city is a puzzling vignette, a glimpse of a different society and an entirely different way of going about one’s life. Many of them are very beautiful and thought provoking.

For me, it is precisely this that makes Invisible Cities so unsatisfying. Calvino dangles an idea in front of your eyes, and then whisks it away. Each city is given just a page or so. I’m sure the idea is to tantalise, but I found that the arrangement of the novel into single-page chapters was clunky and awkward, and many of the cities read like frustratingly abortive potential places. Somehow, they do not quite exist. Many of them cry out to be entire novels, beautiful and paradoxical ideas for societies that could be almost infinitely expanded. Why not do what Borges does, and take a philosophical trinket and stretch it to its logical conclusion? There are so many worlds that could be spun out from this book, but perhaps the elegance of these cities and ideas would be lost if they were used in this way. Their brevity and ambiguity certainly grants them a spell-like fascination.

My view of Invisible Cities is partly coloured by The Book of Dave, which I’ve nearly finished reading. Will Self calls London ‘the once and future city,’ and toys with the same kind of timelessness which Calvino does. London and Venice are both magical in the way they stretch away before and behind us, but I personally find the depth and saturation of Self’s 500-page vision of a city more enchanting than Calvino’s brief work.

This may be a little unfair though, since I’ve never been to Venice.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Back to Reality

I’m now about two-thirds of the way through The Book of Dave, despite the best efforts of the man on the train who kept almost falling asleep onto me. I’m really enjoying the book, and I would highly recommend it. Yes, it’s bleak and miserable, but it is also incredibly readable. The two parallel worlds reel you in, as each one gives you just a little more background on the other. It’s very well done.

As we witness the deranged cabbie, Dave Rudman, construct his own universe and system of beliefs, it becomes apparent just how fragile any such system is. One of my favourite words from the book’s bizarre vocabulary is ‘toyist’ – essentially it means that something is phoney or ersatz. Dave deploys this word regularly against anything he particularly dislikes, branding the subject false and invalid. This leads to intriguing clashes between the reader’s reality and the very persuasive reality which Will Self constructs. The humble pig, recognisable to us, is monstrous and ‘toyist’ to the inhabitants of the future island of Ham, because it cannot talk. Their livestock, in contrast, are initially grotesque but eventually endearing. They are the shambling, lisping motos which belong somewhere between a pig and a giant baby, and who vacuously but cheerfully greet their masters with an ‘orlri mayt’ even as they are being led to slaughter.

To the pig-farmers, the motos are vile and toyist beasts. To the inhabitants of Ham, the pigs are poor toyist copies of the motos, bereft of the power of speech. We should sympathise with the former, but we do not, because the novel works.

I’m sure this is all very poorly-explained and confusing. The main point I wanted to get at is that the word toyist is a well-executed, made-up word for something that we all do all of the time. It is a way of dismissing someone else’s reality if it does not accord with your own.

I’ve already started to adopt a few pieces of Self’s misanthropic vocabulary. It is impossible not to. The fragments of shattered glass from a car window are ‘ackney diamonds. A bloke who talks a load of rubbish has more f**king rabbit than Watership Down. In a similar vein to the adjective ‘toyist’, we see the invention of ‘chellish’ – that is, someone or something bearing a resemblance to Dave’s ex-wife Michelle, and being laden with all the bleak emotions that she evokes for our protagonist.

So, the creation of a vocabulary is a very powerful thing. It imprints Dave’s hate-filled psyche onto the reader, and it does it forcibly. Since we have only Dave’s words through which to understand the situation, we are forced to accept a landscape saturated with impotent rage. This is toyist, that is chellish, this is phoney, that is hateful.

In the same way that calling something toyist forces the namer’s perception of reality onto the named object, Dave’s inescapable vocabulary forces his twisted perceptions onto the reader.


The Book of Dave does what I like in a novel, it plays with reality. And it does it very well.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The Traveller's Theory

I’m working on a theory, bear with me.

Travelling long distances over short periods of time is something that the human being is evolutionarily unprepared for. It’s like those hippies who say that drinking milk is bad for you, because it’s not natural to drink it apart from mother’s milk when you’re a baby, and your gut can’t cope. Evolution hasn’t caught up. I think this explains why travelling is always such an exhausting experience.

Somehow, some part of you realises that you’ve travelled a couple of hundred miles, even if it only took two hours. Some deep-rooted instinct knows that something quite remarkable has just happened. So, you become tired, grouchy, and feel compelled to purchase an overpriced hot water-based beverage from the buffet trolley. And of course, something else remarkable has happened, as it is difficult to tell what goes wrong in such a simple formula to produce a cup of scalding fluid that tastes... brown. But I digress.

There is a physical reaction to extended travel, and it doesn’t have to involve skipping timezones or anything complicated like that.

Admittedly, it does perhaps have something to do with the fact that you’ve just spent two hours staring out of the window and listening to Joy Division. Travel is a time for introspection. I enjoy the chance to do nothing but sit and listen to music or read a book, but it can encourage melancholy. Does mental languishing account for physical tiredness? Quite possibly.

The landscape doesn’t help, I think. I wonder if seeing so many things, flashing past, affects us. England from a carriage window is generally beautiful; you only need to read The Whitsun Weddings to know that. Even Yorkshire’s smoking stacks have something about them. Perhaps there’s a kind of sensory overload. We see quantities of things that, a couple of hundred years ago, it would have taken us weeks to see. Here is another city. Here are several hundred more people. Surely we should expect to be exhausted afterwards? Or are we already desensitised? I think not, because people-watching is always interesting, and trains are a good place for it. Seeing so many people and places is naturally exhausting.

Or perhaps it is because people are essentially conservative. With a very small ‘c’. They are, if not resistant to change, then at least affected by it in different ways. Or is that just me? Changing surroundings will result in changing moods, I think. When this is gradual, it is easy to deal with. When it is forcibly accelerated by the wonders of modern transport there is a gut reaction. It might not be as tiring as if you’d walked the whole way, but there’s definitely something there.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Love and Hate in Hampstead

Another dystopian novel. Sorry about this. Normal service will be resumed soon.

This is certainly the most modern novel I’ve read for a while, Will Self’s The Book of Dave. It’s set in Hampstead in around 500 years time. In this future, rising sea levels have left the inhabitants of the island of Ham isolated from the other areas of high ground, visited only once a year for purposes that I don’t quite understand yet. Their religion and their entire society is based around a book written by a London cabbie from our time, named Dave Rudman.

This is a dense book. Self has created his own language in the Burgessian style, littered with Londonisms, cabbie slang and text-speak. The standard greeting of the inhabitants of Ham is ‘Ware2 guv?’ This makes for a lot of off-putting dialogue to be ploughed through. The first few pages were particularly difficult, but it doesn’t take long to get used to it. The strategy is just like reading Middle English; if you can’t decipher the word, reading it out loud normally helps. Eventually, this becomes good fun. It is enjoyable to be immersed in this bizarre vocabulary, to spot all the puns and references.

The same goes for the cosmos which Self constructs. Just like the vocabulary of the Hamsters (as the inhabitants of Ham are known), their ordering of universe is based around the book of Dave. Christianity is mercilessly parodied. Chronology is measured ‘in the Year of Our Dave,’ the omnipotent one can always see us through his rear-view mirror, and so on. The world of Ham is so sophisticated that the book even has a glossary at the back, but I always feel a bit like I’m cheating if I have a look in it. For the most part you can work out what he’s talking about, although it might pass you by at first. It reminds me of a grimy, mundane version of Eliot’s Wasteland, a system of allusions and references far too complicated for its own good. But somehow, Self manages to pull it off, I think because it is all very tongue-in-cheek.

Mentioning The Wasteland also reminds me of how London-centric this book is. I really enjoy this, but I wonder how much of the novel’s vitality would be lost on a non-Londoner. Self’s grubby view of London is devastatingly accurate, and perhaps unfamiliarity with the places in question would make it less interesting. I’ll have to lend the book around and ask for some opinions.

There is more than that, though. This book brings out the inherent irony of Hampstead. Let me try to explain what I mean. Like the Christian universe, the cosmos of Hampstead, and indeed the whole of North London, is ripe for parody. (I should point out that I lived in Gospel Oak during my formative years. Being situated between leafy, upper-middle-class Hampstead [only the estate agents call Gospel Oak ‘Hampstead’] and the ever-delightful Kentish Town lends a real variety to life...) North London is easy to parody because it is so middle class, darling. But I also think that many of its inhabitants are aware of this. It is a land of patisseries, boulangeries, and artisan bakeries. It is organic, it is free range. It is concerned with the poor, from the distance of the rich. Sometimes I love the place and sometimes I loathe it. But I certainly can’t afford it. And I think a lot of people feel this way.

By isolating Hampstead and cultivating his primitive society on its shores, Will Self pierces the façade and shows just how transparent it all is. He goes back to the bare earth of a place which actually has a remarkable and vibrant history. He uses it as his canvas, reshaping much of it, but keeping just enough intact to anchor his novel in reality and provide a generous serving of in-jokes. Whether or not these are funny to anyone else is a good question.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

The Man in the High Castle

I want to write about this book, but I need to return it to the friend who lent it to me and who hasn’t had a chance to read it. So this might be a little bit tricky.

About halfway through The Man in the High Castle, I thought Philip K. Dick had a slightly irritating awareness of just how clever he was being. The man in the novel’s title is an author who writes a book which is, in the world of the novel, immensely popular. The book, called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, is about what would have happened if the allies had won WWII. I know, crazy, right? Philip K. Dick’s characters seem to spend a lot of their time fawning over how clever the author was to think of such an impressive vision of an alternative world, with the clear implication that Dick’s own book is wonderful.

Without wishing to spoil it, the book within the book is very important. This is revealed with an irritating lack of subtlety. One character is troubled by the fact that the alternate world of the author, a man named Abendsen, is ‘somehow grander, more in the old spirit than the actual world.’ Later on, a different character meditates on the relevance of the novel within the novel: ‘He told us about our own world... This, what’s around us now.’

Of course, this is the mark of a good sci-fi book. (I don’t think it can really be called a dystopia, as it takes place in an alternative present, when the book was written in the 60s, rather than an alternate future.) It tells us about the society which produced it as much as the fictional society which it creates. But surely this doesn’t have to be directly observed by a character in the novel for the reader to notice it?

Despite this sledgehammer approach, the book is good fun. I always really enjoy an author who plays with the boundaries between truth and fiction, between various different layers of reality. Dick certainly manages that, and there are elements of subtlety. The book’s subplot features the forgery of historical and cultural artefacts, before the characters who do the forging become original artisans in their own right, creating beautiful and unique jewellery. Reality and artifice flow throughout the book, and the relationship between the two is highly ambiguous. Many things are not as they seem, helping to create a classic atmosphere of paranoia.

One of my favourite lines relates to this. There is a discussion, at one point, about how the historicity of an artefact is what creates the item’s value. The forgery was not there, at that time, when that event happened. Although it is identical in every other way, it lacks this authenticity which is provided by its historical circumstances. One character shoots a couple of people dead, and watches horrified as their blood pools on the floor. Even when it is all cleared away, and no visible sign remains, he is aware of the ‘historicity’ bonded into the nylon tiles on the floor.

So, this is the division between truth and reality. Inanimate objects are witnesses to various atrocities, whether in the alternate present of the The Man in the High Castle or the alternate-alternate present of The Grashopper Lies Heavy... which should therefore be the actual present. Or something. Very little is objectively verifiable. What is clear is that you can’t trust what people say, and you certainly can’t trust what they write.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

The Don Rides Forth

Because I'm too knackered after a horrible day at work, here's one I prepared earlier. It is grave robbing of the worst order. Both Cervantes and Dante may feel justifiably violated... This is the prospective prologue to the never-to-be-released sequel to Don Quixote. To establish some kind of context for the exhumation, here is an extract from the end of Cervantes' original:
For me alone Don Quixote was born and I for him. His was the power of action, mine of writing. Only we two are at one, despite that fictitious and Tordillescan scribe who has dared, and may dare again, to pen the deeds of my valorous knight with his coarse and ill-trimmed ostrich feather. This is no weight for his shoulders, no task for his frozen intellect; and should you chance to make his acquaintance, you may tell him to leave Don Quixote’s weary and mouldering bones to rest in the grave, nor seek, against all the canons of death, to carry him off to Old Castile, or to bring him out of the tomb, where he most certainly lies, stretched at full length and powerless to make a third journey, or to embark on any new expedition.
(Part II, Ch.LXXIV)

And here is my ostrich-feather effort, lying somewhere between reverent pastiche and macabre mockery...

Carry me not to Old Castile, sir, only permit me to lie in the place I have carved for myself, and earned, by the virtue of my many deeds. It is my opinion - and I flatter myself that I have a little learning - that I have been placed here for a purpose. In life, my function was to succour the needy and aid the distressed, and though I have been laid low by the hand of my creator, I trust in his wisdom, and I know that he places me here so that no unrighteous hand may disinter my weary bones.
For myself, I believe that my adventuring days are far from over. Eventually, as the attentive reader knows, I recanted and realised the folly of my life, and was mercifully allowed to end my days in sanity and wisdom and the company of friends. And although I count myself cured, I await with interest the exploits of this soul for whom mere life was studded with so many glorious adventures, like stars in a clear night sky.
As my reader will doubtless deduce, there have been certain difficulties in the transmission of this new history. The insight of the fine historian Cide Hamete Benengali, author of the original book of my adventures, is of course absent, for he hung up his quill shortly after he buried me with it, and has not yet come this way himself. However I have read his words and hope to imitate, in my own poor prose, his most exceptional and incisive style.
Likewise, my gallant squire Sancho Panza with whom, despite his frequent baseness and many embarrassing outbursts, I parted in the greatest friendship. He has been sorely missed throughout the trials into which I have lately ventured, though perhaps more for his humour than his bravery. Yet I believe that I have had such a fill of his speech and mannerisms and proverbs (may God help me!) that the reader will not miss my good companion too much. After all, one bad apple soon turns the others in the basket.

I. Of the many noteworthy adventures that befell the valorous Don Quixote de la Mancha as he journeyed through the plains of Purgatory to his allotted place in Paradise...

Such an exhumation will never be dignified. The Don rides forth, strapped to his trusty steed like the Cid, and just as incongruous.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Finishing and Starting

Finished One Hundred Years of Solitude yesterday. Ironically, about a page and a half before the end, an old neighbour of ours came over and stayed for a twenty minute chat, thereby utterly derailing my train of thought.

I eventually resolved my problem and decided that I like the book. To me it seems to follow the same pattern as Kafka’s Trial. Initially, it is enchanting, mesmerising, it reels you in. This is followed by a tedious midsection, caused by a lack of activity, and in Marquez’s case I think it is also arduous because of the oppressive solitude and misery which he conjures so effectively. Ultimately, both books end with catharsis, but I won’t say more than that.

Next on the list is a book lent to me by a friend with an interest in dystopian literature. It is Philip K. Dick’s 1962 masterpiece, The Man in the High Castle. I’m not really a sci-fi fan, despite my fondness for Red Dwarf and the Hitchhiker’s Guide, but I think this is mostly due to snobbery. There is an interesting question as to where exactly science fiction and dystopian “literature” overlap. Someone like Huxley clearly belongs in the latter category. I’m intending to re-read Brave New World soon, as it has faded from my memory remarkably effectively. I am a literary snob, and I like to feel that I’ve got something out of a book at the end of it. We’ll see if this happens with Dick’s book, and that will be the outrageously subjective basis for my categorisation of it.

I don’t have a lot to say about The Man in the High Castle just yet, as I’m only around sixty pages in. It is a vision of post-WWII America following the victory of the Nazis and the Japanese. Dick’s main concerns so far are the logical yet dizzying conclusions of Nazi racialism and eugenics. The whole of Africa has been wiped out in a grotesque experiment. Relations are defined by race, with the few remaining blacks and Jews at the bottom of the pile, and the Aryans and Japanese uneasily coexisting at the top, now rival powers on the opposite seaboards of the former United States. The mongrel Americans (my choice of adjective, and before anyone gets upset I believe it is both flattering and accurate) tip-toe around, desperately kow-towing to their new masters, whilst denigrating those below them in accordance with the esoteric rules of a culture wholly alien to them. Once more we return to Kafka. As with all good dystopian visions, paranoia is everywhere.

So far, so unremarkable. But I know I’m being unfair.

There are always dangers in reading a classic of dystopian literature almost half a century after it was first published. Some of them age gracefully, and others do not. Dick seems to have done fairly well. The what-if-the-Nazis-had-won scenario still holds a terror for Europe and America, I think, since it is impossible to look back on such a period of bloodshed without wondering what could have happened. On the other hand, it does seem to be a fairly easy recipe for creating a story: take what might have happened, and stretch it to its logical conclusion. This is one root of many dystopian visions, although it would be unfair to paint the author as a mere follower when, fifty years ago, he was a trailblazer. Hopefully, Dick has not become a victim of his own success in the way that other visions of the future have, becoming trite because of their incredible popularity.

While I read the book, I’ll have to keep reminding myself that he got there before a lot of others did, and I’ll wait and see whether The Man in the High Castle yields something special along the way. HuHu

Friday, 1 October 2010

More on Marquez

I still can’t quite make up my mind about One Hundred Years of Solitude. I really enjoyed it to begin with, then went off it, and now I like it again. I think the problem for me is that Marquez’s characters are so fundamentally unlikeable, but his descriptive writing is so good that he achieves an awkward ambivalence, at least for me.

The Buendia family is a parade of grotesques. From the mad Jose Arcadio Buendia, tied gibbering beneath a chestnut tree, to the seemingly immortal Colonel Aureliano Buendia, whose guerrilla campaign is both tragedy and farce. Reports of his death were greatly exaggerated, and even his own attempt at suicide was a failure because his doctor predicted it and gave the colonel false information when he asked precisely where his heart was. These characters appear in the first half of the book. They are roguish and have their own charm; they are romantics, explorers, adventurers.

I am currently in the middle of the book, and the later generations of Buendias do not, for me, have the same charm. Many of them are dominated by their own fleshly pursuits, chasing women old enough to be their mothers, or women who are in fact their half-sisters or aunts. I’m not a prude, but it gives me a little British shudder.

The book is unquestionably visceral, and this comes through in the musty, sweaty sex scenes. It is also manifested in the periodic outbursts of bloody violence, the daughter who eats earth and whitewash from the walls when she is upset, and the suffocating closeness of the village of Macondo, in seeming isolation from the rest of the world. It is a dirty place, and it is testament to Marquez’s evocative style that the characters and their vices are so repellent to the reader.

I find myself willing forward the conviction of the matriarch, Ursula, that one day the family will have a Good Son who will be a priest. But since the previous priest had an unusual fondness for female donkeys, even this idea seems tainted. She begins to be superstitious that the family’s run of ne’er-do-wells is a result of the reuse of names, and she rows with the younger generations over the proposed names of their offspring. This too, is a conviction that the reader shares. Despite the family tree at the beginning of the book, it is virtually impossible to keep track of all the Jose Arcadios, the Aurielianos, the Aureliano Joses, the Amarantas, the Rebecas, the Remidioses.

Eventually – and for me this came only about a third of the way through the book - they coalesce into a repulsive tangle of dirty habits which is not easily resolved. They procreate, and the same names and the same vices become perpetual. This, of course, is the point of the book. It is a catalogue of misfortune that spans so many generations that one all but loses track, lost in the rottenness of the family and the village. We become irrevocably involved.

I’m not a sucker for a happy ending, but I hope there is a priest, and I hope he turns out alright.