Monday, 28 November 2011

Trouble in Wayne County

Glenn Taylor is an author I’d never heard of before, and I picked out a copy of The Marrowbone Marble Company because of the interesting jacket design. Don’t act like you don’t do it too. The reviews on the back compare Taylor to one of my favourite authors, Cormac McCarthy, as well as other American greats like Steinbeck and Irving. A lot to live up to, then.

The Marrowbone Marble Company - Glenn Taylor
Set in the USA during the 1940s and 50s, Marrowbone begins with a graphic account of the wartime experiences of its protagonist, Loyal Ledford. A one-time glass factory worker, Ledford joins the marines and ends up slitting Japanese throats under cover of darkness in Guadalcanal.

When he returns home, injured and alcoholic, Ledford can no longer stomach conditions at the Mann Glass Factory and the racism towards his black colleague, the floor-sweeper Mack Wells. Ledford is entranced by the factory fires, and haunted by echoes of his father, who comes to him in a dream and tells him to build a factory producing children’s marbles. He packs up his wife and kids, and travels out into the wilderness of Wayne County to begin his new venture.

The land around Marrowbone Cut is rugged and the people set in their ways. Ledford’s distant kin, the semi-feral Bonecutter brothers, agree to his using their land for the factory, and as word gets around more and more people join the Ledfords at Marrowbone. The community prospers as men and women of different colours and creeds are admitted without question.

Fortunately, there’s trouble in paradise with plenty of cross-burning locals and corrupt sheriffs out to ruin this harmonious scene.

Essentially, Marrowbone is a story about a man struggling to overcome a violent past and build a half-decent future. It sounds like a cliché, and there are times when Taylor’s world seems a little too, well, black-and-white. The middle of the novel is crushingly idyllic, in a transparent, the-shit’s-about-to-hit-the-fan kind of way.

That said, when it does all kick off, Taylor is certainly in his element. He does have an excellent way with blood and brimstone, in the tradition of writers like Cormac McCarthy, and a terseness that fits perfectly with the harsh existence of his characters: ‘The auto driver was out on bond. He’d be dead inside a day. The corned beef hash steamed.’

This is a novel of sweat and flames, of rough people and simple needs. Despite the racial tensions at the heart of the book, you can tell that Taylor has a desire for this simplicity, and it’s hard not to be seduced by that.

At the same time, it isn’t simply an idyllic American dream. This, I suppose, is where Steinbeck comes in. The dream is shattered by men’s actions (remember when Lennie snapped the neck of Curly’s wife?) and for all it’s earthiness it turns out that Marrowbone is also a novel of symbols and judgements, and of very modern and very American ideals of faith and pragmatism. A novel about people doing the right thing, even if it means occasionally doing the wrong thing.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Tales from the Churchyard

Think of William Golding, and you probably think of Lord of the Flies. Recently I’ve got hold of a couple of his other books and this one – The Spire – should hit the spot for the medievalists out there. And in fact, for anyone who enjoys a bit of hubris, nemesis and good old fashioned lust.

Dean Jocelin is granted a vision by God and becomes determined that his church should be graced by the tallest spire for miles around. The only problem, master builder Roger Mason tells him, is that the church was built on the cheap, years ago, and lacks proper foundations. Jocelin will not let such petty concerns get in the way of his divine mission and orders the builders to go ahead regardless.

One of the features that makes Lord of the Flies such a compelling read is the sense of impending doom that Golding constructs – we know it’s only a matter of time before these schoolboys and their island society becomes savage and violent. He does something very similar in The Spire, as the reader knows from the start that this extraordinary project cannot end well.

This is partly because Jocelin occupies an awkward space somewhere between religious fervour and hubristic arrogance - his motives are never made entirely clear, which torments Jocelin himself and builds the tension for the reader. The odd rumble of thunder or minor earthquake further destabilise him and us, and Jocelin’s divine inspiration begins to look a lot like a very personal mania.

Jocelin is also tormented by a growing lust for the young wife of his crippled servant, Pangall. In one of the most memorable passages of the novel, Goody Pangall’s flame-red hair spills out from under her cowl and across Jocelin’s thoughts - and prayers - like blood. The implication, presumably, is that somewhere beneath Jocelin’s heavenly project there are far more earthly concerns at work. There are even one or two phallocentric jokes thrown in to push the reader a little further towards this conclusion.

As the spire nears completion, Jocelin’s mental condition deteriorates. He takes to hitching up his robes and climbing up the scaffolding, admiring the flight of the birds and the sensation of the spire shifting and stretching in the breeze. The spire’s internal columns make a whining sound as they move, which comes to terrify the workmen and plague Jocelin wherever he goes.

The rest, as they say, is history. The spire is built, and totters perilously. Jocelin is simultaneously reinforced by faith and plagued by doubt, and the paving stones beneath his feet grow warm with the fires of hell.

Jocelin ends the novel a broken man. He becomes a wanderer and a beggar, seeking the long-gone builder, Roger Mason, for some kind of forgiveness for the actions which endangered the lives of so many men. Throughout the novel, Jocelin is caught between the divine and the human – in motives, in desires – and he ends up with a faith inverted, seeking redemption from a coarse man who trusts only in bricks and mortar.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Doppelgangers, Golems and Hermaphrodites

The first thing to say about Gustav Meyrink’s novel, The Golem, is that it’s not really what you would expect. It is surprisingly light on directly golem-related material. Fortunately, this is still a delightfully dark gothic novel.

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, a golem is a human-like figure which is magically created and animated. Meyrink explores the Hebrew tradition of the golem, which is given life by inscribing the Hebrew word emet (‘truth’) on its forehead, and returned to its inanimate state by removing the first letter of the inscription, leaving met, meaning ‘death’. Meyrink’s golem manifests itself once every thirty-three years, in a room with no doors and one tiny, barred window.
The Golem - Gustav Meyrink

The setting is the Jewish ghetto in Prague, towards the end of the nineteenth century. This is a richly atmospheric environment which Meyrink fully exploits, giving us all the claustrophobic sights, sounds and smells of the city. The narrow houses, for instance, subsist by exhaling humans each morning and drawing them back every evening to leech out their life as they sleep.

Such colourful descriptions suggest just how much Meyrink drew on his own experiences while writing The Golem. The main character, the splendidly named Athanasius Pernath, endures insanity and imprisonment just as the author did. Descriptions of both, and of the city in which they took place, are consequently very powerful.

Pernath is an engraver of gems whose frequent bouts of insanity mean that the plot of the novel plays second fiddle to Meyrink’s darkly colourful imagination. This imagination draws on the hermaphroditic cults of ancient Egypt just as readily as it does on Hebrew mythology and the kaballah, making for a rocky ride. When the plot does surface, it seems that our protagonist must save the woman he loves from a blackmailing junk-dealer, whilst simultaneously trying to piece together fragmented memories of his troubled past.

So far then, no golem. But during Pernath’s lapses into unconsciousness and insanity it gradually becomes clear that he is inextricably linked with the creature. Neighbours who see the golem rushing through the streets swear that it looks just like him. During his somnambulations beneath the streets of Prague, Pernath emerges into a room with no doors and just one window, with a pack of tarot cards strewn across the floor.

It’s all very confusing, and it is sometimes hard to tell whether this is intentional or not. The first half of the novel is fairly humdrum and revolves around the petty activities of the ghetto-dwellers. The second half snowballs rapidly, becoming ever harder to follow as Pernath’s condition deteriorates in prison.

Eventually, when the fog clears, Meyrink hits you with a plot twist so unexpected (and so unsubtle) that you have to stop and think for a few moments. The ending of the novel is beautiful, despite its appearance out of the blue: Pernath’s hallucinations coalesce and elevate him to some vague, semi-divine state. A stranger arrives. He and Pernath mistakenly swapped hats at a recent gathering. The stranger hopes that his hat has not given Herr Pernath a headache.

Throughout the novel identities are manipulated by the author and episodes of madness  are strategically deployed to make it a remarkably confusing read. Although it is engrossing and well worth reading, The Golem ultimately leaves you feeling much like the unsuspecting victim of some stranger's weighty headgear.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

A Very British Whodunnit...

If you ever feel the need for an utterly whimsical detective story, you might like to try Edmund Crispin. His gentleman sleuth, Gervase Fen, is a professor of literature at Oxford, giving the author plenty of opportunities to display his erudition. Think Inspector Morse, but half a century earlier. This particular novel, Buried for Pleasure, was first published in 1948.

Surprisingly, it has aged very well indeed. Crispin’s style probably wasn’t cutting edge even then, but now it seems beautifully dated. I hate the word ‘quaint’ because it’s so patronising, but I’m struggling to come up with anything better. Fortunately, Crispin is aware of the kitsch-ness of his story and he pokes enough ironic holes in it to make it all incredibly funny.

This is a murder mystery with a political subplot, as, for no particular reason, Fen attempts to become the MP for the obscure country hamlet of Sanford Morvel. Sometimes this subplot seems poorly thought out and unnecessary, apparently existing only as an excuse for Fen’s presence in the village and a chance for Crispin to air his political views. Whence this gem: ‘...the Civil Service is a body whose mistakes are made so thoroughly and definitively, that they can only be rectified by a procedure equally searching and elaborate.’ Mind you, any threadbare excuse can justify that kind of statement.

As we follow Fen’s nascent political career, it becomes alarmingly clear that although he doesn’t really care for the electorate or for politics – and is spending much of his time investigating various sinister happenings – there is a real danger that he might get elected. Fen’s final speech, in which he desperately tries not to get elected, is a real barnstormer. ‘I am bound to conclude,’ he tells a hushed village hall, ‘that this proven obtuseness is not unrepresentative of the British people as a whole, since their predilection for putting brainless megalomaniacs into positions of power stems, in the last analysis, from an identical vacuity of the intellect.’ Not only can you tell that Crispin doesn’t care much for politics (is it me, or does this all seem remarkably resonant?) but you can also tell that he was a schoolteacher who unashamedly enjoyed the aesthetics of words. This is what made Buried for Pleasure so enjoyable for me. Anyone who can casually drop the adjective ‘Rhadamanthine’ into a sentence certainly gets my vote.

So, what about the murders? Well, I can’t say much, but there are enough of them to keep the story interesting. Although there was one plot twist I could see coming, there were a couple of others I missed. Since Crispin clearly isn’t trying to write a ‘serious’ detective story (if there is such a thing) I think he does pretty well.

The fabulously eccentric cast-list also helps. There is an escaped lunatic with a periodic conviction that he is Woodrow Wilson, a Rector who conspiratorially shelters his resident poltergeist, a crime-writer who likes to test his plots first-hand, and buxom wenches aplenty (‘She’m a rare un for mollocking, is Olive.’) And there is Fen himself, of course, with his absurd rhetoric and his uniquely civilised ability to consume five pints of bitter before lunch.

Overall, this is a very funny book that can be breezed through in an afternoon, although you might find yourself reaching for the dictionary from time to time. And beneath all the wordplay and the witticisms, Crispin has a genuine knack for expressing himself with some beautifully crafted sentences which are a pleasure to chew over.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Horrors Manufactured Here

You’re probably more familiar with Bertrand Russell as the author of flimsy works of pulp fiction such as An Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy or The History of Western Philosophy, so brace yourselves. Lord Russell’s collection of short stories (I know, right?) was written when he was eighty, and makes for an interesting read.

Satan in the Suburbs is the title of the collection and of the longest of the five stories it contains. The story deals with Dr Murdoch Mallako, whose house in the suburbs bears a brass plaque which reads ‘Horrors Manufactured Here’. For a fee of ten guineas an hour, the discerning client can emerge ashen-faced from the doctor’s study and likely as not pass out on the pavement. This rapidly becomes a good old-fashioned mystery, with the narrator attempting to uncover Dr Mallako’s activities as his ‘patients’ meet various grisly ends.

Although he denies it in his preface, Russell’s stories do bear a strong moral slant. ‘Satan in the Suburbs’ is all about the way in which respectable individuals can fall victim to the power of suggestion in their quest to satisfy greed and lust. All it takes is a tempter.

The other stories follow similar courses, often with the protagonist making a horrifying discovery and then being forced to choose from a variety of unpalatable actions. Of course, this is the essence of a good story, and perhaps it is just Russell’s background that makes these aspects seem so prominent. Sometimes suicide is the only way for a character to maintain their honour and dignity; sometimes a lie can become so deeply ingrained that it becomes the truth. These are the sorts of themes which Russell addresses without ever making them seem too serious. These are works of fiction after all.

They do sometimes feel a little contrived though, perhaps because the plot and the psychological ordeal of the protagonist are so clearly visible, and the moral message is not-too-subtly delivered. But for a first-time storywriter – even an octogenarian one - these are just teething problems in an entertaining collection.

Russell’s writing is often remarkably incisive, particularly when he is aiming a sideswipe at rigid political or religious values, the kind of ‘stern devotion to moral principles which enables men to inflict torture without compunction.’ But he is also – and this is my personal favourite – just as acerbic about a small East Anglian town, the proud owner of ‘a railway station from which (it was said) persons of sufficient longevity might hope to reach Liverpool Street.’

So, although there are similarities between some of the stories, there is certainly enough wit, adaptability and insight to make up for it. And if there is a moral in this collection, behind the murder, insanity and international scheming, it comes from the last sentence of the last story: ‘And they lived happily ever after.’ Through it all, happiness prevails – albeit with a tinge of unreality.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Books Burn Badly

Books Burn Badly - Manuel Rivas
That is the title of a very odd novel by Spanish author Manuel Rivas. Set in Galicia in 1936, it follows a number of characters whose lives are changed by the emergence of Franco’s fascist government. I say ‘a number’ of characters, because it is virtually impossible to keep track of them all. Once you embrace the fact that you’re never really going to know exactly what is happening to which character, you can sit back and let the various intertwining stories wash over you.

In a small town, down by the quayside, the fascists are burning books. We meet the motley inhabitants of the town - a judge, a gravedigger, a boxer, a painter, a washerwoman – and are whisked away into their memories and stories. (If that sounds a bit contrived, it’s partly because I’m oversimplifying but also partly because it is. But no more so than any other collection of people sharing stories, say, on a pilgrimage to Canterbury, or whatever.)

Throughout the novel books are burned, buried, rescued, bought, sold and stolen. They are treated very interestingly by the author, who clearly regards them as a form of solidified – almost personified - knowledge. Polka, The superstitious gravedigger, remarks that the burning books gave off a smell like burning flesh. The ever-rational judge suggests that this is merely their leather bindings, but Rivas portrays the bonfire and its repercussions vividly in terms of human tragedy. Book burning and physical repression merge as Rivas deliberately conflates knowledge and humanity.

The author’s concern is with words being scattered and destroyed, and this shapes his narrative. It is chaotic, with most characters not being clearly introduced and several of them going by more than one name to add to the confusion. Polka is a standout character because he is witty and entertaining and, crucially, is fully developed by Rivas. Many others are not so well developed, and remain as shadowy names and ideas throughout, which can be frustrating if you let it get to you. Perhaps my expectations are too conventional.

In the way it is constructed, Books Burn Badly seems to have a lot in common with Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. They are both books full of surprising and beautiful sentences with some very interesting perspectives on mundane things. But neither of them feels like a novel. I thought that Calvino’s book seemed more like a collection of very short stories or a scrapbook full of ideas, and the same can be said of Books Burn Badly.

This is really a consequence of it lacking a central plot. Rivas has a theme – the impact of fascism – and although this affects various characters in various ways it doesn’t really bind the book together. This can sometimes make reading it a bit of a chore. Whereas Calvino’s Invisible Cities is a playful and thought-provoking 150 pages, Books Burn Badly clocks in at a meaty 550, and suffers as a result.

Rivas creates a bewildering experience for his reader, caught amid the charred fragments of dozens of separate stories. As I said, this can be difficult to follow, with the consequence that this unique book never quite draws you in or delivers all that the author is clearly capable of.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

A Novelist of the Floating World

It’s unusual to find an enjoyable book in which nothing much really happens, but Kazuo Ishiguro has managed to write one. The book in question is called An Artist of the Floating World, and although it’s not one of Ishiguro’s more popular works, it certainly lives up to his reputation.

The intriguingly-named floating world is a pleasure district in post-war Nagasaki, once a thriving warren of bars and brothels, reduced to rubble by allied bombing. It doesn’t literally float – this isn’t Howl’s Moving Castle or anything - but it is an ephemeral world that comes alive at dusk and is a favourite subject for many of the city’s artists. Only one bar remains intact amid the destruction of the district, frequented by our narrator, the ageing artist Masuji Ono. Ono’s attempts to secure a husband for his daughter make him reconsider his past and all the things that he might need to hide from a prospective son-in-law.
An Artist of the Floating World - Kazuo Ishiguro

Ishiguro’s narrator tells his story with an incredible economy of words which for me seems to accentuate the highly ritualistic society of 1940s Japan. There is little emotion on display even between family members, the city under reconstruction is orderly, and Ono’s house is tasteful and formal. The language evokes the scene, and is appropriate for such an understated novel. The refined atmosphere which Ishiguro creates also reminds us that the protagonist’s main concern is with what people think of him and his family. In this society reputation is everything and the respectable artist is keen that none of his youthful indiscretions should surface and compromise his daughter’s prospects.

Occasionally, Ono’s veneer seems to crack. He reveals to us his intimate doubts; about his unashamedly nationalistic early works and how he ‘betrayed’ his master when he was an apprentice painter by adopting a different style. The narrator is emotionally flawed - like all the best narrators – and troubled by self-doubt, and this uncertainty shows itself in the narrative as Ono is sometimes forgetful when it comes to precise details.

I think this is really a novel about constraints, and it is a credit to Ishiguro that his style of writing at once shows these constraints and rises above them. The reader is struck by the constraints which a ritualised, respectable society places on an individual, like the expectation of conformity that troubles Ono. It is also about specifically artistic constraints, about the problems inherent in creating a work of art which portrays the painter and his society at the time when it was painted, and does not change as they do. Ishiguro shows that an artist’s most celebrated work can easily become a millstone around his neck or a dirty secret to be hushed up, particularly in a fast-paced, modernising society like that of post-war Japan.

Given its content, it is surprising to learn that this is one of Ishiguro’s earlier novels. It is a meditation on the nature of art in a changing society, and sounds very much like a mature writer looking back on his career. I don’t know whether Ishiguro’s writing is always so elegant and minimalist, as this is the first of his novels I have read. There is a copy of The Remains of the Day floating around somewhere downstairs, waiting to be read, and I don’t think it will have to wait too much longer.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Caught in the Headlights

Don’t get me wrong, I really like Nick Cave’s music. I just don’t think he’s quite managed to become a novelist yet. His first novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel, was published around twenty years ago, and was so self-consciously verbose and writerly that when I read it I spent half of my time reaching for the dictionary. He has mercifully overcome this tendency with his more recent work, The Death of Bunny Munro.

Unfortunately, that is one of the book’s few redeeming features. Here is my main problem with it: it is utterly obscene. I’m not a particularly prudish person, but there was just too much sex and swearing in there. And more to the point, it seemed to me that the near-constant sex in Bunny Munro did virtually nothing for the plot. Ok, Bunny is clearly a sex addict and that is an important part of the story, but that was successfully established after a couple of lurid chapters. Is it really necessary to reiterate it in every other paragraph?

Obviously I can’t go into too much detail because my mother reads this blog (Hi Mum!) but you’d be amazed at how many times the word ‘tumescent’ um, came up in this novel.

Death of Bunny Munro - Nick CaveSo, any other problems? Well, it was also a massively over-hyped novel. I suppose this is fairly inevitable with a ‘celebrity’ author, but the reviews were fawning and I’m inclined to think that the book’s status as a bestseller is due to the legions of fans of Cave’s music. People, in fact, just like me. Fortunately my brother bought me this book for Christmas, so I dodged a bullet there.

There are times in the novel when Cave the songwriter makes himself known, and these provide some welcome relief. Bunny’s redemption scene – which incidentally appears out of nowhere in terms of plot – is written with the kind of Old Testament richness for which Cave is rightly known. This was what he excelled at in his previous novel, discussing evil, damnation and salvation in heavy tones that call to mind William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, and the whole Southern Gothic gang. Sweating buckets of blood under the hot red stagelights, Bunny asks forgiveness from all those he has wronged. In my view, it’s an ending that redeems the novel as a whole, not just the protagonist.

Other enjoyable aspects include the misguided sense of hero-worship that Bunny Junior has for his father. The relationship between them is tender, and Bunny clearly does care for his son, but this becomes irritating as Bunny’s catalogue of disgraceful acts continues to grow and his son’s attitude doesn’t change. Of course, it’s better to be irritated by an author than completely unmoved, and Bunny Junior is very useful as a sympathetic character without whom the novel would be, well, fairly unlikeable.

So, Cave the novelist is almost there. He was overeducated and tried too hard in his first novel and is lewd and crude for no particular purpose in his second. What he has always done well is misery and transgression, but I think he has yet to pitch it as well in a novel as he does in song.

And my other piece of advice, Nick, just for the record, is to lose the moustache.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Yossarian Strikes Again

Obviously, the main selling point for Catch as Catch Can is the fact that it contains some material that was cut from Catch-22, including what the blurb-writers call a ‘lost chapter.’ However, in their own right, Joseph Heller’s collected short stories are a bit of a mixed bag. Some of the stories were written when the author was in his early twenties, and seem to have been included to justify the label ‘collected stories’ rather than because of their sparkling brilliance.

It’s not that the early stories are bad, it’s just that they are unremarkable. What they do provide is an interesting sense of progression, and the stories do get better and more sophisticated as the collection moves into Heller’s mature period. They change from straightforward dissections of troubled relationships into much deeper and more harrowing territory: extreme urban poverty, wasted youth, drug addiction.

You get to see the roots of Catch-22 developing, as many of these stories feature young men in bleak situations which they are powerless to change. This is done without the black humour that characterises the later novel, with the result that some of the stories are very powerful but also pretty grim. There is a chilling inevitability about these tales, particularly the ones that deal with addiction.

Fortunately, the cuttings from Catch-22 are there to lighten the mood. The scene where Yossarian (for whose name my spellchecker helpfully suggests the declension ‘Rosaria, Ocarina, Ocarinas’) lies in hospital, convinced of his impending illness, is particularly good. He is a medical marvel, tested and retested by countless specialists because of a remarkable condition which they have never before encountered in their work: there is absolutely nothing wrong with him.

Here is Heller’s characteristic wit, ever-ready to point out life’s absurdities. It’s been a while since I read Catch-22, and I’d forgotten just how much Heller’s sense of humour appeals to me. This is of course entirely personal, and I’m sure it doesn’t appeal to everyone, but when he is funny, he is very funny.

Nonetheless, Catch as Catch Can does run the risk of being a one-trick pony; a few fragments of Catch-22 tossed to the enthusiasts. There is no doubt that these fragments will please the die-hard fans, but my problem with the collection is that the early stories aren’t outstanding and neither are the autobiographical pieces which end the book.

Heller’s genius shines through in the Catch-22 material, and is dimly visible beneath the surface in his early work. If you want powerful writing without the glossy wit, then there is some middle ground in two or three of the stories which probably merit more attention than they have received here. Why haven’t I given them more attention? Well, it’s because they are overshadowed by the other items in the collection, both the good and the not-so-good, and the way it all fits together. You’d think that assembling a volume of collected stories would be easy, but it seems like it doesn’t always work out.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

How to write when you just don't want to

I notice with pride and alarm that the last post I published was the 30th post I have written for this blog. I started blogging in September, after I finished writing my thesis. My blog posts seem to generally run to a page of A4, roughly 500 words, so even a historian can work out that I’ve now written nearly 15,000 words for this blog. That’s 5,000 more than my undergrad dissertation, 5,000 fewer than my MA thesis. That’s a lot of words, and I’ve reached one or two conclusions.

The ThinkerI don’t care what anyone says, non-fiction is easy. Without an idea, you cannot write fiction. Without a clue, you can still write non-fiction.

I’m not saying that it’s necessary or advisable to hammer out whatever comes into your head, but I find that in non-fiction, whether writing an academic essay or a slightly whimsical blog post, the act of writing itself is a great way to overcome writer’s block. I was never any good at planning essays, and I certainly don’t plan what I’m going to write on here - and you can’t tell, can you?

Sometimes I have a couple of ideas about what I want to say about a particular subject, and that helps things along. Sometimes I just sit down in front of my old adversary, Document1 – Microsoft Word, and start writing.

The point is that writing your thoughts down, just like saying them out loud, helps to develop them. And writing them down has the added bonus that you don’t seem quite as odd as you might if you said whatever you were thinking out loud.

I’ve also found that the process of writing this blog helps to crystallise in my memory the books I’ve written about. It’s an alarming feeling to read a book, then think back to it a few months later and realise that you can remember virtually nothing about it. The process of writing about a book, of setting down a few thoughts about it, is an excellent way of remembering it. This seems to work even if you take my magpie-like approach and just write about what you found interesting, rather than trying to produce some kind of coherent review of the book.

I know that writing about books is a niche market. I know that not everyone likes books, and I know that not everyone who likes books likes or has read the same ones as me. But at this momentous stage, I’d like to say thank you to my loyal following of five – count ‘em – subscribers to my blog.

Now, any thoughts on how to get over fiction-writer’s block, anyone?

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Gone Fishin'

Hemingway. Again. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his short novel, The Old Man and the Sea, and it is easy to see why. Put simply, there isn’t a word out of place in the whole thing. It is a beautifully harmonious piece of writing, charting a battle of courage and determination between an old fisherman and a very large fish.

Following a lengthy dry spell, so to speak, without landing a fish, the old man rows out further than usual and baits his hook with fresh sardines given to him by a friend. He gets a bite. The leviathan tows his little skiff along for days on end, with the old man grimly hanging on to the line. He can’t just tie it to the ship, because it will break with one sudden jerk from the fish. He must take the strain and absorb any impact himself.

The real beauty of the story lies in the relationship that builds between the fisherman and the fish. They are both determined creatures and in his conversations with the soaring gulls, the sea and the fish itself, the old man reveals his admiration for his foe. Despite their prolonged struggle, the fisherman does not come to hate the fish that wears out his body and endangers his life. He addresses it as an old friend and is truly sorry for eventually catching and killing it, and sorrier still for the assaults of the many sharks that tear into the former fish as it is tied alongside his boat for the long journey home: ‘Half-fish... Fish that you were. I am sorry that I went too far out. I ruined us both.’

When the fisherman and the mangled carcass return to port his great achievement is recognised only by his colleagues, and his dreams of vast income from the fish’s flesh are broken. His worthy opponent rots on the beach.

This is a completely different Hemingway to the man behind For Whom the Bell Tolls. Whereas that was littered with digressions and stream-of-consciousness rambles on behalf of the main character – elegantly written, but sometimes tedious – this is a tightly packed hundred pages with very little superfluous padding. Although I must admit I wasn’t quite sure how and why Joe DiMaggio fitted into it all. What The Old Man and the Sea did remind me of is the miniature story within For Whom the Bell Tolls, a flashback to a bloody revolution in the square of some dusty Spanish village. For me, both of these show Hemingway at his best, starkly beautiful and incredibly emotionally involving.

The Old Man and the Sea is a remarkable achievement primarily because it makes you feel so much in such a short space of time. Most authors struggle to get that sort of pathos into something three or four times the length, and if you read For Whom the Bell Tolls first, like me, this short story comes as a bit of a revelation.

Monday, 31 January 2011

Something Amis*

As promised, here are a few thoughts about Martin Amis’ novel London Fields, which featured in my list of top-five-charity-shop-bargains. As I said before, it is an unconventional murder story. You can tell that because I’m over halfway through it, and nobody has been murdered yet. But we all know that somebody will be.

Nicola Six is a beautiful woman who knows what she wants, and what she wants is to be murdered. She wants to be murdered by Keith Talent, an alcoholic and abusive serial adulterer with a gambling problem and delusional belief in his destiny as a professional darts player. She also needs a foil, a patsy to play Keith off against, and this is where the wealthy, charming, pointlessly handsome Guy Clinch comes in – think Hugh Grant in, I don’t know, just about any film he’s ever been in.

As you might have noticed, the names have some kind of vague allegorical significance. I haven’t quite worked this one out yet. I think sometimes it just pleases the author: Keith’s semi-criminal drinking mates have names like Thelonious and Shakespeare, and his goodtime girl is the obviously anagrammatised Trish Shirt. Then there is Enola (try it backwards) and the sexually liberated Analiese Furnish. And so on.

There is, I suppose, an excuse for all this word-play. As with the recently-read Baudolino, the main plot of London Fields is framed by the narrator’s circumstances. The first person narrator is a struggling writer with his own problems, and therefore an excellent excuse for Amis’ richly misanthropic prose. This writer asserts that he is no good at making stuff up, so he is just reporting the facts, which perhaps accounts for the pseudonyms.

This situation also creates some interesting layers of reality within the novel. At one point, the writer turns up and demands that Nicola Six kisses him, in the interests of research. He cannot write about it, he says, unless he knows what it is like. What a good excuse.

The plot is one of entrapment, as Nicola Six grooms the two male leads for their respective roles, and there is a real sense of looming catastrophe behind all the sex and black humour. There is also a slight dystopian edge to the novel, with a number of sideswipes at the degraded morals of the end of the twentieth century, and an awareness of impending nuclear holocaust on the side. The narrator stands detached from all of this, immune to Nicola’s powerful charms, safe in the knowledge that he is dying from an incurable disease. So it goes.

This is not a cheerful book, but it is beautifully executed in a language that might sound self-consciously ‘writerly’ coming from anyone else, but which Amis gets away with. Nicola’s character is not always believable, something which the writer observes, asking her to be less of a femme fatale. She responds that she is not a femme fatale but a Murderee, plain and simple. All we need now is a murder.

*The title for this blog post is a gratuitous pun that I came up with. Then I saw that it had already been used for a post on the Guardian Books Blog. But I’m going to use it anyway. For more on this phenomenon, watch this space for something on pre-emptive plagiarism in the not-too-distant future.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Fiction for the Unemployed: my five favourite charity bookstore bargains

  1. Cervantes – Don Quixote

Although it has only featured indirectly in this blog, Cervantes’ weighty masterpiece was the fruit of one of my first visits to the Oxfam bookshop in Muswell Hill. It’s hard to underestimate Cervantes’ influence on countless later authors, including – glancing down this list - Eco and Burgess. And in terms of the sheer quantity of book for the price, this one is a winner. Don’t sneer; it’s an important factor.

  1. Umberto Eco – Baudolino

I think Eco has gained a boost from the fact that I read Baudolino very recently. However, it is an excellent novel, and might even be credited with rekindling my enthusiasm for medieval history after my dissertation poured cold water all over it. Swashbuckling adventure and dusty manuscripts can sit comfortably alongside each other, as this novel proves.

  1. Martin Amis – London Fields

This is a work in progress, a novel I’m reading at the moment, but it is pretty phenomenal. A murder story set in the seedy Portobello Road, where murderer and murderee are marked out from the outset. Keep your eyes peeled for a post on it in the near future.

  1. Anthony Burgess – The Devil’s Mode

Anthony Burgess has very rapidly become one of my favourite authors. His novels are both witty and sophisticated, and his short stories share this excellent balance between serious learning and human life with all its bodily functions. This collection resurrects a host of characters from history, literature and music, and delivers them all in vivid, bite-sized stories.

  1. Italo Calvino – Invisible Cities

If Cervantes won the prize for number of words vs. capital investment, Calvino’s slender tome is the exact opposite, but is nonetheless full of very interesting ideas. A light book, but containing some philosophically dense concepts of utopian societies, Invisible Cities really benefits from being viewed as a collection of short stories united by a broad theme, rather than a novel as such.

Well, there we go. I’m afraid this list is very Eurocentric, and it doesn’t really reflect a lot of great American literature. But Melville, Hemingway and Vonnegut would all be contenders if I’d actually got them from charity shops. I’d like to thank the Oxfam bookshops of Muswell Hill and Crouch End, and the upstanding and thoroughly middle class citizens of those areas who read so widely and pass their books on to a good cause: me.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Damned Lies II

So, I finished reading Baudolino, and here’s a bit of housekeeping. There is a discourse of truth and falsehood throughout, which makes the novel very intellectually engaging. I’ll have to try not to get too worked up about this, as Eco ended up covering some ideas that appeared in my undergrad dissertation. For instance, one character suggests leaving out some aspects of the story which do not particularly fit with ‘the truth’, a standard medieval approach which would nonetheless make most modern historians blanch.

The novel ends with a tongue-in-cheek remark about the author himself, something about how an even bigger liar than Baudolino may eventually tell the tale. I found this interesting because Eco takes yet another step back from the main plot, which is already framed by Baudolino’s dialogue with Master Niketas. We are constantly made aware of the artifice of this story. For example, Eco seems to be aware that his narrator appears too perfect; there is a brief observation that Baudolino’s tale transforms effortlessly from a tender account of a friend’s death into a soaring epic describing the fording of a river. Time after time we are forced to stop and think that something is not right. This is clearly a deliberate decision on Eco’s part, because he is a talented enough writer to be able to transcend genres without causing consternation to the reader.

What also emerges at the end of the novel is a curiously moral tone, perhaps another result of Eco’s obvious depth of knowledge of the literature of the period. I won’t say much on this, but although Baudolino always lies for good ends his lies do begin to overtake him. He creates so many monsters and mythical beings that they eventually come to invade his reality. A moral consequence, and another layer of truth and falsehood.

All in all, it is a puzzling book that leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Self-consciously unanswered, I should say, as the enigmatic Baudolino rides off into the sunset. I’m tempted to say that I’ve been overthinking it as I’ve been reading, but I don’t think this is really possible with Umberto Eco. Obviously I’ll have to have a go at Foucault’s Pendulum, which is even weightier than Baudolino. But not just now.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Lies, damned lies, and medieval history

I tried to read Umberto Eco’s Baudolino once before and found it just too dense. That was before my MA. This time around, less perturbed by the author’s love of unnecessary Latinisms, I'm nearly there. Currently around three-quarters of the way through, I’m happy to report that Baudolino is well worth the effort.

Baudolino - Umberto Eco
Set during the sack of Constantinople in 1204, the novel is staged as a conversation between the remarkable Baudolino and Master Niketas, an official of the city whom Baudolino rescues from the rampaging Crusaders. In each chapter, Baudolino recounts a series of events from his past; his poor upbringing, his unlikely adoption by Frederick Barbarossa, his studies in Paris and his growing obsession with finding the mystical kingdom of Prester John, far to the east. We also learn that our narrator is a born liar with the gift of the gab and a talent for outrageous invention. He rescued Niketas, he says, because he needed someone to tell his story to in order to establish it correctly in his own mind.

Obviously, the question we’re meant to be toying with is to what extent Baudolino is making this all up, and the way the novel is constructed deliberately exacerbates this. (In fact, I seem to remember a similar device at the beginning of The Name of the Rose.) The frame between the reader and the story – the device of Baudolino retelling his tale to Niketas – sometimes seems a little cumbersome. There are noticeable and ever-so-slightly awkward shifts between Baudolino’s first person speech at the start and end of each chapter, and the omniscient narrator who describes ‘our friends’ and their adventures the rest of the time. Also, and I’m not sure why, Eco seems to like interspersing the tale with vivid accounts of Niketas’s fondness for luxurious snack food. Any takers for ‘four hearts of cabbage... a carp and about twenty little mackerel, fillets of salt fish, fourteen eggs, a bit of Wallachian sheep cheese, all bathed in a good quart of oil, sprinkled with pepper, and flavoured with twelve heads of garlic’? No? Oh, go on.

Perhaps this interest in gastronomy provides a counterpoint to the great deeds of the main story. It reminds me of Odysseus, who lamented his grumbling belly which kept landing him in trouble. Perhaps it also reminds us of the decadence of Constantinople, balancing the gross acts committed by the Crusaders. It also reminds me of Anthony Burgess’ cheese supper. Given Baudolino’s fondness for invention, perhaps the whole thing is one great indigestion-induced nightmare. Pardon me.

Fortunately, the plot is far more digestible, and as usual I won’t say much on that score. The historical scenery is very convincing, and once you get past the obscure vocabulary and the recurring scholarly debate about the existence of vacuums, this is a very absorbing novel.

So, at three-quarters of the way in, I’m wondering precisely how much of Eco’s make-believe is also Baudolino’s fantasy. Falsehood saturates this book. There are distant and probably non-existent princesses and kingdoms, there are parchments scraped and re-scraped, and poems, letters, maps and histories are written, stolen, re-written and completely made up. It’s enough to give you indigestion. But in a good way.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Daisy, Daisy...

The first time I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey in the cinema, I was about fourteen years old, and it meant absolutely nothing to me. Worse than that, in fact, it was downright boring. Then I saw it on TV a couple of years ago, and I really enjoyed it. Now I’ve finally got around to reading the book.

It was written by Arthur C. Clarke and based around the screenplay which he and Stanley Kubrick created. Relationships between films and books are always tricky (I had similar concerns about reading The Warriors), and normally a book derived from a film sets alarm bells ringing, but I had heard only good things about 2001.

The first thing to say about this novel is how it massively helps you to understand the film. Because the film has no omnipresent narrator, there is no way for the audience to understand the incredible things that are going on. The novel explains what is actually happening, what the monolith is doing, what all those multi-coloured swirly things are meant to represent. In this respect, it almost seems like a crib sheet or a set of Sparknotes for the film.

Of course, this is a gross injustice. I’d never actually read any Clarke before, but he writes very engagingly, and with just the right ratio of science-to-fiction. There was a seasoning of occult astrophysics which allowed all sorts of bizarre things to happen, but there was never enough to be alienating to a sci-fi toe-dipper. Unlike some authors in the genre, Clarke doesn’t get too bogged down in how and why things happen, he just lets them. The fiction is the important part.

More or less everyone knows something of the storyline, the Hal 9000 computer who turns renegade millions of miles from earth and kills most of the crew of the Discovery. I found that knowing the plot created a real sense of impending doom, particularly when we first begin to witness Hal’s slow deterioration, described in very human terms of growing self-doubt. The scene where astronaut Dave Bowman finally unplugs Hal is hugely moving and rightly famous. It is also very easy to be affected by the incredible isolation forced upon Bowman himself. With his companions gone and the computer offline, he is left alone on the Discovery, drifting along the ship’s predetermined route, from which there was never intended to be any return and there is now little hope of rescue. Of all the entertainments on board the ship, it is Bach’s cantatas that offer Bowman the greatest solace.

The most remarkable part of 2001 is the part which makes least sense in the film; the journey through the monolith. Bowman is swept along, shielded by unseen powers from temperatures and pressures that should have crushed his fragile, man-made vehicle. And eventually, well, even the parts with the hotel room and the giant baby more or less make sense. From his tremendous and powerless isolation, the protagonist (he is no longer ‘Dave Bowman’) emerges as... something else. Something of limitless power and potential, to which the troubled, warlike earth of the twenty-first century is utterly insignificant.

2001 is a short but powerful novel that effortlessly spans several millennia. It sees mankind go from cowering apes to weapon-wielding hunters, and from stone axes to the brink of nuclear war. Clarke bends time and scale to his narrative, and creates what is generally an absorbing and convincing fiction, with human tragedy and eventual catharsis. 2001 is a long way from a pulp fiction movie tie-in.