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.