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.