Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Marriage Plot ... triumph or disaster?

After two vigorous and haunting novels, Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, another Jeffrey Eugenides was an exciting prospect but The Marriage Plot is a rum do!   There seems to be a lot more going on here than is immediately apparent in the deceptively simple narrative.

On the surface, it appears straightforward involving a triangle of students in their final year in Brown University in the eighties [Eugenides' own alma mater].   Madeleine is pretty, WASP, rich, an English major student with a passion for the works of Austen, James and Eliot.   Her final year dissertation centres on the marriage plots in their works.   However, in the course of the year she began hearing people dropping names like Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard and, intrigued, she signs up for a Semiotics module where she meets the second of our protagonists, the love of her life, Leonard.   Leonard is a Biology and Philosophy major, poor, of humble origins and, as we discover, a manic depressive.   Madeleine, however, is smitten, to the distress of her 'treasured friend' Mitchell Grammaticus, a religion major, who is totally devoted to both God and Madeleine, convinced that one day she will be his. 

The book  opens on Graduation Day when Madeleine is going to confront her parents with her decision to go with Leonard to Cape Cod where he has secured a research fellowship in a lab and to cohabit with him.   Mitchell is more than unhappy with this decision but still considers God is on his side in the long term and is planning to take the obligatory year out with the standard tour of Europe and India where - if you're into religion - they have everything.   The book goes forward then with the progresss of the three over the following year.

Madeleine is given the lion's share of the narrative and Eugenides tells it convincingly in a well constructed manner.  Nevertheless, his treatment of her is shallow in many respects.   While Leonard and Mitchell pretty much limp from day to day, Madeleine has a firm plan and is applying to graduate school with a definite project on Victorian novelists in mind.   We hear nothing however of her progress with her work and Eugenides occupies himself almost entirely with her relationship with Leonard and, to a lesser degree, with Mitchell.   At the same time, there is no 'marriage plot' as such.   Rather, underlying the story, is a polemic against modernism and the seeming pretentiousness of students taken with the new philosophers of semiotics and deconstruction.  He pokes fun at a student who ridicules the idea that a book should be 'about' anything.   At her first class meeting in semiotics, eight of the ten students showed up in black t-shirts and ripped black jeans, one with his eyebrows shaved off!   It seems that Eugenides is turning his back on the inventiveness of his earlier work and the idea of experimentation in favour of social realism and the traditional narrative.   Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the character of Madeleine is drawn with such empathy.   In a recent interview with Eileen Battersby, Eugenides said he loved the 19th century novels and it does seem as that is what he trying to achieve with this work.   But the 19th century novels worked because they reflected the zeitgeist of the time and the institution of marriage was a commitment of a totally different nature from today.   To impose such a structure on the mores of the 21st century does not convince which possibly explains the ending.

Eugenides tells his story with in a straightforward fashion - more Updike than Franzen - and he tells it well.   His characters are likeable, even the self-destructing Leonard - but it lacks the originality of both Virgin Suicides and Middlesex.   It is not a little autobiographical including not only his time in Brown but also his own stint working with Mother Teresa in Calcutta from whom Mitchell eventually flees!   One could almost forgive him - but not quite - for his diatribe against Europeans who, he claims in one section, had produced no decent rock music of their own and 'whose relationship to the sixties ... was essentially spectatorial'.   I know some French and German students who might heartily disagree! 

It is an easy read but it is not a literary masterpiece sadly.

This week they said ...

What joy!   Nicholas Lezard has discovered What Ever Happened to Modernism? by Gabriel Josipovici.   Followers of my blog may remember that I have several times referred - and deferred - to this amazing work of literary criticism over the past year.   Lezard rues how the Booker shortlist went horribly wrong this year having been 'on the point of recognising the influence of modernism' last year with Tom McCarthy's C.   As he points out, the modernist canon has been around too long to deserve the sideswipes it receives from the likes of Amis.   Read his piece in full in last Saturday's Guardian Review, p.19.  

This was followed by Robert McCrum [today's Observer, 13 November, Review section, p. 42] recognising that English fiction 'is in the doldrums' and opining that the 'cultural recession mirrors the economic downturn'.  In his opinion, the book market promotes quantity before quality producing what he terms the Ikea novel.   'Ikea novels are the kind of fiction that comes direct from the factory, with no intercession of craftsmanship or artistry en route to the consumer'.   It has all the ingredients of a novel but is a simulacrum of fine writing.   'Ikea fiction is not original, and not distinctive, with no inner vision or humanity'.  

Its reassuring to know that my criticisms of the gods of the English literary scene are not totally off base.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Booker Prize 2011: RESULT!

I have broken my own record!   After years of unfailingly wrong guessing the result, I have finally got it right!   Well done, Julian Barnes.  Literature triumphs!   As he himself said, Sense of an Ending is a beautiful book - beautiful to look at he meant.   But it is also a beautiful book to read.   Go for it!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Booker Prize 2011?

The result of the jury in the 2011 Man Booker Prize will be announced next Tuesday 18 October and I have been slow to keep up to date with the short list.   As always, the list is controversial and omits some biggies - though I must agree with the decision to drop Hollinghurst and Barry, neither of whose books represent their best.   The full list for anyone who missed it is:  Sense of an Ending [Julian Barnes], The Sisters Brothers [De Witt],  Halfs Blood Blues [Edugyan], Jamrach's Menagerie [Carol Birch], Pigeon English [Kelman] and  Snowdrops [Miller].   I have already reviewed at length Sense of an Ending which, if there is any justice out there, should win - but then I have never guessed accurately the winner of the Booker! 

If there should be a different book chosen, I could not argue about The Sisters Brothers.   This is a book to give one pause and reverse many long held opinions.   This is a Western!   And I have to say that I was as far outside my comfort zone as I could be when I started reading it.   Patrick deWitt is a Canadian, born in British Columbia, though now living in Oregon.   This is his second novel and it is set in Oregon and California in 1851 around the time of the gold rush in the Sierra Nevada and the Coen Brothers must surely film it!   I have to say that I never imagined I would find myself rooting for two psychopaths - but I did!

The two psychopaths are Eli and Charlie Sisters, hired killers, who are on a job taking them from Oregon to California and the book is, on the one hand, the story of that odyssey, the characters they meet on route and the events that occur, all told in a dead-pan, in-your-face manner, at times weirdly humorous;  and, on the other, it is an almost spiritual odyssey for the younger brother, Eli, who is considering quitting his 'career' to open a trading post.   The brothers' reputation precedes them and at every stop they only have to mention their names to secure instant fear and respect.   Inevitably, they are challenged from time to time but always at the cost to the challenger.   The story is narrated by Eli and, consequently, we are party to his laboured arguments with himself and his relationship with his brother.   He is greatly attached to his horse and takes utmost pains to look after him in contrast to his easy acceptance of the deaths of various men en route.  Indeed, the wonders of a tooth brush and tooth powder to which he is introduced by one character, a dentist, is more noteworthy than the deaths of four men who refused to loan Charlie their axe.

The 'job' takes an unexpected turn - enough of a spoiler!    deWitt's writing is lucid and flowing.   He eschews any descriptions of the landscape through which the brothers pass in favour of character development which is gripping.   His language is particular and the dialogue appropriate to the period but beautifully phrased.   At one point, a whore with whom Charlie has spent the night remarks to Eli, 'you got all the romantic blood, is that it?' to which Eli replies, 'our blood is the same, we just use it differently' which neatly encapsulates the gradually widening fissure between the brothers.

 If you think Westerns finished with the Coen Brothers True Grit, think again!   Just read it and see!

On the other hand, if you never get to read Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch don't worry.   It is neither as magical or 'completely original' as A.S. Byatt maintains on the jacket cover.   As a blurb on the back says, this is Dickens meets Moby Dick but I think if you want either, then read a Dickens novel or Moby Dick.   The book was also longlisted for the Orange Prize so is clearly highly considered by some.   I found the narrative uneven, at times tedious, and the conclusion disappointing if obvious.   In its favour, I was relieved that Ms Birch did not try to emulate cockney slang or any dialect in her writing sticking to plain English with no anachronisms.

Without wanting to spoil the story, should you read it, there is one particularly interesting and well described section but at the same time, it has been done equally well elsewhere and is not original.   The narrative is told by a Jaffy Brown, a cockney, who goes to sea as a teenager on a whaling ship with an extra purpose, that of capturing and bringing back a 'dragon' as they term an extremely large member of the lizard family, for Jaffy's employer, a certain Mr Jamrach who deals in exotic animals.   His best friend, Tim accompanies him and the narrative describes their life on board which has none of the usual hardships associated with sailing in Victorian times in that they have a kind captain and friendly crew.   The events at sea form the core of the story.

A tour de force this is not.

Half Blood Blues by another Canadian, Esi Edugyan, is a better read altogether.   I have to admit the jacket and story blurb at the back of it put me off initially but I am glad I persisted despite them. Edugyan is a product of John Hopkins Writing Seminars from which she has a Masters in Writing and, I would guess, some expertise in jazz and music groups.   Or else, she did some very good research.

The narrative concerns a jazz group formed in Berlin in the thirties three of whom escape to France but get trapped again there with the fall of Paris in 1940.   The story is told by one of the group, Sid Griffiths, and deals primarily with him, his friend Chip Jones and the star of the group, a young black German, Hieronymous Falk.   It moves between the events of that time and the early nineties when Chip and Sid return to Berlin and Poland following receipt of a mysterious letter that seems to indicate that Hiero is still alive.

Though I am often a little wary of the products of creative writing courses, this is a beautifully written novel with just the right element of suspense.   The music scenes are well described with great veracity including the trials and heartache of cutting a record in the forties and Edugyan appears to have a genuine feel for the rhythms of jazz which percolate the novel.   The intonations and language of her characters are perfect and she captures the atmosphere of Paris during the 'phony war' with great delicacy and skill.   Definitely worth a read.

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman still awaits me.   Snowdrops by AD Miller does not appeal.   Though well written as one might expect by a long time contributor to The Economist, the story falls short of what might be expected on the Booker List.   It is a crime story set in Putin's Russia with elements of Bond and, as the Guardian review said, 'standard issue characters' in a Russia that one can happily think the worst of.  Not my cup of tea!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Sense of an Ending [Julian Barnes]

This has to be one of the saddest books I have ever read,  It is an attack on the smugness of youth and the complacency of old age.  It is a warning that our early actions can come back to haunt us.  Cliches are after all founded on truth.

It is the story of a man, Tony Webster, who is comfortably retired, amicably divorced with one safely married daughter, who takes pleasure in history and music, keeping his apartment well maintained and volunteering in the local hospital library once a week.   His only close friend appears to be his divorced wife but he seems perfectly content with this.   Though he admits to moments of self-pity, he thinks that 'we end up all belonging to the same category, that of the non-young' and claims 'I've never much minded this myself'.  He says that 'I rarely ended up fantasising a markedly different life from the one that has been mine'.   He is not odd enough not to have done the things he ended up doing with his life and he neither looks back or obsesses about death.   Though Barnes has written on death, this novel is not about death though three deaths occur and it is the third of these that leads to a cataclysmic result for Tony.

The novel is divided into two parts.   In the first part, Webster is a callow sixth-former, one of a trio who draw into their clique a new-comer, the intellectual and clever Adrian Finn.  They were - as Tony at age 65 remembers - 'book-hungry, sex-hungry, meritocratic, anarchistic.  All political and social systems appeared to us corrupt, yet we declined to consider an alternative other than hedonistic chaos'.   In other words, they were the pretentious children of the sixties with a fear that life wouldn't turn out to be like literature and, as Barnes writes, 'most people didn't experience the Sixties until the Seventies'.   The group splits up when school ends and they go their separate ways, Tony to university in Bristol and Adrian to Cambridge.   At Bristol, Tony gets into a relationship, fraught at times, with Veronica Ford, a wayward and opinionated young woman.  When Tony takes her to London to meet with his friends, Veronica is clearly taken with Adrian who is fulfilling his early promise successfully in Cambridge.   Tony's relationship with Veronica does not last his time in Bristol but its effects and reverberations are to impinge greatly on his life.

In the second part, Webster is now 65 and retired when an extraordinary event catapults Veronica back into his life.   He receives a lawyer's letter regarding a small bequest which becomes the source of agonizing memory searches and a re-evaluation of his entire life.  

It is hard to believe that this small book is only 150 pages long so replete is it with ideas, philosophy and subtle - and not so subtle - aphorisms.   Barnes has excelled himself with this one.   One critic has compared it with Chesil Beach where the backgrounds and characters are not dissimilar but perhaps it would be truer to say that this is the book that McEwan would like to have written.   The main character, Tony Webster, is beautifully drawn.   Barnes develops Tony's character with deftness so we are remarkedly at ease with the accumulation of events in his life and his thought processes.   Though this book, as I said, is not about death but about life, I can't do better than quote John Self who said, in his review of the book, 'Death, getting close every day, is always personal. In Frank Kermode’s work of literary criticism from which Barnes takes his title, “the sense of an ending” refers to apocalypticism, the end of the world. Barnes’s concern here is far more serious than that'.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Guardian Review of 'C'

Alfred Hickling is rapidly turning into my personal bete noir for his pocket reviews of books he apparently has not fully read. Last Saturday [Review, Saturday Guardian 27.08.11] he did an inaccurate thumbnail sketch of C by Tom McCarthy which did little justice to this powerful novel, probably the best published in the UK in 2010.   This is a book which has been described as an historical novel but it is concerned less with history than with ideas and minds.   It is full of philosophic allusions and learned references that sit comfortably in what is at times a highly amusing book and most readable.

The protagonist, Serge Carrefax, does not wind up in Egypt installing transmitters [as AH says] but is asked to come to Alexandria to write a report or reports on the advancement of a company alluded to as the Empire Wireless Chain.   His 'aerial adventures' [to quote Hickling] give one of the best descriptions I have ever read of flying as an observer over the front lines in the First World War in France [not Egypt, AH].   And the cocaine he uses on his eyeballs is to sharpen his vision, not to get high [AH] - vision being a deep theme of the book.   Serge is at once both in and not in the world; not so much suffering any existential angst but rather with a phenomenological grasp of life around him.   Studying art with his tutor as a boy, he experienced great difficulty with perspective viewing the world as flat, an image that is reinforced as an observer flying with the RFC in the war.

These thumbnail reviews of newly published paperbacks are a useful aid to books one might have missed when published in hardback.   It does us no service to misconstrue them.

Friday, August 12, 2011

New Finnish Grammar

Last week the Guardian lamented the malaise in 21st century [English] publishing but there is hope as long as they continue to buy and translate the gems being published on the European mainland.   One such is the New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani, first published in Italy in 2000 and now available in English thanks to Dedalus Books.   Nicholas Lezard commented that he couldn't 'remember when I read a more extraordinary novel, or when I was last so strongly tempted to use the word "genius" of its author'.   Perhaps 'genius' is rather strong as he leaves many questions unanswered in the text but nevertheless, as Josipovici said of it, 'what he has produced is still a cut above what passes for serious fiction in this country'.

The story is deceptively simple and straightforward which will reassure those who tire of the time leaps and split narratives of the postmoderns!   A severely wounded unidentified sailor is found in Trieste in 1943 and taken on to a German hospital ship where he comes under the care of a Dr Friari.   When the wounded man awakes from his coma, he has no memory, no knowledge of either where he comes from or who he is but most profoundly, he has no language.   As he himself says, 'All linguistic feeling, all interest in words, had died away'.   Dr Friari, himself an exile from Finland since childhood, assumes the man is Finnish as the label sewn on his jacket has the name Sampo Karjalainen, a Finnish name.   The doctor determines to get Sampo well enough to return to Finland and, in the meantime, starts to teach him Finnish which he assumes to be his mother tongue.   He could hardly have started on a more difficult course as Finnish has to be Europe's most complicated language where even the nouns have multiple declensions.

Sampo does get to Helsinki where his recovery continues and language skills grow apace under the guidance of an extraordinary pastor, the military chaplain, Olof Koskela. an ebullient, extrovert giant of a man, steeped in Finnish folklore and fond of a daily tincture of koskenkorva.   He also attempts a relationship with a nurse, Ilma.  He realises quickly enough that to rediscover his true past is an impossibility and that Dr Friari was right - 'language is our mother, and it is through language that we come into this world'.   The account of his time in the military installation in Helsinki is fascinating and Marani maintains the suspense and keeps us avid to learn his identity to the very end.

This is a story about war and love and memory and particularly about language - not surprising as the author, Marani, is a linguist in the EU.   There are thorny questions that Marani dodges as he ignores the Ghost in the Machine.   Sampo discovers at an early stage that he recognises objects and what they are for - he has therefore retained the concept of 'knowing how' but not the one of 'knowing that'.   He also acknowledges early on that without language there is no memory but nevertheless he says on the second page that 'even in my confusion I remembered that there was a war on ... my thoughts seemed to well up out of nothingness and then sink down again into the porous soil of my unfocused consciousness'.   Thoughts?   Was he picturing to himself in auditory or visual images?   Thinking is normally interpreted as an operation with symbols such as words and sentences but Marani does not go there.  [For any reader interested in this aspect, Gilbert Ryle has written a very original text on the subject called The Concept of Mind].   The story is told by both Dr Friari and Sampo and Sampo's language in writing gets rather sophisticated at a stage when he apparently can barely make himself understood to others.   However, none of these thought-provoking questions in anyway detract from Marani's exquisite piece of work.

I agree with Lezard that this is definitely an extraordinary book.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Pereira Maintains

One could be forgiven for thinking that Alfred Hickling, Guardian reviewer, fails to read at least some of the books he reviews.   At best this is irritating but at worst it misleads potential readers so they miss out on some veritable masterpieces such as Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi [reviewed by Hickling in the Guardian Review, Saturday 6 August].   Tabucchi is a major Italian author whose book, published originally in Italian in 1994, sold 300,000 copies and was then picked up by Canongate Books, translated by Patrick Creagh and published in 2010 in Britain.   It deserves better than Hickling's faulty summary.

The book is listed as a political thriller and it is, to a certain extent this, but it is more.   It is set in 1938 Lisbon, six years after Salazar got into power and established a repressive, Catholic, fascistic dictatorship.   Salazar was an admirer of Hitler and supporter of the Franco, anti-republican side in the Spanish Civil War.   Dr Pereira, the eponymous hero, is an overweight, lonely man, a recent widower who talks to his dead wife's portrait and who eats vast quantities of omelettes aux fine herbes and drinks highly sugared lemonade.   He is employed as editor of the literary pages of a low circulation Lisbon paper, the Lisboa.   Censorship is of course rife and, though Pereira deplores it, he is also himself guilty of self censorship, rarely pushing the envelope, contenting himself with publishing translations of 19th century French novels.   The closest he comes to rebelling at censorship is publishing the translation of a story by Daudet which includes the phrase 'vive la France' which brings down the wrath of the government and editor on him, Portugal being firmly opposed to France.

This changes however when he comes in contact with a young man, Monteiro Rossi, a university graduate with a first in Philosophy, who draws himself to Pereira's attention with an article on death and the soul which subject obsesses Pereira.   He takes on Rossi to write obituaries for the files, all of which prove totally unpublishable but he continues to pay him even when he discovers Rossi is in fact a revolutionary organising volunteers and raising funds for the anti Franco International Brigade.   The change is not sudden but rather is the theme of the book culminating in a catastrophe which does change Pereira's life for ever evincing a courage and commitment only hinted at to that point.

Tabucchi is a stylist in the postmodern tradition who writes with great thought if though somewhat at times enigmatic. The title is not lightly chosen as it is written in the third person in what is described as a testimonial style.   The phrase 'Pereira maintains' is used continually giving the impression that one is reading a report drawn up by an interrogator - whether fascist or revolutionary we don't know.   I like to think he is in the hands of the revolutionaries as, at one point, Rossi's girlfriend tells Pereira what a help he is being saying 'we of the cause will not forget it'.   The book is littered with references to various authors - Rilke, Mann, Daudet, Marx, Pessoa and so on - none of whom are lightly chosen.   Equally the characters Pereira meets or associates with are at times almost surreal, from the German Jewish lady with a wooden leg to the local priest, Fr Antonio, who is firmly opposed to Franco and, particularly, the waiter in his favourite cafe who supplies him with the international news on a daily basis.   One day, the waiter, Manuel, in a rather perplexed tone, tells Periera that Portugal was mentioned on the news for the first time and that it was described as a dictatorship.   He was genuinely upset to learn that he was living under a dictator!

Pereira Maintains has been made into a film though sadly it is only available in Italian with no subtitles.  It clearly is highly regarded in Italy as representing almost a pastiche of how things were at the time of its writing just following the election of Berlusconi.   Personlly I think it stands as a stark warning against the encroachment of the far right parties now growing in influence everywhere.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Jennifer Egan and 'A Visit from the Goon Squad'

You may have been noticing Jennifer Egan's name suddenly popping up in  all sorts of places and not without reason.   She has won the prestigious National Book Critics Award and Pulitzer Prize for her latest novel A Visit from the Goon Squad.  

This is a most exciting novel - though it is not a novel as we know it.   The author claims she was influenced by Proust and The Sopranos - a curious combination - in its writing.   Certainly it is underpinned by conceptions of time and space.   It is not a novel in that it does not conform to the usual narrative structure.   The characters move backwards and forwards through time with large gaps in their development in a frequently dystopian world centred on the music industry in the States in the 70's through to future time.  Egan is not shy of experimenting using different typefaces; narrative in the first and third person - and, even in one chapter, in the second; long footnotes in one section, text-speak and, most interesting, a complete chapter done as a PowerPoint presentation.   This latter startles initially.   It is written by the sister of a seemingly autistic young man who is obsessed by the length and occurrence of gaps in rocksongs and the nature of PowerPoint reproduces this thereby reinforcing Egan's conception of time and space.   What seems to be a gimmick actually is a strong element of the novel.

The book concerns a disparate group of characters who interact spasmodically, sometimes with the main character, sometimes with their own stories and sometimes in a 'chain'.   Memory is important and, at times, she leaps forward in order to go back.   The cast is big and, at times, it can be difficult to remember who did what to whom.   Basically, it concerns one, Bennie Salazar, who, with a group of friends in the 70's, starts a second rate punk band called The Flaming Dildos and then, in time, sets up his own record label and becomes a music producer.   He employs Sasha as his assistant who has lead and goes on to lead a hugely varied life.   Her significance is not only that it is her daughter that writes the PowerPoint chapter but Egan introduces her in the very first lines of the book and she is the last character referred to in the end.   In other words she bookends the narrative creating a cycle within which the rest of the cast act and interact.   In the course of the book, we meet the varied members of this cast whose lives connect and disconnect with Bennie and Sasha and none of whom are dull.

This is an important book and unique.   It is not postmodern but rather post postmodern and the chances Egan takes pay off.   It is fun to read and she brings both irony and romance to it.   What appears to be unstructured and chaotic in fact reflects life as we do know it - even if few of us actually get to live at quite the pace of most of her creations.   By the end of it, you can nod your head and agree, yes, there is both Proust and The Sopranos there.

U shld by it!

Red April

Sometimes the judges get it right!   I was excited to read that the Independent Foreign Fiction prize was awarded to Santiago Roncagliolo which [to quote the Guardian] puts 'the 36-year old Peruvian author in a star-studded line-up of former winners, from Milan Kundera to WG Sebald'.  

Readers of my blog may remember I posted a review of Red April last March and strongly recommended you read it!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Forgotten Waltz

Anne Enright has indeed lived up to the promise of caustic wit in her new novel, Forgotten Waltz, published by Jonathan Cape, a worthy follow-on to the award winning, The Gathering, and confirming her position  as one of our great living authors.

In this book, she moves her dateline up and sets it in the flourishing tiger economy years but straightforward narrative is not Enright's literary style.   By the end of the first chapter we know the bones of the story and the remainder of the book mulls backwards and forwards over an idea, the concept of adultery.   The story is told in the first person by Gina Moynihan and in retrospect, in the harsh winter of 2009, harsh in weather and harsh in the now failing economy.   She looks back to 2002 when she first met Sean, her lover-to-be, in her sister, Fiona's new posh house in Enniskerry.   Through Fiona, Gina comes in contact with the new rich society who had the kind of parties 'where no one  ate the chicken skin' and women who 'had the confused look that Botox gives you, like you might be having an emotion, but you couldn't remember which one' and whose husbands 'stood about and talked property:  a three-pool complex in Bulgaria, a whole Irish block in Berlin'.   Fiona has two children and Sean and his wife, Aileen, have a little girl who seems 'not quite right'.   Gina then takes us through the progress of her affair with Sean and her failing relationship with 'the love of her life', Conor.

But to say that the novel is just the story of an affair is to do an injustice to Enright.   Her skill is not only in the wit she brings to it but the surprising depth of thought and observation.   There is pathos as well as humour.   Her account of her mother's illness is haunting.  She was a woman for whom 'illness was not something she allowed herself.   It was so unattractive.   And terribly hard on the skin'.    And Gina's relationship with Evie, Sean's subteen daughter, is brilliantly and sharply told.

Enright is a wordsmith and her descriptions are precise and captivating.  On just one page we sit  around Fiona's 'witty formica table', we see 'a tight little herd of  nine-year-old girls' and sit 'in the secret hum of his scent'.   And she does sex well though Gina says she doesn't know if 'sex' is the word for it.   'We didn't talk much.   Silence made it that bit filthier of course.   And people do not speak, in a dream'. Enright has taken a theme as old as the hills and somehow makes it new and a concept to be pondered and reconsidered in a society no longer so sure of its moral values.  She does 'dark' as well as the master of the genre, McGahern, but, unlike him, she has now  shown she can do something quite different just as brilliantly.

I wondered about the title.  Each chapter is given the title of an old love song like 'Will you Love me Tomorrow' 'Paper Roses' and so on and I tried to discover if 'Forgotten Waltz' was one but had no luck in my search.   Perhaps someone out there has an answer.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Monsieur Linh and His Child

This slight novel - only 130 pages - is the third of the trilogy written by Philippe Claudel which includes Grey Souls and the inestimable Brodeck's Report.   The thread linking the three novels - though Monsier Linh is more a novella - is survival, specifically the survival of war and the associated guilt of surviving.

Written with his accustomed lack of specificity which in itself contributes so much to the narrative lifting it from a simple story to the more involved realm of ideas, it clearly however concerns the French war in Indochina - modern Vietnam - and a city, possibly Paris or Marseilles.   Monsieur Linh has lost everyone who knows him in his little bombed-out village with the exception of his grand-daughter from whom he refuses to be separated even for a minute.   With great delicacy of language and economy of prose, Claudel chronicles his bewilderment in a city where he understands not a word of the language, finds the food unpalatable and is confused by the ministrations of the impersonal though benign officials caring for refugees from the war.

He meets then on a street bench the second character of the book, a Monsieur Bark with whom he establishes an extraordinary friendship given that neither understands a word the other is saying but rather rely on tone of voice and body language.   Monsieur Bark is also bereaved - his wife has just died - and clearly finds relief in pouring out his heart to this odd refugee clutching possessively his little grand-daughter.   It is a measure of Philippe Claudel's consummate command of language that we acquire an intimate understanding of the two men in such few pages.   There is an astonishing dream sequence in which Monsieur Linh brings Monsieur Bark to his village and the contrast of the world he has lost with the bleakness of the modern city is a very powerful antiwar sequence.   Monsieur Linh's one link to his vanished world is his adored baby grand-daughter.

The book has an extraordinary twist but even if you spot it coming, it in no way detracts from this brilliant and moving story.   On the contrary, when I came to it, I immediately went back and reread the entire novella!

Man Booker International Prize

I have disagreed with Carmen Callil from time to time both in her role as an author and that of publisher but this time my sincerest congratulations to her on the stance she has taken in resigning from the judging panel because of its decision to award the Man Booker International Prize to Philip Roth.  

Granted that the shortlist for the prize was not earth-shaking with people like Philip Pullman,  Marilynne Robinson, Anne Tyler figuring but Roth!!   As Callil said, 'he goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book.   Its as though he's sitting on your face and you can't breathe'.   Beautiful!   Well done Carmen!

Monday, May 2, 2011


A quick round-up for any of you that didn't do the weekly grind through the papers!  

Phillippe Claudel, author of the amazing Brodeck's Report, has a new novel out in translation, Monsieur Linh and His Child.   According to the reviewers it is written with his customary lack of specificity that intrigues me and it is the second part of the haunting trilogy that concluded with Brodeck and started with Grey Souls.  Anne Enright gets massive coverage for her new novel, Forgotten Waltz.   This promises to be less dark than The Gathering but with plenty of her caustic wit, this one using the Celtic Tiger economy as her backdrop.
The Guardian persists with its genuflections to the gods of English writing with a panegyric of Christopher Hitchens by Martin Amis last week.   One would almost be forgiven for thinking the Hitch had passed on and this was his eulogy.   Or maybe Amis just wants the 'great man' to know what a sound fellow he, Amis, is.   Amis quotes, at length, various examples of what he considers great witticisms by Hitchens, the 'rebel', as he calls him.   It is a grave error to confuse witticism with plain rudeness.   Far cleverer ripostes can be heard in any Dublin pub!

I cannot pass over the brief dismissal of Damon Galgut and his book, In a Strange Room, by Alfred Hickling.   This was one of the titles nominated for the Booker and is Galgut at his best.   It is a departure from his normal stamping ground of post apartheid South Africa, being set worldwide from Greece to India and finally Africa. The narrator always referred to as ‘he’, in the third person but who not surprisingly is called Damon - a device popular also with Paul Auster -  is an inveterate traveller who on each trip either meets or is joined by different characters. The very act of travelling has a curious meaning for him. He says at one point that ‘everything at times of transition takes on a symbolic weight and power. But this too is why he travels. The world you’re moving through flows into another one inside…’ So the reality of travel becomes fiction and memory. Borders are lines on a map but also drawn inside himself somewhere. Memory is a key factor in his writing and he refers to ‘him’, the traveller, as buried under his skin. He frequently claims he cannot remember some details, that there is a memory gap as if he were a travel writer not telling a story.

The book is divided into three sections titled the The Follower, The Lover and The Guardian. If one could have any quarrel with Galgut is that these sections might well, with editing, have worked almost better as three novellas. Tightened up to that format, they would almost have a ring of Zweig. However, in their present format what obviously links them is our narrator. True to his propensity for travel caused by restlessness when too long at home, he is further uncomfortable in any relationship that might tie him in any way. This can lead to a vacillation that at times makes one want to shake him but it is a state of mind that Galgut is very at ease writing about.  At times, one almost feels one is back with the Good Doctor – also shortlisted for
the Booker - so maybe Galgut puts more of himself into his main characters either consciously or unconsciously.

The characters Damon meets and links up with on his travels are distinct and remarkable. It is a tribute to his skill that they stay in one’s mind long after the book is finished almost like old friends. Though in Damon’s case, none of them are destined ever to be old friends and his depiction of their foibles and idiosyncracies is
masterly. Galgut’s writing has justly been described as both powerful and hypnotic and I would defy anyone to read him and not feel a personal attachment to some of his thoughts.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Crusade for Modernism

I  continue my crusade in support of Josipovici though now it seems it means taking on a mighty opponent - the literary pages of the Guardian!

The English continue their love affair with their perceived giants - Amis, McEwan et al.    Nicholas Lezard's choice of the week was The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis on whom he lavishes praise commenting on the 'dazzling artistry of his style'.   While Amis writes with a certain cleverness and wit, there is little challenge, depth or innovation in his novels.   The characters do not surprise any more than the plots.   Lezard maintains that this novel is 'much more than a novel about the passing of time, or missed opportunities, or wasted talent.   Although it is all those things too'.   Well, what is the 'much more' please Nicholas!

In the same paper, Ian McEwan maintains that he has become over the years 'consciously, expressively aware of the traditions of the English novel, the treasures that are laid up for us by the great 19th century expositors of character and psychology' on which he draws for his work.  And who does he specifically cite?   Austen and Agatha Christie.   In rebuttal can I mention Joyce, Beckett and Flann O'Brien - the Father, Son and Holy Ghost of modern literature [as they were recently referred to].  

IMPAC 2011

In case any of you missed the papers or the news yesterday, the short list for the International Impac Dublin Literary Award was published.   While, the judges have to be congratulated on working through 162 books in the last five months, I am saddened to see no work of translation included.   We have lost Brodeck's Report [Claudel], Red April [Roncagliolo] and Your Face Tomorrow [Marias], all superior literary works, all demonstrative of the extraordinary literary talent and challenging work being produced in the non-English speaking world.

For  better or worse, the ten titles in the short list are:  Galore [Michael Crummey], The Lacuna [Barbara Kingsolver], The Vagrants [Yiyun Li], Ransom [David Malouf], Let the Great World Spin [Colum McCann], Little Bird of Heaven [Joyce Carol Oates], Jasper  Jones [Craig Silvey], Brooklyn [Colm Toibin], Love and Summer [William Trevor] and After the Fire, a Still Small Voice [Evie Wyld].

It might make a useful reading list for the coming weeks though I think you can all safely skip Joyce Carol Oates!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Brodeck's Report by Philippe Claudel

This has to be one of the most unsettling books I have read.  Written by Philippe Claudel, Professor of Literature at the University of Nancy and based on a translation by John Cullen, it raises many questions and will keep you thinking and puzzling long after you have finished it.

The first line of the book – ‘My name is Brodeck and I had nothing to do with it’ – sets the tone immediately.   This is a man writing a report about some event of which he is aware but was ‘outside’ the horrendous occurrence, not part of it. Within three pages we know the ‘event’ involves the murder of an outsider to the village.   The village is deliberately unnamed as indeed is the area though it becomes apparent that it is set in an isolated village somewhere in the mountainous region of Alsace where the language is a German dialect.

Brodeck himself is different from the local inhabitants.   He came to the village having been rescued as a war orphan by an old woman, Fedorine, with whom he still lives.  Having achieved well in the local school he was sent to Germany to university where he fell in love with Emelia who returned to the village with him as the Second World War loomed.   The subsequent invasion of the village by the Germans and the horrors associated with it involve Brodeck deeply and become memories that the village want to expunge.   But those memories are something that Brodeck cannot obliterate.   As one of the few survivors he feels ‘disappointment and disquiet ferment within us.   I think we have become and will remain until the day we die, a reminder of humanity destroyed.   We are wounds that will never heal’.

He is then uniquely qualified to write a report as requested by the village leaders on the events surrounding the murder of the ‘outsider’.   The outsider who is never named is known simply as the anderer or ‘other’ and this concept above all is gripping.   Fear of the Other has always been a foundational element of society.   Man originally formed bonds and alliances for purely simple and selfish reasons – for personal survival in the face of the Other.  And our history is one of convulsion and war with the ‘Other’ – an unidentified and unidentifiable entity, an unknown unknown [to misquote everyone’s favourite American!].  Throughout history and even more in recent times, freedom is  strangled by the fear of losing it to the Other.  Brodeck broods over the very idea of History as he compiles his report and wonders ‘why do some people retain in their memory what others have forgotten or never seen?   Which is right:  he who cannot reconcile himself to leaving the past in obscurity, or he who hurls into obscurity everything that does not suit him?   To live, or to go on living – can that be a matter of deciding that the real is not entirely so?’   Claudel faces us in this narrative with some deep philosophical issues.

To quote Rosalind Sykes of the Financial Times, ‘there are dark shades of Kafka, Camus and Primo Levi but Claudel’s lyricism evokes the deliciousness of life even as he plumbs the depths of intolerance and evil’.

The narrative is powerful and the characterisations brilliant if disturbing from the sly manipulations of the town mayor, Orschwir, to the underhand dealings of Gobbler, the town busybody and the beautiful ethereal nature of Emelia who has herself suffered horribly.   Claudel has the ability to create almost a fairy tale wonder while at the same time describing a virtual cesspool of humanity.   The translation is deft and expert.   This  book is awe-inspiring.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

What not to read!

Sometimes I am totally at a loss as to why a particular book wins a major prize but never more so than the winner of the  2010 Costa First Novel Award, Witness the Night by Kishwar Desai.   With so much worth reading out there, dare I give you a bit of advice about it - don't bother!  

Desai clearly has a cause to champion and a worthy one too, namely, female infanticide and, increasingly, female foeticide, specifically in the Punjab.   No one would argue about the horrors associated with these practices.   However, if they are to be incorporated as the pivotal element of a piece of fiction, then the author needs  a good narrative.   That is sadly lacking.   The book is badly written, badly edited and barely hangs together.   Irritatingly it is littered with Hindi words which are unexplained by the author, nor is any glossary provided and, to tell you the truth, one can't be bothered to look them up.

Her protagonist, the narrator, is according to herself a hard-bitten forty five year old social worker, an Indian working in Britain but back in the Punjab for the purposes of this novel, a smoker and a copious drinker - which  she  tells us every few pages.   Nevertheless, this 'hard-bitten' social worker [embarrassingly] goes weak at the knees falling into the 'mesmerising green eyes' of a character  who is clearly the villain of the piece.

The scariest element of this whole book is provided in the blurb where we are told that Desai's debut novel 'introduces' the feisty protagonist - are they warning us there are more  to come?

The final touch is that this horror story  is published by an outfit called 'Beautiful Books'!!

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Joys of Variety

At the moment I am jumping from book to book interspersing some brilliant fiction with some equally brilliant non fiction.   The indomitable Eric Hobsbawm has a new title out, How to Change the World, and, though Terry Eagleton says in his review of it in this week's London Review of Books [3 March] that 'Hobsbawm ... is not quite as omniscient as the Hegelian World-Spirit, for all his cosmopolitan range and encyclopedic knowledge', this is a book that we can all learn from.   It is a collection of essays on Marxism, some of which have been published before but some only in Italian and Hobsbawm has brought them together in an accessible and exciting form.   More later when I finish it!

Two works of fiction I read last week were Tinkers by Paul Harding and Red April by Santiago Roncagliolo, both of which enthralled me.   Tinkers is Harding's first novel and, as with many new writers, it took him a long time to find a publisher but then went on to win the Pulitzer Prize last year.   It is exquisitely written in controlled and spare style but, oh, so beautiful.   There is not one word too many in this short novel - it is only 191 pages - but the pictures he conjures up are deep and lasting.

The narrative is told by George Washington Crosby who grew up in Maine but moved to Massachusetts when he was twenty one.   Now he is at the end of his life and hallucinating in the last throes of his illness which gives the author the scope to dispense with the constraints of time as the narrative moves between George's story and that of his father, Howard, who spent his life travelling through the backwoods of the state selling dry goods from his wagon particularly in the more isolated regions in the hills and woods of Maine.   George is a clock man, both repairing clocks and collecting them and the author gives us some fascinating information on the subject while using it as a source of juggling time and memory.

The book is a meditation not only on the sometimes harsh relationship of father and son but also the reflected hardship of nature in the cold winters of New England.   But it is also a story of love of life with an acceptance of loss.   Howard reflects at one point that 'everything is made to perish;  the wonder of anything at all is that it has not already done so'.   His description of his father going out of his life is both moving and startling:  'it seemed to me as if my father simply faded away.   He became more and more difficult to see....He leaked out of the world gradually'.   This man is a genuine wordsmith with a simple story to tell but in language few could equal.
Red April by Roncagliolo couldn't be a more different novel!   It is a translation by Edith Grossman  who has also translated Garcia Marquez's  Love in the Time of Cholera.   Roncagliolo was born in Peru and his novel is set in Lima in 2000 following the end of the war against the terrorist Shining Path.   This war, however, permeates the entire  novel but nobody wants to talk about it.  The narrator says at one point, 'the memory of the war had been buried along with its dead .. the memory of the eighties was like the silent earth in cemeteries.   The only thing everyone shares, the only thing no one talks about'.

The story opens with the discovery of a body described in a detailed and precise report by Felix Chacaltana Saldivar, Associate District Prosecutor and those adjectives aptly describe Chacaltana who is exact and precise in all his dealings.   A solitary man who preserves his dead mother's room in his house, talking to her as if she is alive, he deals with the subsequent horror that visits the city in a farcically controlled fashion.  The syntax and precise details of his reports resonate more with him than the events themselves.  The murders that take place are juxtaposed to the elaborate processions and rites that accompany the celebration of Holy Week.   It quickly becomes apparent that this is a most delicious satire of civil strife and the emotion that arises only heightens the author's sardonic approach to his narrative.   Behind the satire, though, is a certain sadness at a society that has been deeply damaged by terrorism.   Fear still underlies all of even the ordinary.

This is a book that bears thinking about when one has read it.   Nothing is quite as it first seems.   I would recommend you read it!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

James Joyce

Congratulations to Navan Library for hosting a book club on Joyce.   Under the guidance of Conor Farnan the group are currently working their way through Ulysses aiming to complete the study by 16 June.

Conor is currently doing his Ph.D. on Paul Durkan and may also be remembered from his student days in St Pats when he contributed to their literary magazine, Criterion 2003, with a poem - an irishisation or modernisation of Howl [if I remember correctly]!

Well done Conor!   You are well appreciated.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Difficult to read?

I mentioned before Josipovici and his book, What Ever Happened to Modernism, in which he expresses his profound disappointment at the resistance to or lack of awareness of European modernism right across the board in England.   He quotes Beckett who is talking here about art though it may well be applied to our current bestseller lists: '...there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desires to express, together with the obligation to express'.  

Many of the  books published today may be witty, sensationalist, written with panache but they will never challenge, say, Borges.   Read him and he reaches right to your core.   I did and realised that there is so much more to a 'good book' than the realist-type narrative so popular now.   Josipovici says that the latter give a 'sense of security, of comfort even' and draw 'us for a while out of our confusions ... into a world that makes some sort of sense'.   They are, in effect, easy reads.

All of which brings me to an article by Nicole Krauss in yesterday's Observer in which she says that she is surprised her fiction is labelled 'difficult'.  [Krauss is married to Jonathan Safran Foer and is  author of The History of Love and Great House].   Her reasoning is simpler than Josipovici.   She  believes that in the west, we are moving towards the end of effort.   'We have arrived at this place where we just thoughtlessly plunge towards whatever the thing is that will allow us to make less of an effort.   We're programmed to do the easier thing'.

Can I suggest we ignore the 'bestseller lists' and discover the exhileration, joy and wonder in the books of the European and Latin American authors?  Discover literature!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Also-Ran

Lots of talk in the papers about the late Beryl Bainbridge who was nominated five times for the Booker Prize but never won to the chagrin of her many devoted readers.   Her never-failing sense of humour on each occasion would now be tickled by the decision of the Booker judges to create  a Man Booker Best of Beryl!   They are asking the public to vote on which of her five nominated novels they think most worthy of the prize.   They are:  The Dressmaker, The Bottle Factory Outing, An Awfully Big Adventure, Every Man for Himself, Master Georgie.  

Vote online at and the winner will be announced in April.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Museum of Innocence

Museum of Innocence by Orham Pamuk was published in paperback in 2009 and I have to confess I initially dodged it as not only was I going to be facing into 700 plus pages but the blurb indicated that I would be reading a classic love story - boy meets girl, crisis  and loss, boy regains girl - which did not appeal.   But then I reconsidered if only because as a Nobel Laureate of particular distinction, Pamuk could never bore and indeed this book is no conventional social comedy but as Pamuk says 'nor simply a story of lovers, but of the  entire realm, that is, of Istanbul'.
The narrative concerns a thirty year old Istanbulli, Kemal, a member of a socially elite, bourgeois set, who is about to become engaged, and on a visit to a boutique to buy his fiancee, Sibil, a gift, encounters a distant cousin, Fusun, working there and is immediately overcome and completely enthralled by her.   He begins a relationship despite his existing commitment to Sibil and the forthcoming big social event of his Engagement Party.   The Party is the pivotal chapter in the book and it is subsequent to this that Kemal's obsession with Fusun begins.
This obsession is to drive Kemal for years and in the course of it he loses the shape of his life, discards his friends and social set and begins a collection of memorabilia of his love to put in a museum he wants to create,  amassing anything of Fusun's - from panties to cigarette butts.   In the course of this, Pamuk gives us a wonderful minor dissertation on the role and purpose of museums and the art of collecting.
For a period, Kemal is separated from Fusun during which time she marries an aspiring film director and returns to live with her parents.   Kemal visits them almost nightly and, indeed, remarks that 'according to my notes, during the 409 weeks that my story will now describe, I went there for supper 1,593 times' - all under the guise of maintaining family connections as she was his cousin.
During the period of separation, Kemal wanders through Istanbul and Pamuk gives us the most stunning description of a city superior to the description of any city in any novel I have read.   He brings alive the ships on the Bosporus, the light on the water, the mosques and old streets of Istanbul until it has the familiarity of a favourite local town.   
Even more fascinating he describes the lives and mores of the inhabitants.   Kemal's people are not religious adhering to their love of Ataturk and his secular reforms but at the same time maintaining certain beliefs and traditions.   The issue of virginity at the time in 1975 is a particularly thorny one.   The question of sex is complicated.   Sibil - and, indeed, Fusun - give themselves to Kemal but in the belief and trust that he will honour their commitment with marriage.   Otherwise, a girl is considered 'spoiled goods'.    Pamuk gives us a whole chapter on the issue which bears ressemblance to Ireland in the fifties!
Despite this and because maybe of the influence of the cinema and television - both of which are extremely popular despite the television having only one channel - the wealthy elite aspire to Western fashions, behaviour and values.   Girls who wear head scarfs for religious reasons are looked down on.   Kemal also remarks that he has never seen two people kissing except on the screen!
Politics is largely eschewed despite the fact that the novel begins in 1975 some four years after the Coup and their lives are controlled by curfews and other restrictions.   There are street battles frequently taking place between nationalists and communists but these are largely ignored though Kemal does refer to two friends who took politics seriously and ended up tortured in gaol for their effrontery.
This is a riveting novel and I became obsessed with Kemal's obsession persisting with little effort to the end of 728 pages where he  tells us 'let everyone know, I lived a very happy life'!   Pamuk writes with assurance and style.    He doesn’t write with passion though he is passionate about Istanbul but rather he brings an objective reality to his text and a distilled beauty of language.   His construction is faultless and the subtleties of emotions and thought are expertly rendered by his translator, Maureen Freely.   By placing his protagonist amongst the wealthy elite of Istanbul, most of whom work for family concerns, he gives both himself and Kemal the latitude to wander Istanbul and indulge his obsession unhampered by financial or tedious domestic problems.   It is an extraordinary book, almost a psychological case study, that I urge you not to ignore.