Friday, October 05, 2018

Reading group: Moonglow by Michael Chabon.

Doug suggested this book - all 400-and-something packed and small-print pages of it - since we were having a long summer break, and because he had really loved it.

It's a book that plays excitingly with the concepts of reality and fiction, told in the mode of a memoir in which the narrator shares the name of the author, and with very much the feel of authentic autobiography, but prefaced right from the start with this statement:
In preparing this memoir, I have stuck to facts except where facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it. Wherever liberties have been taken with names, dates, places, events, and conversations, or with the identities, motivations, and interrelationships of family members and historical personages, the reader is assured that they have been taken with due abandon.
The book consists of the story of the narrator's grandfather's life, as told to him from his deathbed. It's a story of a somewhat wild urban Jewish childhood in thirties Philadelphia, post-war marriage to the narrator's grandmother, a French Jewess and single mother rescued by nuns from a fate under the Nazis, his lifetime project to cushion her from her consequent bouts of depression, and a engineering career founded in an early-planted obsession with travel to the moon and the V-2 rocket designed by Germany during the war.

The story emerges piecemeal, in a non-linear fashion, as it is related over days to the narrator, and is interspersed with the narrator's own non-linear childhood memories of his grandparents. There is, however, a grounding linearity in the narrative frame, that of Chabon being told the story and sitting listening.

Everyone loved this book - except for John, who had basically been unable to read it, which flabbergasted Doug. The book begins with an episode in 1957, when Chabon's grandfather has been working as a travelling salesman of 'fancy barrettes' in a break from his engineering career which we will later discover has been made necessary by the need to pay for his wife's psychiatric treatment. He has however been pushed out at Feathercombs by nepotism and, in blind fury, bursts into the president's office brandishing a broken-off telephone cord which he will pull around his neck.  Like the whole of this book, the incident is related in a cool, wry and almost urbane tone:
For his part, the president of Feathercombs was astonished to discover that he had approved the firing of a maniac. 'What's this about?' he said.
It was a pointless question, and my grandfather disdained to answer it; he was opposed to stating the obvious.
John said that he found the tone too light and objective for the situation and the obvious distress of the protagonist; the wit and urbanity of the narrator was foregrounded over the emotional state of the protagonist. It put him off the rest of the book and he stopped reading. None of the rest of us, however, had this reaction - we felt there was deep empathy behind the measured and witty tone, and something that Ann would later say was that the book had great humanity: all of the characters were flawed, yet all were treated with understanding and made sympathetic - in this way she found a similarity with Jon McGregor's Reservoir 13, which we discussed here.

Everyone was very impressed by the way the story of the grandfather's engineering career unravelled the Nazi link with the American postwar space programme, and the moral ambiguities involved. Ann pointed out the contrast with McEwan, who tends to insert research-based lectures into his narratives; here everything was organically embedded in the story and the psyche of the protagonist.

Jenny said she had really liked the book but it was 'too long'. However, she compared it to Dickens and said that she had looked forward to reading it in bed each night. I got the impression that she had read it over time and rather as an episodic picaresque, and there were comments that implied that this was how others saw the book. Someone said that they couldn't really see the point of a very early episode in which the pre-pubescent grandfather comes upon an intersex woman seemingly imprisoned in a shack, and people also found a little strange the fact that as a child he threw a cat out of a high window, which seemed out of character. Unlike the rest, I had been remiss enough to leave reading the book until the last minute, and so was forced to read it much more as a single whole. As a result, for me the book had a clearer overall narrative arc than I guess might seem from episodic reading. The episode with the intersex woman was highly symbolic, totemic of the trajectory of the rest of the grandfather's life. Steeped in a comic-book fantasy of rescuing a young woman by taking her to the far side of the moon, his impulse is to rescue the 'hermaphrodite', and when she won't be rescued, he is left with this impulse unfulfilled, later to be fed by his obsession with gravity-escaping rockets and the rescue of first his wife, the narrator's grandmother, and then, in widowed old age, another woman. The way he tries, even in a retirement home, to be this last woman's hero, is to save her cat which has run off into a python-infested wasteland, which brings his life full circle back to the cat-throwing incident in an act of redemption.

I said I had one problem with the book. Years after his grandfather's death, narrator Chabon conducts some research and uncovers a very different story about his grandmother's origins, which, if true, she kept hidden from her husband, Chabon's grandfather, and her daughter, Chabon's mother, and of course Chabon himself, for the whole of their lives with her. In the light of this new (and fairly shocking) information, narrator Chabon tells us, he needed to reassess everything his grandfather had told him on his deathbed. He had been trying to turn it all into a novel, but he now decided he needed to write it as a memoir in order to 'get my story straight'. I wished that once he had done so he had gone one step further and shared with us that reassessment by actually revisiting and reassessing episodes for the reader (a form that is more usual in novels), since what had gone before was so lengthy and meandering that I found it impossible to do this for myself. One revelation is that before his grandmother met his grandfather she had adopted someone else's name, and it occurred to me at this point that I did not know by which name she was known in the family - whether it had been her adopted name or her own; I had no recollection of her having been given any name at all. However, I felt unable to sift back through the wealth of material to find out. Ann said something similar. It turned out that the deceptiveness of the revelation had been missed by one or two people in our group, which perhaps adds weight to the notion that the book could have done with a more pared down and novelistically elliptical structure.

Someone, I think Jenny, added that the explicit sex scenes between the grandfather and grandmother made her feel uncomfortable, and others agreed - it always seems something of an intrusion to envisage one's parents' or grandparents' sexuality in graphic detail -  which is another problem that could have been overcome by a more wholeheartedly fictive presentation.

Nevertheless, we very much enjoyed and admired the book, and all Doug could do was shake his head at John.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Monday, September 03, 2018

Research for fiction

So, picking up on the thoughts of A L Kennedy referred to in my last post, and the question of 'writing what you know' and research:

As Kennedy implies, these two things are not necessarily opposed: you need to research in such a way that your research becomes not just a body of facts 'out there', but deep, almost somatic  knowledge that is now part of you and will emerge in a honest and convincing way in your fiction.

Very rarely when I write a story do I start out with research as a priority. Perhaps one exception is 'The Next Stop Will be Didsbury Village', published this Spring in Confingo, but first commissioned for the 2017 performance Re/plac(ed), in which initial research was a stated prompt, and we commissioned writers sat around a table choosing sites in Didsbury to research and then write stories about. Even so, I knew already that I wanted to write about Didsbury railway/tram station because it had already been vivid for many years in my mental landscape, a resonant feature of my own life and past, and its history and changing character chimed strongly with my abiding themes of fluidity and memory and exile. Looking at old photos and maps and reading some of the history of Didsbury - and hanging around on the site and letting my imagination run in the light of them - served to make more vivid and concrete the sense I already had of it all, and locked my psyche into it more strongly.

Very often, however, you begin with something entirely personal and you still end up needing to do research. Last year two of my close relatives were involved in the Borough Market terrorist attack - neither of them physically hurt, thank goodness, though needless to say they were traumatised - and so there was no way I was not going to write about a terrorist attack at some time. Yet I hesitated: important as the subject was to me and my family, I felt that such a story needed to encompass a greater breadth than one family's particular perspective. I wanted to show wider circles of repercussion through society, and to touch on some of the causes. Finally, earlier this year, I wrote it, 'Kiss' (which was longlisted in this year's Short Fiction Prize, though is yet to be published). This was one story therefore where I dared to enter the heads of BAME characters - a young black man and the young Asian terrorist. I had in fact at one time done some research (for a proposal for a radio drama that never in fact saw the light of day) into the causes of radicalisation among Asian youth in the UK, but on the whole I had to rely on my own powers of empathy and understanding, and I hope they were up to it. However, the whole story revolves around the idea of touch/contact/kiss/detonation, and although when I started I thought I knew how bombs work, I soon found that I needed to check this out, and spent several days on bomb-making websites (and risking leaving a digital trail that could implicate me as a terrorist myself!)

In my first blog post back recently, I said that I had done little writing this summer, but I did write one story, and in fact I spent several weeks on research for it - more, perhaps, than I have ever spent for a short story. As I say in my last post, the idea of fixed identity has always been anathema to me - indeed feels threatening - so I've been very taken up by the recent debate concerning gender and gender transition. Transgender having only in recent years come to wide public debate, initially I felt pretty ignorant, and I read a lot, mainly personal testimonies. At this point I couldn't imagine writing a story about it (although Virginia Woolf's Orlando was always at the back of my mind): in the current social climate, I just felt it wasn't my place. But then my reading led me on to the subject of intersex (the condition of not being entirely female or entirely male, a condition which some scientists calculate exists in some form, often very subtle, in one in a hundred people), and this struck a real spark for me, and the urge to write about it arose. From there I was led off to the subject of embryology, and was off down a rabbit hole - utterly fascinated and absorbed, and it was all beginning to resonate for me in a way that felt entirely personal, relevant to me. It took a long time for me to be able to actually write a story - to absorb the research and make it mine, and then to find a form that didn't amount to cultural appropriation, and I had several failed attempts. I'm still not sure it's finished: I have put it aside to 'gel' before returning to it again. But the 'research' no longer feels like research: it feels part of my psyche and my life.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Cultural appropriation in fiction

* I recently came across writing advice from A L Kennedy (I'm sorry, I can't find it on the web just now to provide a link) in which she insisted on that maxim, 'Write what you know', which often puzzles people: how does that not leave writers with only their own usually boring, humdrum lives at the desk to write about? Kennedy went on to clarify. You don't have to stick to your own life - how boring that would be, if writers only ever did that! - but what you have to do is immerse yourself so thoroughly in whatever you want to write about, that you do know it, emotionally and psychologically as well as merely factually, and it becomes thus part of you. It is only this way that you will write something honest, and humble, which for A L Kennedy are the two essentials in writing, and over which I strongly agree with her.

This is relevant of course to the recent debate about cultural appropriation. Two years ago, Lionel Shriver was castigated for bemoaning identity politics in her keynote address to the Brisbane Literature Festival, objecting to the notion that BAME people's stories are theirs alone to tell and that white writers writing them are guilty of 'cultural appropriation'. BAME writers responded in dismay and anger to what they saw as Shriver's expression of annoyance at the threat to the historical privilege of white people to speak for all. One of the writers critical of Shriver was Kit de Waal, but her response was more nuanced than that of others. For me one of the great political virtues of fiction is the ability to create empathy, and one essential, in the service of that, is an ability in the writer to wear other people's shoes', to 'become the other'. However, de Waal warned in a speech to the International Writers' Festival in Dublin, 'When we become the other we need always to act with respect and recognise the value of what we discover, show by our attitudes and our acknowledgements that we aren't just appropriating but are seeking to understand.'

This is the crux. I feel very strongly about the experiences of people who are discriminated against, and have a strong urge to write about it. This is mainly, I think, because I have suffered discriminations of my own - for being female and, when I was younger, for being perceived either or both as working class and Welsh. In fact I never felt entirely any of these things; things were much more complicated than they seemed. Later I would suffer reverse prejudice - for not being female (or feminine) enough; by the time I went to university I had moved with my parents to England and had lost my Welsh accent, and at my Welsh university I felt resentment from Welsh-speaking students for being 'Saes' (English) (and once a Welsh publisher turned me down because she had no proof, until I gave it, that I was Welsh, a condition of her publishing house); later, my working-class in-laws and the children I taught in a Glasgow comprehensive would mock and resent me as 'middle class'. But I also want to write about discrimination because of its history in the various branches of my family, which has seen the 'passing' of pogrom-exiled Jews as Roman Catholic, the vain attempt of my father, arriving from Ireland to wartime anti-Irish prejudice, to hide his Irishness, the gradual 'whitening' of generations originating from ancestors in a southern port who from old Victorian photos were clearly to me partly black (I must do some family history research when I get time!), and the exiling of members for interracial marriage, along with their mixed-race children.

For these reasons I do react almost with horror to the notion of fixed identity - it's just not my experience that identity is fixed in any way, and probably the fundamental reason I write fiction is to explore this. And I do have an almost somatic sense - like a crawling on my skin - of the feeling of being judged for who you are by people who don't actually know who you are.

Yet I have often hesitated to try to write my way into the heads of BAME characters, since I haven't personally suffered that particular direct discrimination: for the colour of my skin. I'm always aware that there is something in that direct and specific experience that I could miss. I have even hesitated to include BAME characters at all, afraid that I would give them inauthentic things to say and actions to make. Yet not to include them would often mean seriously misrepresenting the society I'm trying to write about - and indeed render BAME people invisible. When I came to write a comedy series for Radio 4 about a baby-sitting circle, the chief interest of which was that it provided a cross-section of an inner city suburb, it would have been almost criminal to leave out BAME characters, and at least in drama you don't have to tackle the interiority as you do in a novel, you can rely on your (empathic) observation. (And not only that, here was a chance to create roles for BAME actors.) Yet there was one really awkward moment during recording, when the black actor playing the young lad, about to read his one-word greeting ''Spect!' turned to me and asked me if I knew what that meant. 'Respect,' I replied, and he nodded and carried on, but I was left with the feeling that I had been suspected of simply parroting a stereotypical notion of black idiom I didn't even understand (in fact it was a word I was hearing young people, black and white, using to greet each other all the time), indeed of failing to show racial respect. Or maybe he simply saw me as an adult woman appropriating the speech of the young - or maybe he meant neither of these things, and I was just being fearful: in any case, I did feel the chill of identity politics in that moment, and that fear of treading on other people's toes rather than standing in their shoes.

In her Guardian response to Shriver, Yassmin Abdel Magied says:
It’s not always OK if a white guy writes the story of a Nigerian woman because the actual Nigerian woman can’t get published or reviewed to begin with. It’s not always OK if a straight white woman writes the story of a queer Indigenous man, because when was the last time you heard a queer Indigenous man tell his own story? How is it that said straight white woman will profit from an experience that is not hers, and those with the actual experience never be provided the opportunity?
This is the same argument that was employed by feminists in the eighties objecting to men writing about women's experience. Basically, it's an argument that sees fiction simply as expression (the expression of an author's experience), rather than the exploration that Kit de Waal mentions, or the (political) exercise of empathy I have always held so important. It is not the right, this argument goes, of the group with power - the men, the white middle-class writers like Shriver - to speak for those whose experiences they do not share: it should be left to those with the experience to change the minds of others through testimony. You could counter that what matters is the text, not the author (as I have so often argued in my objection to the cult of personality in our literary culture): does it feel truthful, honest and authentic to the reader most likely to identify with the situation portrayed? But I suspect that in arguments like those of Abdul Magied there is an underlying assumption that no writer of privilege could ever portray the experience of the underprivileged as well as an underprivileged writer could. I'm not sure about this notion (I've read plenty of stories by women published as part of projects to 'create women's space' that fail to represent my experience as well as does some writing by some men). But as I say, it's what sometimes makes me nervous about writing black characters. And I do think we should seriously consider the possibility that in a white-dominated publishing world, in a publishing choice between a well-written fiction about black experience written by a white writer and a similar well-written fiction by a black writer, the fiction by the white writer is likely to win. Perhaps the key is in Abdel Magied's last words, in the provision of the opportunity. Perhaps it's not a question of making authors, black or white, stay for their writing in the categories to which society has designated them personally, but of creating better equality in society, and, in particular, greater diversity in the publishing industry, so that those with authentic stories to tell can indeed be heard.

Well, I started out this post intending to talk about a story I've been writing and for which I've had to do a lot of research rather than simply rely on what I already know, but as you can see I've been sidetracked, and that will have to be for another day...

*This post has been edited as I have developed my thoughts, tentative and exploratory as they are!

Friday, August 24, 2018

Return to blogging

Well - if anyone is out there reading this - I can't tell you how strange it is to be writing this blog again today. Apart from the monthly reports of our reading group I see that I haven't in fact written a post for going on for two years (and even those reports I've sometimes struggled to achieve). The reasons are several: I was working very hard on fiction that left little space in my head, or time in the day, for any other sort of writing, and there was personal stuff that made me want to pull in my horns and sit quiet and private for a while (but which is superb grist for the mill, of course!). I suppose also there was the sense that attention had moved on from blogs and the fact that a blog, which takes time to create, provides far less reward in terms of tangible interaction with readers than Facebook and Twitter.

Yet here I am, after a summer away from my desk - a summer completely taken up with trips and visitors and family, so that I have hardly written at all - with a yen to blog again (and yet with that initial awkwardness you experience when you've not seen someone for a good long time), to be able to contemplate things at greater leisure and with more permanence than the noisy, fleeting Facebook and Twitter allow. I realise too now that writing here about developments concerning my own writing provides a permanent record of publications, dates etc that can otherwise so easily get forgotten.

As for this last, this summer has seen the publication of two new stories, and a third, 'Kiss', was longlisted in the Short Fiction Journal Prize.

'The Meadow' appears in Words for the Wild, an anthology of poetry and prose fiction 'rooted in the countryside', edited by Amanda Oosthuizen and Louise Taylor. It's my first ever 'flash' and was first commissioned by Amanda for the Words for the Wild website, which was set up to support a campaign against development plans for executive-style housing on precious green space. 'The Meadow' tackles this situation directly and ponders the clashing issues involved (and is pretty autobiographical!). (I met Amanda in June 2015 at the Norwich launch of Unthology 7, in which we each had a story - we had a great time afterwards in the pub!).

'The Next Stop Will Be Didsbury Village' was published in the Spring 2018 issue of the literary journal Confingo. This story was originally commissioned for another project. Last summer (2017), the writer Sarah-Clare Conlon produced a performance for Didsbury Arts Festival, Re/Place(d), for which several of us - Sarah Butler, Adrian Slatcher, David Gaffney, Nicholas Royle, I and Sarah-Clare herself - wrote and performed stories inspired by various sites around Didsbury. I chose Didsbury tram station, which is on the site (more or less) of the old Victorian railway station, inspired by the sense it always gives me of people's comings and goings through time, and the shifts and yet permanences through the centuries. I don't usually write site-specific stories - or, at least, if I do I work hard on making them universal rather than specific (sometimes not even naming the place or changing its name): it seems to me that if you don't you risk making readers who don't know a place feel excluded. But I did find this a great project to do, and really enjoyed trawling through old photos of the station and taking photos of my own, and the way they formed ideas and a story in my head.

We read in the great atmosphere of Didsbury's Parsonage (which is supposed to be haunted) and old footage of Didsbury showed on a screen as we read. It was a great evening with a packed house. Confingo editor Tim Shearer was in the audience and afterwards asked to see my story with a view to publishing it. Here I am chatting afterwards with him (centre) and Nicholas Royle:

Well, it's taken me some time to write this blog - to provide the links and upload the photos etc, which reminds me why I found it so hard to keep going while working so solidly at other writing. Perhaps I won't achieve what I used to - I used to blog every day, or most days - but I do hope now to keep in touch with it.

Friday, August 03, 2018

Reading group: Harvest by Jim Crace

Some plot spoilers.

Clare suggested this historical novel about a rural English community that has been peaceably conducting subsistence farming under the benign supervision of a manorial landlord but is suddenly threatened with a new owner and enclosure for sheep farming managed for his own profit. It is told from the first-person viewpoint of Walter Thirsk, a relative newcomer who arrived in the village with the current landlord, Master Kent, when the land fell to Master Kent's now deceased wife, but who, on falling in love with a village girl (also now deceased), left his master's service to embed himself in the community.

Thus Crace creates a narrator with a two-fold perspective - a keen, somatic insight into the lives and perspectives of the villagers and an objectivity and insight that they in their rural innocence cannot have into the seismic historical changes about to engulf them.

It's an atmospheric novel, opening with what seem like smoke signals of doom: smoke from a newly-erected hut just outside the boundary of the village - which, ironically, will turn out to have been erected by a family ejected themselves from land newly enclosed - and from Master Kent's stables, a fire for which the newcomers will be blamed. Thus begins a series of tragic events that will end in the total destruction and evacuation of the village.

Clare said she found it an engrossing read, and most people agreed with her. There are vivid descriptions of the village and countryside that make the place almost tangibly real, and at the same time a down-to earth linguistic pithiness. What John and I found most impressive was the rhythm of the prose: there was a fluidity binding together all the elements - events and themes - and a propulsion that not only kept you reading but also created a sense of the unstoppable, formally enacting the theme of inevitable change.

People were struck by the novel's theme of contrasting and relative perspectives. The first sign of the coming change is the appearance during the harvest of a man dressed in town clothes, watching and writing things down with a quill - he will turn out to have been sent by the cousin of Master Kent's dead wife, who is now claiming the land. Walter Thirsk, having burned his hand in helping to put out the fire in Master Kent's stables and being therefore temporarily unable to do farm work, is assigned as his assistant as he surveys and maps the land. Thirsk is shocked and taken by the new perspective on the village afforded by 'Mr Quill' 's map - a completely new way of looking at it and experiencing it. He is also shocked by Quill's desire to name its parts - its fields etc - in descriptive or romantic ways rather than simply according to their use, and more generally by his romantic-aesthetic view of the landscape, which is divorced from its gritty realities. However, Thirsk remembers that this is how he too once viewed it as a newcomer from the town himself, and towards the end, when it becomes clear he is going have to leave the village, he is able to see it in that light again.

The group were a little puzzled by what seemed like some moral ambiguity. Master Kent spends most of the novel as a sympathetic character: he has been a benign landlord; he is impotent against his wife's cousin's claim on the land and is cowed by him; he appears to be crucified by the cousin's horrific effects on the villagers. (It is true that he keeps doves that steal the harvest gleanings, but the impression is that he does so in innocence, and he does have the two strangers blamed for the fire put in the stocks although their crime hasn't been proved, but then this seems naive adherence to custom). Yet when he rides away with the cousin, village women and a child accused by the cousin of witchcraft following on foot and tethered to horses, Thirsk, watching from a hilltop, sees Master Kent and the cousin amiably chatting and laughing as they ride. And Thirsk himself, too, seems morally ambiguous: after all, he has looked to his own safety above all else - understandably, perhaps, because, once the villagers are inflamed and incited to violence, his outsider status comes back to haunt him and is a danger to him. On reflection, it seems to me that these things are intended as sad but inevitable morally ambiguous consequences in a situation where people find themselves at the mercy of unstoppable and capitalistic historical forces.

People wondered in which century the story was meant to take place (the English countryside underwent enclosure from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries) and where in England. Neither of these things is stated. Some assumed it to be the earlier period, as the village was so very primitive and isolated. Others thought later, since isolated pre-enclosure rural communities stayed the same for centuries, and felt that some of the hints about town life smacked of the eighteenth century. The descriptions for me very much conjured southern England, but then some of the characters' names sounded Northern to me, in particular of course Thirsk. I think the uncertainty is the point: Jim Crace is famous for creating mythic places and situations that exist outside real-life geography and time (and although people in the group marvelled at the seeming accuracy of his research here, is also famous for saying that he doesn't rely on research but makes things up for his own fictive ends). What he does is create a dream into which one can interpolate oneself, and his novels are nearly always allegories of trends in our own time. Master Kent stands with Walter Thirsk surveying the land:
'This land,' he says, gesturing, 'has always been much older than ourselves.' ... this ancient place would soon be new, he wants to say. We're used to looking out and seeing what's preceded us, and what will outlive us. Now we have to contemplate a land bare of both ... we'll look across these fields and say, 'This land is so much younger than ourselves.'
A situation in which people are exiled by capitalist forces from homes they thought would last forever is both historically universal and crucially characteristic of our own global world.

John pointed out that much of the action takes place off-stage, due in the main to Walter Thirsk's removal from things because of his burnt hand. An interesting effect of this is that Thirsk, having to imagine scenes and fill in the blanks, keeps attributing better motives to people than they turn out to have, which creates dramatic irony and which I found poignant. John, however, said it made the novel rather dull for him. Pulled on by the rhythm, he was engrossed as he read, but he said he admired the book (finding it in fact very clever) rather than enjoyed it. He also said that, vivid as the details of the countryside were, he felt that they were rather coolly and even academically presented, in comparison to, say, those of Jon McGregor's Reservoir 13 (discussed here) where they carried a strong emotive charge. Ann, who had not said anything so far, now said that she was afraid that she hadn't like the book at all. She had found Walter Thirsk's 'eighteenth-century' register entirely fake and frequently interspersed with anachronistic modernisms - quite unlike the unique register devised by Francis Spufford for Golden Hill (discussed here) which felt entirely eighteenth-century-authentic and accessible at the same time. (I had noticed one or two modernisms in Harvest, which had brought me up short.) And because she had been very busy with other things, Ann had lost patience and given up on the book.

Clare now said something with which everyone else who had read the book agreed: that, engrossing as it had been as you read, in the end it trails away. The action reaches a climax which is then followed by a long hiatus in which Thirsk gets high and then ill on mushrooms, which not only seems out of character but holds up the action, dispelling the narrative tension, and which we suspected was merely an authorial stratagem to keep him out of the way while the final events, which he would otherwise have prevented, play out.

And that was the note on which we ended: a good read (for most of us) that disappointingly 'fizzles out'.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here.


Thursday, June 21, 2018

Reading group: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carre

Neither John nor I had ever had any inclination to read this famous book - voted one of the 'All-Time 100 Novels' by Time magazine - an espionage fiction that would inevitably, we felt, foreground plot over psychology and language which are our main interests in fiction. However, one great thing about our group is that it forces you to read books you otherwise wouldn't (and thus opens you up to insights you would otherwise not have had), and so when Ann suggested it we agreed, and I got on the train to London, dutifully powered up my Kindle and started reading, only to find myself instantly immersed.

Set in the year of the completion of the Berlin wall (and written very soon afterwards), the story opens as Alec Leamas, head of British secret service operations in Berlin, is waiting at the checkpoint to receive his last remaining operative escaping from the East, only to have to watch him gunned down as he tries. With all of his operatives now assassinated by the East Germans, Leamas is recalled to London and, motivated by personal revenge, agrees to pose as a defector in a British plot to take out the head of the East German secret service, the vicious ex-Nazi and anti-semite Mundt.

Although the book is written as I expected in a spare, almost functional prose, to my surprise I was immediately taken by the seedy early-sixties atmosphere it conveys, as was John. It's an atmosphere of oppression immediately striking one as entirely political, conjuring as it does a sense of the moral uncertainty and bankruptcy that are central to this tale, and which feels entirely authentic and a far cry from the slick glamour of James Bond. After his return to London, Leamas is summarily 'let go' by the security service with little pension and appears to be on a disaffected downward spiral, taking to drink and ending up in jail. Although I was clear that this was all a plot to attract the attention of East German secret service recruiters, the omniscient narration keeps the reader at a remove from Leamas's interiority, and much information about his actions and motives is withheld from us. Therefore, since I didn't know the plot (unlike most people, I guess - I haven't seen the film, either) when the narration tells us that Leamas 'looked confused' in conversation with his East German recruiters, I wasn't clear whether this was part of the act that he was putting on for their benefit, or whether he was really confused, and as a result as I read I felt a little critical of the handling of the narrative voice. By the end of the book I knew which it was, and am more inclined now to feel that by withholding information and creating such confusions for the reader the book formally enacts the political tricksiness and moral slipperiness of which Leamas will turn out to be a victim and for which it indicts not just the East German state but the British.

All of us in the group agreed that this is why the book was groundbreaking, contrasting strikingly with the Us-and-Them ideology of conventional thrillers. Ann had opened the discussion by saying that she wasn't quite sure about the book, but seemed to become more positive as the discussion went on. Mark, Clare and Jenny really loved it. John, however, had failed to go on reading it because of the lack of psychology and interiority - characters chiefly portrayed via their appearance (often including the fifties/sixties spy-novel stereotype of hat and mackintosh) - and an utter absence of emotion in the narration. He also objected strongly to the sexist portrayal of Liz, the young woman with whom Leamas gets involved (and whose passive and over-amenable character I felt didn't exactly fit with her political activism as a member of the local branch of the British Communist Party). Mark defended this last as being 'of its time'. I said I did feel a certain lack in the matter of psychology: the only psychology really was about who was manipulating whom. I conceded however that in a way that was the point: what the book is about, as I think Ann said, is the psychopathic psychology of governments which makes the psychology of individuals irrelevant. It operates not on a psychological but on a political level that is entirely relevant to political events today, and I was very happy to have (finally) read it as such. (And it is, after all, emotive in the end).

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Reading group: Lullaby by Leila Slimani

Mark is the member of our group who has always been the most adamant about resisting hype when considering novels, and I might have expected him to be deeply suspicious of this internationally best-selling novel by a beautiful young woman who has featured on the cover of Elle. However, French-Moroccan Leila Slimani has the distinction of having been appointed by President Macron, after the success of this novel, to the job of promoting French language and culture (he even offered her the job of Culture Minister), which indicates the likelihood of a seriousness of purpose in Slimani as a writer. In addition, Mark had found that all the mothers at the school gate were reading the book avidly and enthusiastically recommending it. Above all, it won the Prix Goncourt. In the light of these recommendations, and especially interested in the theme of racial mix promised by the similarly French Moroccan mother in the book, Mark suggested it for the group, and we all happily agreed.

The book concerns the murder of the mother's two small children by her nanny, Louise, who then tries to slit her own throat. Slimani has said that it was inspired by a real-life case in Manhattan in 2012, and the Louise of her book is named after the British au pair Louise Woodward who was convicted of the manslaughter of a child in her care.

We know the outcome right from the start - the book begins (sensationally):
The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds... The broken body, surrounded by toys, was put inside a grey bag, which they zipped shut. The little girl was still alive when the ambulance arrived. She'd fought like a wild animal. They found signs of a struggle, bits of skin under her soft fingernails. On the way to the hospital she was agitated, her body shaken by convulsions. Eyes bulging, she seemed to be gasping for air. Her throat was filled with blood. Her lungs had been punctured, her head smashed violently against the blue chest of drawers.

With the outcome already revealed and the shock-horror seemingly already exhausted in one fell swoop, one might expect that the following retrospective narration - which begins with the need of the parents Myriam and Paul to appoint a nanny - would be either an examination of the psychology of the perpetrator or a charting of cumulative clues as to the hidden violence that would finally emerge (or both), and a convincing portrayal of the situation leading up to the murder. In fact, none of us felt we had any of this. Even though there are sections purporting to be from Louise's point of view, none of us felt we got a grip on her character. There are sections from the parents' point of view but they appear to have little sense of any accumulating danger, as does the reader, since the portrayal of Louise seems merely inconsistent. In fact, we found it difficult even to envisage her physically. Early on we are told that she looks calm and 'imperturbable' and young for her forty years of age, and in the parent's household she has massive energy, doing excessive and unasked-for cleaning and caring for the whole family; at other times we get the impression of someone fearful, downtrodden and waif-like and even lacking in energy. It's not at all clear whether this is intended as a psychological contradiction or a calculated  deception. Initially we got the sense of someone wholesome-looking, but later (and only later) it's made clear that she has always worn garish makeup to the house. The sections from her point of view, which presumably show her true psychology and situation (she is divorced, poor, living alone in a squalid room) portray her in the waif-like state, which makes it difficult to believe the apparently self-motivated energy she expends on the family.

There are potentially sinister moments, but there seems uncertainty in the presentation of their significance. The parents come home to find a binned chicken carcass resurrected on the kitchen table, but it's never clear what this indicates. Is this Louise's calculated comment on the parents' middle-class wastefulness, meant to shock and disquiet them, or does it just indicate something psychologically strange about Louise? If the former, why is it immediately followed by a bout of unnecessary excessive cleaning and cooking, since this last, we are slowly beginning to realise, is her way of ingratiating herself to make herself indispensable to the family? There is little to indicate what's going on psychologically in this seeming contradiction. She makes up the infant Mila's face with her own garish makeup, a 'vulgarity' which shocks and angers Paul, but Paul overlooks it in the end, and for us it wasn't made to seem sinister enough to indicate any tendency that would lead to the shocking ending. At one point Mila bites Louise, which Louise keeps from the parents, using this later to blackmail Mila into silence when eventually the parents notice bite marks on their children. Yet the children adore her, and she, we are told, loves them. Eventually evicted from her flat for non-payment of the rent, she moves into the family's apartment while they are away, unknown to them, and puts on Myriam's clothes. At this point you can see that she may be desperate and that she feels that her job with the family is her only salvation. This is the rationale behind a scheme she thinks up to enable a romantic evening for the parents so that they will have sex (and a consequent baby for her to care for when the other two children go to school). Since we hadn't actually been convinced of such disconnection from reality on Louise's part, this seemed to us just a pretty preposterous plot development, and we were unconvinced that the failure of the ruse (the parents ended up not having sex) was enough to lead to the murders very soon afterwards. It is true that Louise has a strange uncaring attitude to her own adult daughter whom she hasn't seen for years, but she has had glowing references from a previous family - 'the perfect nanny' - and a lot of the time she seems to love the two children she is now caring for - indeed, in a scene just before the murder takes place it is explicitly stated that she loves them.

Maybe there are psychological subtleties and ironies in the original French that failed to carry through to the English translation, but we felt it unlikely and were very disappointed by the book. Mark was also disappointed that it did not address the racial issues he expected it to. Myriam's French-Moroccan identity is never an issue (she is characterised merely as a typical liberal middle-class Parisian). All of the other nannies in the neighbourhood are immigrants, but Slimani has said that she made Louise a white Frenchwoman because she wanted to make her an outsider on any every level: Louise has nothing much to do with the other nannies, and their immigrant status merely serves to emphasise her isolation and oddness.

She is certainly odd, but only, we found, in the sense that her character seems impenetrable and/or inconsistent. Presumably, the reason for the book's wild success is due to its striking subject matter alone - the working parents' worst nightmare - and we felt it was a sorely missed opportunity on a literary level.  Our discussion didn't last long, and Mark concluded by saying we'd been sold a pig in a poke.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here.