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.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Reading group: Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

Well, here was a novel that everyone present thought 'wonderful' - that was the word people used.

It opens at New Year when the people of a Pennines village gather to help in the search for a thirteen-year-old girl, a holidaymaker, who has gone missing during a walk with her parents on the moor. But this book is not a crime thriller: the mystery is no curious puzzle to be neatly solved by the final pages; the concerns of this book are elsewhere, and indeed it interrogates the very genre. The girl here is not found, and in thirteen chapters each beginning at New Year, the book charts the effect on the community over the next thirteen years, and the fading yet lasting significance of the unsolved mystery.

The style is spare, calm and objective, the narratorial eye entirely omniscient, often watching as if indeed from above. The book begins:
They gathered in the car park in the hour before dawn and waited to be told what to do. It was cold and there was little conversation. There were questions that weren't being asked. The missing girl's name was Rebecca Shaw. When last seen she'd been wearing a white hooded top. A mist hung low across the moor and the ground was frozen hard.
Someone even said the style was almost 'cold', and what bowled everyone over was how paradoxically moving the effect was - everyone had been extremely moved by the book.
People puzzled about how McGregor had achieved this. A chief characteristic of the book is the constant juxtaposition of the progress of the human developments in the village with nature and the weather, creating a poignant sense of human dramas taking place within the greater scheme of things and evolving time, a moving sense of 'life goes on'. McGregor emphasises this juxtaposition by moving from one to the other without paragraph breaks:
It has, Cathy agreed, and Richard heard the rustle of her coat being slipped from her shoulders. It was daft but something stirred in him. A fog came in and lay heavy for a week...
Dialogue, too, is unpunctuated by speech marks, thus merging the conversation of human dramas with the overall narrative flow.

Someone commented that McGregor never actually tells you what people feel, but simply shows you through their actions. As can be seen in the quote immediately above, that's not exactly the case: he does in fact quite often spell out the way people feel, but there is something about the context in which he does so that makes it utterly convincing, and part of this I think is the humanity of his vision. Over the thirteen years we follow the lives and relationships of several of the village people with all their flaws. The narratorial view is entirely democratic and never ever judgemental, so we feel for them all. There is so much sadness as marriages break up and people die, yet there is a matter-of-factness too, as the foxes and badgers go on breeding in the woods and the goldfinches nest yearly in the fir copse. This soothing regularity is codified by McGregor in a constant repetition of phrases that achieves the effect of poetry, and which, as the years go round, we come to expect like a familiar lullaby. Every subsequent chapter begins with a line from the first, 'At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks...' and each repetition is followed by a different circumstance concerning the fireworks, poignantly illustrating the effects of events and change within the wider cycle of the life of the village.

Some people commented that McGregor does use the crime thriller genre to tease the reader and keep the narrative tension going: there are several characters whose behaviour could bring them under suspicion, and there are moments when clues to Rebecca's disappearance seem to emerge or to be about to emerge: a white top is found on the moor, for instance, and identified as hers; maintenance men dive in the reservoirs and the river keeper frees a blockage. These things struck me rather as aspects of the unending uncertainty and unfinished nature of the mystery for the inhabitants of the village. Everyone agreed how striking was the moment when a dog being walked comes across the navy-blue gilet which only the reader will recognise as Rebecca's - the dog's owner doesn't even notice it: a devastating moment of utter loss of significance for something held on the human scale as so significant.

Basically, we loved the book!


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

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Reading Group: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

There were only four of us to discuss this, Arundhati Roy's 1996 Booker-winning debut - Ann, Jenny, John and me. It's now two months since our discussion - I've been extremely busy and distracted by my own writing and research for an article - so by now my memory of our discussion is patchy, and I'm afraid I'm not likely to do justice to everybody's contribution. However - stretching my brain to remember - here goes.

The novel opens with the return of a young woman, Rahel, to the Indian village of Ayemenem, where, in the summer of 1969 when she and her twin brother were seven years old, a tragedy befell their Christian Syrian family, involving the 'laws that lay down who should be loved, and how'. The tragic outcome - which included the death of a child - is flagged early on, though not the details of how or why, and it is only slowly unravelled via extended non-chronological flashbacks mimicking the operations of memory, often (though not always) seen through the unknowing child Rahel's perspective, and set against India's political turmoil of the time.

We all agreed, I think, that the book's depiction of the downfall and decline of the family, and the lushness and squalor of the surroundings in which it takes place, are vividly depicted. The characterisation is rich, and the book is full of startling observations of the physical world - water falls from a swimmer's arm 'like a silver sleeve', for instance. Jason Cowley, a judge for the 1997 Booker prize, justified the book's win by pointing to Roy's childlike ability to see the world anew, and it's hard to argue with this.

However, John, Ann and I did have some problems with the language and voice connected with this vision. Rahel and her twin Estha are especially bright children with a particular language facility - they have the quick-fire ability to read sentences backwards, play word games, make verbal lists, and apply to words (in their heads) the quaintness of capital initial letters. This works beautifully when we are seeing the world and events through their perspective. However, Roy extends this 'childlike' wordplay to moments when our perspective is not that of the children, and the effect for us was coy, and for me often introduced a levity inappropriate to the situation. To some extent, I guess, when the perspective is that of the adult Rahel, this could be said to be Rahel inserting herself back into her childhood mentality, but it didn't always feel like that, and the same language play is used when the perspective is that of other adults. Salma Rushdie uses the same techniques in Midnight's Children, but in my view they work much better in that novel, since it is more outrightly comic. Jenny didn't agree with us. She thought that the self-conscious spellings - 'Lay-Ter' - reflected the dialect left behind by the Raj, but even allowing for that, I found the self-consciousness of its usage in the book coy and possibly flippant. For me there was also a more fundamental problem of perspective: the whole novel is framed by Rahel's present-tense adult perspective, yet scenes are described (in vivid detail) - and in particular a crucial one near the end - of which even the adult Rahel can know nothing, or which she can at best only speculate about.

In particular, for me, the linked problem of tone came to a head in a scene towards the end where a posse of policemen files through a field towards a hut where they know a fugitive is hiding. By this time we identify with their prey, and we have known since the beginning of the novel that the outcome will be tragic, so one would expect the narrative tone to be one of tension. Yet not only is the scene described at length with a leisurely relish - 'ancient trees cloaked in vines. Gigantic mani plants. Wild pepper. Cascading purple acuminus' - the policemen are portrayed in comic terms - 'Their wide khaki shorts were rigid with starch, and bobbed over the tall grass like a row of stiff skirts'; they 'mince' across a fallen tree trunk - and however ironically this is intended, I found it almost dismayingly inappropriate.

We did all feel that the closeness of the twins, and the fact that they were separated by the tragedy, was very moving, but because of the very vividness of the depiction of the brotherly-sisterly nature of that early closeness, we did not find the present-day ending between them (which I won't give away here) at all convincing.

Mark was away when we held the meeting. Afterwards he told us that he'd taken a brief look at the book and put it aside - I think he said it was 'tedious'. An Angela's Ashes for India, he said, and he wasn't at all surprised that we'd been only four for the meeting: the others, he said, must have been frightened away.

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

Friday, January 19, 2018

Reading group: Autumn by Ali Smith

Reading Ali Smith's early short stories made me a great admirer, and I was bowled over by her novel Hotel World (published as a debut, though in fact her second, as I discovered when browsing in a second-hand bookshop and coming across an earlier novel Like - an example, I presume, of the publishing industry's obsession with debuts and lack of faith in literary authors whose first novels - usually inevitably - have failed to be bestsellers in the commercial terms to which the industry now seems to be in thrall). I bought Like - a lovely silvery hardback from Virago, but I have never actually read it, since before I could do so our group discussed the novel that followed Hotel World, The Accidental, and, along with other members, I was rather disappointed. I had read none of her novels since, until Doug mentioned that he had found stunning her recent Women's Prize-winning and Booker shortlisted Autumn, and I therefore suggested it for the group.

I read it twice beforehand. Ali Smith's prose is wonderfully lyrical yet tough and informed by an extremely sharp intelligence. It has however a breathless headlong quality that tends to force me, at any rate, to read her novels so fast and greedily that I feel I'm often missing their undeniable depths and connections. (That's less likely to happen with a short story, I feel, as you come to a short story with a certain expectation of concentration, which slows down the reading process - plus the fact that a short story is more easily read a second time). Autumn is particularly headlong, I found, which everyone else in the group assumed was a function of its reported particular mode of production: apparently Smith was so late delivering her previous novel, How to Be Both, that in order to make the previously announced publishing date the publisher had to rush it out in double-quick time; when Smith realised how quickly it could be done, she suggested a quartet of books to be published seasonally, named after the seasons and responding to our current political and social times. Autumn, published in the autumn following the June 2016 Brexit referendum, is the first of the four. Certainly when I got to the end of my first reading, I thought I must have missed a great deal and so read the book again, and my two reactions to the book were markedly different.

As the book was my suggestion, it was up to me to introduce it at the meeting, but I didn't really want to talk immediately about my change of perception, since everyone else present had read it only once. Even as I was explaining this, I could see on the faces of everyone else present negative reaction to the book (Doug, the book's admirer, hadn't been able to make the meeting), and since their shared attitude was clear, I did then talk about my two reactions.

The book opens with a slew of literary references concerned with anarchy:

It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again. That's the thing about things. They fall apart, always have, always will, it's in their nature. So an old old man washed up on a shore.

Those steeped in literature will recognise in this very short passage an echo of the opening of Dickens's Tale of Two Cities, set during the French Revolution (It was the best of times, it was the worst of times), a reference to W B Yeats' poem 'Second Coming' written in the aftermath of the First World War and the Easter Rising (Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold), and another recalling the shipwreck and anarchy of Shakespeare's Tempest. After this we segue into a dream sequence in which the 'old old man', Daniel Gluck, notices alongside him the (clearly contemporary) dead bodies of refugees while tourists suntan themselves nearby, ponders the fact that he is dead, drowned, remembers odd disconnected moments from his past - a postcard he bought once, conkers he once took as child to his baby sister - and, while the Greek nymphs of  Ovid's Metamorphoses dance in the near distance, turns, like the nymph Daphne, into a tree.

The next chapter switches tack and style abruptly: we are in a post office in summer 2016 and, in a far more naturalistic and wryly comic episode, thirty-year-old Elisabeth Demand, a junior lecturer in art history, is encountering the ludicrously obstructive bureaucracy of present-day England in applying for a new passport, and, while she is kept interminably waiting, reading Aldous Huxley's futuristic warning Brave New World. It is only in the next chapters that the two strands come together: Elisabeth leaves the post office for the Maltings Care Home, where hundred-year-old Daniel Gluck, once a writer of song lyrics, is in the 'increased sleep' period that precedes death, and it becomes clear that the events of the first chapter are the substance of his dream as he lies in his semi-coma.

Slowly we will learn that Daniel was the neighbour of Elisabeth and her single mother when she was a child, that he and Elisabeth developed a special relationship in which he nurtured her intellect and clearly set her on her art history career, and that now she is visiting him and reading to him while he sleeps. Meanwhile, however, we are treated to Elisabeth's own surreal dreams about Daniel as she nods off over her book beside his bed, conversations she imagines having with him should he wake, flashbacks to their actual conversations, full of word play, when she was a child, more of Daniel's own memories, seeming divergences concerning well-known real-life figures who are not however immediately identified - a tramp who only on my second reading did I recognise as Charlie Chaplin, the woman at the centre of the Profumo sex and spy scandal, Christine Keeler, and the forgotten female sixties pop artist, Pauline Boty (who is only now, in the 21st century, receiving recognition) - and what seemed on first reading an odd scene set in Nice in 1943 in which a Jewish woman is rounded up with others by the Nazis and resists. Running along through it all is a portrayal of the effects of the Brexit referendum result on British society, at one point directly echoing the oppositions of the opening of A Tale of Two Cities - All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they'd really lost. All across the country, people felt they'd really won - as well as a plot concerning Elisabeth's mother's lesbian awakening and rebellion against the mysterious and sinister fencing off of common land, presumably for the penning of immigrants. Interjected now and then are descriptions of the season as summer slides into autumn.

All of this, and more besides, is packed into a short book (the publisher has pumped it up with large print) and the effect for me for much of my first reading was of many very clever ideas and connections - a wide range of instances of oppression and resistance - being thrown into the air by an astute intelligence, but that I simply wasn't grasping it all and that maybe it didn't actually make a novel. It was only in the latter half of the book that I came to see that the elements, rather than being just the ponderings and imaginings of an author, all played their part in a novelistic structure. The Tempest, it will turn out, is the play that Daniel Gluck took Elisabeth to see as a child; very belatedly it will become clear that Charlie Chaplin is relevant not only for his political resistance but because Daniel showed the child Elisabeth Charlie Chaplin films; the tree dream is an echo of one of those childhood conversations; Pauline Boty is central because Daniel Gluck once knew her and was in love with her 'way of seeing' (and Elisabeth now teaches her work), and Christine Keeler because Pauline Boty painted her image and Daniel attended her trial. Pauline Boty, we will learn, is the woman for whom he bought the postcard mentioned early on, and on my second reading that early mention carried a significance that was so lacking on my first reading that I simply forgot it altogether. The resisting Jewish woman is Daniel Gluck's sister, lost after all in the Holocaust. I didn't actually realise this until my second reading. In fact, she is named - Hannah Gluck - but there was so much else going in the novel and I was reading in such a headlong fashion the first time around that I only vaguely registered this connection and read on before I could digest it, and then forgot it. It was only on my second reading that I realised that the song lyric that Daniel once wrote and which is now used in a supermarket TV advert is a song commemorating his sister. Then, in retrospect, his early memory of taking conkers to her as a baby took on an emotive resonance, while on my first reading, like the postcard, it seemed to have no significance at all. The Tale of Two Cities references are not simply pulled out of the air: it is one of the books that Elisabeth, having found it in a second-hand bookshop, reads to Daniel as he sleeps.

In other words, I said to the group, when I came to read the novel a second time, I was able to read everything through the frame of the history of Daniel and Elisabeth's relationship and their shared conversations and preoccupations, at which point what had seemed the first time a bit of mess, perhaps, became a jigsaw puzzle with everything slotted into place. Everyone present acknowledged that the book was beautifully written on the level of the sentences - that there is no doubt that Smith can write - but nearly everyone said, in chorus, that, having read the book only once, their impression was, frankly, that it was indeed a mess. Ann, who was perhaps the most negative, said she felt that the book needed editing (to make the frame more obvious from the beginning) and this prompted speculation that the book had been written and produced in too much of a rush. Mark felt that although he could see from what I'd said that things did indeed slot together in retrospect, he wasn't sure that they really, thematically, fitted. What had sixties pop art and the Swinging Sixties got to do with Brexit? I felt convinced for a moment but then suggested that it was intended as a contrast, a time of hope and experimentation and the relaxing of rules contrasted with the closing down - the suspicion and resentment and austerity - of Brexit Britain, but people weren't very convinced, and there was some demurring about what the sixties in reality represented: the book seems a little starry-eyed about it all, but as Jenny pointed out, for most people the Swinging Sixties happened elsewhere.

The novel is clearly about the redeeming power of the arts in the face of political and social oppression, but the group were dubious about the wealth of literary references in the book: we did wonder what readers who didn't know them would make of them: would it give them a feeling of exclusion? Jenny said they made her think that Ali Smith was 'too clever by half'. Everyone was extremely interested in Pauline Boty, about whom none of us had previously known or known much, but I think it was Clare who said that she felt that the section describing her life and work came over as an injected lecture rather than an organic element of a novel, and there was general agreement on this. People also agreed that the Brexit sections, well written as they were, seemed levered in for the sake of contemporaneity, Mark being particularly strong on this, and Mark said he was really irritated by the sections describing the season, which he felt were also there simply to fit the original brief. Clare said she was really interested in and touched by the relationship between Daniel and Elisabeth - and everyone agreed - but she felt that it was overshadowed by all the other elements and thus underdeveloped (and again people agreed). I was persuaded by this in the meeting and agreed, but think on reflection that reading with a clearer sense of the frame of Daniel and Elisabeth's relationship and preoccupations - the fact that so many of these things are elements of their relationship - would go a long way to dispel this impression. There were odd things that really sparked Clare's interest, she said, but which were only mentioned briefly, and that she wished had been developed, such as the fact that Elisabeth once had a boyfriend who expressed jealousy of her platonic love for Daniel. (I wondered whether this was an instance of a glancing technique that can work well in a short story, but perhaps not so well in a novel.) I did agree, and still think, that the mechanical architecture of the novel feels a little forced in order to bring the thematic elements together, the fictional Daniel Gluck having a relationship with the real-life Pauline Boty, for instance, and in particular his attendance at Christine Keeler's trial.

John kept quiet for most of the time as he felt much more ambivalent than the others. He too had read the novel only once, and he too had found it problematic, but like me he considered Ali Smith a brilliant writer and knew that she didn't make mistakes, and felt, as I had, that a second read would make him see it very differently. Jenny however questioned whether you should have to read a novel a second time in order to get it at all.

Trevor didn't make the meeting, but Ann had bumped into him beforehand. He hadn't liked it at all, he said: it certainly didn't come into his 'dead good' category. It was left to Doug to praise the novel. He wrote afterwards to reiterate how much he had loved it: 'I found it really uplifting. We are all time travellers!'

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

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Reading group: the Vegetarian by Han Kang

We approached Han Kang's The Vegetarian, suggested by Doug, with interest and even excitement. In translation it won the South Korean author the 2016 International Man Booker Prize, and the classy Portobello paperback edition carries rave comments from, among others, linguistically innovative novelist Eimar McBride, Deborah Levy, the Independent and the Irish Times.

A very short novel, it concerns a female protagonist, Yeong-hye, who one day, seemingly out of the blue, defies social convention and her own previous conforming nature by stopping eating meat, disconcerting her conventional and disapproving husband and family. Her father tries to force meat into her mouth, her instant response to which is to make a suicide attempt, and in reaction her husband leaves her. Eventually she stops eating altogether. 

The first somewhat puzzled comments came from Ann, who, unable to attend, sent us her thoughts beforehand. She said she was glad to have read it, and thought it an interesting insight into a culture very different from our own, but found it a discomforting read, and not simply, it seemed, for its events. The book is divided into three sections. The first is narrated by the husband and takes us to the point of Yeong-hye's suicide attempt. The second moves on to a time after Yeong-hye's husband has left, and the narrative voice switches to third person and adopts the viewpoint of Yeong-hye's brother-in-law, a video artist who becomes obsessed with using Yeong-hye in an erotic artwork, her naked body painted with flowers. The third section leaps on again further in time, and is the third-person viewpoint of Inge-hye, Yeong-hye's sister, now living alone with her child after having discovered her husband's erotic exploitation of Yeong-hye, and visiting Yeong-hye in the hospital to which she has had her admitted for her self-starvation. Why, Ann wondered, should only one character be awarded the first person - the character indeed who is least actively involved in the story, and who after the first section drops out of it altogether - and not the Vegetarian herself?

Others of us had had the same puzzled reaction to this structure, and some, in particular John, wondered, as last time, if, in view of the book's phenomenal success, we were perhaps judging by inappropriate Western literary standards, and seeing structural uneasiness where others saw brilliant innovation. I said however that in reading about the book and its author I had discovered that the three sections had originally been published separately as short stories, which, rather than novelistic inventiveness, could explain what we had experienced as an unevenness of narrative voice and focus. As it was, we had been led to think at the start that the book would be a psychological study of an unreliable narrator, a cold, convention-bound husband, only to find it was nothing of the sort, all interest in him dropped.

The only insights we have into Yeong-hye's viewpoint and psyche, however, are via the very minimal dialogue reported by the others, and the dreams featuring blood and murder that prompt her meat aversion, which are indeed presented as she related them, in the first person, but couched, in the uncomprehending husband's section, in distancing italics (and indeed lack specificity and are melodramatically cliched):
Dreams overlaid with dreams, a palimpsest of horror. Violent acts perpetrated by night. A hazy feeling I can't pin down...but remembered as blood-chillingly definite.
For the whole novel her psychic reality is thus distanced from the reader, and while it is clear that she is reacting to the oppressions of her society - the strict rules regarding diet and women's role -  for much of the novel the precise trigger for her specific reaction is kept a mystery: all Yeong-hye will say is that she 'had a dream'. In fact, she is in danger of being as much a mysterious object of curiosity to us as she is an object of eroticism to the brother-in-law.

The precise cause of her self-starvation is indeed revealed near the end in her sister's musing, but Doug said that he found this structure unsatisfying and even clumsy, a point with which I and others agreed. When we finally understand the underlying cause there is no sense of 'Oh of course!' prompting one to recognise in retrospect clues that had been there all along. Jenny said, But there were the dreams! I objected that the dreams were too vaguely symbolic to be related to the particularity of the cause. Jenny argued that that was what dreams are like - they are symbolic, and it is often not clear what the symbols refer to. This of course is true, but my point was that in a novel there would need to be some element - perhaps some more specific language in the depiction of the dreams, or a different structural presentation of the dreams - that would (in retrospect) create a more organic connection for the reader. Clare now came in and said that actually, she didn't agree that one needed to have that sense of 'Oh, of course!' at a novel's revelation. Doug and I felt strongly that it was essential, but since we were judging from the Western novel tradition, we agreed to differ. 

It is interesting, and perhaps ironic, that we didn't feel that the structure of the novel was organic, since the supreme motif of the book is vegetation: Yeong-hye begins by deciding to eat only vegetables, but eventually wishes to become vegetable herself, submitting first to her brother-in-law's erotic flowery transformation of her body, and finally believing that she has actually turned into a tree, at one point standing on her head with her legs in the air as branches. This symbolism is one of the striking aspects of the book, and which no doubt, along with the eroticism of the central section, has brought the book so much attention. However, because we don't share Yeong-hye's interiority, we just have to take for granted Yeong-hye's wish to be a tree, and its precise connection to the cause of her anorexia is unexplored on the deep, emotive and psychological level. What exactly is it about whatever has happened to her that links (thematically) to this specific wish? This question remains unexplored (for an answer in a similar scenario one can go to Ali Smith's novel Autumn, which we'll discuss next time). For me that was a real disappointment, and perhaps relates to a kind of cognitive dissonance that vaguely disturbed me when I first saw the book's Portobello paperback cover. Why would the cover of a book called The Vegetarian (and featuring a woman who wants to become vegetable) feature so prominently, as it does, a bird's wing? (It is only on closer inspection that you notice that the dark background consists of the veins of a leaf in extreme closeup.) In fact the image of a bird flying does occur at least twice in the book (once in the middle of the book, I think, and then again at the end), and on reflection it's a symbol of the escape Yoeng-hye is seeking through her self-starvation. In a way, it's the real (and more apposite) thematic symbol but, appearing only briefly and belatedly, it is heavily overpowered by the vegetation symbol, and the issues attached to it - the fact that Yeong-hye needs to escape, and the issue of the precise experience she needs to escape from, are thus subordinated.

We commented on the language, which Clare and Jenny had found stilted, presuming that this was a matter of culture. Others of us noted that it was uneven, generally formal but sometimes dropping, even mid-sentence, into the vernacular. This is especially so in the section narrated by the stiff, conventional and unfeeling husband: Before my wife turned vegetarian, he begins in his pompous way, I'd always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way ... However, if there wasn't any special attraction, nor did any particular drawbacks present themselves, but then he will wonder if she might genuinely be going soft in the head, and congratulates himself on not 'kicking up a fuss', before eventually reaching out and touching her 'philtrum' (the groove between her nose and mouth). In spite of the fact that the prose has been widely praised as concise, we found it sometimes imprecise: after leaving the room and pushing the door to behind her with her foot, Yeong-hye is described as 'swallowed up through the door [my italics].' We were unable to know whether these seeming infelicities were created by the translation or were present in the original.

All in all, we were interested to have read the book, but once again we were left wondering quite why a book should have received such massive adulation, and suspecting once again that Western exoticism may have come into play. 


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