Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Reading group: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Jenny chose this book which has sold like wildfire in its native France, and, by the time my copy was printed in 2008, over 2.5 million copies worldwide. Seeing it on Waterstone's front table she was intrigued, as it didn't in fact look like a populist book, but a pretty typical serious French novel about some pretty serious themes, being the parallel and converging stories of two people in a very plush Left Bank apartment block: fifty-four-year-old concierge Renee who is hiding from the residents that she is an autodidact passionate and knowledgeable about culture, the arts and philosophy, and twelve-year-old Paloma Josse, extremely bright daughter of intellectually left-wing but bourgeois parents, determined to avoid such a hypocritical future for herself and therefore to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday. The narrative consists of alternating sections of their journals as their lives slowly come together - indeed, as they come to recognize each other as fellow spirits - and as they contemplate their artistic and philosophical concerns, most particularly around the subject of 'Beauty' and our ability to apprehend it.

Jenny said that she had enjoyed the book, but that she hadn't been able to escape the feeling whenever she got to the philospohical bits that it was pretentious. Doug immediately said that it was the most pretentious book he had ever read, and some people nodded furiously while others looked dismayed.

A core objection of the detractors was that Renee herself was hypocritical. For one thing, it is hard to see why in this day and age (the novel, despite its dated air, is set in contemporary Paris) she needs to go to such lengths to hide her intelligence and refinement - she puts the residents off the scent by keeping her television running and the smell of boiled cabbage drifting under the door while she reads philosophy or appreciates good tea and home-made fine cakes with her immigrant cleaner friend (her only luxury) - when the residents' alleged prejudices would most likely blind them to the truth about her anyway. Indeed, the opening pages are intended to illustrate this last: here Renee is so disgusted by the intellectual pretension of one of the young adult sons of the apartment block that she lets slip a comment that shows she has a far greater understanding than he of the subject about which he is showing off (Marx), but of course he's so fixed on the notion of her as an ignorant peasant that he doesn't notice. And why does she want to hide it anyway? There is a reason given later which most of us felt didn't hold water, but could it be that Renee, and indeed the author, are as much in thrall as the residents to the old-fashioned French class consciousness which the book claims to despise, and as unwilling to upset it - indeed, pleased to relish it? Thus am I, poor concierge, says Renee, resigned to a total lack of luxury - but I am an anomaly in the system, living proof of how grotesque it is, and every day I mock it gently (note that word 'gently': not savagely or passionately then?), deep within my impenetrable self.

I said that the thing that I really didn't like about the book was its deep contempt. In both Renee's and Paloma's eyes the world is crudely divided into Us-and-Them, goodies and baddies, the beautiful and the non-beautiful souls. Beautiful things should belong to beautiful souls, says Renee, but in this novel it is not the rich, as a rule, who have beautiful souls. She says: For those who have been favoured by life's indulgence, rigorous respect in matters of beauty is a non-negotiable requirement. ...To the rich ... falls the burden of Beauty. And if they cannot assume it, then they deserve to die. But, as a rule, in this novel they cannot. To be rich in the universe of this novel is to be by definition basically stupid, or at least lacking in insight and true intelligence or culture, however 'arty' or 'literary' like Paloma's despised mother you are, or however academic like her despised sister Colombe who is writing a thesis on the philosophy of an obscure medieval monk. (There is no real evidence that any of Paloma's family are as hypocritical as she claims: as someone said, like most of the residents they remain shadowy stereotypes). Ann said at this point that the book was as much as anything an attack on the pretensions of the French education system, which seems true, but then, I said, it's a hypocritical attack: Renee makes much of the complete waste of public money on the arcane subject of Colombe's research, its uselessness to society and the fact that it's being conducted on the backs of hard-working men and women, but this makes something of a mockery of her own allegiance to the contemplation of art and truth for its own sake (so much for its own sake that she'll hide it from the world). Only the autodidact is intellectually pure, the novel seems to be saying (and some bits of culture are snobbishly more worthy of contemplation than others), and, presumably, that Renee justifies her intellectual life and pursuits by being a hard-working woman herself (not that in fact she seems to do all that much work). All of which makes the accusation that Paloma's mother has (according to Paloma) a 'holier-than-thou-intellectual-left-wing-pose' seem like the pot calling the kettle black.

Others who come in for Paloma's contempt are her rich schoolfriends, particularly for their affectation of the manners and mores of poor kids, which presumably by rights belong, in the division-compounds of this novel, to the poor kids exclusively (and presumably the rich kids should be embracing the mores which the novel despises). Someone in the group commented that the only 'real' person in her class, and the only one Paloma befriends, is truly working class, but is in a fact very much a stereotype, being also black, and that the novel portrays her patronisingly as something of another noble savage (Renee being the first). Meanwhile, there's Renee's Grammar Nazism (a strong feature, indeed, of the French education system which the novel purports to critique). While this is typically French, as I conceded, and while I can be a bit of stickler for grammar myself, it's very over the top here. A resident leaves a casual note for Renee which contains an extraneous comma, and Renee responds thus: 'I was not prepared for such an underhand attack. I collapse in shock on the nearest chair. I even begin to wonder if I am not going mad, and then spends two pages of her journal expounding the iniquity of this comma and its author, and ending in the above quote about those rich folks who can't assume the burden of Beauty deserving to die.

Both Paloma and Renee are enamoured of all things Japanese, which in the simplistic context of the novel struck most of us as mere exoticism as well as a contrived coincidence, unless you believe as they do that only the Japanese appreciate true 'Beauty'. (Paloma and Renee do not know each other at the beginning of the novel). (People had noted early in the discussion that, apart from the applied teen-speak in Paloma's, the two journals are very alike in tone, concern and voice.) The novel rather suddenly takes on the character of a fairytale when, after one of the residents dies, who should move into his flat but Kakuro Ozu, a distant relative of Renee's favourite Japanese filmmaker. Sure enough, Ozu turns out to be the one rich person who appreciates true 'Beauty', and is a fellow spirit for both Paloma and Renee whom he befriends individually (he and Paloma immediately share their suspicions that Rene is really a cultured soul). One of my objections to this novel was that, in spite of all the tracts of philosophising, it seemed to me (insofar as I could concentrate on the philosophical bits which often seriously held up the narrative) 'Beauty' is taken as an absolute. At this point, however, it is inadvertently revealed as a matter of mere taste, and material taste at that, more material indeed than the concerns of Paloma's own family. What makes Ozu so cultured is not just his music and his films, but his beautiful blue bowl and his special musical flushing toilet and his elegant sliding doors and his taste in refined Japanese food. And lo, he is after all Prince Charming, who whisks Renee off her feet and sends her, if not a glass slipper, elegant clothes to wear out to dinner with him, such that no one in the lobby recognises her! So much for her intellectual independence and purity, divorced from the taint of riches! Maybe we are meant to see that Renee, like Ozu, is one of those rare souls who can take on the burden of Beauty in spite of riches, but this rather undermines the original conceit of the novel in which her poverty has purified her, and seemed to most of us to pull against a deeper impulse in the novel irrevocably linking riches with hypocrisy.

While we had been saying these things, Clare had been throwing in rather annoyed protests, though without managing to say very much to support her viewpoint. Now she had formulated her thoughts, however, and she said rather passionately that she thought that we detractors were entirely mistaken about the novel, and that all of the inconsistencies we had been pointing out were in fact intended by the author: we were meant to laugh at Renee and Paloma for their hypocrisies. This dumbfounded us rather, and looking back at such ludicrous moments as the comma incident, we could see their potential for comedy. However, none of the rest of us had found that the tone of the novel had led us to read it in that way: while we agreed that there had definitely been comic moments, mainly in relation to other characters (and particularly in Paloma's depictions of them), we felt we had been meant to take entirely seriously the philosophical musings of both main characters, Renee's especially, and in turn the two characters themselves and their situations.

We considered the possibility that perhaps the translation was at fault and had failed to convey the comic tone of the original. However, I said that one thing that made me doubt that the novel was as clever as Clare was saying was that there were some pretty fundamental errors in the narrative voice and structure. Neither journal has a very convincing register in that each directly addresses an objective reader in the way journals simply don't, with phrases like Don't you think? More radically, one of the journals continues after the death of its author, indeed describing that death. Trevor said that that was ridiculous, I couldn't say that, (ie that these things could indicate that the author wasn't being deliberately comic). But also, I said, endings of novels are particularly telling, and don't the final words of this novel constitute a conclusion to the philosophising, which we appear to be meant to take deadly seriously? but as Clare hadn't actually finished reading the novel yet she couldn't comment on that. John said that he also thought that the ending in terms of action/plot (which I won't give away here) was a clumsy cop-out, the only way that the author could find to resolve a basically psychologically and socially unconvincing situation, but Trevor and Jenny and Clare said that they'd liked the ending. New member Andrew said he had found it very moving indeed, and I had to confess that I had found it moving too in spite of everything.

Clare stuck to her guns about the cleverness of the novel, but she did concede that there was some stereotyping of a 'goodies and baddies' nature - she remembered being shocked by Paloma's utterly vicious attack on the dying resident as a 'nasty man', which is backed by not a shred of evidence.

Andrew spoke up and said that actually he had liked this novel, and Trevor said that he had as well, in spite of agreeing with some of the criticisms, and Jenny repeated that, in spite of her own doubts, she had too. Andrew said that most of all he had enjoyed the philosophical passages, as he didn't normally get to read philosophy, and had found it really interesting. The doubters among us groaned, and I said that I'd found them both pretentious and holding up the action. But wasn't I interested in those ideas? Andrew wanted to know. I replied that yes I am, very interested in philosophical ideas, and indeed when it comes to novels I am most interested in novels of ideas, but I think that in novels ideas work best and most dynamically when they emerge through the action. Here they were of course presented wholesale, and I found I just couldn't concentrate on them. Clare said that she didn't have that problem as she was basically familiar with the ideas, having done a philosophy course as part of her degree. I said that I had too, and that I too was familiar with the ideas, but I wasn't inclined to try to follow them here as the way they were presented required a different kind of attention from that with which you read novels (apart from the fact that I was alienated by their proponents' intellectual snobbery). Clare said but this is a very French mode for novels, and Andrew said, but there are plenty of novels where there are long passages of philosophy, what about Crime and Punishment, and Jenny said, but it's an old-fashioned long-winded mode which nowadays she just can't stand any more. And anyway, I said again, there seems a discrepancy between the idea of taking Renee in a comic light and taking her philosophising so seriously, and that on the whole I felt that this reflected the fact that the novel itself was muddled.

Then someone posed the question as to why, in spite of the intellectual content and its difficulties, the novel had been such a runaway populist success. Ann said that she thought that it appealed to a certain kind of intellectual snobbery which is particularly strong in France, whereby one can feel good by check-listing all the cultural references - including, here, the reference in the title to Isiah Berlin's distinction between two different types of writers as single-minded foxes or intellectually versatile hedgehogs. This last had been lost on the rest of us in our group, however, and on reflection it seems to me that in fact not many people would truly appreciate all the references. Therefore, rather, it seems to me, the book operates (and is thus so successful) by flattering most of all the reader who doesn't, by making him/her feel clever in spite of it, as part of an exclusive little intellectual club with Renee and Paloma.

The end result was that we agreed to differ, and the group began to break up and the first of us ventured back out into the snow.

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.

Monday, January 18, 2010

JMWW Magazine reviews Too Many Magpies

In this quarter's issue of JMWW Magazine, editor Jen Michalski reviews Too Many Magpies. She has some nice things to say - 'a wonderful conceit, full of shiny, lyrical language and sophisticated structure ... really wonderful imagery and a sense of magic and science as equally mysterious forces in our lives', although she does have doubts about what she calls 'one weakness' which is the believability of the fact that the protagonist falls for her lover who Michalski says I portray as a 'walking vice.'

Of course I'm tempted to protest that that's the point - that the protagonist's attraction to such a man is a shock even to herself and against everything she stands for, and that the 'sophisticated' structure is intended precisely to explain it, by going back in time to show that she hasn't ever been as espoused to her professed world view as she has liked to think. But then of course, for all you know as the writer your writing doesn't work, and in any case it never will for everyone, and one just has to accept it when, for any particular person, it doesn't. Accept and learn. Add it to your arsenal. Next time I write anything I'll be more determined than ever to make everything as clear as possible without compromising my intentions....

And be grateful. Be very, very grateful. It's not that easy to get reviews on any prestigious literary platform nowadays, and I am seriously pleased to have this attention and serious consideration from a magazine that reviews only a dozen or so books a year.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Voice from the past

A post on Tim Love's blog reminds me of something I was going to blog about a while back, but then never got round to:

One day, out of the blue, he sent me an email with this picture attached:

It's a passage from my second-ever published short story (in an Arts Council anthology), which Tim explains on his blog he copied out at the time and filed away as, I'm flattered to report, a source of inspiration. But receiving it like that gave me a real shock. It was a very long time since that publication, and of course I had never seen it in that form, written out in someone else's handwriting, so I didn't at first recognize it on any conscious level. Yet of course, because they were my own words, I did on another level recognize them, and I had the weirdest, most unsettling sensation: a very strong sense of guilt, of being caught out, of my own deeds coming home to roost! (Not sure what else that says about me - best to skip over it, maybe!).

In fact a similar thing had happened to me once before. Someone once rang me up, and instead of saying hello he plunged straight in and read out to me a line from another story, in fact the very first story I ever had published (in the Transatlantic Review). He did it to show me how good he thought it was, and his attitude was entirely admiring, and I'm sure he didn't sound like a heavy breather, but that was exactly how I took it. Once again I didn't immediately recognize those words of my own out of context, in his voice (and a few years after I'd published them), but I felt found out, cornered, and the words sounded somehow obscene (they weren't!), and I did miss a heartbeat or two.

They were interesting experiences of how your written words, while still a deep part of you, can become something quite separate with the power to shock you...

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Feminism and new parenthood in books

Hm. The Guardian reckons that this is going to be a year of feminism and feminist anniversaries. Fortuitous then that Salt decided to reprint my novel The Birth Machine! Or maybe, rather, it was prescient of them...

There's definitely something in the air. Today Nick Laird writes in the Guardian about new parenthood and the different ways in which male and female writers respond to it.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Nice comment for Magpies

Monika on Goodreads says some nice things about Too Many Magpies:
...a beautifully written book... The concept of the book was amazing and Elizabeth Baines pulled off a wonderful book!
Thank you, Monika, and glad you liked it!

Monday, January 04, 2010

Looking Back on 2009

This year has been so packed that when I got the Christmas decorations out on December 23rd (after putting the whole house back together, the front room floor having been pulled up the day before, and its characteristic sag, with which we have lived for many years, finally straightened out!) I really could not believe it was a whole year since I was last doing it: it seemed like only a month or so ago. First there was my virtual book tour, Around the Edges of the World, which took up ten weeks from January to March, and I have to say didn't leave me much in the way of writing time, or perhaps more accurately focus, but was a wonderful way to promote my story collection, Balancing on the Edge of the World. I'm so grateful to those great bloggers who hosted it: they were wise and inspired and often fun interviewers. Meanwhile I buzzed about a lot physically, too, shooting off to London to various launches and readings - including the launch of fellow Salt author Alex Keegan's story collection Ballistics - enjoying myself enormously (and spending a fortune on train fares), and doing a couple of readings of my own, at Huddersfield Literature Festival and Ride the Word.

My most exciting Christmas present last year was Salt's offer to publish my novel, Too Many Magpies, in the autumn, and so after Easter I was psychologically gearing up for production on that. Meanwhile, at the request of editor Vanessa Gebbie, I wrote a chapter for Short Circuit, the Salt guide to the art of the short story. But then of course there was a crisis, when it looked as if Salt would not be able to continue, followed by Chris's inspired 'Just One Book' campaign, which brought such an amazing response and resulted in several Salt books, including Balancing, bobbing about in the Amazon short-story bestseller lists - another thing I can't thank people enough for. As soon as it was clear that the day had been saved, work on the production of Magpies started in earnest, with relays of proof readings. This was a relatively quiet period, though, through May-July: I did a couple more readings, and was already involved in arrangements for the first of my autumn readings (for Didsbury Arts Festival), but mostly I was able to get to my desk and I managed to write some new short stories - though how good they are (and how well I managed to get inside my own head, rather than just to my desk, after so many distractions) remains to be seen.

As soon as September arrived, it seems, looking back, I hit the ground running and have only just come to a standstill (grounded, in fact, by a horrendous fortnight-long cold!). The time has been taken up entirely with promotion, with a series of seven readings, including the London launch of Magpies, an event for which I had sole responsibility for publicity, conducted from 200 miles off, but fabulously worth it (though The Calder Bookshop's Alex put it up on their website - thank you, Alex!). No writing done at all since the summer, and a bit of stress now and then, but I have had a really great time, and in this era when it's harder and harder to publish literary fiction, I just feel so lucky to have been in that situation, to have had a book to promote, and the time to promote it, and so grateful to Salt's Chris and Jen. And thank you so much to all of those who came to the readings, and to those who have bought the book and put it on Salt's top 20 list!

As for 2010 and on: well, the most exciting thing is that Salt offered, out of the blue, to reprint the revised edition of my first novel The Birth Machine. February is filling up rather, with library readings and school visits etc and, on the 1st, a reading at the Globe Cafe in Prague which I'm really looking forward to (the flights only go between Manc and Prague at the weekends at the mo, so I'm going to make a holiday of it!). And I'm already booked for the Oxfam Book Festival in July... But January is nice and free, and I should get down to some writing once this damn cold is over. And in any case, as I said on Saturday, I'm hoping to carve some more writing time, will nilly...

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Down with the internet - or at least off into part of the day!

Many bloggers are announcing their New Year resolutions, which is something I usually only do in the privacy of my journal: yes, I still have one of those old-fashioned black-and-red hardback A4 books in which I record by hand my writing thoughts, though I must say I write in it far less often nowadays since the internet has swallowed up so much of my time.

And here's the rub. I want to make a resolution to stop using the internet so much, since it has not only eaten into my writing time, but as Tania Hershman has indicated lately, and as David Ulin wrote recently, the presence of the internet in one's life can create a kind of scattering of focus that is entirely antipathetic to the writing of fiction, which for me, and I am sure for most fiction writers, requires a kind of shutting-off into a very personal dream world. It goes without saying that I thoroughly enjoy the social interaction, and the internet has been a stupendous marketing tool, for both my recent books , but let's face it, it's like having social get-togethers and sales pitch meetings in your house all day long, and who can write under those circumstances?

But how can I make such a resolution, when the marketing of my books, which come from an independent publisher, depends on my being very much online? Would making such a resolution be the same as making a resolution to stop marketing my books? I'm very much afraid of this, but I guess I'm even more afraid of ending up never writing again.

Later this year (I think - or sometime soon, anyway) Salt will be reprinting the revised edition of my first novel The Birth Machine (which I guess is a bit of a feminist classic - see here [scroll down to Kimberley Osivwemu's entry]), so I'll have to work on promoting that, as well as keeping my other books afloat. But like Tania Hershman, I'm going to try to restrict my time on the internet each day. It will be interesting to see if it's just as effective, and if by being constantly connected I was just wasting time...