Thursday, June 21, 2012

Reading group: A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro

Warning: plot spoiler (maybe).

Trevor suggested this book in which widowed and middle-aged Japanese narrator Etsuko, now living in England, is visited by her younger daughter Niki after the suicide of her elder daughter Keiko, and is prompted to remember a short friendship she had  in Nagasaki just after the war as a young married woman pregnant for the first time, with another young woman, Sachiko, whom the war had left single with a disturbed and sometimes sinister-seeming child, Mariko.

This was a very interesting discussion which became focused in part on the issue of whether, in reading a novel, one should ever take into account known authorial intention.

Firstly, Trevor introduced the book appreciatively by saying that he liked its portrayal of the two different women, Etsuko and Sachiko, and their radically different reactions to the aftermath of the war, Etsuko still accepting the subservient role of the traditional Japanese wife, and Sachiko rebelling against it all, leaving her uncle's traditional house to live alone with her child, and hoping to depart for America with a lover Frank. Trevor commented that the book was very oblique in its treatment of the atomic bomb: the characters never refer to it directly. The book, he said, seemed a conscious portrayal of Japanese reticence and formality - the characters constantly bow to one another and their conversation is characterised by formal repetition - but he was troubled by a sense of being unable to judge how authentic that was. He didn't know if this was just because he knew that the author, though born in Japan, was brought up in England, but he felt that there was also something very English about the book. One or two people in the group murmured that they too had felt that the tone of the book was somehow hybrid.

Jenny now said that she agreed about the characters, and that what she really liked about this book and Ishiguro's work in general is the way that he never tells you what characters are feeling but you always know exactly what they're feeling.

I said, But what did people think of the idea that Etsuko and Sachiko are in fact the same person (which rather puts paid to the notion that their, or rather her, motives and feelings at any one time are clear)? There is a passage towards the end where Etsuko, talking to the child Mariko about Mariko's imminent departure for America with Sachiko, switches from second person plural to first person plural, from 'you' to 'we', which gave me this distinct impression - and, it turned out, others in the group too. This had sent me off on the internet to the Paris Review interview with Ishiguro (Trevor made his usual cynical comment about appeals to the internet), and here Ishiguro explains that through working with homeless people he had come to realize that people often tell their own painful stories via another character. He says he had expected readers to be caught up short by the fact that Etsuko almost immediately starts talking about her involvement with someone else in the past (rather than her daughter Keiko's recent suicide, which is shrouded for the reader in mystery, or her own story that led up to it), and the implication seems to be that he expected readers to be jolted into guessing fairly soon that Etsuko is making Sachiko stand in for herself (in which case, to reveal it here is not, after all, to plot-spoil). I said that I didn't feel it worked, and others, in particular Ann, agreed. Pretending to talk about someone else, usually an invented character, when really talking about oneself, is a technique employed specifically to avoid referring to oneself, but here Etsuko inserts herself into the story as a large-as-life character minutely involved (for the short period they know each other) with Sachiko and her daughter Mariko, and very different from the more mysterious Sachiko not only in character but in concrete circumstance. There are too many internal inconsistencies to fulfil the notion that they are the same person. On the more trivial level, but nevertheless sending a strong diversionary signal, Sachiko runs off with an American to America while Etsuko has clearly come to England with an English serviceman. More problematically, it's difficult to see the parallels between Etsuko's meticulously-portrayed home situation, living with her husband and father-in-law, and the rather mysterious yet significant-seeming setup with an uncle and ancient female cousin that Sachiko has left behind; more glaringly, if Sachiko is really Etsuko, then Sachiko's daughter Mariko must be Etsuko's elder daughter Keiko (and indeed if Keiko is this disturbed child, then her suicide is explained) but at the time when the two women are friends, Etsuko, significantly for her emotional state at the time, is pregnant with her first child. These things are, clearly, enough to put many readers right off the scent. Although Ann and I had wondered at times as we read if Sachiko and Etsuko were one, the inconsistencies had made us discount the notion until we reached that final pronoun shift. Then, instead of having the desired Of course! reaction, we racked our brains to try and see how it had all fitted, and couldn't. I told the group that in the Paris Review interview Ishiguro acknowledges that the book is baffling, that he failed to handle 'the texture of memory' and resorted to 'gimmickry' at the end, leaving the ending 'like a puzzle.'

Like many readers of this book, Jenny and Trevor hadn't picked up on the intended conflation of the two characters, and Jenny now said that this proved the mistake of reading about authors' intentions, as it was a better book if you saw the two characters more simply as separate. John endorsed this by putting in that some writers, such as Beckett, famously refused to explain their work. I said that I agreed absolutely that an author's intentions are irrelevant in any critical appreciation of a book: authors can fail to achieve what they intend, and they can also achieve things they didn't intend or envisage, and what matters is the words on the page, and everyone in the group strongly agreed.

However, we were somewhat at odds about the effect of the words on the page. Clare now said that she didn't read things as pinned down in such a concrete way, ie that Etsuko and Sachiko were actually the same person: she saw the parallel as looser, Sachiko and Mariko being characters in their own right but their experiences and desires and fears echoing those of Etsuko and Keiko at another time in their lives. Disregarding Jenny's injunction and looking now more closely at Ishiguro's remarks about this book in The Paris Review, I see that this is closer to his aims: he says, (erroneously, I think) that people often use the experience of a friend (rather than an invented character) to talk about about their own. Nevertheless, Clare's was a seductive argument, which seemed to make sense of the book and its inconsistencies. Its inconsistencies and conflations, she suggested, echoed the fragmentation and fusions of the bomb and its aftermath in Nagasaki society and the psychology of its citizens. What, someone had asked earlier, was the puzzling business about the mysterious (possibly threatening) woman that Mariko kept seeing, and her connection with the woman Mariko had seen drowning her baby? And Sachiko drowning Mariko's kittens, and Etsuko keeping dragging a rope on her foot when she looks for Mariko in the dark by the river? Seen in the light of Clare's interpretation, these are dreamlike connections rooted in Etsuko's concerns during her first pregnancy for her competence as a mother, and illuminating the hints at the start of the novel that she might blame herself for Keiko's death. In addition, this reading accommodates the differences in the attitudes and psychology of the two women as the opposing aspects of one woman's psychology, suppressed or released by circumstances.

Jenny said that she felt that that was the clever interpretation of the novel, but it didn't satisfy her, it left her with too many things unresolved, and she likes to have things resolved in novels and ultimately to know what really happened when. I felt (though didn't say) that, attractive as Clare's take was, it didn't play out on the page: there simply weren't enough pointers while reading to make me read in this highly non-naturalistic way. Trevor said that he still preferred to read the book on the more simplistic, realistic level, ie that Etsuko and Sachiko were simply two contrasted characters. Clare's interpretation, and Ishiguro's stated intention, however still posit separate identities for Etsuko and Sachiko, and this poses a problem that Doug now homed in on, and which creates, in both Clare's and Trevor's interpretations, a huge gap in the novel: mysterious as Sachiko is, we know much about how she came to leave Japan, especially the flavour of her leaving, yet we know nothing about how Etsuko, our very different narrator whom we feel we know much better, negotiated her similar situation. I said, Yes, it is only if we take Etsuko as Sachiko that we can know this about Etsuko (and then of course we come up against the inconsistencies). Then Mark, focusing on the words on the page in the way that we had agreed was the only useful way to approach a novel, drew our attention to another passage near the end. A key section in the novel is the outing taken by Sachiko, Etsuko and Mariko to the hills outside Nagasaki that Etsuko can see from her window, the pale hills referred to (and thus made significant) in the title. (It's also interesting that the title is A Pale View of Hills, rather than A View of Pale Hills, implying distortion in perception.) In the passage pinpointed by Mark, Etsuko, talking in the present time to her second adult daughter Niki, seems to refer to that outing and says, 'Keiko was happy that day.' This may be, in Ishiguro's view, a mere 'gimmick', cutting across his subtler intentions, but the fact remains that the words are there on the page, and it's very hard not to interpret them as meaning that Keiko and Mariko, Sachiko's daughter, are the same, and that therefore Etsuko and Sachiko too are one and the same.

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, 2012

Manchester Book Market

 Of course you can bank on bad weather if you plan an outdoor event. The Manchester Book Market, run by Comma Press's Ra Page, was held on Friday and Saturday, an annual event showcasing independent publishers. As well as market stalls there were over 60 authors - mainly poets, but a few, including me, with very short fictions - reading from noon onwards each day. And yes, the weather was dreadful, but spirits weren't dampened in the least - well we're used to it by now, aren't we? (I have to say, though, that stupidly I wasn't as warmly dressed as some my fellow writers - if I'd gone out in the morning beforehand I'd have known how cold it was, but I didn't). Above is Zoe Lambert whose story collection The War Tour is shortlisted for the Edge Hill Award, and below are Adrian Slatcher and Claire Massey. Thank you so much to Ra for organising the event, and to all the independent presses who keep literature alive.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

'Used to Be' review

I've recently been moaning about the lottery of competitions, but of course I'm thrilled whenever I get anywhere in one. Mind you, when I do I tend to find it's with stories I feel less satisfied with: stories in which the 'message' is too obvious, or simple, or the form too conventional, for my own purposes. It's no surprise, I suppose: there's always going to be a danger that when you're trawling through hundreds or thousands of stories, the more obvious things are going to rise to the surface. So I was staggered and delighted when 'Used to Be', which I consider one of my more ambitious stories, won third prize in the 2008 Raymond Carver competition, and I'm now pretty chuffed to have found this review of it by Rio Liang in the Carve blog's Spotlight series.